Noone can resist a buttery, fluffy croissants, but the magic behind them takes much more than just a dough. Centuries of crafting and perfecting turned into an iconic pastry from a culture that we attribute to some of the most popular and delicious desserts and baked goods in the world.
The art of French pastries started with the desire to have a sweet treat following a meal. Fruits and cheese were originally served after dinner, but to quench people’s lingering sweet cravings after a meal, the doors to the art of French pastries and confectioneries were open. Thus the delectable, delicious, and dreamy world of cakes, pastries, candies, and classic French desserts was born.
There’s nothing better than finishing off a savory meal with a sweet treat and the French took that desire for dessert and turned it into a decadent delicacy. While pairing fruit and cheese highlighted the robust cheeses France is also known for, the art of pastries and confectioneries opened up a whole new world of pastries, cakes, and sweets that has led us to love and make such beloved treats today.
In 1270, Regnaut-Barbon registered the status of oublieurs, the ancestors of confectioners, and pastries. The profession of pastry chefs materialized in the 16th century with the introduction of sponge cakes and macaroons as well as marzipans from Italy.
Iconic French Pastry Histories
The first recorded history of the kipfel (what people refer to as a croissant), was actually brought to Paris in the late 1830s by August Zang from Austria, who founded Boulangerie Viennoise in Paris.
The macaron cookie was brought over to France as early as 1533 by Catherine di Medici, a noblewoman from Florence who married the future King of France, Henri II. It wasn’t until 1792, when two Carmelite nuns, seeking asylum in Nancy during the French Revolution, baked and sold the macaron cookies in order to pay for their housing and their popularity spread.
The kouign amann is a cake that first originated in the 1800s in Brittany, France. The cake derives its name from the Breton words for cake "kouign" and butter "amann”. here’s some controversy about the kouign-amann’s exact origins, everything from a fortuitous accident in the Finistère town of Douarnenez with a baker named Yves-René Scordia, to one restaurateur says his wife’s grandmother invented the kouign-amann in Scaër. Nonetheless, this beautiful trinity is complex as it is tasty, a sugary, caramelized combination of dough, sugar, and butter.
In 1890, a Parisian chef in a pastry shop located on Bourdaloue street in Paris created this variation of the amandine tart. The Bourdaloue tart that we know now, with pears, did not appear until the end of the 19th century and has little connection to the original version.
While many internet sources say it was Claudius Gele, a pastry cook apprentice, who created the iconic puff pastry in 1645, there are other sources denying this and if you go back more in history, the oldest recipes for puff pastry appear in 13th century Spanish Arabic cookbooks. Still, other sources indicate that puff pastry was known to the ancient Greeks as shown in a charter drawn up by Robert, bishop of Amiens. Despite it’s unclear history, we can agree it was an iconic moment in history.
Known as a French type of viennoiserie, a cross between a pastry and a bread, the earliest recorded history of the word “brioche” dates back to 1404. It is debated whether the etymology comes from the French words, bris (to break) and hocher (to stir), or if it comes from the fact that the bread was first made in the Brie region in France. One popular theory claims that it was invented by Norman Vikings, who settled in France in the 9th century and brought the secrets of making butter with them while another claims reference to the popular French cheese brie, which is believed to have been one of the ingredients in the original brioche. A pastry chef Pierre Labully from Saint-Genix-sur-Guiers invented the Brioche de Saint Genix recipe around 1880.
Also known as marron glace, these seasonal confections originated in southern France and northern Italy. The first candied chestnuts seem to appear at the beginning of the 15th century in the Piedmont region of Italy. The earliest written recipe is from the court of Louis XIV at the end of the 17th century. In 1882, the first factory with the technology to produce marron glaces industrially was built in the Ardèche department of south-central France.
As one of the most beloved French desserts, it's so popular that actually there are three countries that have vied for the title of crème brûlée inventors. England, Spain and France all claim to have created crème brûlée, but many food historians agree that these kinds of custards were very popular in the Middle Ages across Europe so it's a little hard to trace the desserts' actual history. The term crème brûlée didn't appear until the 19th century. Early French versions of the dessert did not in fact burn the caramel like its modern versions, but placed a caramel disc on top of the custard.
In 1672 an Armenian called Pascal Rosée opened the first coffee shop in Paris on Place Saint-Germain, but the institution did not become successful until the opening of Café Le Procope in about 1689 in rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain. Le Procope was known for its historical mark as many actors, writers, musicians, philosophers, and revolutionaries gathered at this iconic cafe and is now called the oldest cafe in Paris.
With the French perfecting the art of pastry and doing it consistently, many wonder how to replicate this? Or is there a single ingredient or technique that one should know? From all the pastries and delectable desserts that have been made from French hands, it goes to show that every single minute step is a part of the creation of classic French desserts, ones that require long hours, dedication, and strong attention to details, is the true reason for the making of French pastries. The secret lies not only in the ingredients, but the work itself.