When it comes to food fads, Maine is usually well behind the rest of the country – sometimes years.
Not so with Cronuts, the decadent croissant-doughnut hybrid created last spring by New York chef Dominique Ansel that inspired insanely long lines and dozens of knock-offs.
Just eight months after the introduction of the Cronut – Ansel had the name trademarked – Maine got its own version, and it is making locals loopy as they line up for a buttery, flaky pastry hot out of the fryer.
It’s called the crauxnut.
Denise Rowden drove all the way from Brunswick on a recent Sunday to buy some at Little Bigs, a small bakery on Main Street in South Portland. Pamela Fitzpatrick Plunkett, who owns the bakery with her husband, James, has been making her own version of the New York Cronut since the beginning of January. She sells them only on Sundays, starting at 11 a.m, and they sell out so quickly that, unless customers pre-order, they are all gone in a half hour or so.
“It’s just because my daughter and I are foodies,” Rowden explained as she picked out two maple bacon cruellers and a few other pastries to take home along with her crauxnuts. “We have to try anything new that comes out, but we really didn’t want to go to New York and stand in line for days and days.”
What makes the Cronut so special that Ansel had to set a two-per-customer limit and hire a security guard to keep people from cutting in line?
Plunkett’s version, which sells for $2.79, has all the buttery flavor and texture of a croissant, yet it is also sweet like a doughnut. Its many layers are soft inside, but biting into a crauxnut is kind of like eating a crunchy doughnut. It’s best consumed warm, right out of the fryer.
‘IT’S THE LAYERS’
Pamela Miller of South Portland has a standing order for four every week, which she shares with her granddaughter and co-workers.
“It’s the layers,” she said, trying to explain the attraction. “And when you come on Sunday, they’re still warm.”
Plunkett said one customer ordered 20, but most people stick with four or six per week.
“There are very few people who only order two, so it is a real splurge,” she said. “A couple of people have told us that they’re getting together to have a little tasting at their house.”
Whole Foods Market in Portland also has a copycat of the Cronut that it sells at its pastry bar, but it is baked, not fried, since it’s not practical for the store to be frying them all day long. The store calls its pastry a “crodough,” and it arrives at the store ready to be popped into the oven.
Crodoughs, which cost $2.99 each, are filled with pastry cream and are sometimes topped with fondant or a ganache. They have some flakiness like a croissant, but taste more like a cream puff than a doughnut.
“They’ve been fairly popular,” said Amos Griffin, bakery team leader at the store. “There’s a clientele. You do see repeat customers, folks who will come back in to get them.”
The popularity of the crauxnut has stunned the Plunketts, who initially thought the novelty of the pastry would help them get through a slow January and perk up their Sunday sales a bit. The first week they made them, they posted on their Facebook page that they would be selling their crauxnuts that weekend, starting at 11 a.m. Sunday.
That Sunday, both their heads down, busily working on that day’s offerings, they looked up at 10:45, “and there was a crowd of people in this tiny little space,” Pamela Plunkett said.
“It was hilarious,” she said, “and also terrifying, you know? I think I made 24 the first Sunday. The second Sunday I made 80, and we sold them in 45 minutes. And at that point we thought, this has just got to be a fluke. People know about Dominique Ansel in New York, and they know what Cronuts are. I mean, this is a food-savvy town. They just want to see what they’re like, and it’s just going to be a flash in the pan.”
But the next week Plunkett got more than 50 pre-orders, and 50 more the following week.
Then the orders plummeted to three. They thought it was all over, until orders started flooding in on Saturday night and early Sunday morning.
Boom, they were back to selling 80 a week.
‘IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DOUGH’
Dominique Ansel’s Cronut recipe remains a closely guarded secret, but Plunkett doesn’t mind divulging that hers are made with her pre-fermented doughnut dough.
“It’s a beautiful dough,” she said. “It’s a little softer than what a croissant dough should be.”
She sheets the dough thin and folds it to create lots of layers, as she would with croissant dough, then laminates the layers with butter. Since the doughnut dough has more butter in it to start with, she cuts back on the amount of added butter. The process, Plunkett said, is “much easier” than making a croissant.
Once formed, the crauxnuts are left to proof for a couple of hours, then they are fried in soy oil for three minutes on each side. Plunkett has tried making them with a frangipane filling, and she sometimes gets requests for pastry cream filling, but usually she just tosses the hot crauxnuts in a little sugar right after they come out of the oil.
Warning: The crauxnut may be too rich for some. And it’s probably best not to think about what it’s doing to your hips.
“Oh good god, it’s fat on fat,” Plunkett replied when asked if she has any idea how caloric her crauxnut might be. “I can’t imagine. But if you figure a good buttery muffin, if that’s 500 or 600 calories, (the crauxnut) has got to be 800 at least. It has to be. Anytime you fry anything, also, it picks up fat from the fryer. Your goal is to minimize that as much as you can, but it’s always going to drink some fat.
“So you’ve got the doughnut dough, which has fat in it, rolled in butter, and the oil. But they are good. It is a real treat. So maybe it’s good that we’re only doing them on Sundays.”
On a recent Sunday, Wendy Diffin of South Portland popped into the bakery to pick up her crauxnut order. It was her second pre-order of the pastries.
Plunkett saw her come in and asked, “How many do you need? Six?”
“You can make it eight if you have them,” Diffin replied.
Diffin heard her friends in other parts of the country rave about Cronuts and its knockoffs (like the fauxnut in Los Angeles and the doissant in Washington), so when she read about the Little Bigs crauxnuts on Facebook, “I had to try them.”
But she won’t be asking for a standing order.
“I’m starting a big diet tomorrow,” Diffin said, laughing.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: