Essential French Desserts for Every Skill Level
The world of French desserts is vast. Look into the window of a pâtisserie, and chances are you’ll see an assortment of éclairs, madeleines, financiers, cream puffs, macarons, tarts, and cakes like the Opera or Fraisier. Your favorite bistro likely has a crème brûlée or chocolate mousse on their dessert menu, if not both. And if you enjoy eating ice cream, then you’ve likely had crème anglaise, the custardy sauce that’s also used as a base used to make French-style ice creams. Add to that towering soufflés, meringues that are light as air, and the chocolate ganache essential for making your favorite truffles, and it can be hard to know where to start.
Over centuries, the French have mastered the art of pâtisserie and created some of the world’s most popular desserts. Some of their contributions to the world of pastry, like the croquembouche, are a little more extravagant and time-consuming to make. Others, like clafoutis, are simple enough to whip up on a busy weeknight. You don’t have to be a trained pastry chef to tackle either of these—all you need are a few essential techniques and recipes to use as building blocks. Master meringue, and you’ll be able to make macarons, chocolate mousse, and sweet soufflés. Learn how to make choux pastry, and you’ll have opened the door to cream puffs, éclairs, croquembouche, and more. Overcome your fear of making crème anglaise, like I did, and the world of custard-based ice creams is yours—not to mention easy desserts like fresh berries with chilled crème anglaise as the sauce.
The beauty of French pastry is that once you feel comfortable with the basic techniques and understand the science behind them, you’ll be able to mix and match recipes to create a laundry list of classic confections—or even a dessert of your own. No matter the skill level, there’s something sweet and celebratory for everyone. Here, we’ve highlighted our favorite French desserts, organized by the skill level required to make them. To be clear, all the recipes are thoroughly tested, clearly written, and doable by anyone—if you’re feeling ambitious, go ahead and jump into the deep end, we’re right there with you. Or follow the progression we’ve outlined here, starting with recipes for beginners (or whatever you think your current skill level is), then work your way up. By the time you’ve finished with the advanced recipes, you’ll have gained much of the fundamental skills required in even the most elite French pastry kitchens.
With whisper thin, crisp exteriors, light-yet-buttery centers, and those signature humps, these are madeleines that Proust would be proud of. Not only are these cakes easy to whip up, but they’re also extremely versatile: The batter can be flavored with nuts, cocoa powder, warm spices, citrus zest, herbs, and extracts.
Once baked, they can be glazed, filled, or served plain. Start simple, then play around with different flavors.
Deeply satisfying to eat, these tender-crisp financiers benefit from nutty brown butter and ground toasted almonds.
Resting the batter in the refrigerator allows the ingredients to hydrate, yielding moist, tender cakes. And while they’re delicious on their own, you can dress them up with a glaze or dip them into melted chocolate.
Cherry clafoutis is a dessert that’s guaranteed to impress and please. Its simplicity can’t be overstated: Pour a simple batter made from egg, milk, sugar, and flour over cherries, bake, and serve. Butter in the batter adds extra flavor and helps crisp the edges more, while balanced amounts of egg and sugar produce a light-textured clafoutis that’s just sweet enough and not too eggy.
Sweetened dairy stars in this dessert that’s shaped into a heart and served with strawberry sauce. All you have to do is beat cream cheese and cream with powdered sugar, the seeds of a vanilla bean, and lemon zest before allowing the mixture to set overnight. To successfully unmold your dessert, line your dish with a damp paper towel or cheesecloth and invert.
Crème anglaise is many things: It’s a sauce. It’s a custard. It’s a sauce and a custard you can churn into ice cream. At its most basic, crème anglaise is a mixture of milk and/or cream, egg yolks, sugar, and a vanilla bean that has been cooked until just thick enough to coat a spoon. Though cooking an egg-based custard can be anxiety-inducing, a bit of care and good technique is all you need to prevent scrambled sauce is an unlikely outcome.
The grown-up version of a Pop-Tart, gâteau Basque combines elements of a cookie, a tart, and a pie, with a filling of pastry cream or cherry jam. The tender, slightly crumbly crust—which is easily rolled out once chilled—comes together easily in a stand mixer.
Here, the addition of almond flour and extract in both the dough and pastry cream adds a rich, nutty flavor.
Vanilla bean-flecked pastry cream meets flaky pie crust in this cake on an essential French pastry.
Here, pie dough makes for a tender, flaky crust that’s sturdy enough to support the pastry-cream filling, and brushing the surface of the flan with egg yolk produces a glossy, deeply bronzed finish.
