"Picking out the 10 best French pastries is not as much fun as it sounds," said no one ever.
Here, then, is my super-fun list of the most incredible things you can buy at pâtisseries (purveyors of fancy cakes and cream-filled treats) and boulangeries (bread specialists).
Whether you go classic or creative, something very buttery and flaky awaits.
The croissant is just about the Frenchiest thing out there. But (fact check!) the concept was actually born in Austria, under the name "kipferl." The recipe was adapted and adopted by the French, where it arguably came into its own.
Made by incorporating an insane amount of butter into a dough while folding and refolding it, croissants have a heavenly, airy texture and buttery, rich flavor. The exterior crackles when you bite into it, giving way to a soft interior.
Making croissants at home is totally do-able. #goals
An éclair is a long, thin cylinder of choux pastry (a light dough) filled with pastry cream and topped with icing. Or, as the Chambers Dictionary says, “a cake, long in shape but short in duration.”
While the classic version combines chocolate icing with vanilla cream filling, creative bakers play around with flavors like black currant, caramel or coffee.
3. Kouign Amann
You don't need to pronounce the name right (say "queen ahmahn") to appreciate these delectable pastries from the Brittany (or Breton) region of France.
This pastry is made with a croissant-like dough that's folded and refolded into rounds. Baking slowly, at a low temperature, the dough puffs to form many layers, and the sugar caramelizes into a crispy crust that crackles delightfully between your teeth. As for the name? In the unique Celtic-sounding dialect of Brittany, it translates as "butter cake."
4. Opera Cake
This elegant gâteau is composed of thin layers of cake that are soaked in a coffee syrup and then layered with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache . It's assembled as a large square or rectangle and then sliced into bar-shaped slices to serve. We'll sing for that!
A macaron is simply a meringue-like cookie made with ground nuts. However, as the legend goes, some brilliant person at Ladurée in Paris had the idea to sandwich two of them together with rich cream or ganache, and a classic was born. In France, macarons are viewed as an artistic canvas as well as a cookie, with creative bakers producing these jewel-like confections in flavors as exotic as strawberry-balsamic, black sesame and even ketchup (which has to be tastier than it sounds, right?).
You may know this pastry as a Napoleon, but the French call it a mille-feuille (pronounced "meel-fway"). This translates as "thousand leaves," referring to the thin and slightly crackly layers of pastry that are sandwiched with rich pastry cream and topped with (usually) marbled black-and-white icing. Fortunate people eat variations on this cake in Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy and Australia.
Think of the religieuse as a sort of tricked-out, pinkies-out cream puff. It's generally made up of two tiers of choux pastry — graduated in size, filled with pastry cream and covered with and held together by icing. The combo of chocolate icing and piped vanilla cream looks a bit like a nun's habit, thus the name.
Imagine a ring of choux pastry split in the middle and sandwiched with rich cream. Happy now? This creation's name was inspired by a bicycle race between the French cities of Paris and Brest. Why? Because the shape looks a bicycle wheel, of course. There definitely couldn't be a tastier way to carbo-load before a race.
9. St. Honoré
St. Honoré, or Gâteau St. Honoré, starts out with a circle of puff pastry, on top of which is piped a ring of pâte à choux (choux pastry dough). The well in the middle is filled with crème chiboust, then topped with a series of small cream puffs dipped in caramelized sugar. Then the whole shebang gets finished with elaborately piped whipped cream. Fancy! It was created in honor of the French patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs, Saint Honoré, and is every bit as over-the-top as it sounds
10. Tarte Tatin
This is the OG upside-down cake. It's an apple tart that's baked, pastry-side up, and then flipped before serving, so the gooey butter and sugar drip onto the fruit. There are a number of true (or not) stories about its invention, the most famous of which involves an accidental flip from a flustered baker who just served the tart anyway. Result: instant classic.