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17 Most Popular French Desserts for a Sweet Treat

France’s favorite pastries, tarts, cakes, and more.

Crème brûlée, parfait, and mousse au chocolat, what do they all have in common? Besides being delicious, they’re all popular French desserts.

French Macarons

So many desserts I love come from France, and they have such a wide variety you’ll probably find a French dessert you’ll enjoy too.

France has it all, from fresh fruit and delicate pastry to heavy creamy confections.

Even if you don’t enjoy the flavor, many French desserts have plenty of artistry to appreciate. It’s no wonder that France has such a prestigious reputation for its culinary prowess.

Best French Desserts

I’ve compiled a list of some of the most popular French desserts for your education and temptation. Enjoy reading through these delicious dishes, and be prepared to make a trip to your local French bakery.

Crème Brûlée

Crème brûlée is a decadent dessert that has become very popular in America.

It features a custard base underneath a layer of caramelized sugar. I love the fun of cracking into the top before diving into the creamy center.

The caramel topping can be made directly on top with a torch or iron, or the chef can put a premade disk on top.

Traditionally, the custard inside is vanilla. Today, there are plenty of varieties of crème brulée to try. Some even come with fruit on top to add some freshness.


Macarons

Macarons are a dish that has become quite famous in America for its pleasant, clean appearance.

These confections are similar to sandwich cookies, where two crispy outside layers usually surround a jam, ganache, or buttercream filling.

The aesthetically pleasing cookies consist of an egg-white meringue mixed with almond meal, sugar, and various colorings.

They’re known for coming in a dazzling assortment of colors, and today can come in exotic flavors like matcha or cappuccino. I love classic flavors, like chocolate and strawberry.

The crispy shells have a delicate base that usually melts in the mouth. It’s hard today to imagine them different, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that these confections began to have their middle layer.


Canelés

Canelés offer plenty of flavor in a small cake. The moist vanilla cake is flavored with rum and hides a yummy custard center.

Around the outer layer is a thick caramelized sugar crust.

Their name comes directly from the French word for fluted, which is also the style of the pan to bake them in.

To achieve their crispy outer crust, they must bake at a high temperature.

Traditionally, patissiers would grease the pan with beeswax or a mix of beeswax and butter. Today, we use both traditional methods and other grease alternatives.

These desserts are harder to find than some other popular French desserts, but I love enjoying this cake with some wine or coffee.


Madeleines

Madeleines, sometimes known as petite madeleines, are small cakes shaped like shells.

They are similar to sponge cakes or génoise cakes and often have finely ground nuts like almonds added to the batter. A traditional flavor adds some lemon zest.

If you’re used to the British version, they come in a dariole mold and feature jam, coconut, and cherry as toppings. I prefer the classic French lemon or the more modern versions dipped in chocolate.

Madeleines have become part of a world-famous phrase thanks to the novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.

He uses the madeleine’s sweet taste as an involuntary trigger to remember a childhood moment. If you ever have a sweet treat from childhood and have a nostalgic memory, you can say you’re having a madeleine moment.


Beignets

Beignets are flavorful fried pastries made from choux dough. If you’ve never had one, imagine a fluffier, slightly less sweet donut.

The sweet confections usually come in a square shape with a crispy shell and pillowy center.

If you’re unfamiliar, choux pastry dough is a master form of baking responsible for eclairs, churros, and French crullers. The moist dough relies on rising from steam while baking instead of yeast or baking powder.

In America, New Orleans took a particular liking to beignets, and there is now a Louisiana specialty style of the treat.

This local version uses leavened dough instead of choux pastry but still fries them before serving them hot with powdered sugar.


Clafoutis

Clafoutis is a thick dessert that’s perfect for any fruit lover. The dish comes with a center of black cherries surrounded by a creamy flan-like batter.

Today, other varieties use plums, blackberries, apples, or other fruits in the center. I love the black cherry flavor in my desserts.

An interesting detail about this dessert is that you’ll usually receive it lukewarm. Although it can also be served cold, it always comes with a topping of powdered sugar or cream.

Clafoutis has become a bit famous thanks to the renowned American chef Julia Child. Julia Child is well known for her TV personality and for bringing popular French desserts into American kitchens nationwide.


Baba au Rhum

This dish can be known as rum baba or baba au rhum, but either way, its personalized dish features cake soaked with a liquor syrup, usually made with rum.

The center has a light whip cream or pastry cream to balance the bite of the alcohol.

The round cakes can occasionally be made larger by using bundt cake pans. These desserts have a mixed heritage where the cake originally came from Poland but the French first began to add the rum.

I like the extra flavor rum brings, as it gives a deep vanilla spice to the cake.


Crème Caramel

Crème caramel is a flan dessert coated in a thin caramel sauce.

The popular French dessert has a bouncy, creamy texture that pairs perfectly with sweet and sticky caramel.

The dish is difficult to prepare as it requires a water bath and a delicate flipping process where the batter can split.

The bigger the serving, the harder it is, so you’ll often receive these small treats in single ramekins.

Caramel is one of my all-time favorite dessert toppings, so crème caramel always hits the spot for me. I enjoy how light and simple the flavor can be in a small package.


Galette des Rois

Galette des Rois is a delicate cake made of pastry dough with a traditional frangipane, a sweet almond custard filling. Today, fruit, chocolate, or cream fills the cakes.

These cakes are also called king cakes because, historically, the French prepared these dishes to celebrate when the Three Wise Men went to Bethlehem.

Because of this history, fun additions to this cake can be a hidden figurine or bean in a slice. Whoever gets this slice when serving receives a present.

In France, many people still celebrate the occasion with these traditional cakes. Whether you have them for Christmas or to have something tasty, these cakes are always fun.


