'Pâtisserie' is a jewel of French gastronomy and many French pastry chefs are perceived as rock stars in my country. You may wonder, what is the difference between a French and British cake?
First, I have to say that whilst I obviously love French food, I am not the type who thinks that French cuisine is THE absolute food. This is just as true for cakes... I would sell my Gran for a slice of carrot cake and my whole family for a piece of lemon drizzle! (I hope they are not reading this or I'll be in trouble very soon...).
Unfortunately, the value of my family in slices of cake won't help you to understand the differences which exist between our cake cultures.
First, a bit of History:
The first cake was created in Greece more than 7000 years ago. It was a sort of pancake made with flour and honey given to the gods as an offering. Cakes didn't evolve much after that until the Middle Ages. In 1270, a baker called Regnaut-Barbon invented a cake made with piece of pastry rolled into a cone shape. Historians consider this event as the beginning of baking history.
From this moment, cakes continued to evolve due to changing techniques, cooking equipment and thanks to the discovery and availability of new ingredients like cane sugar or chocolate. The history of baking has always been intimately linked to the history of Humans. Without the discovery of America, we wouldn't be able to eat chocolate cakes today and the invention of refrigeration allowed ice creams to be created and stored at home.
In spite of a common origin during Greek history, different schools of baking were born.
Anatomy of a typical British cake
British people are very well known for their sweet tooth and cake baking tradition. They have a sweet treat for every time of the day and every occasion. Most people eat at least one cake or biscuit a day. There are many different specialities associated with British regions but most of them don't need to be stored in a fridge. Scones, shortbreads, Victoria sponge, celebration cake... They can all be stored at room temperature and consumed within a few days or beyond.
During the last few years some British specialities like shortbread have become really famous in France too.
Some British specialities include an icing or a filling and the texture of the cake allows plenty of shapes. Cakes using sponges and icing are very easy to personalise and can be further decorated using sugar paste which maybe why novelty cakes are so popular in the UK. A lot of bakers here offer wonderful bespoke cakes and even if you don't want a handbag-shaped cake, British bakers are very good at cake decoration! Wedding cakes are a good example of this talent.
Anatomy of a typical French cake
In France we make a distinction between bakery (boulangerie) and pastry (pâtisserie).
Bakers work with raised dough and batters which include yeast or sourdough like bread, croissants and brioche. For the last few decades, bakers have also started to sell snacks like quiches, pizzas or sandwiches.
Pastry chefs do all the sweet treats which include desserts, tarts, creams and chocolate.
Bakery Pastry shop
Of course, the lines between these two professions are grey and many of bakers also offer desserts or tarts and you can buy some croissants in most pastry shops.
There are different categories of French pastries:
Tarts like Strawberry or Lemon
Desserts like Royal, Fraisier or Milleufeuille
Travel cakes like Génoise, Madeleines or Financiers
Choux pastries like Eclairs, Paris-Brest or Religieuses
With the exception of travel cakes all the pastries above are fragile, need to be stored in a fridge and consumed the day they are made. Due to the use of fresh eggs, milk, cream and butter they will melt or turn bad if kept at room temperature. Also, fridges help to maintain quality and texture in every part of the cake.
As in the UK, every French region has it's specialities and there are some cakes which can only be found in their original place or hometown.
French cakes are often made with differents flavours and textures. In a single cake, you can have a creamy, a foamy, a crusty and a soft texture. Most French cakes include 2 or 3 different flavours and this is the pastry-chef's challenge; To find the perfect association of texture and flavour!
You will find below 4 illustrations of these textures and flavours associations.
French cakes are traditionally made in a classic shape; circles and squares being the most common.
To conclude, whilst they have a common history, British and French cakes have evolved differently and offer different experiences dependant on their shapes, flavours and textures, and storage.
I hope this article has triggered an interest in some spécial French Pastries for you! Please feel free to order on my website!