French desserts and pastries are legendary around the world. Discover three dozen delectable French sweets to sample when you travel to la Republique or at your local pastry shop.
When we think of the best pastry chefs in the world, many of them are French or at least have a French connection. Dessert greats of the past like Baba au Rhum creator Nicolas Stohrer and Paris Brest creator Louis Durand as well as present day pastry giants like Pierre Hermé and Dominique Ansel have proved their pastry mettle by transforming sugar and eggs into sweet masterpieces.
And why shouldn’t they be French? After all, the French, along with pastry legends from countries like Austria, Italy and Hungary, have been been leaders in creating, perfecting, serving and eating fancy desserts and pastries for centuries.
Sure, other countries excel at desserts too. We’ve eaten great desserts in the USA while countries like Japan meticulously refine and reinvent French dessert recipes. That being said, French bakers, like the acclaimed pastry chefs noted above, put the ooh into ooh la la when it comes to desserts in France.
→ Discover more than 100 desserts to eat around the world.
The Best Desserts in France
We’ve eaten classic desserts in France – a lot of them. In addition to eating pastries at more than 40 Parisian pâtisseries, we’ve savored more in cities like Beaune, Dijon, Lyon, Marseille and Strasbourg.
With our self-educated pastry pedigree in mind, we highly recommend the following French sweets when you visit France or pop into a French patisserie where you live, be it in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans or elsewhere in the world.
Not to be confused with mushy coconut Macaroons commonly eaten during Passover seders in America, France’s Macarons are fancified sandwich cookies baked with ingredients like egg whites, sugar and almond flour. Some bakers add vivid food coloring to create virtual Macaron rainbows. Others keep things more natural and create crunchy, creamy sandwiches that are muted, natural and still beautiful.
Ironically, the French may not have originally invented the Macaron. That honor apparently goes to Renaissance bakers in Italy. However, it’s fair to recognize world-renowned French bakeries like Ladurée and Pierre Hermé for perfecting the petite treat and turning it into a global phenomenon .
→ Discover 40 must-eat pastries in Paris.
2. Paris Brest
With a history that traces to a 1910 bike race between the French cities of Paris and Brest, the Paris Brest has passed the race of time. This ring-shaped choux pastry is a marvel with nutty praline cream in the center and powdered sugar dusting on top.
Since these round beauties aren’t as prevalent around the world as Macarons (see above) and Eclairs (see below), we typically eat a Paris Brest whenever we see one. That usually happens in Paris but sometimes life offers sweet surprises like that time we ate a classic Paris Brest at Le Petit Trois in Los Angeles. The pastry also provides a template for pastry chefs, especially in Paris, who create their own unique versions with each chef showcasing unique skills and artistry.
→ Discover more Paris food favorites.
Don’t be disappointed when you eat a Millefeuille. Despite a name that literally translates to thousand sheets, this French pastry typically has three pastry layers plus two more with cream. Despite the false advertising, a proper Millefeuille is both a gem and a treat.
While modern Millefeuille pastries often have a glazed black and white icing topper, the most traditional pastries have a sprinkling of powdered sugar instead. We liken the ones with icing to pastries sold as Napoleons at American diners. It’s a mystery how “Napoleon,” the alternate name for the Millefeuille, has become synonymous with the French classic. It may be due to the desserts’ popularity during the Napoleonic era but that remains a mystery.
→ Click here to order a 6-pack of Millefeuilles pastries from Amazon.
Be careful! One wrong move could transform a beautiful Soufflé into a beautiful mess. This culinary challenge makes the French dessert a sweeter treat for those willing to endure the trials and travails in making it. But what exactly is a Soufflé?
Dating back to the 18th century, the Soufflé got its name from the verb souffler which aptly means to inflate or to fluff. Meringue made with stiffly beaten eggs provides this dessert’s famous lift. While some Soufflé recipes feature savory ingredients like cheese, dessert Soufflés often have sauces made with chocolate, vanilla and even Grand Marnier liqueur.
→ Discover the best restaurants in Paris including Bistrot Paul Bert.
5. Crème Brûlée
When we used a small blow torch to burn the sugary tops of Crème Brûlées in our Philadelphia home, little did we know that we’d eventually eat Crème Brûlée in Lyon. We also didn’t know that we’d eventually savor Crema Catalanas in Girona and Leite Cremes in Lisbon.
While both France and Spain claim credit for inventing the custard dessert, the credit may actually go to the UK. The British have been eating Burnt Cream custards for centuries.
→ Click here to buy a miniature blow torch from Amazon if you want to make Crème Brûlée at home.