Pain au Chocolat

One of my favorite midday treats, pain au chocolat, has a similar layered, flaky dough as croissants with delicious chocolate squares in the center.

These pastry treats are usually served warm and are the perfect little squares to be handheld and enjoyed on the go.

Their crispy but light textures come from the laminated dough, which is a process where the buttered pastry dough is repeatedly folded over itself to create thin layers.

Buttery and sweet, pain au chocolat hits the spot at any time of the day.

This sweet is one of the more popular French desserts you can find at local bakeries and supermarkets.


Bûche de Noël

Bûche de Noël’s name may make it seem like a foreign dessert, but you might be familiar with these cakes by their other name, yule logs.

The Christmas-time cakes are traditionally vanilla sponge cakes, rolled like a swiss roll with chocolate buttercream inside and outside.

Most will style the cake like a traditional fire log, with powdered sugar to mimic snow. Sometimes fresh berries or other decorations are added.

My favorite variety is a chocolate cake with espresso filling for a dark, realistic inside.

There are many different ways to create a bûche de noël, so feel free to experiment with the flavors.


Parfait

In America, we are used to a very different version of parfaits than the popular French dessert.

In France, a parfait is a frozen treat with a base between custard and ice cream. The traditional toppings include fruit, liqueur, or whipped cream.

Today, Americans can use yogurt and mix in layers of toppings like granola. A crucial difference between French and American parfait is that the French one often includes eggs, whereas Americanized versions don’t.

One of my personal favorite French parfait recipes includes espresso mixed in. The creamy flavor is similar to coffee ice cream but with a lighter finish.


Riz au Lait

Riz au lait is the French term for rice pudding. Rice pudding consists of rice, milk, spices, and sweeteners.

The French way of preparing this dish doesn’t include eggs and usually has more milk than the American versions.

Rice pudding is always fun because it’s a dessert that can pass for breakfast.

It’s also easy to tailor this dish to your tastes, as the flavor additions can range from simple spices like cinnamon to extravagant flavorings of lavender or chocolate.

I enjoy plain cinnamon and honey, but rice pudding is so easy to make it’s worth experimenting to find the perfect flavor combo for you.


Ile Flottante

Ile Flottante is also known as a floating island cake. The unique name comes from the cake consisting of a steamed meringue that drifts atop the thin, creamy vanilla custard.

The vanilla custard is known as crème anglaise because it is so thin.

The light meringue island traditionally has a caramel sauce and praline, crushed nuts on top. Today, some different varieties can include fruits or other flavor syrups.

It’s a fun dish as you watch the meringue move around your plate atop the creamy custard.

The entire dessert is a pleasure to eat, and it’s an option that offers plenty of flavor without being too heavy.


Classic French Opera Cake

French opera cake is a great popular French dessert for all coffee lovers.

The classic cake is an almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup between layers of ganache and coffee-flavored buttercream.

A chocolate glaze tops the cake, and occasionally gold leaf finishes this lavish dessert.

The name originally comes from the layered appearance of the cake, which resembles the inside of an opera house.

Sometimes you may see these cakes with the word “opera” written on the chocolate glaze on top.

I’m a big fan of the Italian dessert tiramisu, but for me, French opera cake brings that dessert to another level and blows it out of the water.


Mousse au Chocolat

Mousse au chocolat is a French chocolate mousse, usually a dark chocolate dessert that is whipped and velvety.

The simple recipe only requires whipping eggs, melted chocolate, sugar, and vanilla. Despite its simplicity, mousse is a decadent dessert.

The flavor of mousse au Chocolat is intense. You can have it by itself, with fruit or whipped cream, or even use the mousse as a topping for other desserts. I enjoy it enough to have it plain.

The French word mousse means foam, and when you eat mousse, you’ll be delighted at just how light and foamy it can be.

This is one of my favorite chocolate desserts because it feels so light!


Paris-Brest

The Paris-Brest cake looks like a wheel, with a circular choux cake filled with praline cream.

Praline cream contains crushed nuts, usually almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans, combined with cream and sugar.

These fun wheel cakes were initially to celebrate the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race. Today, it remains a popular treat for cyclists who compete in the race.

The exhausted racers can use a hefty treat to replenish their energy, and the name grabs attention.

This classic sweet is a perfectly crisp cake with the hallmark French filling.

The wheel shape makes it a fun confection to split with kids, especially if you’re ever watching a bicycle race.


Best French Desserts

  1. Crème Brûlée
  2. Macarons
  3. Canelés
  4. Madeleines
  5. Beignets
  6. Clafoutis
  7. Baba au Rhum
  8. Crème caramel
  9. Galette des rois
  10. Pain au Chocolat
  11. Bûche de Noël
  12. Parfait
  13. Riz au Lait
  14. Ile Flottante
  15. Classic French Opera Cake
  16. Mousse au chocolat
  17. Paris-Brest

Final Thoughts

No matter what dessert you crave, France has plenty of options. From decadent cream desserts to crispy pastries, the French have become pros of the craft. It’s hard to disappoint with confections, but these options are all winners.

French desserts pair well with espresso and wine, depending on when you enjoy them. It’s great to relax at the end of the day with something sweet.

I love so many popular French desserts that I find it hard to choose a favorite. It’s worth trying out all of the options to find your own favorite sweet. Which dessert will you try next?

If you’re visiting France or just looking to learn more about French cuisine, then check out other famous French foods to try.

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Written by Erin Elizabeth

Erin lives in East Passyunk and enjoys checking out the local restaurants in South Philly and beyond. Her favorite restaurants are those with spicy food and outdoor seating so that she can bring along her dog, Miss Piggy.