It's no secret that the French take their desserts very seriously. Their classic pastries are often elaborate concoctions of meringue, pastry cream, mousse, pâte à choux , puff pastry, whipped cream, jam, ganache and more, more, more!
The French cakes here will introduce you to this fabulously over-the-top world and possibly make you very hungry.
1. Baba Au Rhum
Baba au Rhum (aka Rum Baba) are tiny, yeast-leavened cakes that are typically baked in small, cylindrical molds or in larger Bundt pans, then soaked in rum. For more decadence (because why not?), pastry chefs may add whipped cream or pastry cream.
2. Bûche de Noël
This holiday classic is known less exotically as a Yule log here in the State. The traditional recipe consists of thin chocolate cake rolled with buttercream or whipped cream filling, and finished with chocolate buttercream. Pastry chefs who are really dedicated to the tree-log idea will sculpt the buttercream to look like tree bark and top it with marzipan leaves or meringue mushrooms.
Like many other kinds of French cakes, a Charlotte is less a strict recipe and more a technique. You make it by lining a springform pan with cookies, cake or even bread and then filling it with whipped cream, fruit purée, jams, pastry cream or fresh fruit.
This tower of cream puffs is the traditional wedding cake of France. It's an almost ridiculously opulent dessert fit for Marie Antoinette, composed of cream puffs dipped in caramel and wrapped with spun sugar. Modern versions include candy, ganache, chocolate drips, sugar flowers and more.
Dacquoise is a layer of meringue that typically contains finely ground nuts. Pâtissiers (pastry makers) stack and fill dacquoise desserts with cream and berries for a rustic effect or use dacquoise in intricate cakes.
Fraisier cakes get their name from fraise — the French word for strawberry. They're constructed with layers of genoise cake, crème mousseline and a row of sliced strawberries around the bottom edge. Toppings include whipped cream, jam, fruit purée, ganache or, yes, more strawberries.
7. Gâteau Basque
Credit for Gâteau Basque goes to both France and the Basque region in Spain. A classic version consists of a firm cake dough filled with pastry cream. More innovative fillings might also include jam, fresh fruit or even chocolate.
This layered French cake is made up of a ring of pâte à choux dough filled with hazelnut praline cream that's topped with toasted, sliced almonds. The wheel-shaped pastry was named in celebration of the Paris-Brest bicycle race.
9. Petit Fours
These itsy-bitsy cakes practically demand a tea party. Traditional petit fours are 1-inch cubes, but you can also find hearts, domes, circles, triangles and more. Whatever the shape, the dessert involves layers of pound cake, buttercream and jam all coated in sweet icing.
10. Quatre Quarts
Quartre quarts ("four fourths") is the French version of pound cake. It's a rich, buttery loaf sliced and served simply with tea or coffee. In terms of flavor, it's infinitely adaptable — but marbling chocolate and vanilla is always a good idea.
11. Gâteau St. Honoré
Named after the French patron saint of pastry chefs, this is a ring of caramel-coated cream puffs arranged on top of a puff pastry disc. The center of the ring is often filled with pastry cream and whipped cream, and sometimes finished with a little cloud of spun sugar.
Clafoutis is a rustic, baked custard that's traditionally made with cherries (though you can use any fruit). It's one of the easier French cakes to make and a great way to showcase just-ripe summer fruits. You may be relieved at this point to hear that clafoutis are free of fancy decoration, requiring only a simple dusting of powdered sugar or a dollop of fresh whipped cream.
Financiers are kind of like a cake cookie. Made with almond flour, a luxurious amount of brown butter and sometimes fresh fruit, they're a tea-time classic.
Mille-feuille ("thousand sheets") can also be called a Napoleon if you'd rather not try to pronounce the name (meel-foy), but it's a very a specific version of the layered dessert consisting of puff pastry and pastry cream. Innovators might use fresh fruit, fruit purées, ganache, mousses or buttercream and jam.
15. Opera Cake
Coffee meets chocolate in (yet another) layered French classic. Most versions include coffee-soaked almond sponge cake, coffee buttercream and ganache , topped with a chocolate glaze or a dusting of cocoa powder.