By Taryn Moore
French pastries are a unique and special category of dessert most everyone in the world is familiar with. From croissants to brioche and macarons to madeleines, these desserts have become a staple of both French cuisine and culture over the course of time. Uncovering the origins of each of these pastries has been difficult, as there are many myths and tales told about them, with truths hidden among each one.
The history of French pastries began in the Middle Ages, when France was being ruled by King Henry II and Queen Catherine de Medici. Catherine was from Florence, Italy, and she was why the first macaron cookie was introduced to France. Henry and Catherine are also credited with the first forms of ice cream being introduced as a dessert. Around the same time as the introduction of macarons, the distinction between a cook and a pastry chef was first made. However, macarons weren’t sold in many pâtisseries (specialized pastry/dessert shops) until the late 18th century. The introduction of pastries may be attributed to other members of French royalty as well, such as Marie Antoinette’s petits fours, which are small, bite-sized cakes and pastries.
The first pâte à choux was also invented in the Middle Ages by a baker named Popeleni. Pâte à choux is a light pastry dough used as the foundation for many of the traditional French pastries we know today, including croissants, chocolatines, profiteroles, éclairs, and more. This type of dough is special, as it has only 4 ingredients, and uses steam from a high moisture content at high temperatures instead of a raising agent to make the dough rise. The first puff pastry dessert was introduced to French bakeries in the 1600’s. Over the next 3 centuries, more new types of pastries began making appearances in different regions of France, with the most well-known pastries of today predominantly coming to fruition in the early 1900’s.
Some of the most popular pastries of today include tarte tatins, Paris-Brests, religieuses, éclairs, mille-feuille, macarons, Saint-Honoré, opéras, tarte citron-meringuées, and frasiers. Tarte tatins and tarte citron-meringuées are both fruit tarts, although they are made using slightly different methods. Tarte tatins are made with a caramelized apple body and baked upside-down, whereas tarte citron-meringuée is made with lemon custard and whipped meringue, baked similarly to a traditional pie. Paris-Brests, religieuses, éclairs, and Saint-Honorés are all made from choux pastry with different shapes, toppings and fillings. Opéras are a sponge cake with almonds, ganache, coffee butter cream and chocolate sauce; frasiers are a layered pastry cake with strawberries. Mille feuille, also known as a Napolean cake in English, is made by layering thin puff pastry layers on top of each other with a layer of pastry cream in between each, and then is topped with powdered cream.
Such artistic and delicious pastries merit their legendary reputation, while they last! Vivent les pâtisseries!
June 17, 2019. Jouy-en-Josas, France.
Photograph by Taryn Moore. June 19, 2019. Paris, France.
Photograph by Taryn Moore. June 13, 2019. Amboise, France.