French pastries draw people to France in droves. They’re often imitated in other countries, and whether it be a Napoleon, crème brûlée, macarons or any of a hundred others, no trip to the City of Light is complete without an unhealthy dose of pastries.
When I lived in Paris in 2009, I had a problem, however – money. I lived in one of the world’s culinary capitals, but I had quit my job to join a study abroad program, and I couldn’t sample that every day. In fact, most days I ate Carrefour-brand pasta with cheap sauce and steamed broccoli.
My mother, always a fan of pastries, asked me one day why I wasn’t eating more of them. I told her I was trying to be smart about my money, and that my savings was only worth two-thirds of what it was, due to the euro being worth $1.50.
So my mom put $50 in my account and told me it had to go toward pastries. Did I mention that my parents rock?
That day, I walked from my 13th arrondissement apartment down the street toward Butte aux Cailles, passing my laundromat, a bar called Sputnik and a few other places I’d come to frequent.
I found a small patisserie, and it was packed. The area is not touristy, and it was mostly locals inside, so I scoped out the pastry case and selected a fraisier: white cake topped with crème brûlée. Strawberries inside the crème brûlée were complemented with a sliced strawberry and kiwi on top.The fraisier was excellent. The cake was moist, and it paired well with some fruit I had at home.
A few days later, I was walking around and came across another artisan patisserie with a line out the door. Not knowing what a caracas was, I bought it, they wrapped it up, and I took it to a nearby park bench to enjoy. Few things are as enjoyable as sitting in a park in Paris eating a pastry.
The caracas was chocolate mousse topped with dark chocolate and peanuts. Inside were peanuts mixed with caramel on a pie crust. It was a great salty-sweet combination that hit the spot.
While I tried to go to local spots as much as possible, I did grab some macarons at the Paul pastry shop near my apartment from time to time.
I still think Ladurée makes the best ones, but Paul’s are excellent, too. Macarons are almond meringue cookies that sandwich ganache, jam or icing. In the photo above, the one on the left is vanilla, and the one on the right is pistachio. My favorite flavor, though, is probably orange blossom, which Ladurée tends to have most of the time.
Back in the mood for something more exotic – these days, even McDonald’s locations in Europe sell macarons – I found an artisan patisserie near my friends’ apartment in the 10th arrondissement.
The pastry is shaved dark chocolate on top of chocolate mousse. Under that is a thin crust topping black cherries in whipped cream on a pie crust base. The top is dusted in powdered sugar, and it was rich, chocolaty and awesome.
While many of the desserts I’d tried were overly complicated, I decided I also wanted something a bit more simple. Walking through the 20th arrondissement – defintely not touristy – I found a small pastry shop and picked up a gateau Basque: a Basque cake (Basque being the semi-autonomous region in Northern Spain and Southern France along the Atlantic).
It was nothing fancy, but it was soft, sugary and tasty.
No selection of European pastries would be complete without something involving Nutella, the chocolate/hazelnut spread that is growing in popularity in the United States.
I picked up a beignet au Nutella, which is similar to a glazed donut filled with Nutella.
The crust was a little tough, but the raspberries and the filling were fresh, and at about 3 inches in diameter, it was the perfect size.
Eating the pastries – and walking through numerous Parisian neighborhoods on my quest to discover good pastry shops – had satisfied my sweet tooth. And as much as French food is excellent, traveling abroad often leaves me craving some of the flavors of home.
In general, I miss Mexican food the most, but every once in a while when I was living in France, I’d shamefully leave my apartment, take the elevator to the ground floor and go to one of the American icons the French have so wholeheartedly embraced, and I’d commit culinary sin.