Five French Desserts You Must Try
It is the rare visitor to France who does not come back with some amazing stories about the food they’ve eaten. It might be a visit, probably expensive, to a stunning restaurant in Paris or Lyon. It might a heavenly baguette with some local cheese and wine in Provence while sitting by a river or a home cooked meal while staying at a Logi de France somewhere near an autoroute.
Choosing Five French Dessert Classics
I’ve been very fortunate and done all three but what did I enjoy the most ? OK I’ll admit I have a sweet tooth and just love french desserts and patisserie. The French make them like no other country. I put on the pounds every time I visit but it’s worth it ! So how can I pick just five to recommend ? It’s been a challenge but I wanted desserts that you can always get if you visit France. You can also make them at home and don’t need the skills of a licensed maître pâtissier (master pastry chef). I can’t claim they’ll help on a diet and I’m sure I’ll return from my next trip with another selection.
So here’s my pick of five French desserts you really must try.
French patisserie is only one of the many delights that French cuisine has to offer those with a sweet tooth
French desserts can be as fancy as a mille-feuille or as simple as the popular macaron
The cherry clafoutis, sometimes just called a clafouti, is a popular dessert made from a layer of fruit, topped with a batter and then baked. Usually served warm but not too hot with slight sprinkling of sugar and perhaps a little cream.
The dish is a speciality of the Limousin region in the south of France and it’s name derives from the Occitan language of the region and the word clafotis which means to fill. The dish can be made with other fruits although that dish would more properly be called a flaughnarde.
The original dish calls for the more sour morello cherry which is not pitted before cooking. The cooking process is said to release additional flavors from the pits which intensify the taste of the cherries. If you want to remain true to the original recipes do not use the sweeter modern cherry but don’t forget to advise caution to those eating the dish!
The batter should be simple – eggs, flour, sugar and milk with a little vanilla essence. There are a lot of variations on this theme. Some have a little more flour and add almond essence making it more cake like. Other replace milk with cream to make it more like a rich custard
This is a version of a classic Julia Child recipe.
- 1¼ cups of whole milk
- 2⁄3 cup granulated sugar
- 3 Eggs
- 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1⁄8 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup flour
- 3 cups of cherries
- Powdered sugar for decoration
Set your oven to 350F/180C then grease a medium-size flameproof baking dish which is at least 1 1⁄2 inches deep. Cast iron baking dishes are perfect. Add the milk, 1⁄3 cup granulated sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt and flour in a blender. Blend until smooth and frothy. Pour a 1⁄4 inch layer of batter in the baking dish. Turn on a stove burner to low and set dish on top for a minute or two, until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish which will act as a base for the cherries.
Spread the berries gently in the dish and sprinkle on the remaining 1⁄3 cup of sugar. Pour over the rest of the batter and smooth with the back of a spoon to make sure the cherries are evenly distributed. Place in the center of the oven and bake for about 50 minute until top is puffed and browned. A tester plunged into it’s center should come out clean.
Add a dusting of powdered sugar just prior to serving. Clafoutis isn’t usually served hot, but should still be warm and if you’re feeling healthy add a dab of cream but that’s optional.
A classic cherry clafoutis from the Limousin region of France
Tarte Tatin is a distinctive upside down pastry dish. Fruit, usually apple, is caramelized in sugar which is then baked with a pastry layer on the top. Prior to serving the dish is inverted so with pastry top is now the base and the fruit and caramalised sugar is on top. Generally served warm with a dollop of cream.
The tarte Tatin is said to have been created at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, France in the 1880s. The hotel was run by two sisters Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin but there’s a question mark over how this became a signature dish of the hotel. One version is that someone overcooked the apples and the addition of pastry was an attempt to rescue the dish. Flipped over the hotel guests liked the dessert so they carried on making it. That said the concept of an upside tart was not that new and gâteaux renvérses predate the tarte Tatin. There are also the tarte solognote of the region – tarts we would know now as fruit cobblers.
The Tatin sisters never actually published a recipe or even called it tarte Tatin, a french author Curnonsky called it that after the sister’s death. There is also the suggestion that the owner of the famous Parisian restaurant Maxim’s got the recipe from then when he worked there and subsequently made it famous. He may have made it famous but he was only five years old when the the sisters died so it’s unlikely he first gave it the name.
The original is made with apples and not just any apples. Original varieties might have included Reine des Reinettes or Calville but modern and more widely available varieties such as Gala, Golden Delicious and Granny Smiths are now more likely. The apple must have a good flavor of course but ideally not release large amounts of water which can make the tarte Tatin rather damp.
Other common variations include other fruits such as pears, peaches and even pineapple. Those looking for something a little more savory can mix it up a bit with onion, tomato, goats cheese and just about any variation that takes your fancy. Personally I’ve seen a version with caramelised onions and goats cheese. Not sure if it counts as a tarte Tatin but I’ll definitely be trying it out.
