The world of French pastry is broad, exciting and a pleasure to acquaint oneself with.
For those who are wondering what to sample while strolling through Parisian streets, picking up some goodies from an Australian patisserie, or keen to try their pastry hand at home, we explore some of the best French pastries on offer – sweet and savoury.
In France, apple pies are found in many shapes, textures and forms. These range from the renowned tarte Tatin – where the apples are proudly on show, sitting atop a base of puff pastry – to the more enclosed pies such as the pate de la batteuse, half-moon shaped pies that celebrate apples during harvest time. Commonly apple pies, including these two, share the classic ingredients of butter, sugar and vanilla bean.
Beignets originated in France and are now found around the world, meaning there are plenty of adaptations. The traditionally French variety resembles a kind of doughnut, made of either a choux pastry or a yeast dough. Beignets are commonly enjoyed warm and simply dusted with icing sugar. Others are more glamorously filled with cream or chocolate.
Canelés are petite, heavenly cakes defined by a custard centre protected by a caramelised crust. The four fundamental ingredients of a canelé are flour, egg yolks, vanilla and rum. Pastry chefs usually don’t toy with the classic shape of canelés: a cylindrical shape with fluted edges. These are perfect with a coffee.
Chouquettes grace an inordinate number of pastry stores and bakeries in France, and often hang near the front counter, inviting a last-minute purchase. The baked ‘little balls of choux’, as they translate, are sprinkled with pearl sugar and are served as is or filled with a mousse or custard. Try a plain version first to fully appreciate the pastry’s simplicity – crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside.
Croissants are unignorable, the breakfast pastry of choice for many in France. The croissants in France generally aren’t as grand, large or puffed up as some of their overseas counterparts. A good plain one can be satisfying enough, but if you’re looking for a little more, get your hands on a ham-and-cheese or almond version.
Eclairs are the ideal, express afternoon sweet treat and come in endless variations. Coffee eclairs are great pick-me-ups and pistachio or chestnut-flavoured ones are for umami-lovers. You can also opt for a fruit filling, like strawberry cream, for something sweeter. Sealed with glistening frostings, it can be difficult to stop at just one.
If you want to enjoy the best of France’s fresh produce, consider fruit tarts. You’ll find plenty of tarts crowned with amazing raspberries, blueberries, apples or peaches when these fruits are in season. Often beneath the fruit toppings are pastry cream or custard. Other tarts simply flaunt the fruit itself.
Macarons should not be confused with macaroons. Both are indeed fancy cookie sandwiches, but macaron biscuits are made from meringue and almond meal, whereas macaroons are made with coconut.
Macarons were introduced to France by Italy’s Medici family during the Renaissance. The treats are now a major part of French cake culture. They come in a kaleidoscope of flavours and the French-style are filled with jam, buttercream or ganache.
A classic mille feuille, which graphically translates as ‘a thousand leaves’, comprises layers of puff pastry and vanilla pastry cream with a dusting of icing sugar. Although it sounds simple, in its purest form, the cake is incredibly hard to master.
France brims with modern versions that feature ingredients such as chocolate glaze, jams and fruits. Fundamentally, what unites different types of mille feuille are three layers of pastry and two layers of cream.
Named in honour of France’s famed Mont Blanc, this sweet treat features meringue, encased in strands of sweet chestnut puree. It’s often topped with whipped cream or icing sugar, evoking the cap of the snowy mountain. These pretty desserts make common appearances at afternoon teas and bridal showers.
An opera cake is France’s answer to tiramisu, an ideal dessert for coffee lovers. Architecturally, it relies on three layers: an almond sponge soaked in coffee syrup, a rich chocolate ganache and a coffee buttercream. The layers are intended to represent the levels of an actual opera house – logical and decadent.
Pain au chocolat
Pain au chocolat bluntly translates to ‘chocolate bread’ due to the fact that originally it was made using a brioche base. The pastry has adapted to rely on a yeasted puff pastry, which wraps around a stick of chocolate before it’s baked. These are a favourite of children on their way to school, and big kids, alike.
The Paris-Brest, although founded in Paris, is found all over France. It was designed to promote the Paris-Brest-Paris bike race, explaining its resemblance to a bicycle wheel. These come in small sizes for one person, or larger sizes which are ideal for sharing. The pretty ring of choux pastry, filled with a hazelnut cream and topped with slivered almonds, makes for a beautiful centrepiece at dessert time.
This quiche is a pillar of French cuisine, an ultimate crowd-pleaser known around the world. It combines bacon, cheese and onion to make for a smoky yet comforting quiche. Some pastry chefs include vegetables, but when in France, aim to find a traditional quiche Lorraine before trying any others.
Speaking of resemblant pastries, meet religieuse cakes. These were created in the 19th-century Paris by Italian pastry chef Frascati. Religieuse is the French word for ‘nun’, who are affectionately honoured in dessert form via two chocolate-topped choux pastry buns that are stacked on top of each other – the bottom bun larger and the top bun smaller, representing body and head. The buns are filled with the likes of pastry cream, custard, coffee, caramel or rose-flavoured cream.
In the same category as the Paris-Brest, is the St Honouré. Named in honour of the French patron saint of pastry chefs. It is slightly more elaborate than the Paris-Brest, with a base of puff pastry holding the choux pastry. It’s filled with pastry cream and gloriously topped with cream puffs.
Tarte au Maroilles
Tarts are a great way of showing off French cheeses. Maroilles is a soft cow’s milk cheese, which is native to the regions of Thiérache and l’Avesnois. The cheese is often described as strong, nutty and pungent, so if you can’t handle strong cheeses, this one is not for you.
A shortcrust pastry holds a simple mixture of cheese, creme fraiche, butter and eggs, ensuring there aren’t many distractions from the hero that is the cheese. It’s baked until the cheese is gooey and the top is golden brown.
Tarte au Roquefort
Here’s another one for the strong cheese aficionados. This tart combines Roquefort cheese and caramelised onion, which is a genius balancing act, bringing together the saltiness and sourness of Roquefort with the sweetness of caramelised onions. This one is ideal at lunchtime with a salad.
Yule log cakes or ‘bûche de Noël’ pop up throughout the country during Christmas time. A sheet of plain, Italian-style genoise cake is filled with chocolate cream and rolled into a log shape. Why a log, you ask? It references the tradition of families burning logs on Christmas Eve, in pursuit of bringing luck to the new year.
Featured image credit: Natalia Yakovleva.