A brief history of the humble croissant
The origin of the much-loved choux-stopper
Standing at the counter of a French boulangerie or patisserie can be a daunting affair. Confronted by a dizzying array of tempting treats and baked delights, it can be hard to make a choice, let alone know what you are asking for.
The boulangerie or baker is the more familiar of the two establishments, groaning with breads of various kinds from baguettes to ficelles via brioche, fougasse and pain de campagne. But even here the first doubts can creep in: do I fancy a pan au chocolat or perhaps a moist pain auz raisins, hopefully still warm from the oven and with a barely set custard? Then again there’s the choice of a whole range of viennoiseries, including irresistible croissants aux amandes (almond croissants) – one of the most perfect pastries with a mid-morning coffee.
The patisserie takes the dilemma of choice to another level. There can be any number of astonishingly fancy looking cakes and pastries, with many being regional or even local specialities. With glossy glazes, gooey ganaches and fabulous fondants married to crackly, light-as-air pastry in a buttery, lip licking perfection, making up your mind can be tough.
The best plan of attack is to dive in. Don’t sweat about whether you’re ordering something for elevenses or teatime, just choose what takes your fancy and eat it when you please. To help you on your way, here’s our Belle France round up of some of the most popular options you are likely to encounter, from the glitziest, chicest Paris patisserie to the most out of the way rural boulangerie where the church bell tolls at midday and the streets are deserted.
Best to start with the granddaddy of them all. The instantly recognisable pastry that can be found around the world (in varying levels of quality admittedly) and in sweet or savoury form.
The ubiquitous croissant first appeared on our radar in the 1840s – and not in France (the kipferl actually hails from Austria but was adopted by the French and, with a few modifications, became the iconic pastry we know and love). Since then it has become a global go-to for many people starting their day. Many expert bakers would agree that the key to this flaky viennoiserie of the gods is a really good quality butter, a fat which has a relatively high melting point. Star bakers will aim for a crisp, crumbly exterior with a buttery multi-layered interior, each layer as light and airy as the next.
Although having a moment in popular culture right now, macarons have a long, illustrious history dating from the 1500s when the originals were brought to France from Italy. The macaron that we clamour for today – the two almond meringues with a buttercream or ganache filling – is thought to be the creation of the French pastry chef Ladurée. Macarons come in a bewildering array of colours and flavours, and in recent years have almost strayed into fashion accessory territory, such is their desirability.
Originating during the 19th century in France, this is a long cylinder of choux pastry with a crème pâtissière or cream filling and an icing topping.
Some kind of flan is usually a staple of any boulangerie. Employing local fruit in season, bound together by an eggy custard and held in a pastry case is a convenient way to whip up something delicious and practical. For those on the move, this is definitely a French classic to go!
Galette des Rois
The Galette des Rois was traditionally baked during Epiphany. Filled with frangipane, a small figurine (the fève) is concealed inside and small crowns resting on top reflect the fact that the name means the King’s Cake.
A relative of the Paris-Brest, this is named after the patron saint of bakers (yes, there is such a French saint) and is a puff pastry base, with a ring of choux pastry and cream puffs – oh, and lots of whipped cream. It’s quite an elaborate affair and not for the faint hearted.
The small canelé originates from the Bordeaux region and is revered for its thick caramelized crust and soft, vanilla centre. They are delicious as a sweet treat at the end of a meal, especially with a little Chantilly cream.
Something of a ‘fancy’, the mille-feuille (meaning thousand-leaves) is a true classic. Thin, crackly puff pastry is layered up with crème pâtissière, traditionally in three layers, often with a fondant glaze for a finishing touch.
Something of a show stopper, this praline ring of choux pastry has unusual origins. It was created in 1910 to commemorate the Paris to Brest bicycle race (think of the pastry as a bicycle wheel) and proved an instant hit.
The name comes from this creation’s appearance – similar to a nun’s habit, apparently. No matter, it’s the taste that counts and this is a two-tiered dream made of choux pastry, filled with crème pâtissière and held in place by icing and piped vanilla cream.
A puff pastry treat with lots of butter and sugar, the palmier’s shape is based on a palm leaf, hence the name which roughly translates as ‘palm tree’. Savoury versions are sometimes made too.
The Kouign Amann has origins in Brittany (the name is Breton for ‘butter cake’) and has seen something of a revival in recent times. Similar to puff pastry, with butter and sugar being folded in layer on layer, it is similar to, but denser than, a croissant and is often dusted with sugar.
These multi-levelled layers of sponge are flavoured with almond and soaked in coffee, then layered with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache and finished with a glossy chocolate glaze.
These are light but rich cakes, with a strawberry base (raspberry versions can also be found). Made with sponge and cream, they tend to come in dainty single portion sizes or a larger cake for sharing. But who wants to share these?
These tea-time favourites are baked in a scalloped shell shape, and their buttery, egg-based recipe is always a crowd pleaser. Simple, elegant and moist they are a perfect accompaniment to a decent pot of tea.