6. Mousse au Chocolat (Chocolate Mousse)
Called Mousse au Chocolat in France, Chocolate Mousse validates the concept of less is more when it comes to dessert. The only required ingredients in this French dessert are butter, eggs, salt, sugar and, of course, chocolate.
While this French dessert recipe is simple, the resultant foamy dessert is the opposite. Some chefs ramp up their Chocolate Mousse recipes with liqueurs and other ingredients. We heartily approve of these alterations.
France has a cadre of trendy pastries. The Éclair isn’t one of them. Or is it? While its history dates back to the 19th century, chefs like L’Éclair de Genie‘s Christophe Adam have brought new life to the old pastry standard.
The word éclair literally translates to flash of lightning. Ironically, that’s exactly how long it takes us to eat one of the oblong pastries made with pâte à choux (choux pastry), filled with crème patisserie (cream) and topped with glaçage fondant (fondant icing).
→ Click here to buy Adams’ Eclairs: Easy, Elegant and Modern Recipes and learn how to make Èclairs at home.
8. Mont Blanc
We first noticed the spaghetti-like Mont Blanc in Japanese dessert hotspots in Las Vegas and then in Tokyo. We later shared a classic version of the chestnut puree over patisserie cream concoction at Angelina, a top Paris patisserie that’s been serving strandy ‘mountains’ since 1903.
But the origin of the Mont Blanc may reach back further to the mid 1800s, with some versions traced to Alsace combining chestnut and cream. Whatever the origin story may be, the pastry’s name refers to the French Mountain’s permanence – something that makes this dessert a timeless classic.
→ Discover what to eat in the Alsacian city of Strasbourg.
If you’ve eaten an elephant ear or a palm heart or a pig’s ear, then you’ve probably eaten a Palmier. (Palmier is the french word for palm tree.) Different versions of this sugar-coated puff pastry exist in countries like China, Greece, Spain and Mexico but the original was baked in Paris.
Shell-shaped Madeleines may be the most distinctive little cakes in the world. They’re certainly the most buttery. But we’re not complaining. Julia Child liked eating Madeleines and we do too. The pastry’s origins and name may be monasterial but no one is totally sure.
We like sprinkling Madeleines with powdered sugar and dipping them into coffee. But, in a pinch, we’re happy to eat the little scalloped butter cakes on their own. It’s a sacrifice that we’re willing to make.
→ Click here to buy a Madeleine Baking Pan if you want to bake Madeleines at home.
11. Baba au Rhum
You may see versions of Rum Baba that are essentially cakes infused with rum that’s pre-poured before service. But our favorite versions of Baba au Rhum in France are cakes served with a literal bottle of rum offered, on the side, for pouring. The amount that poured to ‘infuse’ the cake is up to the diner.
The backstory of the original baba involves legendary pastry chef Nicolas Stohrer and an ingenious solution for cakes becoming dry during long journeys from Alsace to Paris. Rum was allegedly added around 1830 and there you have it.
Ironically, Babas are also popular in the city of Naples, Italy. This popularity may be a relic of French influence over the kingdom that was still alive in the 19th century. Or it may be due to the Italian city’s penchant for tasty treats.
→ Discover more tasty treats in Naples.
12. Kouighn Amann
Could there be a ‘greatest pastry in the world’ and, if so, what would it be? Perhaps the Kouign Amann fits the bill. Perfecting this four cornered pastry from Brittany has become a badge of honor for some of the world’s finest pastry wizards.
We experienced our first Kouign Amann, back when the pastry was brand new in the USA, at B. Patisserie in San Francisco. We became instant fans of the pastry that literally translates to butter cake in its native Breton dialect.
We’ve since enjoyed fabulous Kouign Amanns at Dominique Ansel in NYC and, more recently, we ate a fabulous version of it at Yann Couvreur in Paris. If you’re at any self respecting patisserie and you see a Kouign Amann in a display case, eat it.
→ Click here to buy Dominique Ansel’s cookbook if you want to learn how to bake Kouign Amann at home.
13. Tarte à la Praline (Praline Tart)
Upon arrival to our first (and certainly not only) trip to Lyon over 8 years ago, the city’s love of color struck us immediately. This was a visual city and everything about the town, from the gleaming lights on the river to the multicolored pastries at the Marche Paul Bocuse, was filled with vivid light and color. Among the colorful smorgasbord was a bright red praline that seemed to be peering out of every window.
Are Lyon’s pink Praline Tarts naturally colored? That would be a no. Apparently, they were created centuries ago by a chef who admired the colors of roses that grew in the beautiful Rhone valley. To us, they’re a crunchy, fun element of a vivid food culture that tastes as good as it looks.
