Over the past few years, Cincinnati locals have repeatedly warned me that the Queen City is often "20 years behind the times." But I'd recently been back in town for only two days when, while walking St. Gregory Street in Mount Adams, I was floored by the signs I saw: "We Have Cronuts and Crookies" and "Croughnuts are Here!" The craze started by Dominque Ansel back in New York had made its presence known in less than two months. And while he certainly isn't the first to cross a doughnut and croissant, those two signs were making rather bold statements.
I've spent enough time on both sides of the Ohio / Kentucky line to know that the people in the food industry here are extremely friendly, and so I suspected that their attempts weren't birthed by hostile competition. So then, what conversations had resulted in three local cronut interpretations six hundred and fifty miles away from the hubbub in New York? And what do their results taste like?
"Our pastry chef saw this story about cronuts and this beautiful photo and was like, I can do that!" says Mary Beiser of Savor Catering and Events in Newport, Kentucky, who supplies to Bow Tie and two other local coffee shops. "And he did, and we just thought that they were wonderful." The buzz around them was minimal, but when local Channel 9 News broadcasted that one of their anchors really wanted to try the epic pastry, Mary was quick to offer her version up. Since their on-air success, they sell out at the coffee shops and at their stand at the Saturday morning Covington farmer's market in around an hour. They've become Savor's top selling item.
Nearby the market, Left Bank Coffeehouse's Maggie Soard had heard about cronuts before Mary's newscast, when Jean-François Flechet—owner of local Taste of Belgium restaurants—updated his wait at Dominique Ansel Bakery on their Facebook page. He was in line apparently to "see if it's worth trying to reproduce". But by the time his turn came, they were out. "In line for two hours for nothing. #nocronut."
"Mary makes really good croissants," Maggie said. "So the cronuts are delicious. They taste the way a funnel cake at a fair smells; what you want it to taste like too, but it never does." Patron Kate Welsh added, "It's just pure wonderful. They run out very quickly—I've only had one."
"Quickly" means 20 pastries and 15 holes in about an hour on the three times a week when Savor delivers. It's a small but significant number.
Back in Mount Adams at The Sweetest Things, owner/chef Heather Turner saw an opportunity for her much-loved croissant recipe to step up to the next level in a new offering for her clientele. Like Mary's version, Heather deep-fries and glazes her croissant dough, and while she only sells a few daily, they now compete with her signature pain au chocolat.
"These are amazing," Lucy Hodgson swooned as she took a bite. Neither she nor her dining companion, David Rentschler, had heard of them. But they were full of questions and seemed somewhat shocked by the around-the-block hysteria I explained was happening in New York, so much so that I gave them what I'd been photographing. By the time I'd packed up and left, the pastry was gone.
Nearby in Loveland, Ohio, the community push came before Holtman's Donuts tried their hand; "We had just been on our local station and the next day or so it came out that the cronut was a big thing in New York, so the station called up to see if we'd make it for them," said Katie Willing, who works at and is marrying into the third generation of the family-run shop. But the team was busy preparing for their upcoming Over the Rhine location, and didn't think too much of it until more and more people began to request them. In their third trial batch, they sold three dozen in less than two hours. "We're not putting all of our money in this. If they sell, that's great. If they don't, it's just like the other fun little experiments we do."
Their experiment sheds light on the differences between what's popping up around Cincinnati and Chef Ansel's version. His is a layered pastry that's rolled in sugar, piped with pastry cream in layers, then glazed and garnished—a recipe that took him two months to perfect and takes three days to execute. "Chef Dominique Ansel's creation is not to be mistaken as simply croissant dough that has been fried," his website clarifies.
Which is, in simplest terms, what bakers nationwide and locals in Cincinnati are making. Savor and The Sweetest Things versions are fried and glazed croissants—they retain all the things you love about a doughnut but they have an airier texture and aren't as cloyingly sweet. Holtman's are made from layers of their doughnut and Danish doughs, which they let rise, freeze, and rise a second time before frying and either rolling them in cinnamon sugar or glazing them with strawberry, mocha, or plain glaze. They taste like a really well made classic doughnut with a somewhat flakier texture and much more volume, but not a croissant made in the style of a doughnut.
"It's our version, we're not trying to copy anything", Katie is quick to point out. The same was said at Savor and The Sweetest thing; each shop is proud of their accomplishment, and not trying to knock-off or compete with the original.
Yet they know the comparisons are out there, and it's already changed the way they look at and speak about their pastries. In the three days between when I'd read that first "We Have Croughnuts" sign and spoken with the creator, Mary had gotten a Cease and Desist letter in the mail from New York. She pressed, "We are a catering company in northern Kentucky that doesn't do any advertising—it's all word of mouth—so the news spot was a golden opportunity to maybe get more catering jobs. We never thought that we were taking something from someone a thousand miles away. We feel awful about the attention that poor man is getting up there—it looks like it's just craziness. But it was quite the shock when we got that letter in the mail."
Dominque Ansel (the chef and the company) has received a lot of backlash since similar letters went out around the country, and Mary is right that there's been much attention heaped onto the chef from both sides of the argument. A recent statement on the bakery's Facebook page clarified, "Our desire to protect the name is not an attempt to claim or take credit for all cooking methods associated with the recipe or all croissant and doughnut products in general. Instead, it offers the bakery and Chef protection against un-granted affiliations with the bakery or confusion from customers."
Heather and Katie hadn't received one, but were very aware of the patent issue around the word and now all three make it clear that they offer "doughsants". They're careful not to even "like" it when someone tags their pastry as a cronut. Yet that word accidentally slipped constantly from well-meaning mouths, including mine, during conversations with bakers, baristas, and diners alike. Many miles from New York, the craze of the cronut has created a strong ripple, if not a stir, in Cincinnati.
But if someone were to want to put a truly local stamp on the pastry, David (the diner at The Sweetest Things) offers up a solution: "Put some bacon on it. That's how we do it in Cincinnati. Make it a three-way."
Days after this statement had slipped from David's mouth, Mary at Savor began doing just that; this past Saturday at the farmer's market, she welcomed in the Bacon Maple Croissant Doughnut.