When you eat at least five pastries a day for months on end, only the greatest work can stand out. It’s been a haze of sugar, pâte sablée, fruit, chocolate and crème, but it’s through that gauntlet of gluttony that I am honored to present Paris Pâtisseries’ 38 Best Pastries in Paris for 2011.
Why 38? Because there were less than 39 and more than 37 exquisite pastries I’ve encountered in the last 2 years of binging. They’re but a small fraction of everything I’ve experienced. Some are the perfection of French classics. Others completely redefine the idea of those same timeless works. Many of the pieces in the following list push the envelope of imagination and originality. All these pastries are marvels of flavor; most are great works of texture, as well. I hope you have the chance to experience them for yourself.
PLEASE NOTE: This page has since been edited to remove several pastries no longer carried by the shops or which no longer meet all criteria for recommendations. It’s now technically a Top 32 😉
Tarte au Citron by Jacques Genin
Jacques Genin is the greatest classic pastry chef in Paris. The Tarte au Citron is his masterwork. It should be no surprise that the one cookbook he has written is about a single pastry – the Tarte au Citron and its many variations. Cradled by the most elegant and delicious lightly vanilled pâte sucrée imaginable, resides a lemon crème that deftly unites acidity, sweetness, smoothness and a half-dozen intangible facets of excellence. This pastry so vastly exceeds the quality of all other lemon tartes that it should be considered the genesis of the very idea of a “tarte au citron”. It is beyond perfect.
Pomme Tatin au Sirop d’Érable by Des Gâteaux et du Pain
This combination of pecans, apples, maple crème, pâte sucrée aux éclats de noix, and caramel-imbibed biscuit cuillere is nothing short of unbridled deliciousness. For that alone, the Pomme Tatin could make the list. What’s propelled it to the #2 spot is its hyper-extraordinary textural balance. Des Gâteaux’s chef pâtissière, Claire Damon, might well be peerless in her command of textures. This is the finest example of that genius.
Éclair au Chocolat by Jacques Genin
Monsieur Genin’s mastery of the éclair is virtually undisputed. Of all the pastry snobs and foodies I know who’ve had it, I can’t think of a single person who would suggest there might be another even half as good. Much like with his Tarte au Citron, once you’ve had it, the idea of sampling anyone else’s seems masochistic. I even had a reader who recently wrote to tell me that having this éclair, at my suggestion, was one of the 10 greatest food experiences of her life. Its magnificence cannot be overstated.
Tarte Caramel Salé by Sadaharu Aoki
For those of you familiar with Twix candy bars, imagine having one that’s approximately one billion times better. That’s the Tarte Caramel Salé. Buttery, crumbly crust cupping a gooey pool of salty caramel – all crowned with a swirling milk chocolate crème that’s been artfully dusted in cocoa. It’s going to change your life.
Gourmandises Constellation by Pierre Hermé
For a month after the Constellation came out, I had it for breakfast almost every day. The cardamom-laced Mascarpone and Gariguette strawberries are plenty to make someone fall in love, but when combined with a thin layer of orange marmalade and then sandwiched between two layers of choux – each of which is covered in small sugar nibs and heavily toasted almond bits – it’s just magic.
Choux Pistache aux Fruits Rouges by Un Dimanche à Paris
There’s just something about cocoa nib croustillant-covered choux holding a lightly sweetened and intensely flavored mélange of cherries, raspberries and more – all of which overflows with a pillowy-light pistachio Chantilly. It’s safe to say I’ve eaten this at least 100 times. And, no, I’m not exaggerating.
Baba au Rhum by Jacques Genin
The pastries you purchase in a shop are distinct from the plated pastries you’re served in a restaurant. While all of Jacques Genin’s work can be purchased to go, there’s one so new and special that – at least for the time being – it’s only available plated by Monsieur Genin himself. He prepares just a few each day. None of the other chefs at his pâtisserie are allowed to touch it yet. You just have to go in (shoot for between 1:30 and 3) and enjoy this amazing unity of a transcendent 30-year-old rum, Madagascan vanilla crèmes and pineapple. It might seem conspicuous that I’ve put three Jacques Genin pieces in the top 10 of this list, but once you’ve had them you’ll understand.
Macaron Fleur d’Oranger by Ladurée
The only way to describe these little ladies is to say that . . . it’s like eating springtime. Assuming you love floral tones, you’re almost guaranteed to be blown away by these. I wouldn’t hesitate buying a box of 12 of just this parfum by itself. They’re fantastic.
