Photo: pain au chocolat © Luc Viatour

As soon as I decided to start writing about French pastries for this blog, I realized how little I actually understood about the technical differences among the various forms of French sweet baked goods. For example, what exactly is viennoiserie and how is it different from pâtisserie? If I write about something made from choux pastry, is that a viennoiserie or a pâtisserie? I considered sitting down for a little interview with my friend Arno—a former boulanger … or was that pâtissier … or both?—but I ended up doing some research on my own instead, and I think I’ve figured it out, so here goes:

je parle américain’s
Basic French Pastry Primer
(or useless information for your next visit to the boulangerie

Introduction, or “Bread” versus “Pastry”

In general, “pastry” (in French, “pâtisserie“) refers to a wide variety of baked products made from ingredients such as flour, sugar, milk, butter, shortening, leavening, and/or eggs. It’s not necessary, of course, that each of these ingredients be used in every kind of pastry dough; that’s why every pastry is special in its own way. In fact, there are at least nine or ten different kinds of pastry dough used in French baking to produce baked goods as varied as brioche (sweet bread) and the sablé (roughly equivalent to the cookie we call a sandy). Generally speaking, pastry can be differentiated from bread by its higher fat content, which gives it a flakier or crumblier texture.

Understanding the very basic distinction between bread and pastry leads us to the next very important (if less straightforward) distinction in French baking: viennoiserie or pâtisserie?

Chapter I: How Paris Became More Viennese Than Vienna

Viennoiserie refers to a family of French pastries made from (1) a pâte viennoise (a leavened, sweetened dough so-named because of its origin in Vienna) or (2) a pâte feuilletée (puff pastry dough, which is not leavened but puffs during cooking because of its many layers of dough and the air that rests between them). It was an Austrian military officer, August Zang, who introduced Viennese-style baked goods to to a larger French public than that which resided at Versailles when he opened his Boulangerie Viennoise on Paris’s rue de Richelieu sometime between 1837 and 1839. It was not until 1877, however, that the first reference to pâtisseries viennoises appeared in print, in the book Le nabob by French author Alphonse Daudet. It did not take long, though, for Viennese-style pastries to become more synonymous with Paris than with Vienna. To quote my husband, Michel:

“Ils [les Autrichiens] nous ont donné le savoir-faire et on en a fait de la magie.”
“They [the Austrians] gave us the know-how, and we made magic from it.”

Generally speaking, one can recognize a viennoiserie by its bread-like quality. Well-known examples of viennoiserie include brioche (the closest pastry to “bread” and what Marie Antoinette reportedly said the peasants should eat in lieu of the bread they did not have), the croissant, the chausson aux pommes (the French equivalent of an apple turnover), the pain au chocolat, the pain aux raisins, and the palmier.

Chapter II: Everything Else

While viennoiserie is really a specific form of pâtisserie, the term pâtisserie evokes in the French mind the rest of the pastry family, generally less bread-like and more cake- or cookie-like pastries. That’s to say that the wide of array of delectable gourmandises off to the side of the breads and the viennoiseries at your local bakery are what the French would actually call pâtisseries, and the selection is wide and varied. They can be categorized most easily by the type of dough used to make them:

    •  Pâte à choux is an unleavened batter made from butter, water, flour, and eggs and which puffs because of the water content, and is usually filled with a pastry cream and glazed. The most common pâtisseries made from pâte à choux are the éclair, the profitérole (what we sometimes call a “cream puff”), the religieuse, and the divorcé. Think “baked donuts”—in fact, when choux pastry is fried, it becomes a beignet.

    • Pâte à babas is a leavened batter used to make babas au rhum, which are dense little cakes soaked in rum, other liquors, or syrups to soften them.

    • Pâtes battues (“beaten batters”) are a family of leavened batters used to make other familiar cake-like desserts. The pâte génoise is one variety used for the dry cake that is layered with creams or icings in the fraisier, the Forêt noir, tiramisù, and the opéra, pictured above on the right. The pâte à madeleine is the variety used to make the cake-like dessert of the same name, pictured below on the left. The pâte à biscuit is the variety used to make cookies.
    • Pâtes friables (“crumbly doughs”) are unleavened doughs—sablée (“sandy”) or brisée (“broken”)used to make pie crusts for classic French tartes like the tarte au citron pictured just below. These doughs are also used to make savory tartes like quiches.

    • Pâte phyllo is an unleavened, paper-thin dough used in Middle-Eastern desserts like baklava which—while not traditionally French—are very common in French bakeries, especially in certain neighborhoods of Paris and its suburbs with large populations of North African origin.
    • Finally, pâte tournée (“turned batter”) is a leavened batter used to make “cake” or gâteaux des fruits—our “fruitcake.” See? It’s not just an American tradition to make a cake that gets recycled every year at Christmas.
Conclusion, or That was Yummy

So, there you have it. Probably much more information than you wanted or will ever need to know … unless you’re looking for a job in a French bakery. Still confused? No problem. I am too. This little primer is surely full of mistakes and mischaracterizations—I’m not a baker after all—but the rule of thumb is pretty simple:

If its not bread, then it’s a pâtisserie, but if it’s bread-like and sweet (flaky or not), then it’s a viennoiserie.

Of course, you don’t really need to know any of this to order your next croissant or éclair, but it might just come in handy if the Final Jeopardy category is French Baking.

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

21 thoughts on “A French Pastry Primer

  1. A friend of mine (French girl living in Paris) sent me this. What a great information – thanks! I am glad to know my vague guess on the Vienoisserie subject was on the right track.🙂

    1. I’m glad you found it useful! I’m a big lover of French pastries (much to the detriment of my waistline), so I loved researching and writing this post. If you’re into French pastries and other yummy things, check out the other posts under the “j’suis gourmand” heading on the home page. You might like them, too!

  2. Thanks for the primer! It makes me wonder: I’ve become a total chouquette addict lately, and I wonder if their name comes from a pâte à choux that is used? Their dough seems like it might fit the description. Maybe I’m way off base but I thought you might have some insight into such things.

    1. Yes indeed! That’s exactly where the name comes from. Chouquette means “little cabbage” (from “chou” for cabbage + “ette” for the diminutive form + the euphonic “qu”), and they are indeed made from pâte à choux, which takes its name from the fact that it was first used to make little puffs that looked like cabbages. Don’t you love it when etymology meets gastronomy?

  3. Wow. This article just stimulated my desire to actually fly to Paris someday to try their acclaimed pastry selection.

  4. I remembered in France as a little girl going to a special “patisserie”, called ” Madame Casimajoux” when I stayed at my grandmother during the summer vacation….1956…….(..Wow! I feel so young! because I can remember.) My great uncle, Roger, used to take me to the shop once a month;I still can hear the little chime as you pushed the door opened….. You had to wait a few minutes, and then came” Madame Casimajoux”,She would always say:” Bonjour Catherine, Tonton Is going to spoil you!”….
    And then it was a symphony of …pains au chocolat, pains au raisins, But my favourite was a ” religieuse”, this little puff pastry, filled with crème patissiere and that lovely crème au beurre around the even smaller little pastry puff, above like a head….and it that particular village of France it was covered in a “fondant” of the colour green of pistachios, and if you were lucky a little addition of “Angelique”…………

  5. Pingback: Dory Travels

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