Alright, French Pâtisserie.
Fancy, sophisticated, posh, delicate, complex, sometimes overrated, and ultimately …. @! »# good!
Should you be an enthusiast baker or a newcomer in the pastry world, don’t be afraid. Yes, French pastry can be awfully difficult, some techniques might be a true nightmare to master (hello fondant on top of éclairs), but in most of the cases this old lady is totally accessible. Trust me.
All you need to succeed is to be confident, to persevere… and to follow some key rules.
Rule n°1 « Find the good recipe »
This is maybe one of the trickiest part of your baking adventure.
On a glorious morning or afternoon (yes, a baking day is always glorious) you start your French baking journey with an innocent » I just need 5 min to find a good recipe of choux pastry and let’s go ». 2 hour later, your vision is blurry, you’re not sure anymore whether « choux » is related to these small creampuffs of your dreams or just to a cabbage, and you start contemplating stuffing your guests with a full batch of Oreos as a reasonable alternative.
It’s so easy to get lost when searching for a good French pastry recipe. Actually it just seems as impossible as finding the right « curry », « meatloaf » or « pumpkin pie » recipe. Not only everyone has its own view on it, but the internet is full of « ultimate », « best ever », « to die for », « bla-bla-bla » recipes, just here to drive you crazy.
So how to recognize a good and trustworthy recipe from the one that looks fabulous on Instagram, but on Instagram only? Precise quantities and temperatures, right tools, everything is crucial when it comes to French pastry so you definitely need the right starting point. To find your way in the jungle, there are several options: book, blog, or family records.
With respects to books, if you have to buy one i would totally recommend buying: « Pâtisserie: Mastering the Fundamentals of French Pastry » by Christophe Felder (in English).
No publicity, i am not earning any money here. This book is simply a must-have (I think more than half-million copies have been sold as of today). All recipes are detailed through a step by step approach, everything is clearly explained, you’ll find all French basics from croissants to croque en bouche. From super easy apple tarts to complex multi-layers desserts, everything is in this book. Plus Christophe Felder is an incredibly talented chef and a lovely person. Like a lot of pastry students, this is the first « serious » French Pastry book I bought.
Recommanding blogs is a little bit more difficult considering the number of beautiful websites you might find (ok, you might also find crappy ones, but do you really need me to find them? 😉 ). So here we go for (very) nice ones :
Last source : family records. Well here you know better than me which grand-pa, mother, uncle, cousin’s recipe works or not. And nothing is better than experience, so if a family recipe is a hit everytime, there is no reason to look for something else.
Rule number 2 « Follow the good recipe »
I know how it’s like (I did it so many times…). You want to be a good pupil and you start a recipe thinking « I am going to do exactly what is written, so I can’t fail ».
But suddenly something gets wrong. You add 15g of flour because you’re not going to keep this stupid-almost-empty-pack in your cupboard (yes, I am thinking of the « almost-empty bags/jars/packets/packs/baking stuff-cupboard » we all have). The eggs are not really room temperature, but directly from the fridge (wait if I am warming them 10 sec in my hand it’s almost the same right?). You complete butter with shortening (yep that makes a second almost empty pack less!), and…. argh at the end the cake is just not what it was supposed to be.
Maybe the difference is small. Or maybe it’s a complete disaster.
Remember this: Pastry is Chemistry. Not only French pastry but all.
Egg is mainly a combination of proteins, water and fat with various properties: it can coagulate (making your choux pastry solid), turn into an emulsion (creating a glue bidding fat and water) etc. Gluten makes your dough elastic (and then strong) which a gluten-free flour will never do. The melting point of margarine is higher than the melting point of butter explaining why until a certain temperature you can use one or not, etc., etc. Examples are infinite. When you are baking, every step matters and has consequence on the final outcome. So, unless you are the next Chemistry Nobel Price or very experienced chef (and if it’s the case, I am not sure I can’t really believe you are reading this post), when you start baking please just follow the recipe.
Rule number 3 « Use proper baking tools »
How to recognize a useful baking tool from a « it-will-stay-in-the-drawer-for-ages-before-you-use-it » tool? Super easy: the useful one is the last one you would want to buy.
Funny face molds, fancy juice extractor, colorful collection of design cake pens, this very handy strawberry stalk remover or the so cute pink micro-wave s’more maker => useless.
A simple timer, a good knife, a precise scale, a solid spatula and a proper thermometer => can’t bake without it.
Baking tools can be pricey but the basic ones are not that much. Each of the device costs between 8 to 20 euros, I know it’s an investment but there is no way you can masterise pastry without controlling the temperature of a sugar or weighting eggs yolks. So, drop this ridiculous banana slicer from you Amazon basket (but please read the hilarious reviews here (*), I literally cried laughing) and buy a real knife.
Rule number 4 » Start with basic recipes »
Unless you are an experienced baker, some French pastries can really be intimidating and for a very good reason: some require experience or/and strong baking skills.
If your main achievement so far was to make chocolate chip cookies when you were 12 years old, maybe starting your French pastry experience preparing macarons or a Paris-Brest is not a great idea, at all. Ahh those bloody French….
Start simple. Incidentally, this is how we start at the pastry school. The first things we learn to make are tarts and small cakes which are to me a perfect choice if you want to make sure to bake something delicious, beautiful and impressive with a minimum effort.
Pear almond pie (also named « Tarte Bourdaloue »), Flan, brown butter Financiers, chocolate ganache Tart etc. Not only all those delicacies are quite easy to make but I can also guarantee instant satisfaction to the pastry chef you are, which is a key part of a glorious baking day.
Trust me : nobody will complain because you bake something beautiful but too simple. And what can be better than offering warm Raspberry madeleines directly from the oven when you started your baking career just a couple of hours ago…
Rule number 5 » Bake only something you would really love to eat! »
This should be rule number 1.
French pastry is full of sophisticated and showstopper pastries. Roaming 10 minutes on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook will give you tons of examples of incredible cakes, cookies and delicacies designed by some kind of God of sugar.
But nothing is worse than cooking something you don’t like. As French pastry can be quite specific and maybe very different from what you usually bake, make sure you select something you would love to eat. Forget about the fancy cakes, the « you must try these macarons » or « this is what Parisian people are craving for right now ». You don’t care about what Parisian people are craving for right now (even if as a true Parisian of course I love to be the center of the world). Only what you want to eat matters.
Chocolate? Go for a rich chocolate mousse using pâte à bombe technique, tart or truffle. Something fruity? Why not trying a super simple shortbread tart with vanilla cream and strawberry? Too simple? Who cares. Don’t be influenced by the stylish recipes on tv shows or Instagram. No, you don’t have to use yuzu to give a kick to your lemon curd or rye flour to enhance your chocolate cookie if you don’t want to. Both are working very well, but if you are not sure to find it, to like it or how to use it, just stand on your standards and enjoy the moment.
Should you bake it or taste it, remember that experiencing French pastry should be everything but an ordeal.
So, prep your spoon, apron, or rolling pin and before anything else : have a glorious day 😊