Why is it called? Part 1: French Pastries and desserts

Why is it called …
Part 1: French PASTRIES and DESSERTS

Have you ever asked yourself why something is called by a particular name? Why are croissants, pain aux raisins and pains au chocolats called viennoiseries for example? How do things get named? Here is a short list of French pastries and desserts and how they got their names. We invite readers to add their own favorite pastries and dessert to the comments.

A pastry was created in Vienna in celebration of the end of the Turkish siege of 1683 in the shape of the Turkish crescent (croissant). An Austrian army officer named August Zang and his associate Ernest Schwarzer, a nobleman from Vienna opened the Boulangerie Viennoise at 92 rue de Richelieu in Paris in 1838. They were the first to make the pastries which were to become known as viennoiserie. Ironically even though the French name viennoiserie makes a reference to Vienna which is the origin of the pasrties, in English these baked delights are called Danish pastries – go figure. Geraldine of Comme une française TV does a nice presentation of Viennoiseries.

Pastries and desserts

Le Paris-Brest
This round pastry was first created in 1910 at a shop in the town of Maisons-Laffitte just outside Paris on the request of Pierre Giffard who was the organizer of the famous 1200 kilometer long Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race. The pastry was thus made round like a bicycle wheel. Some shops continue to make a large format praline cream and chou pastry concoction with extra bits of dough to represent spokes. The bike race is still run in a non-competitive format every 4 years in August (the next one is in 2019) and the boulangerie is still open in Maisons-Laffitte and still run by the Durand family.

(Charles Terront won the first Paris-Brest race in 1901 (remember bicycles were just coming into being and this was the first use of pneumatic tires!). Charles road without sleeping for more than 71 hours with an average speed around 16km/h. Charles was then hired by Edouard and André Michelin to promote their new invention: the changeable pneumatic tire for bicycles.)

These small cakes were originally oval and called Visitandines because they were created by the Sisters of the Visitation in the area near Nancy. This was in the 17th century and the sisters painted with tempera which is pigment mixed with egg yolk. Not wanting to waste the egg whites they created a recipe that used just egg whites along with the almond powder. The cake is high in protein thanks to the egg whites making it a source of protein for the nuns who did not eat meat. The recipe was lost for many years during the Renaissance and rediscovered about 1890 by a pastry maker names Lasne. Lasne’s shop was near the exchange, so he changed the shape of the cake to a gold ingot and called it a Financier.

(You can visit the Monastic artisan shop which is part of the Monastery of the Visitation in Paris at 68 bis, Avenue Denfert Rochereau 75014 www.artisanatmonastique.com/ They offer hand made articles made in various monasteries in France including Croque-thé (financiers) from Abbaye la Joie Notre Dame. The Parisian Monastery is a place for silence and reflection, offers five masses each day and a cloistered retreat house for women which is open to all, just reserve a week in advance.)

This dessert of layers of dough and vanilla cream was invented in 1651, then reworked by Tallyrand’s chef in the 18th century. But it was only in the 19th century that Dubos who was chef pâtissier chez Seugnot, rue de Bac in Paris offered them for sale. The name millefeuille comes of course from the preparation of the dough which is rolled and folded around layers of butter, then rolled and folded again and again to make nearly 1000 layers. One author we read says that a proper pâte feuilleté is made by six turns and folding in threes to result in exactly 729 layers ! We’ll let you verify the count. Legend says that this was Napoleon’s favorite dessert hence the English name is a Napoleon.

French Pastries and dessertsOmelette Norvégienne
Known as Baked Alaska in the USA, an Omelette norvégienne is a block of vanilla ice cream placed between two layer of génoise or sponge cake and completely coated with meringue. The cake is toasted in a very hot oven and provides an lovely contrast between the hot meringue and the cold ice cream which is insulated by the meringue. It was invented during the universal exhibition in Paris in 1867. The theme of the exhibition was electricity. The chef at the Grand Hôtel decided to create a dessert based on the electricity experiments of the Anglo-American Count Rumford. Rumford, who lived in Bavaria earlier in the 19th century had established that egg white does not conduct heat, thus the chef figured that it would protect the ice cream. The idea worked and the omelette norvegienne was born and named for Rumford’s experiment –but the hotel’s chef was good at pastry making but not so good at geography thinking Bavaria was in… Norway! Any how that’s how this dessert which is neither an omelet nor Norwegian got its name.

This article is part of a series:

Why is it called? Part 2: French place names or toponyms

Why is it called? Part 3: Foods