In the seventeenth century, the last course of a meal, which usually featured fruits, cheese and nuts, was customary at the finest dinner tables of France. Always looking for new and delicious dishes, the monarchy expanded those choices to include pastries, as dairy, eggs and butter became more available and more popular. The best chefs used their culinary skills to create sumptuous sweets, and bread bakeries throughout Paris followed suit. Pastisseries soon appeared on the city streets, featuring mouth-watering pastries prominently displayed in their front windows.
The word “dessert” is derived from desservir which means “clear the table” in French, and the custom of serving something sweet after the main meal became popular with the upper classes. It didn’t take long for the general populace to experiment with custardy rich dishes, and the dessert course as we know it was born. Although simple cakes and pies had been around for centuries, they were usually served for special occasions and holidays, but the final dessert course became a hit for French gastronomes.
Royal and wealthy households hired pastry chefs, called pâtissies, whose expertise was increasingly in demand as the French developed their craving for these pastries, and cafes popped up around Paris to meet the demand, where one could enjoy a napoleon and a cup of coffee, or take home a few favorites.
Marie Antoinette, the last queen prior to the French Revolution, is often credited with ordering up some of the first pastries, which may have included petit fours and macaroons. Having a refined and demanding sweet tooth, she impressed her dinner guests with these new creations and munched on them privately in her boudoir. When there was a bread shortage in Paris, she purportedly delivered her famous line, “Let them eat cake.” (Queen Marie was not known for her compassion and generosity towards the commoners.)
One of the most famous French cookbooks, published in 1651 entitled Le Cuisinier François, included recipes from a “celebrity chef” named François Pierre, Sieur de la Varenne. He was the Julia Child of his time, and were he alive today he surely would have his own show on the Food Network, along with a complete line of designer pastry tools and baking pans. Francois shared recipes for many of the popular French pastries, so that the common folk could treat themselves, provided they had access to the rich and costly ingredients he used for his wealthy clientele.
Because of the abundance of fruit in America, many colonial sweets were prepared with apples, peaches, plums and berries. But with the influx of immigrants, each ethnic group brought its own recipes and opened bakeries and restaurants, introducing their indigenous foods. In the eighteenth century, thousands of French natives began to arrive on the shores of the New World, bringing their culinary skills with them and expanding America’s repertoire of desserts and sugary delights, not to mention waistlines. Of course, Thomas Jefferson, always one step ahead of the crowd, introduced new culinary finds from his trips to Paris and brought back champagne and pastry dough recipes for his legendary dinners at the White House.
What sets French pastries apart from other country’s sweets and cakes are several distinct differences:
Many French pastries are flaky from the liberal use of butter;
Preparation of French pastries is tedious and time-consuming, requiring precise measuring and baking;
Layers of buttery dough take time to roll out and demand precision by dedicated chefs;
Meringues, custards and mousses are labor-intensive; one slip up and you have a curdled mess;
Presentation is crucial, as French pastries are elegant and require artistic concentration;
Eclairs, madeleines, cream puffs, and napoleons head the list of favorites; and for the record, there is no evidence that napoleons were named for the French Emperor and military leader who shares the name, and it is highly doubtful he snacked on them during battles.
Renowned French chef Julia Child made it look easy. And she did more than her part to introduce Americans to the delights of French cuisine. But thanks to specialty bakeries and supermarket freezers, we can take the easy way out. Forgive us, Julia, but let us eat cake ready-made.