Closely following my love of baguettes is my love of French pastries. From the very simple to the extravagant, it’s a taste experience rarely replicated outside the country. Perfect for a quick breakfast, inexpensive, and of seemingly endless variety, there’s a lot to love about this culinary tradition. Here is a guide to my favorite French pastries: what they are, what to look for, and where to find them.
Along with berets and the Eiffel Tower, the croissant is synonymous with France. While many have heard of the famous pastry, fewer have had the best of the real thing. In the U.S., a majority of the croissants I’ve tried tended to be bread-like in texture, and lack the buttery, flaky layers that practically make the pastry melt away in your mouth.
Croissants, executed as intended, are a taste experience worth traveling for. With roots dating all the way back to the Renaissance, this yeast-leavened pastry is made especially delicious thanks to the addition of ungodly amounts of butter.
When in any standard French bakery (boulangerie), you will often see two types of croissants: croissants ordinaire, and croissants au beurre. The latter will be slightly more expensive, since it’s made with butter, instead of the cheaper alternative, margarine. I recommend you always stick to the real thing. The best specimens are golden brown in color, puffed, and noticeably smaller than their American counterparts.
Full disclosure, I didn’t try my first palmier until winter 2016, even though I’d been visiting France since 2007. In retrospect, it was a huge mistake, since they are absolutely delicious! While popular in various forms throughout Europe, this palm leaf-shaped pastry is also known as cœur de France (heart of France).
Also reliant on copious amounts of butter, what sets palmiers apart from other French pastries is their thin, flat shape. The draw here is lightness and crunch. For that reason, I see palmiers as more of an afternoon snack, than a breakfast item.
My first palmier was from Boulangerie Yannick Martin on rue Saint-Honoré in Paris’ first arrondissement (district). This organic bakery is my go-to in the area, and offers a wide selection of pastries, breads, and ready-made sandwiches. The best-executed palmiers are golden brown in color, since it’s easy for the sugar coating to burn, and crunchy. A gummy texture is an indication that what you purchased isn’t fresh.
Chaussons aux Pommes
France’s take on the apple turnover, a chausson aux pommes is my go-to breakfast when I’m in the country. Like croissants, the pastry is flaky and buttery, and filled with what I can equate to the best applesauce you’ve ever had. It’s perfectly sweet and filling. I’m not even much of a breakfast person, but this pastry is something I always look forward to having first thing in the morning.
Chaussons aux pommes first originated in the mid-1600s as a celebratory food, and can now be found in bakeries across the country. It’s also not something I’ve found to be very common in the U.S.
An ideal chausson aux pommes is golden, shiny (thanks to a sweet glaze), and puffed on the side opposite the seam. A flat pastry is a dense pastry, and is an indication that it’s either not fresh, or executed improperly. Another tip, keep the paper bag and napkin given to you upon purchasing. Eating a filled pastry can always get a little messy.
Another classic French pastry that took me much to long to try, éclairs easily overtook any loyalty I had to American-style filled donuts. These oblong pastries are typically filled with chocolate, vanilla or coffee-flavored custard and topped with icing.
However, the recent trend is customization, so it’s easy to find éclairs that stray far from the traditional flavor profiles. In everyday bakeries, I’ve come across flavors such as hazelnut and pistachio. From experience, I can say that both are very delicious.
Perhaps the driving force behind the hike in éclair creativity is L’Éclair de Génie, a high-end épicerie (gourmet boutique). Headquartered in the heart of Paris’ second arrondissement, the éclairs look less like pastries and more like works of edible art. While generally more expensive than average, the high quality ingredients and gorgeous execution makes the price more than worth it. My favorites include the °117 Grand cru du mois flavored with dark chocolate, and the °177 Caramel buerre salé flavored with salted caramel and dusted with gold powder. My tip, be sure to take a few pictures before devouring.
Translating to “snail” in English, it’s easy to see that this pastry was named with some humor in mind. The escargot’s most common rendition is known as a pain aux raisons, with custard and raisins baked into the crevasses of its signature spiral.
The dough is usually identical to those of croissants, and thus, has the same buttery, flaky texture. Also like croissants, escargots are typically eaten for breakfast, and can be found in just about any bakery.
My absolute favorite version of this pastry can be found at Du Pain et des Idées, a bakery situated in a century-old building in Paris’ 10th arrondissement. Since 2002, owner Christophe Vasseur’s been committed to preserving the traditions of French pastry and bread-making. His escargot is swirled with a pistachio custard and studded with chocolate chips. It’s extraordinary.