French pastries and cakes: a complete illustrated guide

Anyone who’s travelled to France has surely walked into a French boulangerie or patisserie, only to find a colourful, spectacular (and sometimes overwhelming) array of delicious cakes, pastries and desserts in the vitrine.

sketch of a french boulangerie
A French boulangerie/patisserie

The French have their baking down to an art. Many recipes are traditional and 100% French, and the formula isn’t often experimented with. So, you can expect to find the classics, no matter where you are.

But for first-timers, it can be difficult to know what’s what. Which one is the religieuse, and which is the mille-feuille? Which one has custard inside, and which is best with coffee? A language barrier can make choosing even harder.

illustrations of lots of delicious french cakes and pastries
Some of the most popular cakes and pastries of France

Here’s my illustrated guide to what’s what in a French boulangerie/patisserie.

The viennoiseries

Crispy, flaky, buttery – the viennoiseries are made from a yeast-leavened dough, giving a fluffy, sweet dessert. Viennoiseries often have a glazed finish, provide penty of crumbs, and are perfect with coffee.

Croissant

Arguably France’s most famous pastry is the humble croissant, which is originally from Austria. Translated approximately to ‘crescent’, the croissant is a highly buttery breakfast favourite. After baking, the layered dough puffs up to give an airy, flaky pastry.

To eat one like a local, skip the spreads and dunk it in your coffee instead.

Pain au chocolat

The pain au chocolate is a form of croissant made with the same batter, but not folded and layered as much. Typically folded into a square shape, the pain au chocolat has one or two sticks of chocolate running through the centre.

There are a few names for the pain au chocolat; in south-west France and Canada you’ll be ordering a chocolatine, or a chocolate croissant in the anglophone world.

Kouign amann

From the shores of Brittany, this pastry has a name that means ‘butter cake’ in Breton language. This extra fatty cousin to the croissant is made of a 40/30/30 ratio of dough/butter/sugar. The cake puffs up during baking, and the sugar caramelises. This is not for the health conscious!

Pain aux raisins

AKA the escargot, the pain aux raisins is a leavened butter pastry with raisins mixed in, and formed into a spiral. For an added kick, it has a crème pâtissière (custard) filling.

Palmier

Named after palm trees, the palmier was developed at the beginning of the 20th century using a similar filo-layering technique as with middle eastern pastries. Also known as an elephant ear or French heart.

A puff pastry baked without yeast, the palmier is coated in sugar becore baking, to give it a caramelised crispy crunch.

Chausson aux pommes

Puff pastry, surrounding an apple-packed filling of butter, cinnamon and brown sugar – the chausson aux pommes is France’s apple turnover. The apocryphal tale goes that the town of Saint Calais in the Sarthe region was suffering from an epidemic of plague in 1580.

With food supplies low, the chatelaine (the lady of the castle), thus distributed rations of apple and flour to the peasants to help them survive. The Chausson aux pommes was born!

Sketch of a chausson aux pommes pastry
Chausson aux pommes

Choux pastry (pâte à choux)

Choux pastry is a pastry made with butter, water, flour and eggs. When baked, the choux rises through steaming, and, when filled with cream, make for a light and airy dessert.

Éclair au chocolat

A classic of the choux pastry world, the batter is very light. The éclair is filled with crème pâtissière, and glazed with chocolate. It is a soft, delicious treat. Caramel and coffee flavours are also common, but almost any flavour is possible from specialty éclair shops.

Religieuse

Let’s get our hands dirty! The tricky-to-eat religieuse is a smaller profiterole balanced on top of a larger one, filled with crème pâtissière, topped with a ganache (usually chocolate), and decorated with a column of cream. This traditional cake is supposed to resemble an obese nun (if you squint).

Chouquettes

These cheap little choux pastry balls are usually a temptation on top of the boulangerie counter, next to the register. There’s no filling, but they’re sprinkled with crispy rocks of sugar. Eating one is not possible – best buy a bag full!

St Honoré

There is a patron saint of pastry chefs named St. Honoré (this is France, of course), and their namesake is this elaborate, cake-sized choux-based dessert. A round base of puff pastry and an upper layer of choux pastry is decorated with an outer circle of choux profiteroles.

They’re glazed with crunchy caramel, and on the inside, it’s crème chiboust (a light cream with beaten egg whites), or crème chantilly (a rich whipped cream).

Paris-Brest

Created to commemorate the 1891 Paris-Brest bicycle race, this wheel-shaped delight comes in small or large variants. A ring of soft choux pastry is cut horizontally and filled with sweet praline-flavoured cream, brushed with egg and baked with a layer of almonds on top, and dusted with sugar. Perfection!

Les gâteaux

The real reason you walked up and pressed your nose against the glass was probably for the cakes! Brightly coloured fruits, shining chocolate ganache or perfectly piped cream – French cakes have it all!

Opera

Coffee and chocolate unite! The Opera is a cake layered with almond sponge soaked with coffee flavoured syrup, chocolate ganache, and coffee buttercream. On top is a layer of rich chocolate glaze.

The origins of the Opera are not clear, but are thought to have originated in a patisserie in Paris in 1955, named after the Palais Garnier opera building.

