Step aside, top chefs! Pastry chefs are the new rock stars. With pastry cream and spun sugar in hand, these cake-baking, dessert-creating fiends are taking their places in the spotlight! And in honor of these brave bakers, we've put together a list of some of the most decadent pastries ever conceived.
You won't find plain old vanilla cupcakes or chocolate chip cookies on this list. No, these 10 desserts trump those old standbys. Get ready to drool and kick into a sugar high as you click through the following pages. Bon appétit!
Currently enjoying a popularity surge in the United States, macarons are a staple in French pastry shops. Many confuse them with macaroons, which, while also delicious, are made with coconut and are chewy. Macarons are made with egg whites (meringues), ground almonds and sugar. These petite treats are a favorite snack to pair with a mid-afternoon cup of coffee or tea.
Macarons sort of look like tiny hamburgers -- two pieces of sweet meringue glued together with a creamy center. Pastry chefs get very creative with the fillings. You'll see chocolate ganache, lemon, pistachio, fruit purée, violet, and even off-the-wall fillings like violet or foie gras. Macarons really allow a baker to be inventive!
You might know profiteroles by another name -- the cream puff. These miniature treats are made from choux pastry, which is a simple, light, round pastry that's relatively easy to make. Profiteroles are decadent confections you can make at home. The choux pastry is cut in half, and sandwiched in between the two halves is whipped or pastry cream. Sometimes, it's filled with ice cream and topped with warm chocolate sauce. Yum! By the way, the word "profiterole" comes from the word "profit," which means "to derive benefit from." We completely agree with that sentiment!
New Orleans is famous for all kinds of food and drink, but one of its most celebrated treats is the beignet. The beignet is sort of like a doughnut, but if you've ever had one, you know that it's much more than that. A beignet is yeast dough, raised, fried and then liberally dusted with powdered sugar. And unlike the doughnut, it doesn't have a hole, which is just fine with us -- more beignet to eat! The New Orleans coffee shop Café du Monde is a well-known spot to stop for chicory coffee and fresh, hot beignets. You'll find hungry tourists and locals there at all hours.
Who doesn't love a chocolate éclair? Like the profiterole, an éclair is made with choux pastry. But unlike a profiterole, which is round, an éclair is long and thin. The hollow inside is filled with pastry cream or custard and topped with a frosting -- usually chocolate. Food historians actually don't know a lot about the invention of éclairs. But they believe these rich desserts were created in the late 1700s to the early 1800s, probably by a French pastry chef to royalty. The éclair is definitely a confection fit for a king.
"Mille-feuille" is French for "a thousand leaves." These stacked pastries are also known as Napoleons. Mille-feuilles are made of many layers of puff pastry alternating with pastry or whipped cream. The top is glazed with icing, traditionally in combed white and brown chocolate. When making mille-feuilles, chefs generally use long pieces of pastry and then cut them into individual serving sizes with a serrated knife. You can also find savory mille-feuilles, filled with things like cheese or spinach instead of cream. We'll stick with the sweet ones, though!
Very popular in India, gulab jamun are little balls of fried dough soaked in sugar syrup. The dough is made with khoya, which is thickened fresh milk. Sometimes flour is added to the dough to make it easier to roll into balls. The sugar syrup is usually flavored with cardamom and rosewater, but is sometimes paired with saffron or honey. Gulab jamun grew out of an Arabic dessert called Luqmat Al-Qadi. Traditionally, gulab jamun is served at festivals or celebrations like weddings.
Croissant aux Amandes
The croissant amande, or almond croissant, is a classic French pastry. Traditional croissants are delicious enough -- so buttery and melt-in-your-mouth. But croissants aux amandes take it a bit further. Filled with almond cream, they are extremely rich. Croissant aux amandes were originally devised as a way to move out day-old croissants from French bakeries. Bakers take the croissants, fill them up with a delicious almond cream (made with almond powder, sugar and eggs) and sprinkle the tops with sliced almonds. The croissants are baked until the cream is set and the edges are crispy. We're drooling just thinking about them!
Any Italian bakery worth its weight in salt (or sugar?) carries dozens of mouth-watering cannoli. Cannoli are so rooted in Italian culture, they even get their own shout-out in the famous film "The Godfather," with the line, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." Cannoli are tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, piped full of a rich cream that contains ricotta cheese. You'll find lots of variations, including chocolate-dipped pastry shells, pistachio nuts, citrus peel or candied cherries.
Did you know: The singular form of cannoli is cannolo. But who can eat just one?
Opera cakes, much like their namesakes, are works of art with several acts. To wit -- an opera cake contains the following wonderfulness:
If that's not decadent enough for you, each piece of opera cake is finished with an edible, shiny gold leaf. The cake debuted sometime around the early 1900s, named after the Paris Grand Opera. We're pretty sure this confection will make your taste buds sing!
We don't think desserts get more decadent or fun than a traditional croquembouche. Croquembouche is a pyramid of profiteroles -- as you remember, profiteroles are small balls of choux pastry stuffed with pastry cream. The pyramid is held together with a caramel glaze and is usually decorated with spun sugar. Traditionally a French wedding cake, "croquembouche" means "crack in one's mouth" because of the crunch you get from the hardened caramel. Some people also drizzle warm dark chocolate over the pyramid. The traditional way to serve croquembouche at a wedding is to whack it with a sword, and the bridesmaids catch the pieces in a tablecloth. Festive!
So, have we awoken your taste buds? For more about baking and pastries, check out the mouth-watering links on the next page.
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- "Croquembouche." Savoy Catering. 2010. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://www.savoycatering.com/new_page_2.htm
- Dosoulier, Clotilde. "Almond Croissants." Chocolate & Zucchini. March 6, 2006. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://chocolateandzucchini.com/archives/2006/03/almond_croissants.php
- "Food Dictionary: mille-feuille." Epicurious. 1995. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://www.epicurious.com/tools/fooddictionary/entry/?id=3505
- "Gulab jamun." CuisineOnline.com. Sept. 18, 2010. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://www.cuisineonline.pk/culinary-heritage/gulab-jamun/
- Jargon, Julie and Passariello, Christina. "Mon Dieu! Will Newfound Popularity Spoil the Dainty Macaron?" Wall Street Journal. March 2, 2010. (Oct.18, 2010) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704269004575073843836895952.html
- Jaworski, Stephanie. "Profiteroles." JoyofBaking.com. 2010. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://www.joyofbaking.com/Profiteroles.html
- Oleson, Jessie. "L'Operation: Learning to Love (and Make) the Opera Cake." CakeSpy.com. May 28, 2008. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://www.cakespy.com/blog-old/2008/5/28/loperation-learning-to-love-and-make-the-opera-cake.html
- Oleson, Jessie. "Love is in the Eclair: Some Sweet History, and a Daring Bakers Challenge." CakeSpy.com. Aug. 31, 2008. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://www.cakespy.com/blog-old/2008/8/31/love-is-in-the-eclair-some-sweet-history-and-a-daring-bakers.html
- Stradley, Linda. "Beignets History." What's Cooking America. 2004. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/BeignetsHistory.htm