When I was living in France, I supported a pastry-a-day addiction. It’s a wonder I didn’t come back to the States 20 pounds heavier (Thank God for my subsequent travels to China where I endured more than bearable hot days, sweating off calories and staving off hunger).
With delicious patisseries beckoning me around every corner in Paris, it was just too hard to resist not getting my daily fix for a flaky, melt-in-your-mouth delicious pastry. I loved to pick out a new treat every day and take it to a neighboring cafe and eat it while I sipped my cappuccino. For those not familiar with the many varieties of pastries, I have compiled a comprehensive list of my favorite types of pastries found in France. While all patisseries will have their own variations and unique creations, there is definitely a standard array of flaky, buttery treats you are sure to find at most pastry shops around France. I would also highly recommend asking the patissier which pastry he or she thinks is best that day–as sometimes different specialties are made on different days of the week.
My Favorite French Pastries
Here is a list of some of my favorite pastries and those most commonly found at patisseries across France. The list is comprehensive, but not exhaustive, as the French have about as many types of pastries as the Eskimos have for the word snow.
Croissant: The old standard, you can never go wrong with this crescent shaped, buttery and flaky pastry. The perfect balance of sweetness and puffiness, crispiness and softness, a well made croissant will melt in your mouth and have you craving another as soon as you finish the first. The original French pastry, it is rumored the croissant first appeared in French cuisine after the Muslim defeat by the French at the Battle of Tours in 732. The pastry was given its shape to represent the Islamic crescent.
Pain au Chocolat: Cousin to the croissant and my personal favorite French pastry, a pain au chocolat is basically a croissant-type puff pastry containing strips of chocolate (usually dark chocolate). Literally translated as “chocolate bread” pains aux chocolates are a favorite in France and are best when served hot with the chocolate melting into the pastry in the middle. Just imagining the chocolate oozy from the butter, flaky pastry makes me swoon. Yum.
Éclair: A variant from the donut type dough used in many American versions of this French favorite, éclairs are a long, thin pastry made from choux pastry (which literally translates as “cabbage” pastry because of its appearance when made) and is filled with cream and topped with icing (usually chocolate). In France, éclairs are made by baking the oblong choux until crisp and hollow and then filling it with coffee or chocolate flavored pastry cream. Other favorite fillings are custard or freshly whipped cream, rum-flavored custard (my favorite), almond or chestnut puree or fruit fillings. Éclairs will vary from patisserie to patisserie, but are almost always delicious.
Profiterole (aka a Cream Puff): Choux pastry is baked into small round puffs, which when cooled become hollow in the middle and are served with whipped cream or custard in the center. You will commonly see this garnished with a hardened caramel sauce (my favorite). Stacked profiteroles called croquenbouche are often served at weddings in France.
Beignet: The French version of a doughnut, beignets are a deep-fried pastry often served garnished with powdered sugar. In France, beignet is an umbrella term for a variety of different pastries that can be either sweet or savory. In fact, you will sometimes find beignets filled with potatoes, mushroom or meat. Unlike American doughnuts, however, beignets tend to be very light and airy and are often hollow in the center. They are of course best when served hot.
Mille-feuille (My favorite of the favorites!!!): This pastry’s name literally translates as “thousand sheets” and is a pastry made from several layers of puff pastry alternating with a sweet filling (usually pastry cream, whipped cream or custard). Every patisserie in France will have its own version of this pastry, including differently flavored creams and topped with different icings. You will typically find mille-feuilles topped with drizzles of chocolate and a light vanilla icing.
Tarte: The French answer to American pies, you will find a huge variety of tartes in all shapes and size with all kinds of fillings. They are usually made with a thin, flat layer of puff pastry and then are topped with fruit. You will sometimes see a layer of custard in between the pastry and the fruit, but French tartes are always open faced. One of my personal favorite is an apple tart, which usually manages to have the finest slices of apples layer over the pastry. You will find tartes of all sizes and fillings and you can almost never go wrong with a well made tarte.
Brioche: Although more of a bread than a pastry, because of its sometimes sweet flavor, I’ll put brioche on this list. Brioche is a bread made with high butter and egg content, which gives it a sweet, rich flavor and tender consistency. It is often topped with an egg wash before baking, giving it a flaky, deep golden crust. A brioche a tete, which translates as “brioche with head” (as pictured) adds a small roll of the dough on top and are baked in muffin-like tins to achieve their small, rounded shape.
Madeleines: These little cakes have a distinctive shell-like shape and have the consistency of a very light pound cake. They often also have a pronounced butter and lemon taste and are often made with almonds as well. You will find these little cake-like cookies across France and they are a favorite treat among children.
Palmiers: Another one of my favorites (yes, I have a lot of favorite pastries), palmiers are crispy and delicate leaf-shaped cookies made from puff pastry. They are made by rolling out pastry dough, sprinkling it with sugar and then folding it several times. The two sides of the pastry are then rolled inwards to meet at the center and the cookie is baked until crispy and caramelized. These are the perfect balance of crispy and flaky and always see to be just sweet enough.
Langues de Chat: This simple, yet delicious cookie which translates literally as “Cat’s tongues” was another standard treat of my childhood. They are a simple cookie made from butter, sugar, flour and eggs and have a light yet crispy texture. They get their name for their long , tongue-like shape. They are a classic French cookie and another treat popular among children.
Macarons: These delightful little cookies from northeastern France are not much like their American cousin the Macaroon, which are dense cookies made with coconut. The cookie is made from egg whites, almond powder and icing sugar. They are sandwich-like pastries made with two thin cookies with a thin layer of flavored icing in the center, making a hamburger shaped result. Macarons are delicately crunchy on the outside and are moist, chewy and flavorful on the inside. They are very light and come in every flavor under the sun. If you find yourself in Paris, you should not resist the temptation to get a bag of macarons where they were first invented at the Ladurée pastry shop on the Champs Elysées, where 15,000 of these delightful little cookies are sold each day.