J’Adore la Fraise by Des Gâteaux et du Pain
Claire Damon’s original version of the J’Adore la Fraise (above) was a delicious celebration of strawberries. When she later replaced the white chocolate exterior with an unbelievably tender and impossibly perfect almond gâteau, it entered another dimension. As with her Pomme Tatin (at the #2 position above), it’s not only a delight for the taste buds but also one of the greatest textural marvels in Paris.
Marie Antoinette by Carl Marletti
For those of you familiar with Pierre Hermé’s Ispahan, the above will look conspicuously familiar: pink macaron shells sandwiching raspberries and rose creme. The key difference is the Marie Antoinette contains no litchi, but it does employ a sinfully sweet raspberry confit and a studding of candied violets. Those small changes make it a significant improvement over the already-delectable original. Among the first Parisian pastries I ever fell in love with, the Marie Antoinette is definitely one not to miss.
Macaron Réglisse by Un Dimanche à Paris
I’d long been a lover of Ladurée’s macaron réglisse . . . until I discovered these from Un Dimanche à Paris. I’d literally buy boxes of them 4 or 5 days a week. It’s impossible to describe not only how exquisite the flavor was but also the texture. That interplay of the shell, crème and sugar granules was otherwordly. You might be wondering why I’m using the past tense in describing them. Sadly, it’s because they were discontinued. Loved by those who enjoy réglisse and avoided by all those who find réglisse/licorice more than a little off-putting, there wasn’t enough demand to keep it in the case. If you’re a réglisse lover and you stop by Un Dimanche à Paris, please be sure to ask if the Macaron Réglisse is coming back yet. Seriously. With enough people clamoring for it, I’ve been assured it can make a return.
Tutti Frutti by Café Pouchkine
Café Pouchkine, as helmed by Emmanuel Ryon, makes some of the most beautiful pastries in Paris. They also happen to be among the most delectable. Both the eyes and the palate can be thoroughly amused with this mélange of dragon fruit, blueberries, kiwi, mango, and more – all of which cling to a delicate gelée engorged with liquid strawberry deliciousness. The gâteau base rounds out the fruit explosion and creates an incredibly elegant textural harmony.
Grand Cru by La Pâtisserie des Rêves
You might be thinking this looks like the most decadent chocolate dessert ever, and you might just be right. It’s layer after layer of fine Venezuelan chocolate preparations: glaçage, mousse, ganache, biscuit. Not only will you feel guilty with every bite, but you’ll be left inconsolable and wanting more when you’re done. Buy two. Fight through the shame and just love it.
Éclair au Sésame Noir by Sadaharu Aoki
Filling an éclair with black sesame crème patissière will seem a little strange to some people and profoundly delicious to others. Riding a perfect line between sweet and savory, it’s like no other piece on the list. Even as I respect Monsieur Aoki’s Tarte Caramel Salé enough to put it at the #5 spot, this is actually my personal favorite piece from the master.
Macaron Coquelicot by Un Dimanche à Paris
After reading an article on Le Bonbon au Palais (the greatest candy shop in all of Paris), I became hopelessly addicted to their coquelicot (poppy flower) marshmallows. I’d go in almost every day for a pack of 8-12 of them. Then I’d wander back to my neighborhood, stopping by Un Dimanche à Paris, where I’d share a few marshmallows and other candies with the staff. Chef pâtissier, Quentin Bailly, took a bit of a shine to the marshmallow and said that he might be able to do something with coquelicot if he could find a nice natural extract. Several weeks later, the Macaron Coquelicot was in the case. It’s as intensely floral as it is insanely tasty. For any fan of other floral tones, such as rose, fleur d’oranger and violet, this is absolutely one macaron not to pass up.
Éclair au Caramel by Jacques Genin
Last June, I went to a picnic organized by ParisbyMouth.com and brought some of Jacques Genin’s caramels to share with the crowd. I also brought a caramel éclair just for myself. Before I was able to eat it, one of the other attendees effused to me about how amazing Fauchon’s caramel éclair was. So I nonchalantly suggested we split the Genin éclair I’d brought along. The words hadn’t even come out of her mouth – I could just see it in her expression – before she shook her head and went, “Yeah, nevermind what I said about Fauchon’s. That’s incredible.” Monsieur Genin’s mastery of the classics is unequalled. Make sure you visit his shop; it’s part of a life well-lived.
