So, Does the Bonne Femme Actually Bake?

Pastry Shop Close-Up. Not exactly a "bonne femme" kind of recipe. Photo by roboppy via Flickr.

Today, I’m preparing for an interview today with Joe Pastry who wants to get to the bottom of the question: Do the French truly bake at home?

Indeed, the preponderance of pâtisseries (pastry shops) and boulangeries (bread bakers) in just about every neighborhood of every city and in just about every small town would have you believe that the French rarely ever bake at home at all. Why would they?

In fact, while I have dined splendidly in French homes over the years, I do not recall ever having been served a home-baked dessert. Most desserts were purchased beauties, purveyed for the occasion. Highlights include a gorgeous raspberry-mousse cake for my 23rd birthday in Burgundy, a croustade (a flaky apple pastry) for Easter in the Gers, and a lovely ice cream semifreddo served at the 15th-century farmhouse of a French Catalan artist.

That’s not to say that French women don’t bake, it’s just that they don’t have to. There are just so many wonderful creations out there available for purchase.

And yet, French women DO bake, as my French friend Martine made perfectly clear in an email to me when I asked her to elaborate. I mentioned to her that I had never once enjoyed a home-baked dessert in France (though I had relished many great bakery desserts in homes), and I wondered aloud if French women truly ever bake anything for dessert themselves. She went into fiercely proud French mode and gave me her side of the story:

“Well Wini, I think that if you did not taste a home made dessert on those various occasions, it’s probably because you were considered a precious guest and your friends wanted to offer the best.

Crêpes. The type of recipe a Bonne Femme would serve in the home. This is my recipe for Crêpes with a Mascarpone Cream Filling and Strawberry-Sauced Caramels. (Use fresh pineapple in winter!)

But I can assure you that we do bake pies and chocolate fondants and tiramisu and lots of other home-made desserts when we have guests at home….

Yes, many many women actually bake (all my friends do) and it’s common when we invite each other to bring something actually home-made. It is true though that we do not prepare dessert everyday. But if guests come around, it’s almost 100% sure….

And keep in mind a famous Claude Nougaro’s song : “les mains d’une femme dans la farine” (maybe a bit macho but song with such a great voice)

“Quand tu fais la tarte aux pommes, Chérie, tu es divine
Rien n’est plus beau que les mains d’une femme dans la farine…”*

Note that the desserts she mentions aren’t exactly pastry-shop favorites, like elegant mousse cakes and mille feuilles. While I don’t want to generalize about what 64 or so million French people do in their homes, I think it’s safe to say that generally, unless the bonne femme is a fan of baking, she’d leave the fanciful pastry-shop desserts—those elegant gâteaux and the more fanciful tarts—to the artisans. But she’d make the more homespun creations at home.

Crème Caramel. Another recipe a bonne femme might make at home. Though supermarket versions are surprisingly good! Photo by a_beyer via Flickr.

Also note that Martine mentions that I was served “the best”—that is, pastry shop desserts. It shows you just how much the French respect their artisan pâtisseurs.

Following this lead, in my cookbook, I mostly offer the kinds of desserts that French women would bake at home; crêpes, upside-down cakes, a pear tart tatin, a fruit crumble (yes, the French bake those!), crème brûlée (mine has a lemon curd center!), clafouti, Alsatian apple tart (a custardy delight!), chocolate pound cake, and more.

I do offer a handful of more pastry-shop style desserts, such as the French fruit tart with pastry cream and a lemon tart. But for the most part, I follow the bonne femme’s lead and offer typical French homemade desserts.

*Translation:
When you make an apple tart, dear, you are divine.
Nothing is more beautiful than the hands of a women in the flour.

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