Chouquettes are small choux pastry puffs topped with snowy white grains of pearl sugar. They bake up quickly and make a delicious snack or after-dinner treat. The secret to choux pastry that develops good color without over-baking?
Use milk—which has additional proteins and sugars that promote browning—in the choux paste.
Rich with bittersweet flavor and light as a cloud, chocolate mousse is a simple, elegant dessert that’s deeply satisfying to eat. For an easy mousse that won’t seize or deflate, melt your chocolate together with the cream. This stabilizes the chocolate and prevents it from seizing and also lightens up the chocolate mixture, making it easier to fold together with the egg whites without deflating the mixture.
Made well, crème brûlée is a magnificent dessert of silky, vanilla-scented custard beneath a shatteringly crisp topping of caramelized sugar. For a velvety custard that doesn’t curdle, be sure to bake your crème brûlée in a water bath.
Got a blowtorch? This is the time to pull it out. Using it to caramelize the raw sugar topping results in an evenly caramelized crust that shatters easily.
This simple, elegant dessert of “floating islands” suspended in a pool of crème anglaise is a French classic. For a more stable meringue that’s less likely to deflate, whisk your egg whites at a lower speed for longer, and slowly add the sugar to ensure it’ll dissolve properly. Don’t feel like making crème anglaise from scratch? You can melt a pint or two of good quality, egg-free vanilla ice cream in a saucepan or microwave instead.
Light and crisp cream puffs, filled with your choice of rich pastry cream, whipped cream, or crème légère, will satisfy dessert lovers everywhere.
Our easy recipe for choux pastry takes almost all the guesswork out of the traditional technique, producing puffs that are golden and crispy on the outside and hollow within.
Served à la minute, chocolate soufflé is the go-to classic dessert for chocolate lovers everywhere. For a soufflé that rises successfully, you’ll want to liberally butter and sugar your ramekins, which will ensure that the soufflé rises up without any cracks. For maximum loft, you’ll want to whip egg whites and sugar until they reach stiff, glossy peaks before folding it into chocolate ganache. Just make sure your egg whites and your mixing bowl are clean!
Canelés require plenty of patience, but it’s well worth it for the glassy, caramelized exterior and custardy center you get.
To make this southwestern French specialty, you’ll want to coat your molds in a mixture of beeswax and butter, and start baking at a very high temperature to encourage a crisp skin to form.
Time and temperature are both key to mastering this dessert, and as long as you keep an eye on both, you’ll be able to make a canelé worthy of a French bakery.
Crisp choux pastry, a rich vanilla bean-infused pastry cream, and an intense chocolate glaze? It’s easy to see why éclairs remain one of France’s most beloved treats. With éclairs, how they’re piped is how they bake, so it’s crucial to take your time and do it well. After they’re baked, you’ll use a sharp paring knife to poke holes in the bottom of each éclair while they’re still hot. This will dry out the insides of the pastries and keep them crisp.
A towering masterpiece of caramel-covered cream puffs surrounded by golden threads of spun sugar, the croquembouche is the celebration cake of France. Making it is a labor of love and requires a bit of advance planning and plenty of organization.
You’ll want to make a template for your puffs to ensure they’re all uniform in size, then prepare all the mise en place for the choux pastry, the pastry cream, and the caramel before assembling.
Tarte Tatin can be a tricky dessert to make and involves a nuanced culinary dance that requires a fine-tuned sense of just about… everything.
The key to success is breaking the recipe down into more discrete parts, and understanding the science of how apples cook and soften. With the right technique, you can make a stellar tarte Tatin that rivals even those served in a French bistro.
Almond-studded choux pastry and rich, nutty praline crème mousseline join forces in this impressive French dessert. Piping and building the Paris-Brest may seem like the most intimidating part, but there’s no wrong way to do it as long as the filling sits tall inside the bottom half. We promise it’ll be delicious, no matter how professional the filling looks.
This French dessert gets its name from the way its layers of thinly sliced apple seem to disappear into the light batter that binds them. In a nod to the popularity of gateau invisible in Japan, this version is subtly flavored with salty-sweet white miso, and served with a miso caramel sauce. Despite its impressive layers, all you really have to do is whisk eggs and sugar until glossy, add in the flour, then gently fold in apples until they’re evenly coated. The hardest part may very well be slicing the apples thinly and layering the cake. The thinner the apples, the more layers you’ll get, and the more cohesive the baked cake will be.
Header Image Photography by Amanda Suarez
Art Direction and Graphics by Sarah Maiden