Paris is one of those places in the world, where anyone with a sweet tooth can be satisfied. At almost every turn, you’ll see a bakery or cake shop tempting you with delicious gateaux, charming chocolates, beautiful baguettes and other tempting treats. In more recent times, the city has attracted talented artisans, whose passion is to create cakes, cookies, croissants, cheesecakes and other sweet treats that are like masterpieces to behold.
But what if you’re a first time visitor to Paris, who isn’t so familiar with the language, let alone exactly what their culinary terms are describing. So this is where we’re here to help. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular cakes and French pastries, what’s inside them, which drink they go best with – all that kind of thing.
So let’s use the image below as our guide and work our way through, from top left, to bottom right. You can refer back to this image from time to time, or save it to a social media site and flip between windows, if you prefer.
This one, most people are probably familiar with. Originally from Austria and by translation, actually means “crescent”, the croissant is a highly buttered puffed and flaky pastry, containing layered dough – a worldwide favorite. But you order one of these in Paris, then you might also notice that the locals tend to forget the spreads and simply dunk them into their coffee.
Pain au Chocolat
Now the word “chocolat” immediately conjures up the idea of chocolate – and rightly so. Similar to the croissant, but less layered and folded into a square shape, they insert two sticks of chocolate into the centre. English visitors to Paris think of them as chocolate croissants, but in the south of France, they call them chocolatines.
If you’re among the health conscious then you’ll be more inclined to avoid these, due to the higher fat and sugar content. Shaped more like a muffin than a croissant, the kouign amann nevertheless, resembles the croissant in texture. During the baking process, the pastry puffs up and the high sugar content caramelises. The British call them “butter cakes”.
Pain aux raisins
Yes! You guessed it! This one has raisins in it. It’s a leavened butter pastry that contains custard inside and is moulded into a spiral and daubed with raisins on top. Yum!
At the beginning of the 20th century, someone got the idea to adopt a middle eastern technique called filo-layering and create a yeast free pastry while curling the ends in upon one another, to form what looks a bit like an ear. The palmier is coated in sugar before baking, which gives it a crispy caramelised crunch and a denser texture than the above pastries. Some call it the French heart.
Chausson aux pommes
Now the word “pommes” here, has nothing to do with the English. In fact, its origins are very French. There was a time in the 16th century when the town of Saint Calais in the Sarthe region was in the grip of plague. With food supplies low, rations of apple and flour were distributed to the peasants – and there, the Chausson aux pommes was born.
They packed the stewed apples into a puff pastry made of butter, cinnamon and brown sugar – similar to what Americans would call an apple turnover.
Éclair au chocolat
This one fits withing the choux French pastry genre. The éclair is filled with crème pâtissière, and glazed with chocolate. It is a soft, delicious treat. Caramel and coffee flavours are also common, but almost any flavor is possible from specialty éclair shops.
This one is a bit tricky to eat without making a mess. Why? Because it’s a smaller profiterole balanced on top of a larger one and filled with crème pâtissière, topped with a ganache (usually chocolate), and decorated with a column of cream. Apparently the name is meant to conjure up the image of an obese nun. Can you “see” it?
More from the choux pastry selection – these little balls will tempt you from the boulangerie counter. They don’t contain any filling but their main feature is the crispy rocks of sugar that adorn the surface. You’ll find them very more-ish.
Well there had to be a French pastry named after a patron saint. Yes, they even have have one for pastry chefs – hence the name. It starts with a round base of puff pastry, followed by an upper layer of choux pastry. To this base, the circumference is then decorated with profiteroles glazed with crunch caramel. The center area is then filled with a light cream made from beaten egg whites, or a rich whipped cream – and then one more profiterole at top center to complete the decoration. Decadent!
In 1891 the Paris-to-Brest bicycle race was celebrated by the creation of this pastry that looks “kind of” like a wheel. A ring of soft choux pastry is cut horizontally and filled with sweet praline-flavoured cream, brushed with egg and baked with a layer of almonds on top, and dusted with sugar.
The Opera is a cake layered with almond sponge soaked with coffee flavoured syrup, chocolate ganache, and coffee buttercream, with a layer of rich chocolate glaze on top. This combines the best of coffee and chocolate. It is so named because its origins are believed to have been a Paris patisserie within the Palais Garnier opera building.
