It’s hard not to love a city with a patisserie on nearly every block, where pastries are sold all day long to people who never get fat.
I came to Paris middle-aged, divorced, and newly in love. Granting myself a sabbatical and renting out my suburban home, I moved with my beau to this romantic city for a year of living shamelessly.
Abandoning restraint, and with the appetite of a teenager, I found my muse in butter, cream, and sugar, shaped into sweet sculptures that rival the ones in the city’s museums.
In Paris, everything looks like dessert.
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Napoleon | Croissant
If there’s a national symbol of France it would have to be the croissant. A virtual match to Napoleon’s headgear, it’s the iconic breakfast item of the land. Light, buttery, and flaky, a croissant is the perfect way to start a day of indulgence in the city where indulgence never sleeps. One of the greatest pleasures in eating le petit déjeuner in Paris is the reckless tearing into a buttery croissant while telling yourself you’re only doing it in order to experience the local culture.
Haystacks | Brioche
The famous quote generally (but falsely) attributed to Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake,” was actually “Let them eat brioche.” Despite the continuing controversy over who really said these words, they were the rallying cry against the French royalty and its obliviousness to the suffering of the peasants in a time of famine. In fact, French law at the time obligated bakers to sell expensive breads like brioche at the same price as ordinary ones if the plain ones were sold out, so the remark may not have been as heartless as it sounds.
Ironwork | Palmier
The pastry palmier is made of hundreds of paper-thin layers of dough, prevented from sticking together by a heart-stopping amount of butter. The best ones are golden brown, caramelized, crackling, and flaky, and collapse in your mouth at first bite. The distinctive curled-in/curled-out shape is a visual motif that shows up in many forms outside the kitchen: in the box hedges of formal gardens, woven into tapestries and wallpapers, in decorative ironwork, on mosaic floors, even in the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis, the iconic symbol of the French monarchy—just reverse the outward curve of the leaves, and voilà! The palmier.
Doorknobs | Canelé
Long story short, a canelé is not a cannelé. The pastry cake known as canelé is the original, officially known as canelé de Bordeaux. It’s shaped like a squat fluted column just a couple of inches high, with a thick, almost black, caramelized crust surrounding a custardy interior flavored with vanilla and rum. Over the course of three hundred years, alternate versions of the original recipe sprung up. Flavorings like chocolate and orange were added, and this unregulated tinkering distressed the bakers of Bordeaux. In the 1980s, an organization was formed to protect the original secret recipe, which is locked in a vault in the city of Bordeaux. The official ruling of the Brotherhood was as follows: Bake it by the book and you can spell it with one “n.” All other versions must use two.
Hat | Normandy Brioche
The rich, egg-y, and buttery Normandy brioche has been around since 1404, according to food historians. The tall, cylindrical brioche mousseline is made with double the usual amount of butter and is delicious with preserves, honey, chocolate—and more butter. It looks like it would make a fine hat.
Domes | Religieuse
The Religieuse is a voluptuous pair of cream puffs, one sitting on top of the other, bonded together with buttercream and coated with a glaze of fondant icing. Curiously, this pastry eventually became known as the Religieuse—French for “nun”—because of its resemblance to a nun’s habit. One look at the silhouette, however, and you would also have to include the great domes of Paris among the Religieuse’s look-alikes—Les Invalides, Sacré-Coeur, the Panthéon, and the interior of the grand Galeries Lafayette department store, its stained glass dome as visually delicious as a box of sugared jellies.
Excerpted from Pastry Paris © 2011 Susan Hochbaum. All rights reserved.