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Meet the Maker of Floriole's Ham and Cheese Croissant

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[Photographs: Johnny Auer]

Floriole Cafe and Bakery

1220 West Webster Avenue Chicago, IL 60614 (map); 773-883-1313;
floriole.com
The Dish: Ham and Cheese Croissant
The Maker: Sandra Holl
Cost: $4.50

Ham and cheese. I imagine for most of us those three words recollect two slices of margarine and mayo slathered Wonder bread housing pre-sliced Oscar Mayer swine with Kraft American Singles and French's yellow mustard at grandma's kitchen table. A nostalgic thought, no doubt, but grandma's sandwich holds no candle to the ham and cheese croissant ($4.50) coming out of Sandra Holl's kitchen at Floriole Cafe and Bakery.

After establishing a loyal following and strong reputation as a vendor at Green City Market, Sandra opened Floriole on the Webster corridor in Lincoln Park last year. It's my favorite place in the city to spend thirty minutes reading the Sunday paper, drinking a latte, and munching on a pastry. The bakery is warm and inviting, but the display case isn't crammed with endless choices of pastries to choose from. There might be four tarts on one of its shelves with space enough between to fill with petite fours or other amuse-sized trinkets. But Sandra withholds. The result is a display case that allows the simplicity in her pastries, and the unique ingredients she uses, to really punctuate through the glass.

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Sandra has been a baker since 2003. She externed and then became what she calls a "real" baker at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. It was at Tartine where she had her first ham and cheese croissant, which she says she fell for at first bite. In addition to the ham and cheese, Sandra spreads Divlux old fashioned grainy mustard on the unbaked dough of her Floriole croissant, which adds an entirely different element to the filling. It's a subtle and simple addition, but it really makes a difference. And the funny thing is, the idea kind of happened by accident. "Before I began working at Tartine, I had one of their H&C croissants and I really thought that they put mustard in it. They don't! The adding mustard to [our] croissant comes from my mistake of thinking they put mustard in [their] croissant."

But there's more to this puffy thing than good mustard. It starts with the dough, which is what a croissant is all about. In baking croissants, there's a crucial process called lamination, which is folding layers of fat, in this case Wutrich European Style Butter, into the dough (Sandra says European-style butter is best, and Wutrich comes from Wisconsin and is 83% butterfat. The higher the fat content, the better the croissant). This process takes two to three hours, which is after four-to-six hours of the dough being mixed and rested. So you should get the picture. The process is methodical and slow, and in addition to working with the dough there's time spent allowing the dough to chill and rest through each step. By the time the dough hits the oven the next morning at 350°F for twenty minutes, it's seen the freezer, the refrigerator, and eventually is shaped and formed and allowed to proof, which has added another dozen or so hours to the process.

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The thing of it is, you don't consider how much time and careful attention was paid to the croissant when you eat it. Instead, you think of the flaky and butter pastry, sweet and crunchy as you bite down. You think of the subtle smoke in the thick sliced ham, the melted cheese, and the tang of the imported French mustard. And then you're just happy, and with good reason.

The ham is Nueske's, a local and well-known product from Wisconsin. Its thickness is perfectly balanced to the airy dough, and its caramelized edges add just that slightest bit of rendered sweetness. The cheese is from Otter Creek, another local product. It's an organic raw milk spring cheddar, and its sharp and salty bite is spot on. The kind of thing you taste a couple hours after you've eaten it.

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It's rare to find a croissant like this. The croissants most of us have eaten are made with dough that's been shipped from large commercial kitchens hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of miles away, frozen and just steps away from baking for the kitchen it arrives at. That's just not Sandra's way. "My goal in opening our bakery was to have the best (house made—not frozen dough flown over from France) croissants in the city. It is a good measure of the quality [and] skill of both a baker and a bakery."

Including Sandra, there are four bakers in the Floriole kitchen. They arrive between 4:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. and in addition to everything else that's made each day, they bake anywhere from 60-120 croissants a morning, which puts production near 700 a week. And the process is the same every day. From start to finish, it takes a croissant almost a full twenty-four hours to be made. Considering the thing usually lasts hardly twenty-four seconds on my plate, I'd say that's time well spent.

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