HomeGeneralClassic French Pastry: A Benchmark of Quality

Classic French Pastry: A Benchmark of Quality

To state that French pastries are an incredible historical feat is undoubtedly stating the obvious. However, equally prominent is the notion that the untethered history of American pastry gives license to the creation of French pastry with any manner of flavor substitution and neo-classic variation. These variations may be derived from the chef’s background, personal experience, or creative vision.

Profiteroles from Le Select

As I have written before, our greatest strength is our greatest weakness. Our culinary terrain is constantly in flux; many styles co-exist in the stream, bubbling up occasionally to catch the public’s attention. Many of these ‘new’ flavors and combinations are exciting and sometimes tasty, and we can all enjoy a dessert world where ube-filled croissants and green tea crêpes can exist.

That said, two things are undeniable. First, these items live on the brilliance of documented French recipes, and second, most will need a perfectly executed classic French pastry such as the Mont Blanc, St. Honoré, Paris-Brest, Religieusse, and Eclair. When I was younger, I had the privilege of experiencing a class taught by Chef Olivier Bajard on classic pastries using only pâte à choux and buttercream. These two recipes can create the basis for each of the recipes above. Simply astonishing.

In Chicago, there are several examples of new establishments returning to the pure aesthetic of unadulterated French classics. One such bakery is Verzênay Chicago (https://www.verzenaychicago.com/). Pâtissiere Arshiya and her husband Aqeel started their small business in January 2014, selling French pastries at Green City Market and supplying hotels and coffee shops. In July 2021, Verzênay opened its very first store in Lincoln Park. Every day, their pastry case is filled with eclairs, tarts, cakes and other pastries faithfully rooted in tradition. One of their favorites is the Royale Pastry, which is layered with a chocolate biscuit, hazelnut feuilletine crunch, and chocolate hazelnut praline. You will also find my favorites, Mont Blanc, a 19th-century pastry featuring sweetened chestnut purée and Chantilly cream that resembles a snowcapped mountain, and Paris-Brest, a famous pastry originating in 1910, consisting of choux pastry and praline cream.

“I focus mainly on French classics and sources from farmers, because this provides a solid foundation for preparing food rich in flavor and texture and a clear benchmark on what’s good versus grand, as classics are what chefs from all over the world have mastered over time,” says Arshiya. “In addition, this food creates nostalgia that breaks barriers and connects people across borders. This experience is significant to me, as I grew up in India, trained in Paris, and now run a pâtisserie in Chicago to establish a clear vision of offering the classics.”

Diners can experience exceptional versions of French classics at the recently opened Le Select Restaurant (https://www.leselectchicago.com) rendered by seasoned Pastry Chef Casey Doody, who holds the position of Director of Pastry with Boka Restaurant Group. Her dessert menu for Le Select reads like a dissertation on classic pastry, featuring Profiteroles “Tradition” (choux pastry rounds filled with vanilla ice cream and adorned tableside with warm chocolate sauce), Savarin au Rhum (rum-soaked brioche whipped cream), Tarte aux Pralines Roses (red praline tart, crème fraiche) and Coupe Foret Noire (cherry sorbet, chocolate cake, kirsch, cream).

“French pastries are by the book. There is no coloring outside the lines with French pastries. Instead, they require precise techniques essential to creating the result. It’s something that’s taught early on and evolves your entire career,” Chef Casey explains. “I’ve enjoyed eating it all, but the biggest reward in perfecting each dessert is transporting diners from Chicago to Paris with each bite.”

The newly opened Pistores Pizza and Pastry (https://www.eatpistores.com) from Chef Joel Reno and Cake Artist Andrea Alverez may seem like an unlikely venue to experience pastry rooted in the classics. Still, their story, rooted in French history, reveals why great pastry can exist anywhere. In medieval times, the Latin word “pistor” was given to the person who would make and bake dough for the town. A clear distinction was made between a “fornarii,” who would solely bake bread, and “pistores,” who were the sole makers and bakers of dough and sweet dough in 1200s Paris. With time and creativity, the profession grew, and the term “pistor” was replaced with “patissier” to designate a pastry chef and “boulangerie” to describe a bread maker.

In honor of a long-lost culinary art, Andrea and Joel chose “pistores” to reignite the craft and showcase Joel’s work as a true modern-day “pistor”. Classic dessert selections include a Blueberry Violet Tart with blueberry compote, vanilla cream, candied violet, Baba Rum with mango and light vanilla, and ‘Tropical,’ a petite gateau withroasted pineapple and coconut. In addition to stunning pastries, Pistores offers a selection of macarons and candies, and Andrea creates gorgeous wedding cakes, such as the classic Croquembouche tiered cake constructed from filled profiteroles, each dipped in caramelized sugar and separated by layers of nougatine (cast rounds of caramelized sugar and nuts). Andrea Alvarez from Pistores states, “I firmly believe it is our responsibility to keep the classics alive. They take time to study, practice, and perfect. All pastries as we know them come from the curiosity of those French people who started it all.”

French pastries have long been the standard for excellence in our industry. A particular responsibility exists for pastry chefs to learn the recipes and history early and practice them often. To display the ability to execute these desserts indeed proves mastery of our craft. Any chef exploring these desserts at length is sure to strengthen their skills and fall in love with the art repeatedly.

(This article appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Jimmy MacMillan
Jimmy MacMillan
Jimmy MacMillan is a celebrated pastry chef, food writer, and award-winning videographer. Working under the label Pastry Virtuosity, his mission is to inspire and nurture pastry chefs and sweet businesses one project at a time. For more information, visit: www.pastryvirtuosity.com.