→ Praline Tarts taste great with coffee. Discover Lyon’s best coffee shops.
14. Gâteau au Chocolat Fondu (Molten Chocolate Cake)
Gâteau au Chocolat Fondu is Chocolate Cake on steroids thanks to a warm chocolate center that flows like lava once the outer cake layer is pierced. Not surprisingly, this dessert is also called Chocolate Lava Cake.
While we’re confident that this decadent dessert is baked with butter, chocolate, eggs, flour and sugar, we’re not so sure about its origin. Although Jean-Georges Vongerichten claims to have invented Chocolate Molten Cake in New York, Jacques Torres asserts that it was invented in France.
Both of these chefs are French, so there’s a ‘French connection’ either way.
→ Click here to buy a set of Non-Stick Molds to make Chocolate Molten Cake at home.
Stepping into Paris’ Café Pouchkine is like stepping into the past. Ironically, that past is in Russia instead of France and the history is, more or less, fictional. The ‘original’ Cafe Pushkin was founded in Moscow by Russian-French restaurant magnate Andrei Dellos in 1999, meant to replicate a fictional cafe made popular in the 1964 French song Nathalie.
After the Moscow cafe’s success, Dellos opened a Parisian branch of the ornate Russian neo-baroque/aristocratic establishment on Place de la Madeleine. The cafe’s signature pastry, the Nathalie – a rectangular macaron-like sandwich cookie – comes in an assortment of flavors.
Filled with chocolate ganache and orange cream, the Nathalie we ate was nothing short of spellbinding. Flavors of chocolate and orange flavors danced in our mouths until the Nathalie was just a memory (and song) in our heads.
France’s choux pastry is incredibly versatile. You can add cheese to make Gougères, eat them plain as Popovers or go ‘all in’ and make Eclairs. However, the very best use may be Profiteroles.
Profiteroles are simply choux pastry puffs filled with whipped cream, pastry cream or ice cream. But there’s nothing simple about the exquisite taste that ensues when chocolate sauce is poured on top.
→ Click here to buy Mini Cream Puff Shells if you want a shortcut to making Profiteroles at home.
Some French pastries have definitive origin stories. The Canelé is not one of those pastries. While food historians trace the Canelé to Bordeaux, the exact details of its creation aren’t known.
What we do know is that the petit treat, flavored with both rum and vanilla, has a soft custardy center and a hard, caramelized shell.
Canelé can be tricky to perfect. Some pastry chefs create the thimble like pastries using small metal molds lubricated with beeswax in order to unmold these cute caramelized morsels. After eating Canelé in both Philadelphia and Paris, we know that these petite pastries pack a pleasant punch even if we haven’t yet baked them ourselves.
→ Click here to buy a Canelé Mold Cake Pan if you want to make Canelés at home.
French Meringue is the simplest Meringue since it doesn’t involve require a stove to make. Pastry chefs simply beat egg whites until they form peaks and slowly add in sugar. But that doesn’t mean that French pastry chefs don’t use Italian meringue to make ‘Meringues’ – the molded confections that are baked to crunchy perfection.
Meringue, whether French or Italian, is a key component in classic French desserts like the Floating Island, Macarons and Merveilleux just to name a few. However, calling a Meringue made in France simple is a relative term. Once you taste one, you’ll know what we mean.
19. Pâte de Fruits
Pâte de Fruits literally translates to fruit paste which sounds kind of icky. However, the French confection which involves cubing concentrated fruit product, along with sugar and pectin, into square jellies is a pure delight.
High end French restaurants like Maison Lameloise and Maison Bras typically serve Pâte de Fruits as part of the Petit Fours course, but don’t worry if you don’t have the time or budget for this type of meal…
20. Petit Fours
Petit Fours are proof that good things sometimes come in small packages. They’re also a great way to end meals and dinner parties in France.
Originally baked in small ovens (hence the name) during the bread making process, Petit Fours are no longer a baking afterthought. French bakers purposefully prepare tiny versions of éclairs as well as a variety of similarly tiny cakes, tarts meringues and macarons.
Our favorites are the ones coated with sweet icing.
→ Click here to buy the Petit Four Cookbook if you want to enjoy Petit Fours at home.
21. Pain d’Epices
Similar to what many would call Gingerbread in the United States, Pain d’Epices is an Alsatian quick bread usually baked with a variety of spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and, of course, ginger.
Although this bread is easily located in Strasbourg, it’s worth a special visit to Mireille Oster at her eponymous Pain d’Epices store in the Petite France neighborhood. It only seems right to eat Pain d’Epices in Strasbourg since the city is filled with houses straight out of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale.
