Serious Eats: Recipes

French in a Flash: Pain au Chocolat Cinnamon Rolls with Crème Fraîche Icing and Walnuts

"Life is not black or white, or up or down, or French or American."

There is an upside and a downside to everything in life, including having a French mother.

When I was a little girl, I didn't quite fit it. I didn't know any American lullabies, fairy tales, or bedtime stories. All the Pretty Little Horses never trotted through my dreams, and Papa wasn't gonna buy me a looking glass. Johnny Appleseed and Rip van Winkle might as well have been strangers on a milk carton.

But then one day, when I was five, I was sitting in the first grade classroom, and all the boys and girls were whispering. They had discovered something marvelous, something extraordinary, and above all, something French.

"Does your mom French kiss too?" A little boy called Zachary giggled naughtily at me.

I was being included. I thought hard. French kiss. I'd never heard of the thing. But I figured it must be one of those monikers outsiders gave to something we did every day. Like French bread, which I knew was really called baguette. Or French fries, which were called frites chez maman. Aha! He must mean the fact that maman kisses absolutely everyone she meets on both cheeks. That, I knew, was a French kiss.

"Of course she does," I stated assuredly. "After all, she is French!"

All the little children whose desks abutted up next to mine erupted like volcanoes spewing scalding "EW!" all around me. The teacher stopped talking. The whole class looked up. I knew I had made a mistake, but what had it been? I blushed fiery rose, and hid my wide eyes behind curtains of dark hair. Another little boy whispered in my ear what it all meant, and I looked up horrified, too shy and humiliated to even take the thing back. "It's not what I meant," I swore silently to myself. How very different from what I had meant! I sobbed when maman picked me up from school, but couldn't confess how I'd betrayed her. Why couldn't I just be American like everyone else!

So, what could the upside possibly have been, you ask? Every morning before walking the plank to that awful first grade classroom, maman insisted that I have a decent French breakfast. And to maman, who has a deep and lasting religious conviction in puff pastry, this meant one thing: croissants. Buttery plain croissants with raspberry jam, croissants with chocolate oozing out the sides, croissants pleated around ham and cheese. Sometimes I would take the tiny icing packets out of the frozen toaster strudel (maman's emergency croissant substitute), and create great white sugary masterpieces atop my golden pastries. And then, without much hesitation, I would eat them.

I suppose something in me has always tried to balance the Gallic reality of my past with the Mayflower heritage of my childhood wish. As it happens, France and America are very tasty allies. Here, flaky, buttery chocolate croissants take the form of muffins, and are flavored like cinnamon buns, replete with crunchy toasted walnuts, chestnut-brown cinnamon sugar, and, of course, the requisite frosting, made rich and tangy with a dollop of crème fraîche. And because this is French in a Flash, all you need is some good quality all-butter frozen puff pastry, some excellent dark chocolate chips, and a few pantry items. So if you've had a bad day in the first grade, or when your adult life feels more like the first grade, you can make them and be back chez maman in minutes.

And with that I have learned a very delicious lesson, which I wish I'd known when I was five. Life is not black or white, or up or down, or French or American. Success, after all, stems from compromise, covered in sweet white frosting.

About the author: Kerry Saretsky is the creator of French Revolution Food, where she reinvents her family's classic French recipes in a fresh, chic, modern way. She also writes the The Secret Ingredient series for Serious Eats.

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