Cornetto, Brioche or Croissant? What is the difference? Let’s find out their history and features!

It’s time to talk about something that’s very dear to us Italians. For us, breakfast is the one thing we really can’t say no to, or skip. It’s a really sacred time of the day and nobody can ruin it. What is typically the most characteristic Italian breakfast? Usually, a cup of coffee (or a cappuccino) together with one brioche, cornetto, or a croissant… but aren’t they really the same thing? Are there any differences? How do we eat them? What do we accompany them with? We are going to clear everything up! 

The difference between cornetto, brioche and croissant

These terms have different meanings between North and South Italy (and depending to the region you’re in), but as a matter of fact, they are three different desserts and have distinctive specific features. They only have one thing in common: they are delicious and perfect for breakfast! 

The main differences are the recipes, and because we want nothing but the best for our LearnAmo followers, we decided to resort to the leading authority in the field to explain everything: “La Cucina Italiana“, a historic cooking magazine which was founded in the ’20s. It can’t get any more prestigious…

The cornetto

Let’s begin with the cornetto and, in particular, with its history. Where does it come from? The cornetto comes from the Austrian dessert kipfler. The dish was invented in Vienna in 1683 and at that time, the city was under siege by the Ottoman Empire (the Turks). To hit the enemy and tear down the ramparts, the Turks attacked late at night and dug a tunnel with picks and shovels to reach and hit the foundations. The only ones who were awake at that hour were bakers, who could warn the army once they heard the excavating. It’s thanks to them if the army could fight the attacks…

In return, a baker was asked to celebrate the Austrian victory over the Ottoman Empire by creating a crescent-shaped dessert, which symbolized the Turkish flag. Thus was born the kipferl. Plus, the baker was also granted the exclusive sale of the sweet.

The relationship between Austria and Italy in 1683 was so strong that the crescent-shaped dessert arrived in Italy in just a couple of years. It came to Veneto thanks to the trades between Austria and Venice. However, just like any child, the cornetto is similar to its predecessor only on the outside. The shape is in fact suggested by its name (literally, “cute horn”). But later, as all children do, it took its own separate direction in terms of the recipe. Cornetto is made with flour, milk, eggs, sugar, salt, butter and yeast, and it can be served both empty or filled with creme, jam, chocolate, or pistachio (these are the most popular fillings).

The croissant

Many believe the croissant has French origins. I’m sorry, but it does not. The croissant too comes from the kipfler and it was born in Paris only in 1838.

The croissant’s debut in France has mysterious origins. There are two main popular myths behind it:

  • The first and most plausible one credits the Austrian official August Zang, who founded the Boulangerie Viennoise (“Viennese bakery”) in Paris around 1839. His specialty was indeed the kipferl as well as the Austrian pastry-making. It was its characteristic crescent shape that quickly morphed the name into the one we all know today, croissant (which means “crescent”, just like the moon).
  • According to the second myth (and for sure the most fascinating one), the famous Queen of France Marie Antoniette was so attached to her kipfler based-breakfast that when she went to Versailles she couldn’t help but bring it there with her. Local bakers liked the dessert so much that they immediately made it their own and turned it into the croissant.

The difference between croissants and cornetti is in the recipe: there are no eggs (except some egg white brushed on the surface to shine it) and less sugar. This gives it a lighter consistency and a more “neutral” flavor, that’s why it’s perfect to serve with cured meats and cheese. The croissant has also 30-35% more butter, which makes it puffier and crumblier. Finally, the croissant is usually eaten empty, with no filling.

The brioche

The real brioche has French origins (yes, this one actually does). The sweet version has a lot of butter and a similar shape to a small upside-down pandoro topped with a small dough ball.

Something similar to a brioche first appeared in the Middle Ages, where they would prepare flour, milk, egg, butter and yeast-based sweets.

Why the name “brioche”? There are many possible explanations: 

  • According to some, it comes from the term “Briochins”, name of the citizens of Saint-Brieuc (the place where the bun was made)

  • According to Alexandre Dumas, “brioche” comes from “brie” (the French cheese that was once used as an ingredient in the dessert’s dough) and “oche” (fig), which refers to that part of the dough on top of the bun.

  • The most popular and known theory (claimed also by the Treccani Encyclopedia) states that it comes from the verb “brier” (to knead).

How to recognize whether a brioche (also cornetto or croissant) is of good quality:

1 – If the dough is very light, almost grey, that means the baker employed margarine instead of butter. Margarine is cheaper but also of poorer quality;

2 – The surface should have a hazelnut-amber color with strong highlights which denote how crunchy the exterior is;

3 – The perfect cornetto (also croissant or brioche) should be soft on the inside and crispy on the outside;

4 – Thanks to the long period of leavening, the inside is very soft, hence lighter and easier to digest. If you want to verify whether it has well leavened, just pinch the inside of the brioche with two fingers (your thumb and index): if when you release it the dough comes back to its original shape then the cornetto has well leavened, if not … it hasn’t!

5 – The perfect cornetto has perfectly shaped cells inside of it: the holes are neither too big nor too small and the stratification isn’t too thick;

6 – If the dough is made with margarine instead of butter, the cornetto will have a consistency so pasty that you’ll feel the dough getting stuck between your teeth and leaving residues on them. If you use butter instead, this does not happen: no residues will get stuck and your palate will feel great;

7 – A cornetto of great quality is made with very few ingredients: the list of ingredients on the label should not be longer than one and a half line. If it does… the cornetto is not so genuine or home-made as they want you to believe.

Now that you know the history and differences between cornetto, brioche and croissant, why don’t you go discover all types of Italian coffee and their differences? There are so many of them!

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