No other nation’s history has been so shaped by dessert than that of France. Marie Antoinette may never have said, ‘Let them eat cake,’ but this revolutionary mis-attribution has stuck to the pages of history like the spilled contents of a jam donut, becoming a byword for inequality and the cruel flippancy of elites. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to imagine how even the most level-headed politician’s judgement could be knocked sideways by the intoxicating amounts of butter and sugar in these signature French desserts.
Of all the treats on this list, the madeleine is undoubtedly the most memorable. Small, shell-shaped and light when baked correctly, these cakes can be found piled in patisserie windows across the city. However, consensus has emerged in recent years that the fluffiest of the fluffiest are to be found at Fabrice Le Bourdat’s Blé Sucré.
In the United States, accidents in the kitchen resulted in such culinary masterpieces as potato chips, corn flakes and chocolate chip cookies. In France, as legend has it, some mistimed caramelization by hotel-owning sisters Stéphanie and Caroline gave us the delectable tarte Tatin. Traditionally the posh cousin of the humble apple pie, the dessert is now commonly prepared with a variety of fruits including pears, prunes and quinces. Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis, the famous ice cream parlor, serves one of the best in town.
A true staple, the mille-feuille is as simple in its tastiness as it is mind-boggling complex to eat without getting it all over yourself. If anyone out there has devised a method of consumption whereby the cream doesn’t shoot out from between the three layers of pastry at the first bite, please make this known to the wider, stickier public. You can’t really go wrong with this one but for something extra special try the mille-feuille devised by Philippe Conticini at La Pâtisserie des Rêves.
The French, the English and the Catalans all claim creative rights to the crème brûlée recipe, but, given crème brûlée’s inclusion on practically every menu in the country, the French case seems pretty strong. For a traditional, sure-fire pudding experience, try Le Potager du Père Thierry in Montmartre.
The macaron and the concept of romantic love have a fair amount in common; both have their roots in the Middle Ages, became hugely popular through 19th-century creativity and industriousness, and today, at what many consider to be the peak of our civilization, they are the extensively filtered subjects of billions of photos on various social media apps. In Paris, you can indulge your love of the macaron at the world-famous Ladurée patisseries.
As old-school French as chocolates come, a mendiant’s four classic toppings of raisins, hazelnuts, figs and almonds represent the Dominican, Augustinian, Franciscan and Carmelite monastic orders respectively. Nowadays, possibly reflecting a more secular France, ingredients include seeds, dried fruits and peels. À la mère de famille is the oldest chocolatier in Paris and produces some of its finest mendiants.
The crème caramel is the soft-brained relative of the crème brûlée, so to speak, in that it swaps the hard, torched top of the latter for an extra layer of smooth, sugary goodness. The crème caramels at Le Grand Colbert come highly praised.
A specialty of the Bordeaux region, the canelé has a soft custard interior, a hard caramel exterior and is flavored with vanilla and rum. Despite the alcoholic flavoring, the canelé is eaten with breakfast, lunch and dinner and goes perfectly with either a cup of tea or a glass of wine. The best place to taste it in Paris is at Lemoine in the 7th arrondissement.
As we’ve all surely experienced, translation can butcher the meaning of a word or phrase. Though the transformation from ‘mousse au chocolat’ to ‘chocolate mousse’ seems like an unproblematic one, something about the English version just isn’t right. It puts you in mind of plastic pots and foil lids and this couldn’t be further from the light luxuriousness of the French dessert. Try Chez René’s to see the difference for yourself.
Though technically a Middle Eastern and Spanish delicacy, nougat has a lot of history here in France. Nougat de Montélimar is a distinctly French variety of the dessert which comes from Provence. Le Petit Duc describes itself as a ‘manufacturer of delicacies, discoverer of treasures’ and is the perfect place to sample some nougat for yourself.