This is a version of a classic Paul Bocuse recipe
- Shortcrust or puff pastry – Paul Bocuse would make his own but life is too short to make puff pastry by hand and shop bought pastry is usually rather good and has a welcome consistent quality and cookability.
- 200g sugar
- 100g butter
- One vanilla pod
- 1.2 Kg (21⁄2lbs) of golden russet apples
Heat the sugar over a high heat in a saucepan until it turns a golden color and starts to foam. Add the butter and mix until it melts with wooden spoon. Should take 3-4 minutes all told. Pour the caramel into an 8″ metal baking dish, split the vanilla pod into two and place in pan forming a letter “V”. Having set your oven to 325F (160C) peel and core the apples.
Cut the apples vertically and try to get an equal thicknesses so they cook evenly. Arrange them in circle in the the baking dish and ensure even coverage and thickness filling any gaps. Some people use larger slices but if you want more of your apple to go brown then cut them into thinner slices.
Place the dish on a lower rack in the oven and cook for about an hour, ensuring they are all evenly cooked. Allow to rest and then chill for an hour. Next up – cook the pastry. Roll out your pastry on a sheet of parchment/greaseproof paper and using another dish of the same size as a template, trim the pastry to the right size and shape. Leave the paper slightly larger – one inch margin all round will be perfect.
Prick the surface of the pastry disc. Slide the paper and pastry onto a baking tray and cook the pastry in a preheated oven at 400F (200C) for about 10 minutes. it will still be slightly soft but will harden as it cools.
The final step requires some confidence and dexterity. The pastry disc is placed on top of the caramelised apples in the baking dish and the dish rotated to ensure the apples are not stuck to the pan. A plate is then placed over the top of the pan and whole dish inverted.
A culinary accident with a rich history which has become popular the world over – Tarte Tatin
Crème Brûlée also known as a Trinity Cream is a dessert consisting of a rich custard base topped with a contrasting layer of crisp caramel. It normally served at room temperature in an individual dish, a ramekin. For some reason we don’t usually eat a bowl of custard but give it a French name and crispy top and we can’t get enough of it !
There are many stories about the origin of this dish. There is a reference to crème brûlée in a 1691 French cookbook Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeoise but it was later referred to as crème a l’Angloise – English cream. The dish then seems to have disappeared from French cookbooks until the 1980s when it made a comeback.
There is a suggestion that the dish actually originated in England in the 1860s. At Trinity College, Cambridge a very similar dish was known as a Trinity Cream. Many foodie historians think that the dish appears to have been around in one form or another for probably two hundred years.
There is also the Catalan crema catalana which is another custard dish topped with a caramelised sugar layer. Whatever the original source of the recipe the crème brûlée after a period of relative anonymity has become dessert popular the world over.
Chefs now have various ways of cooking a crème brûlée but at it’s heart it’s a very simple dish. A custard flavored with vanilla and topped with a caramelised sugar layer. Variations include the crema catalana which can be flavored with vanilla, orange peel and cinnamon. The variation in recipes essentially changes the taste and texture of the custard. Some prefer to make the custard using the traditional method of slowly thickening the custard on the stove top. Other prefer to mix the ingredients and then bake the custard. In terms of ingredients – opinions vary on how many eggs to use or the choice of milk or cream all of which affect the final texture of the custard. Looks like some experimentation and taste trials are called for.
This is a classic version of the recipe (there are lots of variants)
- Six egg yolks
- 1 pint of double cream
- Granulated sugar to sweeten the sugar to taste
- Castor sugar / Bakers Sugar to sprinkle on custard
Whisk the six egg yolks in a bowl. Bring the pint of double cream to the boil and leave it boiling for about 30 seconds. Quickly whisk the hot cream into the bowl of eggs and return the mixture to the pan. Cook the combined mixture on a low heat until it thicken enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. You then have the option to sweeten the mixture to taste, some also add a little vanilla essence or orange flower water to give the custard a little more taste. Just don’t cook too long or on too high a heat. You don’t want to scramble the eggs !
Once it’s thickened enough pour it into a shallow serving dish and let it chill in the fridge. If you can leave it overnight to set completely so much the better. The final stage is burning the cream so scatter a thin layer of castor sugar, or any fine sugar you can get and put it under a hot grill to melt or use a small cook’s blow torch. Once the sugar has melted put it back in the fridge to harden.
A French dessert know the world over but perhaps not as French as you might think – Crème Brûlée
“If you are afraid of butter – use cream”
Crêpes Suzette is a French dessert of crêpes served with beurre Suzette which is a sauce of caramelized sugar and butter mixed with orange juice juice and zest. For added effect the dish is served with Grand Marnier or orange Curacao liqueur and set on fire at your table. The restaurant term is flambé.
