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 my started on the precious macarons.
Pastry cream, piping bags, Paris Brest, pageantry!
On an ambitious day, I may, er, essaie to make an éclair or a pain au chocolat at home, but throughout that entire journey, I'll know in my heart of hearts that I should have saved time and tears and visited the pâtissiers at the pâtisserie.
These five desserts are not that kind, however. They're low-maintenance (relatively speaking), forgiving, et très facile. They're homey enough to, well, make at home—and make well at home—without taking up your entire afternoon, but they're still delicious enough to impress a guest or two after a soirée.
And—here's the kicker!—they all have just five ingredients, none of which are obscure or particular fancy. Hip hip! (Okay, that's un petite fib—some have six! So sue me.)
Ranked from easy to difficult and from quick to time-consuming. Find more recipe details below.
(Yes, you can also add extracts, and you're going to need some butter to grease the pan.)
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.)
Blend some flour, sugar, eggs, and milk until smooth, adding vanilla bean, almond or vanilla extract, or even liqueur like kirsch or amaretto as you see fit, then pour this batter over the cherries that you've scattered in the baking dish. Set a timer for 45 minutes.
As the clafoutis bakes, the batter puffs, subsuming the cherries; it says eggy and spongey in the middle while crisping and browning along the perimeter—and that textural dichotomy certainly means you must try at least one scoop from each area.
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.)
Serve with confectioners' sugar and whipped cream.
(Oh yeah, and baking powder and baking soda... and vanilla extract, too.)
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. According to Clotilde Dusoulier, whose blog Chocolate & Zucchini is one of our favorites, yogurt cake is one of the first desserts French children learn to bake, simple as it is.
You don't even have to cream butter and sugar—or get out the measuring cups. If you use a two 4-ounce tubs of yogurt, you can use those as your guide: Add 1 1/2 tubs of sugar, 4 tubs of flour, and 1 scant tub of vegetable oil.
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.
(Optional: confectioners' sugar.)
You've seen a palmier (call it an elephant ear, if you wish). But get a bit more involved with your folding, slicing, and positioning, and you can transform that same sheet of puff pastry (store-bought, bien sûr!) into the fancy-looking sandwich cookies known as pailles, meaning "straws."
You'll roll the puff pastry into a big square, then fold it in half two times, being sure to brush it with egg wash and sprinkle it with sugar between each fold for maximum caramelization. Next, you'll slice the folded pastry into thin fingers, which you'll then reunite into groups of three. Before putting the cookies in the oven, you'll cover them with a sheet of parchment paper and an upside-down cooling rack so that they bake more up than out. Halfway through baking, you'll remove those weights, press the cookies with a spatula, and flip them. Sounds like a lot of work—but it's more assembly than anything else.
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.
If you're comfortable whipping egg whites and incorporating them gently, as to not deflate that hard-earned air, then the recipe—which is from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table and has been published on NPR and in Bon Appétit—will be a cinch. Perhaps that's because Dorie, when she implored her friend Martine for the ingredients and instructions of her favorite mousse, was handed a Nestlé chocolate bar: All of the information was on the back.
But if you're looking for something even more minimalist, you're in luck: Hervé This' chocolate mousse is only chocolate and water.
(Also salt and lemon juice—but who's counting?)
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?
But the results are worth it: a quivering pudding with a waterfall of caramel that sweetens every bite. To take the recipe a step further, infuse your cream—with crushed cardamom pods, orange zest, chopped coffee beans, Earl Grey tea leaves, or fresh herbs—before you begin.
Which French desserts do you make at home, and which do you leave to the professionals? Tell us in the comments below!
For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.