Almost everyone loves a good dessert, and the French are rightfully smug about their delicious confections. Traditional French desserts go back hundreds of years, and many were very complicated and delicate to prepare. However, today's French pastries and sweets have evolved with more manageable recipes, and with a little practice, some home cooks can master even the most sophisticated desserts. Here are seven of the most popular traditional French desserts that are well loved even today. Here, you will find a short history of each dessert and a summary of how a classic version is prepared.
It is unclear when crème caramel was invented, as the French had been using custard in various dishes much before it started to be eaten as a stand alone dish. The custard mixture was used as a binding or filling in quiches, tarts and éclairs, and the French didn't even have a name for custard. Thus, the word "Crème" was used, and the caramel topping was added to give the rather unexciting custard a more appealing appearance and flavor. According to food historian Alan Davidson, the crème caramel became very popular in restaurants in the latter half of the 20th century, as it was easy for pastry chefs to make large batches of custard ahead of time and to keep refrigerated until serving.
The first form of a macaron was very simple, with just a single cookie with no filling, being made by two nuns during the French Revolution, and sold to support themselves. It was only in the 20th century, that the pastry chef of Parisian café Ladurée made two cookie shells of meringue and sandwiched them together with a flavored cream. Today, the café is still known for its excellent macarons, albeit in a rainbow of colors and flavors, and the dessert has become a rage all over the world.
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The term Mousse means "foam" in French, and was first used in French cooking in the 18th century, when foamy textures became popular. Chocolate was introduced to the French by the Spanish and hence "Mousse au chocolat" or Chocolate Mousse was born. The first written recipe of a chocolate mousse recipe came from New York City in 1892, and it was in the USA that white chocolate was first used to make a mousse, but a traditional French mousse is almost always made from dark chocolate.
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The Tarte Tatin is one of those French desserts that was created in the 1880s by mistake by two sisters from a small town in the Loire region of France. They ran a hotel, where instead of making a traditional apple tart with the apple layer baked into a pastry crust, the apples were accidentally baked first in the butter and sugar, and the crust was added on top and served warm. However, they never recorded the recipe, and it was only in 1921 that it was published by a fan. It was later that Maxim's restaurant in Paris made it popular.
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The profiterole originated as a cream puff in either Renaissance France or Italy. However, the porous choux pastry of the modern dessert originated in France in the 19th century, but took its name from the 16th century word "profiterole", meaning small profit. They used to be either savory or sweet, but are now most commonly sweet.
A Crêpe is a very thin pancake made from wheat flour and rolled into a cylinder or folded in four, and filled with anything sweet like fruit, preserves, syrup, whipped cream or even Nutella. A thin batter of flour, milk, butter, eggs and salt is poured and distributed evenly on a flat buttered or oiled pan to cook on the stovetop. The crêpe cooks very quickly, and is flipped with a spatula to let the other side cook. The Crêpes Suzette is a crepe that's folded in four and topped with sauce made from orange zest and orange liqueur, and flambéed.
The crêpe originated in Brittany in the North-west of France where the thin pancake was eaten with just a dusting of castor sugar and paired with an apple cider. It used to be called a pannequet, which is probably how the term pancake came to be used in many parts of the world. The name changed because the thin pancake looks like the crêpe fabric. However, the sweet crêpe became popular much later than the savory crêpe, which is called a galette. White wheat flour used to be an extremely expensive commodity that only the rich could use to make dessert crêpes. The rest of the population would eat galettes made from buckwheat flour and filled with savory ingredients. Today, sweet crêpes are eaten for dessert or breakfast.
Cherry Clafoutis is a French dessert made with black cherries baked into a custard-like batter. The cherries are arranged in a buttered pan, and a batter of eggs, milk, flour, and sugar is poured on top and baked till the top is set and slightly browned. It is generally served warm. If the batter is thick, then the dessert is more like a pancake, while it becomes cake-like if the batter is thick. The custard can have some extra flavorings like liqueurs, and the top is dusted with powdered sugar. For a deep cherry flavor, the cherries should have their pits still in them.
The clafoutis started as a French country dessert and is traditionally made from the first sweet cherries of the season, with the pits intact. It comes from the Limousin region of France and spread though the rest of France in the 19th century. The name comes from the word "clafir", meaning "to fill".
Try this Homemade Bailey's Irish Cream recipe as a great topping for the above desserts!
Or use homemade Triple Sec Orange Liqueur as a dessert sauce!