Along with wine and cheese, France is best known for its delectable traditional pastry selection. From the ubiquitous croissant to the distinct paris-brest, patisseries craft some of the most intricate and delicious baked goods in the entire world.
Although most bakeries will carry a standard selection of traditional fare, they'll vary a bit from region to region. In Paris, you may find a variety of bakeries that fuse traditional techniques with modern or foreign flair, but in the countryside, you might find a simple shop that specializes in a handful of mouth-watering traditional goods. Furthermore, in border regions, you'll find influence from neighbors like Germany, England, Spain, and Italy. Stop somewhere in each town that you visit to admire the unique variations.
All of these delicious options can be a bit overwhelming, so in order to get the most out of your patisserie experience, spend a day taking a guided tour or a pastry class. Additionally, while you're in the shops, don't be afraid to ask for recommendations from the staff - they're highly knowledgeable and will help you find the perfect confections for your taste buds.
For the most part, you'll easily find a standard array of traditional goods in any French bakery. These treats are a central part of the country's astounding food culture, so be sure to try as many as you can.
Although listing every single classic dessert is a near-impossible task, most traditional desserts fall into one of the categories below:
Bavarois, or Bavarian creams, are cold desserts set in a mold with gelatin. They may contain fruit, whipped cream, liqueur, or other ingredients.
In olden days, cake - or gateau - referred only to bread-like confections with nuts and fruit. However, from the 18th Century onward, sweeter gateau have become standard. Traditional gateaux include the Opera Cake, which includes thin layers of confection soaked in coffee syrup and layered with chocolate ganache and coffee buttercream, and mille-feuille (known commonly as a "Napoleon"), which layers thin pastry with creme and marbled icing.
Charlottes are always first dipped in a liqueur, molded, and then often filled with like mousse, fruit, or even creme. Famous cookies like ladyfingers and macarons as well as breads like brioche all fall into this category.
Commonly referred to as "puff pastry" in English, choux refers to the airy shell of dough found in eclairs and profiteroles. Choux requires particular precision to make correctly as it must first be cooked on a stove and then baked in an oven. Many French bakeries feature elaborate choux creations like the St. Honore or the religieuse, and traditional wedding cakes often feature this confection.
Bakeries will also feature many cookies such as madeleines, palmiers, and the classic macaron.
These are rarely served on their own, but they provide a basis for many desserts. Four primary cremes are used to make desserts: anglaise (custard-like), patissiere (pastry cream), frangipane (almond flavored), and au beurre (buttercream frosting). Additionally, ganache can be categorized as a type of creme because it is a combination of chocolate and whipped cream.
Entremets refer to desserts that aren't made from dough, such as flans, puddings or charlottes. Creme Brulee, for example, along with other egg-based desserts fall into this category.
These small desserts are similar to cookies, but they are typically made of fondant-frosted genoise gateau.
This category encompasses baked goods made with yeast, which include croissants and pains au chocolat. These will be less sweet than most other items found at patisseries, and they are often eaten at breakfast.
Although most patisseries will carry popular traditional pastries, many regions have their own traditional goods and dessert customs.
In the north, you'll find the origins of many traditional baked goods as well as unique flavors from Alpine and Germanic-influenced regions. Classic confections like the paris-brest and mille-feuille have their roots in the north. Additionally, alpine regions often use local walnuts in their creations, and desserts from Alsace and Lorraine show their Germanic roots by using spices like cinnamon.
In the south, the more temperate weather and influence from countries like Spain and Italy heavily influence its style of baking. Confections like flan patissier and pastis landais - a brioche-like gateau - have similar counterparts in Spain, for example. Local ingredients like anise and fresh fruit are commonly used in dishes such as clafoutis and gibassier.
As a large and diverse city, Paris has a patisserie scene all of its own. Not only can you find a variety of confections from across the country, but you can also find amazing bakeries that fuse tradition with modern and foreign influences. Sadaharu Aoki, for example, learned the art of baking in both France and Japan, and he wonderfully fuses Japanese ingredients with traditional Parisian treats, such as his black sesame eclair. For diversity and creativity in baking, visit Paris.
If you're a baking fanatic looking to get the most out of your bakery experience, you should make time to take a guided tour or even take a baking class. During these experiences, you will learn valuable information about the history behind various confections, how they're made, and how they should taste.
When sampling without a guide, you should first aim to try as many treats as possible. In order to taste a wide variety without going overboard, go with a group; purchase an array of goods; and then sample each one. This way, you can try multiple fresh baked goodies without as much of a sugar hangover.
You can (and should) also pair your pastries with wine from France's famous wine regions. Some places may offer formal tastings, but with a little help from a knowledgeable sommelier, you can find the perfect champagne to complement a delicious array of desserts
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