The French Pâtisserie
Travel through France's culinary landscape and you'll see different schools of thought when it comes to food. I've already been enlightening you on the full flavors of the French countryside, and you can easily sample the rich depth of Paris in most French restaurants. Regardless of which direction you sway, the one area most French unite on is in their pâtisseries.
A pâtisserie (pah-tiss-er-ree) is a shop specializing in pastries and some levels of confectionery. While the history of pastry-making dates all the way to the ancient Mediterranean, it was in the early 1800s that French society began to explore the finer and sweeter things in life. The revolution had ended with the fall of the monarchy, and average citizens were now open to enjoy the grand cuisine known only to royalty.
Throughout the 19th Century, French pastry-making had grown into a full-fledged art form, and legendary shops such as Dalloyau and Ladurée were established as dessert boutiques. Today, enthusiasts from all over the world travel to Paris to sample and even learn the sweet art form that has spread to many different cultures, all differentiating themselves uniquely.
Whether the shop is in France or beyond, what truly defines a pâtisserie is its master pastry chef, also known as a pâtissier (pah-tis-ee-yay). He or she is not your average baker, but a trained experienced professional who artistically composes sugar, flour, eggs, and other ingredients into visually delectable treats that tempt the eye as much as the palette.
Now if you think you have never encountered a pâtisserie, then you might be mistaken, as they’ve permeated much of what we see of bakeries and sweet shops all over the world. While some standalone pâtisseries exist, many are more a part of larger businesses. You’ll find them in many bakeries where you would purchase bread, some finer grocers, cafes, and even some restaurants now feature a pâtisserie.
What to try
As I mentioned before, pâtisseries come in different ethnic flavors (which I will delve into down the road). While every pâtissier will have one or more signature items in their repertoire, there are common items you’ll find in almost any French pâtisserie that you need to try:
Macarons: Not to be confused with the coconut treats known as macaroons, macarons are a staple in any French pâtisserie. They look like small sandwich cookies that come in a myriad of colors and flavors. They are light and airy, with the filling usually being a ganache, buttercream, or jam sandwiched between two meringue-based biscuits. I’m going to attempt to make my own this summer, and will share the experience.
Tarts: They come in many varieties, but the basic structure is the same. A light crust filled with a custard and possibly topped with added ingredients. Notable varieties include lemon, chocolate, caramel custard, and especially mixed fruit. Also worth its own mention is the Tarte Tatin, which consists of apples caramelized in butter and sugar, then baked into a tart.
Éclairs: These oblong treats are familiar to most Americans, but in the French pastry world they are a family that comes in a variety of flavors. Many know of the classic éclair filled with whipped cream and topped with chocolate, but there are eclairs filled with various custards flavored with chocolate, vanilla, coffee, pistachios, or rum. Chestnut purée and fruit are also varieties. The frostings can also vary in flavors as well.
Mille-feuille: Pronounced as “mill foo-ee”, we know this pastry as the Napoléon. Three layers of puff pastry are stacked with layers of pastry cream, whipped cream, or jam. The final masterpiece is topped either with confectioner’s sugar, cocoa, pastry crumbs, or even pulverized seeds.
Croissants: It’s not all about sugar in a French pâtisserie. A croissant with a cup of coffee is the traditional breakfast for many French, but they’re wonderful any time of the day. In many pâtisseries you’ll find a variety of croissants both sweet and savory. Chocolate croissants are heavenly, as are spinach and even ham and cheese croissants.
Paris–Brest: This was a pastry invented to celebrate the Paris–Brest bicycle race of 1891. Shaped like a wheel, it’s praline-flavored cream sandwiched between two layers of light choux pastry. Surprisingly, one of the world’s best Paris-Brest can be found right here in Chicago at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Petits fours: These small cakes are wonderful at parties or for a simple small dessert. Most recognizable are Glacé (glazed), which are the miniature cakes, éclairs, and tarts you’ll find all over. Sec are more “dry” varieties of biscuits, baked meringues, macarons, and puff pastries. Also noteworthy are Salé (salted), which are more savory appetizers suitable for a party or light snack.
Choux à la Crème: Basically, it’s a cream puff. Light choux pastry similar to what is used in a Paris-Brest is filled with whipped cream, pastry cream, ice cream, or even custard; only it’s not shaped like a wheel. They can be left plain or topped with chocolate, caramel, or powdered sugar. While they look sinful, they’re really quite light.
Mousse: Smooth and creamy, they’re a wonderful treat on a warm day with a cold beverage. Made of whipping cream and egg whites, you’ll find them in a variety of flavors. Usually pâtissiers will use special rings to make a beautifully decorated cylinder of layers.
Rocher: This is not a common item found in French pâtisseries, but it was one I encountered here in Chicago, and I found it so amazing it was worth mentioning. If you happen to encounter this one, don’t overlook it. It was a thick hazelnut cream formed into a ball and coated with a thin layer of hardened chocolate with pieces of hazelnut. It’s a large pastry version of a Ferrero Rocher candy, and it was absolutely amazing.