When we first moved to the beautiful Charente, we were stunned by the skill and expertise of our local boulanger/pâtissier/chocolatier, Nicolas Bichon. When our children were small, he used to allow them to watch him temper his chocolate and hand-craft his amazing layered cakes in his bakery at Verdille.
Cakes in France are such a delight – so well-crafted, and the French do love a layer! Meringue, pastry, choux, cream, jam, ganache… there is so much more finesse and love involved than we ever saw in a high street chain in the UK.
It was with Nico that our appreciation of French cakes and patisserie began. Here is a brief guide to some of the sweet delights you will find here in France.
French ‘gâteaux’: a few of my favourites
Gateaux, cakes, and tortes all contain roughly similar ingredients, such as flour, eggs, sugar, and butter. However, a torte usually requires less flour. All of this loveliness is often layered. Tortes are very European – the most famous of which is the Viennese Sachertorte.
Here’s a list of some of the many delicious cakes available, and this list is by no means exhaustive. These are the cakes I commonly see locally in the Charente and in Nico’s boulangerie BSweet in our nearby town of Aigre, with many locals and those from further afield buying his fantastic cakes:
A cake with a puff-pastry base, topped with crème pâtissière and with a small choux ball filled with pastry cream and attached with caramel sugar all around the outside of the cake. Said to be the Patron Saint of French Bakers.
An iced cake usually reserved for celebrations. It has layers of ice cream or sorbet, meringue, and cream.
This is an impressive choux-ball pyramid/cone cake reserved for weddings, christenings, and special occasions. The small choux rounds are filled with vanilla custard or cream, piled up into a cone shape and stuck together with spun sugar.
This is a layered cake made with layers of almond or hazelnut meringue separated by whipped cream or ganache.
This is traditionally a layered cake with two layers of sponge and crème mousseline inbetween. Sliced strawberries and almond paste adorn the outside, and there are whole strawberries on the top.
This is a ring of choux pastry made in the shape of a bicycle wheel to commemorate the Paris to Brest long-distance cycle race. Inside, the choux is filled with praline buttercream.
This cake comprises layers of puff pastry separated by crème pâtissière with the final layer topped in icing, sugar, or caramelised nuts. It is often seen replicated on an industrial scale in the UK, but none so fine as the real deal.
This is a layered almond sponge cake soaked in coffee and filled with chocolate ganache. It’s usually topped with chocolate glaze.
Be sure to taste a hand-made macaron while you’re in France! Made of two sweet and crispy meringues with a chewy almond-flavoured cream in the centre, they come in all sorts of flavour. Caramel, lemon, rose, pistachio, chocolate, strawberry, orange, lavender… and just about every flavour imaginable!
Conceived of in 1856 in a popular Paris Café, this is made of two spheres of choux pastry, one larger than the other with the smaller sitting atop. The choux is filled with pastry cream, and both are covered in icing and decorated with frills of buttercream to look like a monk.
You probably already know this one! The eclair is a long choux pastry filled with cream and topped with icing – usually chocolate, coffee or pistachio. I have never got used to this as in the UK, they are made with a light, white, whipped-cream filling. Here in France, it is predominantly a heavy chocolate, coffee or custard cream centre, and it always surprises me!
Traditionally from the Lorraine area of France, these are small sponge cakes baked in a shell-like mould. Perfect for goûter (snack time) or at breakfast!
These small (approximately 5cm high) rum and vanilla flavoured cakes have a crispy outside and softer inside. They are a regional speciality of Bordeaux.
Baba au Rhum
Originating from Provence and nice, this is a decadent rum-soaked sponge with cream topping. It’s sometimes sold with a little pipette of extra rum to squirt in at leisure!
Tarte au Citron
There’s not a soggy bottom in sight in France’s lemon tarts – they have a crisp, crumbly pastry base with a zingy lemon curd filling, and are sometimes topped with soft meringue.
Tarte au Chocolat
As above, but filled with a rich, dark chocolate custard. As with all French cuisine, the emphasis is on high-quality produce, and the quality of chocolate here is the key. An absolute cracker is sold at our local boulangerie in Gourville: La Couronne de Jadis. Our neighbour is practically addicted to these tarts, and I’m hot on his heels.
