There are French desserts in the vicinity of which you dare not breathe, lest they crumble, deflate, or melt with your disturbance. Quelle horreur! These are the soufflés (all that swell), the puff pastry (all those layers), the petits fours (all the microscopic artistry), the yule logs (all that fake dirt). And please don't get me started on the precious macarons.
Okay, you daredevils: This one's for you. It's the most challenging dessert in our quintet because you have to make caramel and custard and endure a 12-hour chilling period. And once that's all squared away, you must then invert the crèmes and cross your fingers that they slide out of the ramekins in good shape. If that doesn't make your heart rate increase, might I suggest bungee jumping?
If you’re wondering what the secret is to flaky French croissants, it’s time, patience, and butter (okay, that’s three things, but catch my drift?). Forming the breakfast pastry of all breakfast pastries is intimidating and you might not get it perfect the first time. That’s okay. No one ever complained about slightly misshapen croissants.
3. Tarte Tatin
If you can manage to invert a syrupy apple tarte tatin, a classic French dessert, without ruffling any feathers (err fruit), you’ve won the game of life.
From David Lebovitz, a marshal of French desserts, comes the simplest and fastest treat on this list: clafoutis, a puffed, pancake-y fruit dessert that I might call the French cousin of the Dutch baby were I to get all EU in this article.
All you need is a blender, or a powerful whisking arm, and 45 minutes. (You don't even need a cherry pitter if you've got a bottle and a straw—or if don't mind giving your dentist anxiety.)
Gâteau au yaourt (say it with us: yah-oooh-rt) is the definition of an "any time cake"—not only because you'll want to eat it any time, but because you can make it any time, too. This cake may be foolproof, but you will want to be careful not to over-mix the batter and to monitor the cake so it's neither over- nor under-baked. And if you're looking to give your cake some flare, try modifying it as you would pound cake. Or take a cue from Dorie Greenspan, who perfumes her sugar with lemon zest before mixing it into the other ingredients.
Once the cookies are cool, you'll sandwich them with jam (or, bonne idée, lemon curd) and dust them with confectioners' sugar. And finally, gather your napkins. "The pastries are very brittle, and the sweet jam is very soft, so that when you bite into them, there's always a little ooze and lot of crackle and crumbs," writes Dorie Greenspan in Baking Chez Moi. A welcome mess!
No funny business here: This chocolate mousse is simply melted chocolate that's thickened with egg yolks and lightened with whipped egg whites. Like your favorite chocolate bar frolicked among the clouds.
8. Pâte à Choux
Master the art of baking pâte à choux—either by hand or with a hand mixer—and you’ll be well on your way to making profiteroles, cream puffs, eclairs, and the cheesy poppable appetizer known as gougères.
French macarons have a reputation for being difficult to make, but that’s not entirely the case. Rather, they’re quite temperamental—everything from how whipped the egg whites are to the temperature and humidity of the room can make them fall flat, literally. But as is the case with all French desserts, it’s a practice in patience and the reward is sweet.
“This time around, I opted to flavor my custard with toasted pistachios and honey. The resulting dessert is warm, nutty, and wonderfully floral. And I still used vanilla beans because I’m weak for those flecks,” writes recipe developer Ashley Rodriguez.
We could fill the world’s largest cookie jar with quotes about how much we love our resident baking BFF Erin Jeanne McDowell. But one reason is the fact that she makes cream puffs that she calls “big beauties.”
You'll be delighted to know that the clafoutis batter will cradle nearly any summer fruit you've secured. Try apricots, blueberries, raspberries, or peaches. Italian prune plums would be excellent, should you cross borders in that regard. (Make these modifications and you'll have shifted from clafoutis to flaugnarde—the name is not nearly as whimsical.)
A little bit of whole wheat flour brings a lovely nutty quality to these chocolate croissants (or pain au chocolat, if you want to be fancy).
Legend has it that this cake was developed to celebrate the Russian defeat of Napoleon in 1812. Twelve layers of flaky pastry are stacked with a rich vanilla bean-flecked pastry cream.
With Yossy Arefi’s gentle hand and careful testing, your chocolate soufflé with soar, not flop.
Think of this French dessert as the most luxurious chocolate pudding you have ever, and will ever, taste. Whipped cream and a few egg yolks are what make the texture oh, so creamy.
