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.
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/edandeddie/3294730477/ Crème caramel is really just plain custard with a soft caramel topping. When made properly, it is one of those desserts that define elegance on a plate. Either steamed in a bain marie or a water bath in the oven, a perfect crème caramel should be light in texture, with a good dose of caramel flavor. The caramel is made by cooking sugar syrup till it turns brown and then pouring it into the bottom of the custard mould. Then the custard mixture of milk, sugar, eggs and optional vanilla is poured on top, and the mould is set into a container of hot water. This container then goes into the oven and steamed at a low temperature for a long time. When done, the dessert is cooled and refrigerated. Once completely chilled, it can be overturned on a plate and dressed up with garnishing before serving. A soft caramel top over an almost quivering custard is what a perfect crème caramel should be.
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.
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/titlap/5471190091/A Macaron is a cookie sandwich with jam, ganache or buttercream filling. A perfect macaron should have two cookies that are crisp on the outside, and soft and chewy on the inside, and joined together by a proportional-sized dollop of filling. The cookies can be of any flavor, and the filling can be the same flavor or a completely different one. The cookie dough is ideal for gluten-intolerant people, as the only flour used is almond flour. Mixed with whipped egg whites, sugar and food flavoring and color, the dough is piped onto a baking tray and baked till they just turn crisp on the outside. Once they're cooled, they are sandwiched by a filling that can be just about any flavor.
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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Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/crystalflickr/493677329/The most basic chocolate mousse is made by mixing together egg whites, chocolate and sugar, and refrigerating the mixture till it sets. However, most forms of mousse today also contain the egg yolks and butter or cream. The butter and yolks make the mousse rich, while the cream can make it fluffy and lighter. The egg whites are whipped separately and then gently folded into the mixture, to make the mousse foamy. To give the dessert a more sophisticated feel, one or more flavors or liqueurs can be mixed in.
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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Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/299664237/A Tarte Tatin is an upside down tart in which the apples are first caramelized in butter and sugar in a pan, then covered by a pastry crust and baked in an oven. The tart is served warm and usually topped with cream or ice cream. To jazz it up, the apple slices can be tossed in cinnamon or lemon juice.
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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Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/minette_layne/2897051413/A Profiterole is a small ball of hollow dough made from choux pastry that is dropped in dollops on a baking tray and baked till they puff up. The balls are then sliced horizontally and filled with ice cream or whipped cream, reassembled and topped with chocolate sauce, caramel or a dusting of confectioner's sugar. This kind of pastry develops a hollow in the centre because the dough is a thick batter made by mixing flour, butter and milk with eggs.
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!