It takes a lot of hubris to name a pastry Merveilleux (the french word for marvelous), but this particularly pastry lives up to its braggadocious name. The small pastry, which consists of meringue, whipped cream and chocolate shavings, tastes… marvelous.
Though it was invented in Belgium, French pastry chefs have welcomed the Merveilleux into their fold. Bakers at Aux Merveilleux de Fred, originally from nearby Lille, take the Merveilleux to the next level by creating airy puffs of sweetness in flavors including caramel, cherry, chocolate, coffee, praline and speculoos.
Financiers challenge the cliche that “money won’t buy you happiness.” These French pastries shaped in the form of gold bars will make you happy – at least for a few minutes and perhaps eve longer. They make our tastebuds happy every time we eat them too.
The simple Financier recipe includes sugar, flour and, occasionally, almond extract. Noted Paris pastry chef Ludovic Fontalirant makes his Financiers with a generous amount of pistachio while Pierre Herme adds hazelnut and almonds go his.
A Financier pairs well with coffee if you’re so inclined. This cake is the French essence of non-monetary fulfillment that won’t ‘break the bank’.
Popelini sells one pastry and one pastry only – choux pastry cream puffs by the same name. However, this Paris patisserie achieves diversity by offering 15 Popelini flavors plus a daily surprise. Expect to choose from a treasure trove of colorful pastries with flavors like lemon, raspberry rose and pistachio cherry.
Although Lauren Koumetz opened the original Popelini, a shop as petit as its cream puffs, back in 2011, she didn’t invent choux pastry cream puffs. That credit goes to an Italian chef back in the days of Catherine Medici. However, this American entrepreneur deserves credit for making them 100% French.
→ Discover other pastries created in Italy.
25. Tarte Tatin
The story behind the Tarte Tatin, France’s famous upside down apple tart, is a juicy one. It involves a Loire Valley hotel (Hotel Tatin), some overcooked apples and an ingenious tart flip ‘rescue’ that elevated the apple dessert to the pantheons of pastry greatness.
Unfortunately, the dessert’s origin is not as ingenious or definitive as we were led to believe. Apparently, according to historical records that date back to legendary Chef Antonin Carême, upside down tarts existed at least a few decades before Stéphanie Tatin rescued those overcooked caramelized apples.
Whether the story is true or not, there’s no denying that the classic French dessert with its gorgeous glazed top gets our prize for being the best apple dessert in the world. You can fight us on this one.
→ Click here to buy an Enameled Cast Iron Tatin Dish if you want to make an upside down apple tart at home.
26. Crêpes Suzette
We’re not going to do it. We’re not falling for another origin story involving the Prince of Wales, Monte Carlo or another happy accident. Instead, we’re focusing on the real genius of Crêpes Suzette… Flambé.
Flambé is the star of the show. It’s what makes desserts like Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee and, of course, Crêpes Suzette come to life.
In the case of Crêpes Suzette, ingredients like orange juice, orange zest, grand marnier and/or cointreau are combined and ‘flamed’ to make a magnifique sauce to which words can’t do justice. To illustrate the magic, we’re linking to one of the coolest food videos we’ve ever seen. This dude has mad skills and, yes, there are cats!
With roots in the region of southwestern region of Limousin, France’s Clafoutis celebrates the region’s black cherry bounty. Dating back to the 1800s, the baked custard batter dessert is filled with the tart yet sweet sweet fruit.
Julia Child included a cherry Clafoutis recipe in her iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking cookbook. The New York Times also has a Clafoutis recipe but that one calls for either blackberries or blueberries.
Call us purists but we prefer to eat ours with cherries. After all, it’s Mindi’s favorite fruit and Daryl likes them too.
→ Click here to buy a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking if you want to follow Julia Child’s Clafoutis recipe.
28. Île Flottante (Floating Island)
We enjoyed our first Ile Flottante, i.e. Floating Island, in a dark, candlelit bistro in Croix Rousse – the upper town of Lyon. In this unique dessert, a light cube of egg white literally floats on a ‘pond’ of sweet, lightly thickened cream. The meringue ‘island’ is then topped with spun sugar.
The history of this classic French dessert goes back to the 1700s and didn’t always involve egg whites. In the original version of Ile Flottante, the ‘island’ actually consisted of pieces of floating cake.
Our personal history with this dessert includes eating it at a French bistro in Philadelphia where the chef was from, you guessed it, Lyon.
→ Discover more great food in Lyon.
Don’t visit Du Pain et Des Idées in the evening if you want to try the wickedly popular boulangerie’s pistachio Escargot. The beautiful, infinitely layered snail-shaped pastry, which can best be described as a cross between a French Palmier and a Scandinavian Cinnamon Bun, will surely be sold out if you do.