What’s better than one tart tatin? Half a dozen tart tatins all baked in a muffin tin.
18. Crème Brûlée Pie
I don’t think I would ever turn down crème brûlée, and particularly not if it's in pie form —custard poured into a buttery pie crust and torched until caramelized.
These soft, buttery cookies are a French staple; there are so many variations, from Glazed Eggnog to Orange and Brown, but these are simple as can be. A little bit of lemon zest perks up them up.
There’s a lot to love about galettes, like how easy they are to make (perfection is discouraged) and the fact that you can see the fruit filling. In this case, it’s a mixture of bright plump blueberries bursting from a rosemary-infused crust.
This petite dessert is a hybrid between France’s eclair and New York City’s black and white cookies.
For the days when you need a break from buttery cream-filled pastry after buttery cream-filled pastries, there’s this: poached pears in a red wine sauce with spices like star anise and cinnamon sticks. Enjoy them as is or, better yet, with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
23. Croissant Rolls
I will never get over the brilliance of these pull-apart croissants. There’s no denying that the recipe is a lot of work, but you also can’t deny that the result is worth the time and effort.
A summery twist on the usual chocolate and vanilla napoleons, strawberries, pistachios, and a hint of rose water come together to whisk you away to paradise.
There are more than a few things to get excited about in this recipe. For starters, the nutty brown butter and orange zest are a beautiful contrast of flavors. Oh, and the cookies are also gluten-free, thanks to a combination of brown rice flour, tapioca starch, and almond flour, which creates a lovely fine crumb and soft texture.
26. Peachy Macarons
French pastries don’t always have to be buttoned up and fancy—they can be fun too! And these adorable peach macarons are proof of that. “Tiny herb leaves are the perfect way to finish the illusion, if you like, but the real peachiness of these macarons lies in the filling: a ring of rich and tangy cream cheese frosting on the outside, with a “core” of peach jam hidden inside,” says recipe developer and Food52’s resident baking BFF Erin Jeanne McDowell.
French Financiers get their wealthy name because of their appearance; some say that the yellow-hued cakes resemble a gold bar. Traditionally, they’re made with almonds but ground walnuts and sage bring a muted, earthy quality that we can’t get enough of.
IMO, meringues are a wildly underrated dessert. They only require three ingredients, minimal equipment (if all you have is a bowl and a whisk, you can make them, though it’s more of a workout than Crossfit), and are prettier when they’re imperfect, cracks and all.
Whether you fill them with sweet or savory ingredients, serve them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert, these paper-thin French pancakes always win over the hearts of diners.
Is there any French dessert more epic than croquembouche? Didn’t think so. But with that impressive combination comes technical challenges. For the same delicious treat with way less maintenance, bake this streamlined version right on a sheet tray.
There’s a double dose of strawberry flavor in these eclairs. First, there’s a generous layer of strawberry jelly and vanilla cream in between the pastry. But it gets even sweeter with a strawberry glaze drizzled on top, too.
32. Opera Cake
“Making an opera cake is not for the faint of heart, so this is not a recipe to make when you only have about 30 minutes to put it together. The classic French cake is a six-layer masterpiece featuring tender joconde sponge cake, a rich chocolate ganache, and a smooth coffee buttercream,” writes recipe developer Genevieve Yam.
Our test kitchen editors vetted this recipe, but honestly there’s no need to. Every time pastry-chef-turned-food-editor Claire Saffitz publishes a new recipe, I immediately add it to my list of “things to eat on my deathbed.” She’s a pro, plain and simple. “This is one of those unassuming recipes that might not have much of a glamor factor, but the flavor of the coriander sugar—simply a mix of demerara sugar and ground coriander seeds—is unexpectedly delicious,” says Claire.
For beginning bakers, palmiers are one of the easiest French desserts to learn how to make. Start with store-bought puff pastry—or make your own—and sprinkle it generously with vanilla sugar. Once rolled, sliced, and baked, the final product is the sweetest, crunchiest treat for serving on the fly.
You don’t need to fly to Paris for a slice of buttery brioche bread. You can bake an entire loaf with this easy-to-follow recipe from Erin Jeanne McDowell right at home.
French pastries are known for their fussiness, but the best part of galettes is how not fussy they are! The more rustic it looks, the better.
Inspired by the flavors of a Neapolitan ice cream sundae, this tri-flavored mousse has a layer for everyone.