Mille-feuille

You can see where it gets its name – thousand sheets/leaves – in the many paper-thin layers of the pâte feuilletée (puff pastry). Three layers of the pâte sandwich two layers of crème pâtissière. A fondant layer with a marbled or spiderweb chocolate design completes this decadent, textured treat.

Canelé

Originating from Bordeaux, the canelé are small, caramelised cylinders of vanilla and rum, with a soft custard centre.

Canelés are great when served warm, and pair well with red wine.

Madeleine

Madeleine are-small sponge cakes, flavoured with almond and with distinctive shell molds. They’re popular, and incredibly addictive! Sometimes lemon is added as well.

Financier

Financiers are small, rectangular cakes with a slightly crispy outside, fluffy inside, and flavoured with beurre noisette. The difference between a madeleine and a financier (besides the shape) is probably the butter content – the financier has about three times the butter, and also browns more during cooking.

Jésuite

The jésuite is a flaky triangle of pastry, baked until crispy on the outside. The inside is filled with frangipane cream, and the top is covered in almond slices and dusted sugar. The shape is supposed to resemble the triangular jesuite hat.

Parisien Flan

The flan originated in ancient Rome, and now, many countries now have their own version of this classic dish.

Eggs, milk, sugar and caramel are usually combined for a basic flan. The French flan is a custard tart without any added fruits or chocolate; sweet, smooth, and creamy, with a caramelised top.

Meringue

Macarons

Macarons need little introduction – but for the uninitiated, a macaron has two small meringue halves (made of whipped egg white, sugar, and almond powder), with smooth, round tops and a rough crust.

They sandwich a layer of ganache, cream, or other filling. The result is a small cookie-ish delight with a delicate crispy shell, moist centre, and sweet filling. Macarons come in every flavour imaginable, and often branch off from the humble patisserie into their own highly regarded (and often sought after) specialty stores.

Les Tartes

Fruit tartes aren’t necessarily a French invention, but there’s usually a French variation that they call their own. A common base is shortcrust pastry, or pâte sablée.

Tarte tatin

The tarte tatin is the quintessential French upside down cake. Sliced apples are caramelised in butter and sugar, baked with shortcrust pastry, and served upside-down so the apples are on top.

The story goes that in the 1880s, an overworked Stéphanie Tatin from Hôtel Tatin neglected an apple pie that overcooked in butter and sugar. To save it, she put a crust on top, baked it, and inverted the result. The guests loved the result!

Tarte aux fraises

Some of the most brightly coloured tartes on the shelf are the fantastic tarte aux fraises, the strawberry tarts. A crumbly shortcrust pastry is filled with a generous layer of crème pâtissière, piled high with strawberries, and glazed. Simple, yet delicious (and requires concentration to eat)!

Tarte framboise

Similar to the tarte aux fraises, the tarte framboise (raspberry) is dusted with powdered sugar.

Tarte normande

France’s most common variant of the apple pie is this tarte, a recipe originating from Normandy. The shortcrust pastry is topped with apples, chopped almonds and egg custard, and baked. The top caramelises, and the inside is a nice mix of apple and egg.

Tarte au citron

The shortcrust base is filled with a mixture of lemon, sugar, eggs and cornflour, which is baked. It is either left simple, like this, or served with a soft meringue topping.

Tarte aux myrtilles

Traditionally a seasonal pie from the Alps region, the French blueberry pie can be found in patisseries all over the country. Cream, sugar and eggs are poured over the blueberries, and baked.

Tarte au chocolate

Increasing the unhealthiness level from the fruit tart, the chocolate tart has a chocolate, cream and egg filling that is baked and sets within a shortcrust pastry. Simple and awesome!

Special occasions

The galette des rois

On January 6th, a special cake is eaten to celebrate the feast of Epiphany, when the three wise men gave their gifts to baby Jesus.

A galette des rois (cake of kings) is eaten, a flat, brown frangipani flavoured cake. There is a protocol to serving it, too – the youngest member of the group sits underneath the table and tells the cake cutter who receives each piece. Whomever finds the charm (the féve), a small porcerlain or plastic figurine, wears the crown that accompanies the cake, and names their king or queen.

Bûche de Noël

If you’re in France over Christmas, you may be lucky enough to get your hands on a bûche de Noël, a Yule log. It is made from a sponge cake, iced generously (usually with a chocolate buttercream), and rolled into a log shape. The whole log is coated with an extra layer of icing.

But its all about the decoration; dragging a fork through the icing gives the look of bark, dusting with powdered sugar is for snow, and leaves, branches, mushrooms, animals and other trinkets complete the bûche.

I’ve definitely forgotten some classic pastries and cakes from this list! What else belongs here? Let me know, and ill try and draw it!


15 thoughts on “French pastries and cakes: a complete illustrated guide

  1. What absolutely awesome illustrations! They, and the descriptions you have provided deserve to be posted in the finest French cafés that cater to tourists! Magnifique!

  2. Wow the effort++ in this entry! Loved it, Ive only tried a couple. Im a custard man so next time round Ill be prepared 😉 fantastic illustrations mate great work

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