A visit to Paris is certainly rooted in sights to see and tastes to try, but what you won’t fully grasp until you’re on the Haussmannien streets themselves is that it’s truly an aromatic experience. Case in point: French bakeries.
In Paris, don’t be surprised if one minute, you’re en route to the métro, and the next, as if by teleportation, your nose is up against a glass display – a portal to buttery, sugary perfection. You’ve fallen victim to the scent of the patisserie (even though it’s likely the sweet smell of artificial air fresheners that bakeries put in their vents to attract passersby – yes, really). Your nose may have guided you, but with one glimpse of this patissier, pastry chef’s, edible art gallery, your métro can wait.
How does the untrained eye approach the rows and rows of masterpieces? How can you distinguish what the traditional French pastries for breakfast versus the ultimate French dessert? We’re clueing you into something of which even some Parisians may be unaware – the implicit, meticulous organization behind the patisserie storefront window.
One of the genius aspects of a patisserie display is that, while each one is unique, it’s organized in a way that is subliminally comforting to the customer – no matter what store you pop into, you’ll likely see the same baked goods grouped among their like-minded friends.
First things first, most French pastries are categorized based on the family of pâte, or dough, they come from.
To start with a more familiar variety, there’s the pastry dough that is near and dear to Parisian and tourist hearts alike: pâte feuilletée, or laminated dough. Every pain au chocolat you dip into your morning coffee and tarte aux pommes you pick up for a nostalgic taste of apple pie is made from the same buttery dough. In the 19th century, baker Antonin Carême adopted the Greek and Arabic technique of folding butter into dough numerous times to develop light, flaky results. Fast forward to today, and pâte feuilletée is found decorated with chocolate, fruits, sugar, and nuts to create the most popular French breakfast items.
Try pâte feuilletée: pain aux raisins. While a cripsy croissant is the simplest representation of puff pastry, you can graduate from tourist to local by ordering a spiral of pastry, cream, and rum-soaked raisins, a treasure hunt of an eating experience.
From éclairs to little chouquette puffs, topped simply with pearl sugar and sold for just a few centimes apiece – pastries made from pâte a choux satisfy any sweet craving. Pâte a choux has transformed from a staple in the court of Catherine de Medici to a cabbage-shaped cream puff dessert in patissier Avice’s 18th century kitchen, for which it was given its name choux. Today, it’s grown from round cabbage to oblong éclair, but still provides the unbeatable experience of sinking your teeth into icing, then pastry, then cream for a trifecta of flavors and textures.
Try pâte à choux: une religieuse. For the true pâte à choux experience, try this holy invention, aptly named for the nun it resembles: two choux pastries held together with pastry cream.
For French pastries that are dense or crunchy instead of light and fluffy, the pâte battue, or beaten dough, is likely used. With more eggs than the rest of the families, the heavier dough requires more kneading. It can stand up to wear and tear and be adapted to fit a number of environmental factors, unlike some persnickety dough varieties. In fact, early users of the dough developed a twice-baked cooking process, making for extremely crunchy cookies to withstand the potentially soggy results from transportation. This process, called biscuit, or twice cooked, gave its name to the French word for cookie.
Try pâte battue: un financier, a small rectangular cake similar to a madeleine but with a slight almond flavor. Earning popularity near the Paris stock exchange where patissiers could bake many without sacrificing quality, these little gold bars can be spotted in the display among other cookies and cakes.
Extra pâte battue credit: un macaron. Though separate from the five categories of French pastry, macarons are cookies, earning them an honorable mention here. Le macaron has become a worldwide confection; a smooth ganache or cream sandwiched between two crunchy meringue disks makes for a small cookie with big flavor. The best-of-the-best in town like Pierre Hermé and Ladurée have found ways to reinvent these quaint, colorful jewels from classic, like toffee, to creative, like using matcha.
One of the most artistic parts of a patisserie is its colorful display of tarts and quiches, whose crusts are made with pâte friable. While there are many varieties of the “crumbly” dough, the most important distinction is that it acts as an understated yet delicious base to the main event: the filling. Take the old faithful pate brisée: sturdier like a piecrust and ideal for stone fruit tarts, quiches, and French flan patissier. Pâte sablée, meanwhile, is used tarts with chocolate, cream, red fruits, or the Parisian favorite – lemon. Whichever variety of pâte friable is used, they often contain a true representation of the overall patisserie quality, starting with taste and ending with presentation.
Try pâte friable: tarte au citron. Ornamented with fresh slices of lemon, candied rinds, molded meringues, or even gold flakes, a lemon tart is typically a vehicle of expression for the house patissier.
An entremet was originally the word for an amuse-bouche, a small dish eaten in between two courses. While it’s no longer a part of the meal, it still does its job at holding two pieces of a greater whole together. In this case: cake – layered mousse cake featuring complementary textures and complementary flavors, to be exact. Upon entering a patisserie, you’ll see identical bar-shaped slices lined up in the displays, each one painstakingly cut from one large rectangular cake. (If only cutting a cake at home were this easy.)
Try entremet: l’opéra. This elegant cake is composed of almond-soaked sponge cake layered with coffee buttercream mousse and chocolate ganache. The bar will stand up to the power of your fork, so you can be sure to get an encore of that symphony of textures.
*Extra Entremet credit: mille-feuille. This pastry combines two of the categories of pastry, making it a delicious exception to the rule. It layers pâte feuilletée and pastry cream in the entremet style, making for a smooth yet occasionally crackly texture.
We hope that you’ll inch out of your comfort zone to best understand French baked goods. So to help give you some confidence, here are some tips to keep in mind when it’s your turn to order at the patisserie:
• Think ahead. Whether that means planning your trip for a warm pastry or ordering a special tart a day in advance, you won’t be sorry that you did some extra planning. • Lines are a good thing. With a pastry shop on what seems to be every street corner, you can trust locals who take the time to wait on a line. That said… • Going to the bakery is a systematic chore for the French – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They know exactly what they want and have timed their visits accordingly. Put your nose up against the glass window before hopping on line to do some preemptive decision-making. • With your newly attained knowledge of the organization of a patisserie display, order accordingly. We wholeheartedly recommend trying one item from each of the categories. If you have a hard time making up your mind, your patissiser is your best guide. Perhaps they’re known for their lemon tart or the chouquettes are fresh and ready for the taking.