Napoléon by Café Pouchkine
Defying the traditional form of the Napoléon, Monsieur Ryon has nonetheless crafted a masterpiece. The crackling simplicity of the exterior belies a gooey dreamy heart of textures and vanilla-imbued deliciousness. This is the kind of pastry you want to eat when no one’s looking – just so you can jam it into your face in less than a minute, then sigh at the memory of it all.
Tarte Vanille by Pierre Hermé
Monsieur Hermé has crafted one of the greatest works of vanilla in the history of time. By blending Tahitian, Madagascan and Mexican pods, then pummeling our tastebuds with them through a layered series of the most sublime crèmes, he might well have ruined all future vanilla gelato and ice cream experiences you’ll ever have. It’s also quite a sweet piece, so get your insulin ready.
Or Noir by Café Pouchkine
Should you be the type of person who can only accept sarrasin honey-perfumed chocolate mousse, the Or Noir is for you. In concert with a nice almond biscuit, crousstillant of caramelized hazelnuts, light vanilla crème, and caramelized pecans, it’s a decadent taste sensation. It also happens to be a phenomenal series of meticulously executed textures. Your mouth will rarely be left so happy.
Le Merveilleux by Un Dimanche à Paris
Le Merveilleux is indeed un merveil (a marvel). That delicate meringue, smooth chocolate mousse, and gooey fleur d’oranger crème wait patiently to be devoured – all tucked beneath a sparkling coat of white chocolate. It quickly became one of the most popular pieces at Un Dimanche when it debuted earlier this past summer. Among the most original pieces in Paris these days, I enthusiastically recommend checking it out.
Macaron Violette by Sadaharu Aoki
I tend to prefer Monsieur Aoki for his tartes and petits gâteaux, but this macaron is too awesome to pass up. Not only is the shell done exceptionally well, but the violet deliciousness within is as transcendent as it is curiously translucent. Of the three floral macarons on the list, this is definitely the most potent. But if you love all-things-flowery, you’re going to be taken with this Macaron Violette.
Tarte Fine Porcelana by Pierre Hermé
For those of you not familiar with the concept of Porcelana chocolate – it’s an albino Venezuelan Criollo. Put another way . . . it’s literally a dark chocolate that’s a white chocolate. Only through processing do the white beans take on a more conventional dark brown hue. Monsieur Hermé has done this ultra rare and precious bean justice by way of a thin beautifully tempered layer, riding atop a silky smooth ganache, which itself rests upon a very interesting and delightfully gritty cornmeal crust. It helps to be a bit of a choco-snob, in order to fully appreciate it, but it’s delicious no matter how much context you have for fine darks.
Macaron Fraise Coeur Pistache by Café Pouchkine
Café Pouchkine is one of the few shops in Paris that actually flavors their macaron shells. Sure, virtually every shop does it for their chocolate macs, but almost every other macaron is just enhanced with food coloring. Chef pâtissier Emmanuel Ryon has taken a strawberry shell and filled it with among the finest pistachio crème preparations one could ask for. Even though there’s an inverted version of it (pistachio shell with a strawberry interior), this was my one true macaron love at Pouchkine – not to say I didn’t routinely buy others. If you love pistachio macs, make sure to snag at least a half dozen of these.
Tartelette Fraise-Coco by Un Dimanche à Paris
In contrast to the preceding H&V piece, the Tartelette Fraise-Coco from Un Dimanche is a sticky-sweet sugary work of blissfully assaultive strawberry tones. Accented lightly by coconut and a mild tarte shell, its addictive qualities should not be underestimated. Best purchased before noon and savored with some hot chocolate at the counter of the shop, it’s an easy piece for anyone to enjoy.
Pistache-Fraise by Des Gâteaux et du Pain
Seven alternating layers of pistachio dacquoise, pistachio crème onctueuse, pistachio mousseline and strawberry compoté really could not have gone wrong . . . especially not in the ever-capable hands of Claire Damon. If only the white chocolate on the sides could be a nice Vestri or Amedei pistacchi, I’d have placed this little lady in the top 15. That aside, it’s still fantastic.
Tarte au Chocolat by Jacques Genin
There’s an idealized notion I think many of us carry around about Parisian/French pastries. Not only do we want the tastes and textures to be superb, but we’d like them to transport us to some bygone era. Jacques Genin’s Tarte au Chocolat spirits me away to the 19th century environs of a long-lost Gustave Caillebotte painting. I’m otherwise almost at a loss for how to explain the experience of one of these. The shell is simply classic perfection, and the ganache is a silky-smooth, amer, florally-nuanced ode to the concept of . . . wow.
