The French are known for their baked treats; even the Emperor Napoleon has his own namesake pastry. There are three main kinds of French pastry dough: choux pastry, puff pastry and short pastry. Most French pastries fall into one of these categories although a few do not but are still, technically speaking, pastry-based and considered "French pastries."
Called pâté feuilletée in French, puff pastry confections are very rich and yet very light. Butter is rolled between the layers of pastry dough before it is baked, and the resulting pastry rises very high. A croissant is a crescent-shaped puff pastry often found on North American breakfast tables. Sweet variations on the croissant include pain au chocolate, a croissant with a chocolate inside and croissants filled with almond paste.
The classic Napoleon features layers of puff pastry filled with custard-like cream and iced with chocolate, but many flavours can be substituted for these. The palmier, a Parisian speciality, is a double swirl of rolled-up choux pastry, sprinkled with sugar and baked until the sugar caramelises. The chausson aux pommes is a choux turnover filled with apples.
Choux pastries are often filled with creams and custards because as they bake the inside of the unfilled pastry rises to leave a hollow middle. The eclair is the most famous of these pastries, an oblong pastry filled with a vanilla, coffee or chocolate flavoured cream and iced with fondant icing (usually chocolate).
Profiteroles are small round choux pastries filled with a custard-like cream called pastry cream; they are often served for dessert with chocolate sauce. In the creation called Croquembouche (literally "crunch in mouth"), many profiteroles are glazed in sugar and stacked in tower-like shapes to form one spectacular dessert. Paris-Brest, a cake-sized pastry named for a train route, is a large ring of choux pastry, filled after baking with praline butter cream and sprinkled with icing sugar and chopped almonds.
Called pate brisée or pate sucrée -- the latter is sweetened with sugar -- these are essentially pie crusts and are used to make large pies or tarts, as well as the little bite-size pies we call tarts and the French call tartelettes. Tartelettes can be filled with jam, custard or fruits such as apricot, cherry, plum or apple.
Other Assorted Pastries
Some of the most famous French pastries aren't technically pastry-based at all but are often included in the pastry category. Vacherin is a layered pastry filled with cream, but the layers are not made of dough but meringue. And three of the best-known bakery items are not strictly pastries either. Macarons are little coconut meringue cookies sandwiched together with icing, madeleines are cake-like cookies shaped like shells and beignets are oblong doughnuts, fried and then coated with icing sugar.