Your Complete Guide to French Pastries

Estimated reading time 7 min

France is the undisputed world champion of the pastry scene. From the golden-brown flakiness of its fresh croissants to the delicate layers of its iced mille-feuilles, it’s clear that this Mediterranean country is in a league of its own. Because no trip to France is complete without a little (or a lot of!) culinary indulgence, here’s your ultimate guide to the world of French pastries. Bon appetit!

A Brief History of Pastries

Some of the most beloved pastry creations today date back to ancient times. We have the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks to thank for a filo-type pastry made from oil and flour. Later, the Romans developed a separate dough that they used to cover meat when baking. By the 17th century, the first “celebrity chef,” Marie-Antoine Carême, brought pastries to the forefront of French culture.

 

Useful Pastry Terms

Pâtisserie: Pastries, or a bakery that specializes in pastries.
Boulangerie: A bakery that specializes in bread and produces bread on the premises.
Viennoiseries: Bread-based breakfast pastries like brioches and croissants (literally, “things from Vienna”).

Common Ingredients

Pâte à choux: choux pastry (a light, puffy, airy pastry dough)
Pâte d’amande: marzipan
Crème pâtissière: thick custard cream
Crème anglaise: sauce-like custard cream
Crème au beurre: buttercream
Crème Chantilly: whipped cream

Popular Pastries

Canelé: Originally from Bordeaux, this rum and vanilla pastry has a thick caramelized crust and a soft custard center.
Croissant: Crescent-shaped pastry that’s flaky, airy, and buttery.
Éclair: Long choux pastry filled with pastry cream and topped with icing.
Financier: Rectangular, almond-flavored sponge cake reminiscent of a gold bar.
Gâteau St-Honoré: A ring of puff pastry topped with cream puffs that are dipped in caramelized sugar.
Kouign amann: Puffy, flaky, caramelized butter cake made from croissant-like dough.
Macaron: Meringue-like cookie made with almond flour, sandwiched together with cream or ganache.
Madeleine: Small shell-shaped sponge cake coated in granulated sugar.
Mille-feuille: Meaning “thousand leaves,” this features alternating layers of puff pastry and pastry cream, all topped with black-and-white feathered icing.
Opéra cake: Almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup. It has layers of coffee buttercream and ganache, topped with a mirror-smooth chocolate glaze.
Paris-Brest: A ring of choux pastry sliced in half and filled with praline cream. 
Profiterole
: Round choux pastry filled with whipped cream, custard, or ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce.
Religieuse: Made from two round, cream-filled pastries (a small one stacked on a larger one) and drizzled with chocolate icing.
Tarte citron: Lemon tart.
Tarte tatin: Upside-down apple tart (sometimes made with pears or savory fillings).

The Story Behind…

The Croissant

The modern croissant came about not in France but in Austria, during the unsuccessful Ottoman siege of Vienna in the 17th century. Delighted by the defeat of the Turks, Austrian bakers chose to celebrate with the creation of a pastry, the kipferl (“crescent”), that symbolized the crescent moon on the Turkish flag. This popular treat made its way to France in 1770 after the marriage of Austrian-born Marie Antoinette to Louis XVI. When Marie got homesick, the royal bakers whipped up a batch of kipferls, which they called “croissants,” to give her a taste of home.

The Tarte Tatin

Though one of the most iconic pastries in France today, this quintessential treat came about entirely by accident. In 1880, sisters Stephanie and Caroline Tatin owned the Hôtel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron. While making an apple tart, Stephanie realized that she forgot to add the pastry. She placed it on the top, popped it in the oven, and hoped for the best. When it was done, she flipped it over so the pastry was on the bottom and the caramelized apples glistened on top. If only all kitchen accidents could turn out this delicious…

The Gâteau St-Honoré

Saint Honoré, or Saint Honoratus, was the bishop of Amiens and a Benedictine monk in the 6th century. When he was named bishop, legend has it that a baker’s peel—the wooden paddle used to move to bread loaves into and out of the oven—took root and grew into a fruiting tree. After his death, parades in his honor were said to have stopped droughts and downpours, making wheat harvests plentiful. He thus became the patron saint of bakers, and a cake in his honor was first created in Paris in the 1840s.

The Paris-Brest

In 1891, the editor of Paris’s Petit Journal, Pierre Giffard, sought a way to tout the benefits of bicycle travel. He suggested a 750-mile race from Paris to Brest and back again. In 1910, he asked pâtissier Louis Durand to create a pastry to commemorate the event. The pastry’s circular shape represents a wheel, and its high caloric count gave riders the energy they needed to complete the trek.

5 Best Bakeries in Paris

Boulangerie Utopie

20 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud
Just as you should never judge a book by its cover, you should judge a bakery by its nondescript grey exterior. Many consider this gem on the corner of Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud one of the best bakeries in France, with lines that often extend down the block. With such tantalizing offerings as sesame-raspberry gâteau, rhubarb apple brioche, tomato oregano focaccia, and sourdough crammed with roasted peppers and basil, one bite of a Utopie confection will make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven.

Des Gâteaux et du Pain

63 Boulevard Pasteur
Violet turnovers. Flaky chocolate croissants. Apple-maple tarts with caramelized pecans. It’s clear that something special lives inside the walls of this sleek, black boulangerie/pâtisserie in the 15th arrondissement. Though its polished, modern interior reminiscent of a luxury boutique may intimidate hungry visitors, its breads and pastries—as well as its staff!—are as cheerful and welcoming as the first day of spring. Be sure to try the rhubarb tart or pain aux raisin on your next visit.

Blé Sucré

7 Rue Antoine Vollon
With its buttery, golden croissants and magical iced madeleines, this pâtisserie is in a league of its own. The owner, Fabrice Le Bourdat, is the former pastry chef at Epicure—a Michelin 3-star restaurant in the 5-star hotel, Le Bristol. With such high caliber in the kitchen, the reasonable prices might surprise you. You can feast on the caramelized kouign amann, one of the most scrumptious items on the menu, for less than two euros.

Du Pain et des Idées

34 Rue Yves Toudic
From its wood-fired pain des amis to its brioche with chestnut honey, this charming, rustic boulangerie offers an assortment of breads and pastries like none you’ve ever tasted. The tantalizing treats offered at this establishment, which dates back to 1875, are made from organic ingredients using techniques that date back centuries. Be sure to try the chocolate-pistachio escargots, which are about as close to eating perfection as you can get.

Poilâne

8 Rue du Cherche-Midi; 49 BD de Grenelle; 38 Rue Debelleyme; 83 Rue de Crimée
Established in 1932 on Paris’s Left Bank, Poilâne is the gold standard when it comes to bread baking. Its signature pain Poilâne—a dark, crusty wood-baked sourdough—has earned itself a band of devoted followers across the world. Apple tarts, rye-raisin loaves, and pain au chocolate are among the bakeries top sellers. Be sure to treat yourself to a couple punitions, or sinfully delicious butter cookies, before you leave.

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