Even though I’ve been cooking my French husband’s favorite dishes for nearly a decade, I tend to follow recipes closely with very little room for improvisation.
But maybe it's time I reconsider: When I looked more deeply into France’s gastronomic history, I found that some of the most beloved recipes were born from mistakes. (Like, an errant addition of hot cream, or a chef caught off guard without the correct ingredients on hand.) After all, a little deviation never hurt anyone!
Here are five French classics resulting from truly fortunate mistakes:
The tarte tatin is a recipe that I love to make for guests. Its presentation makes for a beautifully elevated version of an apple pie. Legend has it that the upside-down French apple tart was created by a pair of sisters, Caroline and Stephanie Tatin, who ran the restaurant Lamotte-Beuvron in central France. One version of the story goes like this: With a group of hunters gathered in their dining room, they realized they had nothing to serve for dessert and hastily began making a traditional apple tart. Stephanie placed the quartered apples, sugar, and butter in the baking dish before realizing she had forgotten to line the pan with dough, and to salvage her creation, layered the pastry dough on top before placing it into the oven to finish baking. Then, she inverted it onto a plate to serve.
Much debate has been waged about whether or not the sisters actually invented the dish, since upside-down tarts were said to have existed in the nearby area of Sologne years before, but they can certainly be credited with making the dessert famous (it was then called “tarte des demoiselles Tatin,” translated to “tart of the young Tatin women”). Louis Vaudable, proprietor of the acclaimed Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, found this dish at the Tatin’s restaurant, and loved it so much that he eventually added it to his restaurant menu, bringing national recognition to what is now known as a tarte tatin.
This raw milk sheep’s cheese is one of the world’s best-known blues, with an ivory paste punctuated by blue, gray, and sometimes green craters of flavorful mold. I love Roquefort, a wonderfully versatile cheese, in dressings, on burgers, atop crispy endive leaves, even mixed into moules marinieres (despite what you’ve heard, cheese and seafood can totally go together!). The tale behind the so-called “king of cheeses” claims that a young shepherd, eager to return to his beloved, forgot his bread and milk curd in a cave. Returning some time later, he found the curd covered in mold—the naturally occurring spores in the cave had turned his cheese into Roquefort. While this story has never been truly verified, it’s the one that the departement of Aveyron (where the cheese is produced) sticks to. Since 1925, Roquefort has been protected by an appellation d'origine contrôlée, or AOC, a certification that guarantees that the product was produced in a particular area using specific guidelines.
Both my husband and father-in-law have a sweet tooth, and one of the desserts they love is l’opéra, also known as an opera cake. The best part about this elegant cake is the velvety chocolate ganache, sandwiched between layers of almond cake and coffee buttercream. Chocolate ganache was created in the 1850s at the old Parisian bakery Maison Siraudin, when an apprentice chocolate-maker poured boiling cream into chocolate. Considered the error of a “ganache” (a word used to describe a chump), the resulting concoction took on this name, but it was a brilliant mistake—its texture makes it usable in a variety of applications, such as the base for chocolate truffles, or the decadent filling for a chocolate tart.
People outside of France may struggle to pronounce its name, but the kouign-amann (“queen-yamann”) has become a popular pastry in the U.S., thanks to places like San Francisco’s b. patisserie and New York City’s Dominique Ansel Bakery. A specialty of the region of Brittany in northwestern France, this treat gets its name from the Breton words for butter (kouign) and cake (amann). In 1860, a baker from Douarnenez named Yves Rene Scordia created this pastry during a busy day when he had run out of cakes. Short on ingredients, he had to quickly improvise a recipe using what he had on hand—bread dough, butter, and sugar. Thus, the kouign-amann was born. According to locals, a traditional kouign-amann is made by hand and looks more like a cake than the taller, muffin-like versions served stateside, but they still maintain one similarity: an insane amount of butter and caramelized sugar woven between layers of pastry.
Crêpes suzette are a sublime creation of delicate, sweet pancakes doused in brandy, then flambeéd. This recipe is often attributed to the great French chef Auguste Escoffier, but the story goes that they’re actually the work of an apprentice named Henri Charpentier. In 1896, Charpentier ran the Café de Paris in ritzy Monte Carlo. While preparing crêpes for the visiting Prince of Wales (future English King Edward VII), the cognac that he’d drizzled on the pan ignited, accidentally flambéeing the dish. According to the story, Charpentier named the crêpes after the prince’s young dining companion: Suzette. Escoffier eventually published a recipe for this creation in 1903, adding his own touches to the sauce—juice of an orange, and curaçao orange liqueur (though many of today’s versions call for Grand Marnier).