Not only is this pastry one of the most photogenic pastries in Paris, it’s also one of the tastiest. With its buttery layers of pastry surrounding top-quality nut filling and a smattering of chocolate chips, we wouldn’t expect anything less. The bakery also sells escargot in a berry flavor that we can personally recommend if you’re not a pistachio fan.
Almond-shaped candies called Calissons weren’t invented in France. That honor probably goes to Venice. However, after over 400 years of production in Aix-en-Provence, it’s fair to call Calissons a French sweet treat.
We’re not the only ones who feel this way. Calissons d’Aix have achieved Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status as recognition of their ties to the region.
Alas, not everybody loves the glazed candy made with almond flour and candied fruit paste. We can’t say that we do ourselves. But there’s no argument the colorful confection is a sumptuous visual treat.
→ Click here to buy a box of traditional Calissons to see whether you’re in the Yay or Nay category.
31. Tarte au Citron (Lemon Tart)
Lemon tarts and pies are popular around the world. Some are have short bread crusts and others have meringue toppers. While they’re all good, none beat Tarte au Citron in France.
The Tarte au Citron might seem boring compared to the many unique French desserts in this guide. However, the opposite is true in France where pastry giants like Pierre Hermé and Cyril Lignac add their own twist to the deceptively simple French dessert.
Lignac pipes beautiful rows of teardrops framed in white chocolate while Herme chooses the deceptively simple route of filling a tart shell with a specially made light lemon cream.
32. Pain au Chocolat
Referring to a Pain au Chocolat as a Chocolate Croissant is a bit of a misnomer. While Croissants feature rolled long triangles, a Pain au Chocolate is made by rolling squares.
Now matter what you call it, the Viennoiserie pastry is a tasty treat that adds dark chocolate batons to ingredients like butter, eggs, flour and eggs. Sure, many of these ingredients are the same used to bake Croissants. However, adding chocolate turns the flaky roll into a sweet treat. We approve!
→ Click here to buy semi-sweet chocolate batons if you want to attempt baking Pain au Chocolate at home.
The Kougelhopf differs from many of French pastries in this guide.
For one thing, it wasn’t invented in France. Instead, the bready cake (or is it a cakey bread?) was invented in Austria. Also, though the Kougelhopf is a staple in Alsacian cities like Strasbourg, you won’t easily find a Kougelhopf in Paris.
It all comes down to geography and history. Strasbourg was part of the German empire until 1681 and is located just two miles from France’s border with Germany. It also comes down to taste. Studded with raisins and baked in a mushroom-like shape, the Kougelhopf is a fantastic bakery treat.
→ Click here to buy a Nordic Ware Kugelhopf Bundt Cake Pan if you want to bake a Kugelhopf at home.
34. Crème Glacée (Ice Cream)
The French didn’t invent ice cream and they can’t claim world dominance for the frozen dessert. That honor likely goes to Italy for its globally popular Gelato. France is also overshadowed by countries like Australia, USA and New Zealand when it comes to ice cream consumption.
But don’t rule out eating ice cream in France.
Crème Glacée (ice cream in French) is serious business, with some of it produced by MOF pastry chefs. Flavors run the gamut from simple vanilla to more exotic flavors like the orange carrot ginger scoop we ate at Une Glace à Paris.
35. Bûche de Noël (Yule Log)
French people have two different Bûche de Noël traditions during the holiday season. One is to burn a decorated yule log in the fireplace. The other is to bake and eat a cake that looks like one of those fancy logs. We prefer the second option.
More than just a doppelganger, a Bûche de Noël cake is an impressive culinary creation that involves rolling iced sponge cake into a cylinder and decorating it with chocolate buttercream icing, ganache, twigs, berries and other decorative embellishments.
Since this unique French dessert is seasonal, we say go for it if you travel to France in December. Just be careful not to eat the non-edible log option.
36. Fromage (Cheese)
Ahhh Fromage!! Cheese is one of the great wonders of the food world and, in our opinion, the best of it is found in France.
There’s no debate that fromagers sell some of the best cheese in France. The greatest varieties of the stuff include luscious creamy goat cheeses and brie from Île de France near Paris, stinky wheels of Abby Cheeses like Époisses from Burgundy, salty tongue-piercing blues from Roquefort, sweet alpine cheeses like Comté and Beaufort from the Alps and Camembert from Normandy.
When you eat out in France, a cheese course is something to savor. Can you also enjoy Fromage as a dessert substitute? Of course you can. It’s absolutely acceptable and available on almost every French menu.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.