Hello pastry fiends! The world is a confusing place, and we can all use a little help from time to time in navigating it. Pastry is no exception, and I’m here to (hopefully) lend that hand. Lots of terms get used and thrown about when talking about sweet stuff, so I’ve outlined a few misconceptions and definitions below to help you sound like a pastry pro instead of a pastry …schlamo? A pastry no? Rhyming is hard.
macaron v. macaroon
Let’s start off with perhaps the most-abused of all the terms we’ll talk about today. In fairness I can somewhat understand the rampant confusion as both pastries feature a meringue-based cookie component and even the venerable Wikipedia shows an image of one version while defining the other. All I can say to that is don’t believe everything you see on the internet. In an effort to keep myself from launching into an irrational tirade on this subject, I’m going to keep this real simple:
A macaron (say: mack-ah-rohn) is a sandwich cookie made of meringue-based almond cookie shells and a filling that can range from jam to buttercream to ganache and beyond. Some of you may know/refer to them as “those hamburger looking cookies.” The shells are light and at first crunchy until they are tempered in a humid environment where they take on their final texture of a crisp outside and soft center. Here are some recipes for them if you feel so inclined to make them, which is always a fun idea (right here and here).
A macaroon (say: mack-ah-ROON) is also meringue based. It is most commonly made with the addition of nut flour and/or coconut. The major difference is in the recipe. A macaroon has a higher ratio of liquid ingredients (the egg whites) to solid ingredients (the sugar and nut flour and/or coconut) which gives it a distinctly different texture and appearance. The macaroon is much softer and spongier than the macaron and has no additional components, such as a filling. In France they often call the coconut macaroon a rocher, which means rock, because of the macaroon’s irregularly round shape. It is definitely not one of those hamburger looking cookies.
Please. I beg of you. Stop calling macaron “macaroons.” It may seem a trivial thing to you but it kills me a little inside every time I hear it.
tarts v. tortes
This is another commonly confused or assumed set of pastry terms. Let’s clear the air!
A tart is a pastry featuring a crust, most often (and most technically) with shallow sides and a filling. That filling is generally a custard or soft cake. Tarts can be either sweet or savory, and the sweet variety will feature a type of fruit more often than not. Because you guys are all so swell, here’s my recipe for a cherry tart!
A torte is a rich, sweet cake that is made with little to no flour, usually (though not exclusively) accompanied by a buttercream, ganache or jam. It can be layered as well. Of all the tortes in the kingdom, the chocolate raspberry and sacher varieties seem to be the most well known.
a few pastry families
Not all pastry terms are confusing simply because they are similar in name or makeup to something else. Here are a couple broad categories of pastry products and what defines them. I’ll expand this list over time, but if there’s a term I don’t mention below that you need immediate clarification on, just ask!
At its most basic existence, a meringue is a class of pastry products that are all made primarily from egg white foam. That foam can have any number and varieties of sugar added to it (or none at all) and may or may not have heat applied in its method. For a full discussion on the science of meringue, check out my post on the subject here.
There is a finished pastry product called simply a meringue, or meringue cookie. It is a sweetened egg white foam that has been whipped stiff and piped into a desired size and shape before being baked at a low temperature over a long period of time. The finished cookie is light and crispy, and susceptible to humidity.
Beyond the cookie by the same name, I consider there to be three “mother” meringues in the world of pastry recipes. Here they are and the differences between them:
A meringue made simply by whipping together egg whites and sugar, with no heat applied during the process of whipping. A French meringue may be used as a component in a recipe (like in some sponge cakes) or baked to become a finished product itself. Of the three major meringues, French meringue is the least stable.
Made by heating egg whites and sugar over a bain marie (water bath) while whisking. Once a target temperature is reached – enabling the process of egg white protein coagulation – the mixture is whipped at high speed without additional heat until it has cooled and stiffened.
Swiss meringue is strong but very smooth. It is good for decorative work (like finishing a tres leches) or for making smooth buttercream.
The strongest of the three, Italian meringue is made by bringing a sugar syrup to a boil and cooking it to a high temperature before pouring it over quickly whisking whites. The heat from the syrup enacts protein coagulation in the egg whites, which helps give this meringue its strength. As the syrup cools, it creates a gloss to the meringue and thickens as well, further strengthening the meringue.
Italian meringue is good for mousses and recipes that call for a meringue that can withstand serious agitation (like macaron batter).
mousse and the like
Again, going back to the very basics in terms of description, a mousse is a light foam, often incorporated with whipped cream and a stabilizer like gelatin. It can be sweet or savory.
In the pastry world, I divide mousse into two sub-categories; fat based mousse and fruit based mousse. Both categories have the whipped cream and stabilizer added to them, it’s what the base itself is made of that defines them.
Fat based mousse generally consists of custard with or without a secondary base like chocolate, peanut butter or cream cheese (just to name a few). A fruit based mousse will start with a fruit puree or juice, often stabilized with gelatin before adding anything more. Whipped cream and often meringue will then be added to the thickened fruit puree.
Fat based mousse = base + secondary base (optional) + gelatin + whipped cream
Fruit based mousse = base + gelatin + meringue (optional) + whipped cream
…and the like
That is to say, all of the creams that go hand in hand with mousse in many ways, but aren’t exactly the same thing. A cream can be a component in a mousse, but not the other way around (think squares and rectangles). Stripped down, a cream is thickened milk and/or cream. That thickening can be done with a number of different methods/ingredients and depending on the flavoring and addition of sugar the cream can be sweet or savory. As you can imagine, there are a lot of varieties that can fall under the category of a “cream”, so I’ve put together what I think might be a handy guide of the major pastry-related creams!
mousse = base + whipped cream/meringue + stabilizer
bavarian/bavarois/crème bavaroise = milk/cream + egg yolks + gelatin
blancmange = milk/cream + gelatin
crème anglaise = milk/cream + egg yolks
*cremeux = crème anglaise + base (optional) + gelatin
pastry cream/custard/crème patissiere = milk/cream + egg yolks + cornstarch/flour
chiboust = pastry cream + meringue
crème legere = pastry cream + whipped cream
crème diplomat = pastry cream + whipped cream + gelatin
crème mousseline = pastry cream + butter/buttercream
*Cremeux translates to “creamy” in French and lacks a single, concrete definition in terms of recipe make up. Most of my cremeux recipes feature a milk/cream and yolks mixture that is made into crème anglaise before having a second base (like chocolate or fruit puree) and gelatin added to it.
This is just a small taste (get it??) of the great families of pastry products and what defines the nuances among them, but I hope it gave you a little more baking swagger, not to mention better insight in creating masterpieces of your own. Until next time, DFK nation!
Cheers – Chef Scott