No-Fuss Ways to Bake and Serve Cake Like a Parisian, According to a Cookbook Author Who Grew Up in France

Channel your inner Parisian and serve simple, yet stylish cakes with these tips.

sour cherry savarins
Photo: Yunhee Kim

How do you say cake in French? Gateau. And how might you describe French cakes? They're understated and chic, timeless and tasteful. French cakes are as sophisticated and worldly as a Parisian—and also practical and reliable in a way that's truly French.

The French have a knack for making style look effortless. From a simple silk scarf knotted around the neck to a judicious dab of perfume behind the ear, the savoir faire message is clear: thoughtful presentation is important. This panache comes through in the kitchen, as well. So, how can you bring French style and ease to your dessert repertoire? We asked Aleksandra Crapanzano, author of the new cookbook Gateau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes, for her best tips.

The French Baking Ethos

Ultimately, baking like a French woman means your cake is not excessively sweet—nor would you automatically use vanilla extract. Instead, the taste of each confection can and should be adapted to suit your desired result.

Focus on Flavor, Not Decoration

French cakes are not frivolous. They are filled with subtle and distinct flavors—and are neither overly saccharine nor extravagantly decorated. "Home-baked French cakes have a simple beauty," says Crapanzano. "They might be finished with a sprinkle of cocoa powder, a dollop of crème fraiche or pillowy crème Chantilly, or perhaps a few slices of perfectly ripe fruit—these touches never fail." She recommends pralinés, lavender sugar, and "dried, sightly sweetened rose petals," too.

Perfect a Basic Recipe

Crapanzano's overarching baking advice is smart and practical: If you know you can produce a lovely cake with minimal fuss, you will be more relaxed and enjoy yourself more when it's time to prep for that gathering with friends. That's why French home bakers use base recipes that have stood the test of time. "Having a beloved recipe in your repertoire, which uses a practiced skill and great ingredients, is more important than any novelty, trend, or decoration," says Crapanzano.

The citizens of France, for example, begin learning how to bake a yogurt cake, a simple recipe based on ratios that anyone can remember, in pre-school. This provides a comfort level with baking that is almost universal.

Know When to Buy Dessert

Work with what you know and use it with confidence, says Crapanzano. When it comes to entertaining, Parisians cleverly take advantage of the resources around them, such as wonderful patisseries and chocolatiers, where delicate pastries and fine chocolates can be purchased. If mille-feuilles and special tarts can be bought at neighborhood patisseries to serve on special occasions, why compete?

Bake Often

The French bake a lot, which is why Crapanzano makes the case for baking simple cakes often for a myriad of reasons—or just because. They shouldn't be reserved for special occasions: Serve slices for afternoon tea, after-school snacks, or dress up the cake you've been making on the regular and serve a at a dinner party with friends.

On le weekend, bake a treat that you can nibble on in the mid-afternoon—or dress it up for dinner using an easy glaze, like orange blossom, elderflower, or one spiked with your favorite liqueur (for a spirited end to the meal).

Try Making Savory Cakes

French cake can also be savory, Crapanzano reminds us. These iterations are salty, nutty, and just right for l'heure d'apero (or cocktail hour)—they're the best nibbles to serve with drinks. They can also be toasted and cut into small pieces to serve as snacks.

Fancy Desserts Should Be Approachable

Simple desserts may reign supreme, but French home bakers do make fancier cakes. Crapanazano's book includes things like bûche de noël, layered cakes with buttercream, and pavlovas for special occasions. But even these desserts are surprisingly approachable: All are well structured, and can handle flavor tweaks to suit the mood, occasion, or whatever is in your pantry.

Embrace Variety

This variation is key: If you have a few special items, such as a bottle of limoncello, rum, Armagnac, or orange blossom water; good, dark chocolate; or fresh nuts and spices, you can easily create an elevated riff on a classic dessert.

In Gateau, Caprapanzano offers dozens of inventive and thoughtful spins on madeleines; this section alone has 39 appealing twists and ideas. Toss a few diced strawberries in limoncello, fold in some finely grated citrus zest and fennel seeds, add some chai spice, and dip the madeleines in chocolate. These simple, chic upgrades work for cakes, too—and are so French.

Enjoy Dessert Every Day

When it comes to dessert, the French mantra is sensible moderation. "Give yourself small, comforting indulgences each day," says Crapanzano. "Celebrate the moment when beautiful peaches are perfectly ripe and the brightest cherries have just come into market." Bake using those fresh, seasonal ingredients and a reliable, straightforward recipe. Give it some French flair—then serve it with confidence and a smile.

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