Saint-Honoré by La Pâtisserie des Rêves
Does it make sense to use the phrase “ornate simplicity”? Such a classic piece – but executed so beautifully in a series of golden and creamy forms and textures. Even if it tasted terrible, I’d want to put it on the list for aesthetics alone. Fortunately, the experience of eating one is so amazing that I could be blind and still pop it up here. Once you crack the sugar on one of those orbs and your mouth fills with its sinfully sublime crème, you’ll understand.
Macaron Caramel by Pain de Sucre
These might be the most controversial little ones on the list. Some feel the textures of both the shell and caramel are a little too divergent from the standard. Then again, last Friday I had a reader tell me they were “a religious experience”, and I agree . . . wholeheartedly. The caramel within is reminiscent of Bit-O-Honey candies, and the chewy/gritty texture of the shell works a special magic to amplify the delights of the gooeyness within. I literally used to get sachets of these, eat until my stomach hurt, nap from the sugar crash they’d induce and then wake up to eat more. They are narcotic.
Moskito by Café Pouchkine
Pouchkine’s Mosktio will make you think a pistachio marzipan factory just exploded in your mouth. Technically, it’s a sweet mix of pistachio biscuit moelleux, Bourbon vanilla crème onctueuse, and an almond/pistachio paste. But the afortmentioned image of the greatest nut-based industrial disaster is the net effect, and I can never get enough.
Tarte Tatin by Ladurée
There are actually quite a few great Tartes Tatin in Paris. Ladurée happens to be my top choice because it tastes great eaten cold-from-the-case, perhaps while lounging by the Louvre (as I often did) + tastes amazing when warmed up. Give it 15-20 minutes in a pre-heated 180 degree Celcius oven, and you’ll be in heaven. In other words, I love it as a breakfast and as an after-dinner dessert. Try to only buy it on days when it looks extra dark and sloppy (see above). Then prepare to be dazzled by what I can only describe as an orgy of butter, sugar and apples.
Macaron Amande by Art Macaron
One day I decided to buy a box of all the flavors at Art Macaron and consume them in a single sitting. Cause, really, why not? There were several excellent pieces in the mix, but the Amande here was the only one that instantly struck me as a masterpiece. It’s a super sweet and highly potent blast of concentrated almond flavor. Given how nice and laid-back the staff is, you’d never imagine a piece “just this side” of the addictiveness of crack dwells within their midst.
Croissant Ispahan by Pierre Hermé
Croissants are not technically pastry. They’re viennoiserie. However, when you glaze one, cover it in candied roses and fill it with a sweet litchi/rose/raspberry pâte, it definitely qualifies as more pastry than anything. These little guys can sell out quickly, but you also don’t want to buy one and eat it too early. They’re on the shelf at 10am, though still too warm to enjoy. Either purchase one and give it an hour to mellow-out, or stop by after 11am and hope there are still a couple left. They’re incredibly scrumtrulescent.
Creating this list has been a labor of love. From gaining 30 pounds, during 2010, to losing it all and then gaining 35 back, as I continued my research this last year, it’s been no small undertaking. So please share this page with all your dessert-loving friends and family. That’s what this has all been about – hoping to bring the magic of Parisian pâtisseries to the world.
Please keep in mind that Parisian pastries tend to be highly seasonal offerings. Slightly more than half of the work above is available year-round; the other half can be found at different points throughout the year.
Also remember that this list is meant to underscore what I believe to be the ultimate work, but there are hundreds of other great pieces at these same shops and more. Jean-Paul Hévin, Arnaud Delmontel, Lenôtre, Acide, Gerard Mulot, Arnaud Larher, Blé Sucré, Fauchon, Angelina, Laurent Duchene, Stohrer, Michel Cluizel, Dalloyau . . . they all have work I’ve enjoyed time-and-again. If you plan to spend a week or less in Paris, the Top 38 list above is a great guide. Should you have more time and the ability to explore, work your way through as much of the Top 38 as you can, and then check out some of the other shops I just mentioned 😉
If you’d like the addresses, websites and contact info for the best shops, look no further: Paris Pâtisseries’ 12 Best Pastry Shops in Paris