Ooh La La! 7 Classic French Pastries and Their Histories
by LAURA WILSON, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, let's go travel
From the architecture to the language to the food, French history and culture continues to entrance the modern traveler. Little is more iconic than the French pastry, but the history behind this culinary art is less known. Check out the stories behind seven of these classic delicacies.
This rich, buttery bun contributed to more strife than could have ever been foreseen. Originally introduced to the French peasantry by the Norman Vikings, brioche became a symbol of wealth and power due to a sixteenth century butter tax. Nearly 300 years later, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau recorded the infamous phrase: “S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” mistranslated as, “If they have no bread, let them eat cake.” Though it is unlikely Marie Antoinette actually uttered these words, nevertheless brioche became a symbol of the excesses of the French monarchy throughout the world, forever entwined with its demise.
Though perhaps the most recognizable French pastry, the inspiration for the croissant actually hails from Austria. The pastry evolved from the crescent-shaped kipferl, a traditional yeast roll dating back to the thirteenth century. The roll was later adapted with a puff pastry technique to create the croissants we know today. However, the motivation for the French migration is still unknown. Was it to celebrate victory in battle? Was it brought into fashion by Queen Marie Antoinette, the former archduchess of Austria? We may never know, but there is little doubt that the croissant has become a global sensation in the modern age.
The word “éclair” is French for “lightning.” A light pastry dough filled with cream and covered in glaze, the éclair emerged at the turn of the eighteenth century, likely due to the genius of chef Marie Antonin Carême. Abandoned by his parents in early childhood, Carême worked his way from the ground up, becoming one of the first to practice the high art form of grande cuisine. Influenced by his love of both cooking and architecture, Carême innovated several of the masterpieces we enjoy today, including this mouthwatering delight.
The modern French macaron was actually born in Italy. It emerged in 1533, created to celebrate the wedding of Catherine de’ Medici and Duc d'Orléans. In 1547, Duc d’Orléans became King Henry II, monarch of France, and the macaron made its way to the French court. The little cookie, made of almond powder, sugar, and egg whites, did not take its sandwich form until the twentieth century, when the grandson of Louis Ernest Ladurée (of the Ladurée luxury French bakery) joined two pieces together with ganache. Today, these mini treats come in all flavors and colors, and are an increasing presence in American bakeries.
Once described by author Marcel Proust as a “little shell of cake, so generously sensual beneath the piety of its stern pleating,” these delicate tea cakes are a historic staple of French bakeries. Though their origin is clouded in legend, the story goes that in 1755, King Louis XV was travelling in Lorraine and stopped for dinner at the Château de Commercy. He was served these little cakes, and so enjoyed these them that he named them after their creator, the young maid Madeline Paulmier. When he returned to the Versailles, he brought the dessert with him, and it quickly became all the rage with the French nobility. It has maintained its popularity ever since.
These wheel-shaped desserts derive their name from the French bicycle race Paris-Brest-Paris. Started in 1891, the amateur race begins in Paris, travels to Brest, and then returns to Paris. The route covers 1,200 km, or nearly 750 miles, and must be completed by all participants in under 90 hours. Because of the race’s strenuous nature, Paris-Brest treats became popular with cyclists due to their high-energy values. A choux pastry cut in half and filled with whipped cream, these desserts are perfect for both on and off the bike.
This classic pastry came to fame in the early 1700s under the court of Louis XV. However, the delicacy was not perfected until the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution prompted innovation in oven machinery. New ovens heated by air drafts rather than coal, allowing none other than the great Marie-Antoine Carême to revolutionize the classic recipe. Made of flour, milk, eggs, and butter, the soufflé is notoriously finicky to concoct, but nevertheless an enduring staple of French cuisine.