A crêpe is a type of pancake made with flour, eggs, milk, butter and salt. Crêpes sucrées (sweet crêpes) are made with wheat flour and slightly sweetened. Galettes are a savory version made with buckwheat flour and unsweetened. Both types of crepes are popular through France, Belgium and Canada and many other countries worldwide.
As ever the origin there is more than one version of how this dessert came about. One version concerns a young waiter who was serving the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII of the United Kingdom. He set accidentally set fire to the liqueur on some crêpes that he was serving. He tasted it, thought it tasted much better and served it to the Prince who thought it so good he asked what it was called. The waiter called it the Prince’s Crêpe but the Prince demurred and suggested it be known as Crêpes Suzette in honor of a guest dining with him.
There is also the suggestion that it was named after an actress of the same name. One of her roles required her to serve pancakes on stage. Flambéing them kept the audience’s attention and kept them warm for the actors to eat !
This is a version of Julia Child’s recipe for a sweet crêpe
- 1⁄2 cup milk
- 1⁄2 cup water
- 2 eggs
- 3⁄4 cup all purpose flour
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons of melted butter
The quickest way to make this is in a blender. Just add all the ingredients and mix until you have a smooth mix. You might need to scrape the sides a couple of time but the goal is a smooth even batter. If you end up with a few lumps you can sieve the mix to remove them.
If you can hold out, it’s worth covering the mix and putting it in the fridge for a couple of hours. The flour grains will expand and you’ll get a lighter crêpe. To cook the crepe – cook one at a time over a moderate heat with a knob of butter.
The next step is making the beurre Suzette. Blend 6 tablespoons of butter with 1/4 cup of sugar and a tablespoon of orange zest. Once they’re blended add a 1/3 cup of fresh orange juice.
Next step involves a bit of theater. Melt your beurre Suzette in a skillet. Add your first crêpe, dip both sides and then fold and push to one side of the pan. Repeat with the other crêpes or until you run out of space in pan. Remove from heat – add about 5 tablespoon each of Cointreau and Cognac and carefully light with a long match. Spoon over the liquid as a the flame fades. Serve immediately.
Crêpes Suzette combine delicious food with entertainment
The Mille-Feuille (thousand leaf) also known as a Napoléon is a pastry consisting of three layers of puff pastry alternating with crème pâtissière. Alternative fillings include whipped cream, jams and in the UK a thick firm layer of custard. The top layer is usually dusted with fine sugar or cocoa and sometimes with a layer of fondant icing.
Mentions of this type of pastry go back to the 16th century although the term Mille-Feuille doesn’t seem to occur until mentioned by a French chef in an English language cookbook in the 1700s.
The traditional Mille-Feuille is three layers of puff pastry sandwiching crème pâtissière. The top layer of pastry either being dusted with sugar or glazed with fondant icing and alternating lines of chocolate. Variation on this theme add fruits with strawberries and raspberries being very popular. In the UK a thick custard filling between two layers of pastry is a custard slice. Another option is the Napoléon version which strictly speaking has a frangipane style almond paste and is by origin said to be an Italian dessert as the name is supposed to be a variant of Napolitain (of Naples)
This is a classic French version made with patisserie cream and puff pastry
- 1lb of puff pastry
- 2 cups of whole milk
- 1⁄2 vanilla pod
- 4 large egg yokes
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 1⁄2 cup sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1⁄4 cup of cornstarch
Yes you could make your own puff pastry but shop bought is really good and somewhat easier. Roll out the pastry to about the normal thickness of shop bought sheets (or simply use sheets!) It really depends if you are going for individual Mille Feuille or one larger one. Place the pastry on a parchment / greaseproof paper sheet. Prick the pastry with a fork. Put another couple of baking sheets on top as you don’t want the pastry to rise too much. Bake until a golden colour (about 20-25 mins at 425F).
To make the pastry cream first mix the milk, half the sugar, vanilla pod and salt in saucepan and cook on a medium heat until it simmers. In another bowl mix the rest of the sugar with the egg yolks and cornstarch. Then add the hot milk mix gradually to the bowl whisking steadily. Once you have it all blended add back to saucepan and cook over a medium-high heat until it thickens. Remove the vanilla pod.
While it’s still hot pour into a mixer and add the butter and blend that in while it melts. Let it cool in the fridge.
Trim the pastry to the required size (individual or one large one) and make sure you have three sheets ready. The classic Mille Feuille is three layers of pastry sandwiching piped pastry cream. The top layer is often iced with fondant icing and alternating stripes of melted chocolate, other simple decorate with fine dusting sugar.
A Mille Feuille is a great introduction to the art of French pâtissières and something you can make at home
Inspired by France is a small family run business/blog . We have lived and worked in France at various times in our life and hope to spend a lot more time there in the future.
We love all things French ranging from film, music and literature to the simple pleasures of French cooking and the odd glass of wine. We want to share our love of France with other France fanatics !