The pastry case at a French bakery can hold a dizzying array of baked goods. There are breads, cakes, and cookies—all with their own unique origin stories and techniques. To help guide us through five iconic viennoiseries and patisseries, we consulted renowned pastry chef Dominique Ansel, owner of two of New York City’s most popular French bakeries (and yes, Cronut creator).
Just a few years ago, the macaron was declared a trending dessert as more and more shops specializing in the almond-flour sandwich cookie popped up here in the U.S. But the delicate treat traces its history back to the 1500s, when queen Catherine de Medici introduced the macaron—first created in Italian monasteries—to France.
You’ll have to be patient with these airy meringue cookies, typically filled with ganache or jam. “The trick with macarons is not to fill them and then eat them right away. The ganache needs to sit and temper between the cookies in the fridge for at least a day, so you can that soft and slightly chewy texture on the inside, while the outer edges stay crisp,” advises Ansel.
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The name itself looks intimidating, but Ansel simply likens the kouign amann (pronounced queen ah-mon) to “a caramelized croissant.” The sweet, flaky pastry was born in the northern area of Brittany as a way to repurpose leftover bread, but the one you see in shops today is far lighter, made from a technique called lamination, “the process of folding and layering the dough with butter and sugar.” The key to getting a crunchy, buttery kouign amann is speed: “The moment the sugar hits the dough, it starts to draw out the liquid, so you have to work really fast in order to get all those flaky layers in the end. If you have warm hands, chilling them with an ice pack before working the dough helps.”
The starting point of an éclair is the same as profiteroles (cream puffs) and gougères: a pâte à choux that’s made from flour, milk and eggs. The choux pastry dough itself is fairly flavorless, serving as the perfect vehicle for a variety of glazes and cream fillings. “I remember years ago when I was first working at Fauchon in Paris under Christophe Adam, he really started to change the way that French people were thinking of éclairs, using different flavors, creative ingredients and decor.”
When it comes to making éclairs, it’s crucial to keep them uniform. “One way to make sure of this is to fold your parchment paper to create even lines or mark it with a ruler and then turn over the parchment before piping,” says Ansel. Also important? “Overfilling each eclair is always better than underfilling!”
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A specialty of Commercy (a town in France’s northern Lorraine region), the humble madeleine got its moment in the spotlight thanks to writer Marcel Proust, who waxed poetic about the petite tea cake—no, it’s not a cookie!—in his book “Remembrance of Things Past.”
Though it requires a special pan, the fluffy shells are made from straightforward ingredients (butter, flour, sugar, a touch of lemon zest), plus a hot oven. “Heat up your molds in the oven first before piping the batter, so that the centers puff up nicely. We bake ours to order for our guests. They take just four minutes and when you take a bite, the madeleine gives off a tiny puff of steam, its last little breath.”
One of Ansel’s favorite pastries, the canelé is distinguished by both its unique shape and texture. A bite into the crispy, caramelized exterior reveals a flan-like center that’s flavored with vanilla. The recipe originated in Bordeaux and calls for a special copper mold that’s seasoned with beeswax to help create a canelé’s signature golden-brown color.
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The traditional fluted molds for making these sweet treats are works of art in their own right.
When it comes to the baking, technique is important. “It’s a one-batter recipe, with just a few ingredients—ours has a bit of dark Caribbean rum and Tahitian vanilla for added depth in flavor—but you have to remember to mix the batter slowly so the air bubbles remain tiny, and let the batter rest for about 24 hours so that the gluten can relax. And while they’re in the oven, make sure to rotate the sheet pan every 15 minutes for uniformity and even baking. ”
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Photographs courtesy of Patty Lee.