Of all the incredible contributions to society made by the French, their legendary cuisine is probably my personal favorite. Not just any dish though, thanks to an overactive sweet tooth there’s nothing I enjoy more than biting into a perfectly prepared French dessert. Whether it’s a delicate cake or something easier to eat on the go, the French in particular excel at anything that contains sugar. While I have much more to explore, these delectable desserts are amongst my most favorite French sweet treats.
Now a worldwide phenomenon, these luxurious light-as-air cookies have a very humble history you wouldn’t expect. First baked in the town of Saint Emilion as a way to feed the poor, today it’s one of the most stylish desserts in the world. Thanks to Parisian favorite Ladurée, the macaron has been introduced to dessert lovers around the world and you can pretty much find them anywhere. Be sure not to confuse them with American macaroons though, which are heavier cookies made with coconuts and almonds. Available in a wide variety of flavors, it’s easy to find a macaron that you will quickly fall in love with.
Known globally as the purveyors of the best chocolates in the world, I was surprised to stumble upon their headquarters in the sleepy town of Tain l’Hermitage along the banks of the Rhône River. Long regarded as the best chocolate in the world, this is another French ingredient that fine dining pastry chefs everywhere covet and with good reason. Using only premium ingredients, Valrhona produces confectionery, plain and flavored chocolate bars and bulk chocolate in bars or pellets. They also produce vintage chocolate made from beans of a single year’s harvest from a specific plantation. In Tain l’Hermitage you can visit their main store and pick up a few bars of this tasty treat for the trip back home.
If you think you’ve had crepes before, just wait until you try them in the French region of Brittany. A simple dessert – thin pancakes to which fillings are added – there’s no better snack when the weather starts to chill and you need a nice, warm treat. Thankfully these tasty treats can be found all around France and now even the world and if I find myself within eyesight of a creperie, I just can’t resist sampling a new style. Enjoyed with a rich coffee, there’s nothing better for a quick afternoon pick me up after a long day of sightseeing.
Probably the smallest cake you’ll ever eat, it’s also one of the best and a French dessert that I only recently discovered. Originally from Burgundy, these are simply small pastries with a soft and tender custard center and a dark, thick caramelized crust. The standard version is the best, but variations such as chocolate canelés are also fun to try. Whichever version you prefer and wherever you find them, make sure to taste this special treat for yourself – trust me, you won’t be sorry.
Les Baux-de-Provence Cookies
Throughout Europe we see any number of regional variations on foods in small towns and villages, from the many sausages in Germany to even cookies in France. These small communities were isolated for centuries but now that they’re easy to access, we can finally discover the small culinary peculiarities that make them so special to visit. In the tiny village of Les Baux-de-Provence, perched high on top of a mountain, I found a store that offered regional varieties of simple cookies. These too were available in a variety of flavors and looked like tea or coffee biscuits, perfect for dunking. Based on the number of people buying them by the kilo though, the minor differences that make them unique have also made them incredibly popular.
I must have seen nougats dozens of times all around France, but it was only while touring Provence and Burgundy when I finally noticed it’s extreme popularity. Almost every city, town and village had a variation on the old dessert staple known simply as nougat. An ancient recipe, in France you’ll usually find it made with honey, roasted almonds and any many of inclusions or flavors – from the original to Nutella and everything in between. Usually served around the holidays, it’s now become an everyday sweet treat available either in small packages or purchased by the kilo for the more series nougat aficionados out there.
Around Europe, almost every region has a special pastry that is all theirs; a variation on something else or a tasty bite that’s totally unique. Pralines, made from almonds enrobed in cooked sugar and pink food coloring, are a specialty of Lyon and you can find them everywhere and in nearly every form imaginable. One that caught my eye in particular was a praline brioche, which is simply a delicious brioche covered with pralines. Sticky and sweet, it was the perfect guilty treat to finish out my food experience in a city famous for gastronomical delights.
Tarte aux Pommes
I want to end this post with a true French classic, the tarte aux pommes otherwise known as a Norman tart or apple pie. To call it an apple pie of course isn’t at all correct, the French tarte is a somewhat lighter concoction and is served in a much shallower dish than the classic American apple pie. It’s also simplicity at its finest, filled with apples, sliced almonds and sugar topped with creamy egg custard and then baked until the topping is slightly caramelized. You can find this in almost any bakery in the country, but the rural version I enjoyed in Burgundy was one of the best I’d ever had. Lunching at an ancient castle, the pie was made by the owners of the estate and presented with so much love and care that it was impossible not to love it immediately.