In the heart of France’s capital city, Paris, lies a world of sweet puffs, delicious cream-filled pastries and irresistible cakes. The French have mastered the art of baking to such an extent that it has become an integral part of their culture. Each treat, whether it be a classic choux pastry or a decadent chocolate dessert, is a delightful amalgamation of creativity, passion, and tradition. The joy of baking these classic French pastries is a journey of exploration and discovery. So let’s dive into this enchanting world of French confectionery, reveal old secrets and iconic recipes that can turn your kitchen into a Parisian patisserie.
Choux pastry, or ‘pâte à choux’, is a pillar of French pastry. It’s a versatile dough, puffed up in the oven to create hollow shells that can be filled with anything from creamy custard to rich chocolate ganache. This light and airy pastry is the foundation of French dessert classics like éclairs and profiteroles.
Creating choux pastry is a simple process that begins with boiling water, butter and salt together. Flour is then added to the mixture, which is cooked until it forms a dough. The dough is then cooled slightly, and eggs are beaten in, creating a paste that can be piped onto a baking sheet. When the choux paste is baked, it expands, creating hollow puffs that can be filled with crème pâtissière or whipped cream.
One of the most popular variations of choux pastry is the ‘Paris Brest’, a round pastry filled with hazelnut praline cream, created in 1910 to commemorate the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race. The shape of the pastry represents a wheel of a bicycle, making it not only delicious but also a piece of edible history.
When it comes to desserts, chocolate is a universal favourite. In French patisseries, chocolate is used in a myriad of ways to create indulgent sweets. From the classic ‘Tarte au Chocolat’ to the ‘Moelleux au Chocolat’, chocolate is a superstar ingredient in French baking.
Tarte au Chocolat is a classic French dessert that is simple yet indulgent. It involves a buttery shortcrust pastry filled with a rich, dark chocolate ganache. It’s a dessert that offers a perfect balance of textures, with the flaky crust perfectly complementing the creamy chocolate filling.
Moelleux au Chocolat, on the other hand, is a chocolate lover’s dream come true. It’s a cake with a slightly undercooked centre, creating a moist, molten core that spills out when cut. Creating this dessert requires precision, but the result is worth every effort.
Crème Brûlée, or ‘burnt cream’, is a timeless French dessert that is bold in its simplicity. It consists of a rich custard base, topped with a contrasting layer of hard caramel. The pleasure of breaking through the hard caramel to reach the creamy custard underneath makes it a dessert that delights both the palate and the senses.
The process of making Crème Brûlée involves whisking together egg yolks and sugar until they become frothy. Then, hot cream is slowly added to the mixture. The custard is then baked in a water bath until it sets. The final step, which gives the dessert its name, involves sprinkling sugar on the surface of the set custard and caramelising it with a blowtorch.
Macarons are small round pastries, characterized by their smooth, square top, ruffled circumference, and flat base. These pastries are filled with ganache, buttercream or jam filling sandwiched between two cookies. They are often brightly coloured and come in a variety of flavours.
Creating macarons is a meticulous process that requires precision. The process involves making a meringue that is then folded into a mixture of almond flour and powdered sugar. The batter is then piped onto a baking sheet and baked until the macarons have a smooth top and a ‘foot’, or a ruffled edge.
Tarte Tatin is a classic French upside-down pastry. It’s made by caramelising apples in sugar and butter, topping them with a layer of puff pastry, and baking the whole dish until the fruit is tender and the pastry is golden. It’s then flipped over to serve, revealing a beautifully caramelised apple topping.
The story behind Tarte Tatin is as interesting as the dessert itself. It was supposedly created by accident at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, France, by the Tatin sisters. Despite its accidental birth, Tarte Tatin has become a beloved French dessert that perfectly showcases the classic combination of apples and caramel.
Moving forward in our sweet journey through French pastry, let’s delve into two undeniably classic French desserts – Mille-Feuille and Kouign Amann.
The Mille-Feuille, which translates to "thousand leaves", is a French pastry that is as impressive as it is delicious. It is comprised of alternating layers of puff pastry and pastry cream, stacked high and usually topped with a dusting of powdered sugar or a drizzle of icing. Some variations may include fresh berries or a dollop of whipped cream on top. The key to a great Mille-Feuille lies in the quality of its puff pastry. The pastry should be golden brown, crisp, and flaky, while the cream filling should be rich yet light. Creating this dessert is a labour of love, but slicing into the towering layers to reveal the creamy interior is a reward in itself.
On the other hand, the Kouign Amann hails from the region of Brittany. This delightful pastry is known for its distinctive caramelized exterior and tender, flaky interior. The process of making Kouign Amann involves folding sugar and butter into a yeast dough, similar to the method used for croissants. The dough is then folded multiple times to create thin layers, which are baked until golden brown and caramelized. This results in a pastry that is sweet, buttery, and delightfully crunchy.
The joy of baking French pastries is not limited to everyday treats. Special occasions call for special desserts, and the French certainly know how to celebrate in style. Two such festive pastries are the Yule Log and the Rum Baba.
The Yule Log, or ‘Bûche de Noël’, is a classic French dessert that is traditionally made during Christmas. It is a rolled sponge cake, filled and frosted with buttercream to resemble a log. It can be decorated with meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly, or even dusted with powdered sugar to resemble snow.
The Rum Baba is a small yeast cake soaked in rum syrup and sometimes filled with whipped cream or pastry cream. This dessert is often served on special occasions and is known for its distinctive shape, reminiscent of a champagne cork, and its rich, boozy flavour.
The joy of baking classic French pastries comes from not just the process of creating these delightful treats but also from the stories and traditions they represent. From the Paris Brest commemorating a bicycle race to the accidentally created Tarte Tatin, each French dessert carries a piece of history. Creating these pastries allows us to participate in a long-standing tradition of culinary artistry and to bring a piece of France into our own kitchens. So next time you reach for a macaron or slice into a golden brown Mille-Feuille, remember that you’re not just enjoying a sweet treat – you’re enjoying a piece of French culture. So, why not roll up your sleeves, dust off your rolling pin, and embark on the delightful journey of baking French pastries? Bon Appétit!