“Mille” is the French word for “thousand” and so describes what appears to be thousands of paper-thin layers of French puff pastry, or pâte feuilletée. Three layers of the pâte sandwich two layers of crème pâtissière. A fondant layer with a marbled or spiderweb chocolate design completes this decadent, textured treat.
Originating from Bordeaux, the canelé are small, caramelised cylinders of vanilla and rum, with a soft custard centre. Canelés are great when served warm, and go very well with red wine.
Madeleine are-small sponge cakes, flavoured with almond and with distinctive shell molds. They’re popular, and inconveniently addictive! Sometimes lemon is added as well.
Financiers are small, rectangular cakes with a slightly crispy outside, fluffy inside, and flavoured with beurre noisette. The difference between a madeleine and a financier (besides the shape) is probably the butter content – the financier has about three times the butter, and also browns more during cooking.
This is France remember, so you’d expect a Jésuite to feature somewhere. The jésuite is a flaky triangle of pastry, baked until crispy on the outside. The inside is filled with frangipane cream, and the top is covered in almond slices and dusted sugar. The shape is supposed to resemble the triangular jesuite hat.
The flan originated in ancient Rome and now many countries have their own version of this classic dish. Eggs, milk, sugar and caramel are usually combined for a basic flan. The French flan is a custard tart without any added fruits or chocolate; sweet, smooth, and creamy, with a caramelised top.
Macarons need little introduction – but for the uninitiated, a macaron has two small meringue halves (made of whipped egg white, sugar, and almond powder), with smooth, round tops and a rough crust. They sandwich a layer of ganache, cream, or other filling. The result is a small cookie-ish delight with a delicate crispy shell, moist centre, and sweet filling. Macarons come in every flavour imaginable, and often branch off from the humble patisserie into their own highly regarded (and often sought after) specialty stores.
The tarte tatin is the quintessential French upside down cake. Sliced apples are caramelised in butter and sugar, baked with shortcrust pastry, and served upside-down so the apples are on top. The story goes that in the 1880s, an overworked Stéphanie Tatin from Hôtel Tatin neglected an apple pie that overcooked in butter and sugar. To save it, she put a crust on top, baked it, and inverted the result. The guests loved the result!
Tarte aux fraises
Some of the most brightly coloured tartes on the shelf are the fantastic tarte aux fraises, the strawberry tarts. A crumbly shortcrust pastry is filled with a generous layer of crème pâtissière, piled high with strawberries, and glazed. Simple, yet delicious (and requires concentration to eat)!
Similar to the tarte aux fraises, the tarte framboise (raspberry) is dusted with powdered sugar.
France’s most common variant of the apple pie is this tarte, a recipe originating from Normandy. The shortcrust pastry is topped with apples, chopped almonds and egg custard, and baked. The top caramelises, and the inside is a nice mix of apple and egg.
Tarte au citron
The shortcrust base is filled with a mixture of lemon, sugar, eggs and cornflour, which is baked. It is either left simple, like this, or served with a soft meringue topping.
Tarte aux myrtilles
Traditionally a seasonal pie from the Alps region, the French blueberry pie can be found in patisseries all over the country. Cream, sugar and eggs are poured over the blueberries, and baked.
Tarte au chocolate
Increasing the unhealthiness level from the fruit tart, the chocolate tart has a chocolate, cream and egg filling that is baked and sets within a shortcrust pastry. Simple and awesome!
The galette des rois
On January 6th, a special cake is eaten to celebrate the feast of Epiphany, when the three wise men gave their gifts to baby Jesus. A galette des rois (cake of kings) is eaten, a flat, brown frangipani flavoured cake. There is a protocol to serving it, too – the youngest member of the group sits underneath the table and tells the cake cutter who receives each piece. Whomever finds the charm (the féve), a small porcerlain or plastic figurine, wears the crown that accompanies the cake, and names their king or queen.
Bûche de Noël
If you’re in France over Christmas, you may be lucky enough to get your hands on a bûche de Noël, a Yule log. It is made from a sponge cake, iced generously (usually with a chocolate buttercream), and rolled into a log shape. The whole log is coated with an extra layer of icing. But its all about the decoration; dragging a fork through the icing gives the look of bark, dusting with powdered sugar is for snow, and leaves, branches, mushrooms, animals and other trinkets complete the bûche.
Artistic acknowledgements: StickyMangoRice