The humble flan is a French staple. Made of shortcrust pasty with a heavy egg custard filling, they are very filling!
The French version of a donut! These are usually little bals of dough, deep-fried – sometimes with a jam filling. I have not yet discovered a custard filling here in the Charente, but they are always rolled in sugar.
This cake is usually made with ‘ladies fingers’ sponge biscuits lining a cake mould and, in the centre, a mousse filling with flavours of choice. Strawberry Charlotte or Apple Charlotte, for example.
Tarte aux pommes
A crispy, crumbly pastry tart case with sliced apples on a syrupy apple base. Just delicious!
French patisserie: a quick guide to the classics
Now being an honorary “Charentaise” I am firmly in the ‘Chocolatine’ or ‘Choco’ camp. This is known as a ‘pain au chocolat’ if you’re not in the Charente, and the croissanty loveliness with two bars of real quality dark chocolate running through the middle is just such a lovely breakfast treat.
When it comes to French croissants, my advice is to go for quality – you won’t regret it! I loved a croissant in the UK, but boy, was I missing out. There is something about a freshly baked artisanal croissant that is simply unbeatable. The buttery balance between a crisp outside and light, fluffy interior is just so quintessentially French. For breakfast in France, it’s typically eaten alongside a black coffee whilst people watching at a pavement café.
Pain aux Raisins
These are my Hubby’s fave – a curled-up version of a croissant with attitude! Apparently, it can also be referred to as an ‘escargot’ or ‘snail’, but I have never heard that in my life! It’s fully loaded with creamy custard, raisins and pearl sugar. Stodge City! This will certainly keep you going until lunchtime.
I am a huge lover of marzipan and all things almond, so this is my favourite pastry. They are basically yesterday’s croissants and chocolatines that are ‘recycled’ and rebaked with almond paste. Sliced, toasted almonds and a dusting of icing sugar are added to finish it off. Our bakeries here don’t always have them as they are dependent on the previous day’s sales. So, if you are desperate for an Amande, do check (we pre-order to be sure!).
curled puff pastry in a palm leaf shape with sugar.
This is a cake-like bread with a high egg and butter content. Find a good one, and you are in heaven! We like a large sharing one for a weekend treat. There’s also ‘briochette’, which is smaller and comes with chocolate chunks, praline nibbles, sugar pearls, etc. We love the brioche from our bakery in Aigre – La Bagette Gourmande.
Linguists amongst you will guess from the ‘ette’ ending that this is a little blob of choux pastry baked to a light bite and usually covered in sugar pearls. Sold individually or in bags, they are a hit with children for the 4pm ‘gouter’ or snack time in France.
This is a twisted, longer croissant-based pastry with creamy custardy crème pâtissière and chocolate chips.
Chausson aux pommes
If you like pastry, you will like the “apple slipper”. Think apple half-moon pasty! In my tasting experience, I have yet to find the right filling-to-pastry ratio, with many boulanger erring too heavily on the pastry side of life for my liking. They are, however, really nice, warmed with custard.
Crispy shortbread-type biscuits.
Clearly, my list is not exhaustive, and at Christmas time, there are a whole host of other specialities. Two of my favourites are the Galette de Roi and the Buche de Noel.
Galette or Brioche de Rois
This cake is associated with Epiphany and is consumed throughout France. It is a puff pastry case with a frangipane filling which conceals a ‘feve’ or a little porcelain figurine. Whoever has the feve gets to wear the crown!
In the South, brioche de roi is more common, and it is a brioche ring adorned with jewels of dried fruits. It’s difficult to choose between the two!
Yule log or Buche de Noel
These are hugely popular in France. It is essentially a rolled-up chocolate sponge with a layer of chocolate cream and iced with chocolate buttercream dragged with a fork to resemble tree bark. Being in France, we like to add a chestnut puree to the icing mix (as they’re so abundant). We also make it in advance of Christmas with the children and freeze it, ready for them to decorate with all the push-in plastic ornaments we use from one year to the next. A dust of icing sugar, and it’s fabulous!
Enjoy all the beautiful ingredients and savoir-faire every region of France has to offer. Bon degustation!
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