Our First French Baking Class in Paris
Is there anything more Parisian than attending a baking class in Paris?!? Well…yes, actually, there's a lot more things that are Parisian, such as drinking and espresso outside in 40-degree weather while people watching, visiting a bakery twice in one day, or carrying a big a bouquet of flowers and a baguette with you down the street. However, a very novelty thing to do in Paris is attend a bakery a baking class - and that's exactly what I did with my mom last week!
We selected the class, Les Secrets Gourmands de Noémie, based on advice from Rick Steves guidebook, Paris. The class was reasonably priced at 85 euros and lasted two and a half hours. It was in English and took place in the 17th arrondisement, about a 40-minute walk from our home. There were many classes to choose from, including a Macaron making class, French Sauces, French Pastries, Traditional Cuisine, and more. We selected the French pastries class based on our interests and the available time frame.
We were surprised to find that we were the only two people in the class (though our instructor Noémie stated that Novembers were typically pretty slow). The class took place in a large kitchen that made it easy to see what Noémie was demonstrating. We were each given a pink apron to wear during class and were given recipes to take home with us that described what we were making that day, ingredients, and directions.
We started out making crème brûlée, which is certainly one of the more famous French desserts. The name itself means “burnt cream”, and many believe it first was introduced in the 1691 cookbook, “Cuisinier royal et bourgenois”. Depending on which European country you find yourself in, you will hear slightly different origin stories – for example, the Spanish origin story for a very similar dish includes nuns mistakenly overcooking flan one day and adding sugar to the top.
Of course, it’s difficult to talk about French cuisine without mentioning Julia Child, who helped Americans learn how to incorporate French cuisine into their own homes (including crème brûlée). In fact, her blowtorch – used to give the crème brûlée a crisp coating – is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History!
The dessert is made with egg yolks, sugar, cream, milk, and a vanilla pod. Noémie showed us how to remove vanilla beans from the pod and infuse both the beans and the pod into the dessert by stirring it into milk over low heat. We separated our egg whites and yolks and whisked the egg yolks with sugar.
Noémie removed the vanilla pod from the milk, then shared how she recycles it after use by drying it and grinding it into a powder (which she uses in various recipes). The recipe was extremely easy to follow and only took a few minutes to make. Once all the ingredients were combined, we poured the liquid into individual ceramic dishes and baked for one hour. We continued with the rest of our recipes while the crème brûlée baked.
The next recipe we made was Choux (pronounced like shoe) Pastry, used to make Paris Brest and Chouquettes. This pastry dough is the same dough that's used for eclairs. It is light, fluffy, and rises well even without yeast, baking powder, or baking soda. Noémie described the history of Paris Brest, which is a dessert “found in every patisserie in Paris”. It's shaped like a donut, topped with almond slices and sugar, and once baked, cut in half lengthwise and filled with a hazelnut butter cream.
It was named for the route of a bicycle race that goes from Paris to Brest, a town in Brittany. A popular origin story is that a newspaper editor hoped to encourage people to use bicycles by initiating this race. He also asked a local pastry chef to create a dessert to help promote the race – and voila! The wheel-shaped dessert was born. Another origin story states that the dessert was created to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the race; regardless, we know why the dessert is shaped like a bicycle wheel!
The dessert is made with flour, eggs, butter, sugar, milk, water, and a pinch of salt. Noémie talked to us about the importance of salt in recipes and how it brings out the flavor, not just saltiness, in a recipe. She also informed us that pastries and baked items in the United Kingdom are often saltier than pastries found in France.
We boiled most of the ingredients, then incorporated the flour while stirring. We added beaten eggs and filled a pastry bag with the batter. Once the pastry bag was filled, we squeezed out wheel-shaped circles onto a baking sheet covered in parchment paper. We then placed slivered almonds on four corners and large clumps of sugar (“pearl sugar”) all throughout the dough. We baked for 10 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit and reduced the heat to 360 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 more minutes. The dessert smelled incredible as it baked!
We used the same dough within the same pastry bag to make the Chouquettes. These are also found all over Paris and are typically bought a few at a time. They are inexpensive and used to help celebrate many occasions (or simply just to share among coworkers or friends!). They translate to “little bits of choux pastry”, which is exactly what they are! We squeezed out small circles of the pastry dough onto the baking sheet and drizzled each chouquette with the large sugar clumps. These were baked just as we had done with the Paris Brest.
While those baked, we made the pastry cream; this is what we used to fill the Paris Brest. It's made with milk, sugar, egg yolks, cornstarch, and vanilla. Once these items have been brought to a boil and thickened, they’re combined with butter, sugar, and a hazelnut paste into a mixer. The cream is then whipped for a few minutes.
Once the Paris Brest had cooled enough to handle, we cut each pastry in half lengthwise. We then filled a piping bag with the pastry cream and carefully squeezed it onto the halved pastry. We topped it with the other pastry half. So pretty!
By now, our crème brûlée had baked long enough. We removed them from the oven and sprinkled them with about a tablespoon of sugar. When then used a kitchen blowtorch to brown the tops of the dessert. It was fun!
The last half hour of the class was used for us to eat our pastries and drink coffee or tea. The crème brûlée was DIVINE and had me dreaming about using a blowtorch in my own kitchen (though you can get similar results from using the broiler briefly). It was creamy, warm, not too sweet, and the sugar crust was delicious.
The Paris Brest dessert was my next favorite – probably due to the tasty butter cream we made to fill it. I’ve been spoiled with delectable Chouqettes from a patisserie in Passy, an area in the 16th arrondisement, that left our homemade ones feeling lackluster… but they were still delicious! We took home leftovers for our family (which were much appreciated!).
We talked with Noémie about baking and life in France. We picked her brain about different types of flour (T55 is the best for multi-purpose baking use in France) and she gave us tips about buying butter (make sure that it is at least 82% fat otherwise you may be paying for water, not butter!). She also expressed the importance of using a kitchen scale when baking to help make certain that measurements of ingredients are accurate.
Throughout the class, Noémie tended to demonstrate much of the baking that took place on the stovetop or in the oven. My mom and I are super hands on when it comes to cooking or baking, so we would have loved to be the ones lowering the stovetop temperature, placing the desserts in the oven, or learning how to fill the pastry bags. However, I can see how these things would be difficult to instruct in a larger class and are probably much easier for Noémie to just do on her own!
The majority of our hands-on time included measuring or weighing ingredients, whisking, separating eggs, piping pastry dough and crème, and decorating our pastries. Though I may have not learned many technical skills, I certainly learned how to make three delicious French desserts that I feel relatively confident I could recreate in my own kitchen. I may need to spend a little more time learning how to use my French oven; it has four different settings for baking (though I did download the manual, it’s in French!).
This would be a great class for beginners or people who are interested in getting a small taste of what French baking is like. My favorite parts of the class were learning about the history of each pastry, appreciating the unique differences in French flour and butter, and practicing the conversion of American measurements to French (it's all grams and mls here!).
It was very fun to take a French baking class with my mom; she taught me to love cooking and embrace the kitchen from a very young age. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter as she made homemade peanut butter or pasta, and spending whole afternoons pitting cherries or spiralizing apples after a morning of cherry or apple picking to make pies all year round.
If you visit Paris and are interested in taking a baking class and learning a bit of history about French desserts, Les Secrets Gourmands de Noémi is a great place to go. The best part might be enjoying some delicious, homemade desserts at the end of the class!