What do you think of when you imagine French Pastry?
The perfect flaky texture, the rich, smooth cream or the distinct layers of taste from crunchy to creamy? French patisserie is legendary — from the bright fruit tarts and homey madeleines to the delicate macarons and decadent eclairs. These bite-size treasures are difficult to find outside of France, and rather intimidating to recreate in our own humble kitchens.
Unless, of course, you’ve heard of Molly Wilkinson, an effervescent, young Texas-born baker in France offering popular virtual cooking classes. From her 19th century home in Versailles, she’ll teach you how to whisk and whip up your favorite French desserts, while charming you with personal anecdotes and her vast knowledge of all sweet things.
Her accessible approach to French baking now springs to life in another form this June with her first cookbook, “French Pastry Made Simple: Foolproof Recipes for Eclairs, Tarts, Macarons and More” (Page Street Publishing, Co.)
The cookbook contains 10 foundational French pastry recipes that will help you master over 60 different desserts. Through personal storytelling and clear instructions on technique, Molly inspires her baking protégées to relax, enjoy and create.
Molly first caught INSPIRELLE’s eye in 2016 after she graduated from the pastry program of the prestigious Cordon Bleu School in Paris. She shared her journey with us on a regular basis. We followed her adventures to French farmhouses and châteaux where she explored the cultural roots and ingredients of traditional pâtisserie.
Her private cooking classes offered from her Versailles kitchen or in your home were transformed into virtual classes during the pandemic. Lovers of French pastry worldwide connect daily with Molly to learn how to make rough puff pastry, Italian meringue or ganache au chocolat.
So, imagine our excitement at the publication of her new book, “French Pastry Made Simple”! INSPIRELLE caught up with Molly on her whirlwind journey to discuss the secret ingredients of her culinary success.
French pastry made simple! Isn’t that an oxymoron, Molly?
It’s true, people think French pastry is going to be very complicated and traditionally it is. A big difference between American desserts and French pastry is that desserts are very simple. They’re very one-note. If you are getting a chocolate chip cookie, you expect a chocolate chip cookie. While here in France, when pâtissier Julien Goulet makes a chocolate chip cookie, it’s hilarious because he decorates the top with 5 or 6 different elements and it’s so quintessentially French pastry because that’s what’s it all about. The different layers of flavor.
My intention with my new book is all about breaking it down, making it easy and accessible because there are a lot of techniques that people are not familiar with. My base is mostly made up of American and international bakers. They don’t know how to make a pastry tray so I want to coach them on how you do that.
INSPIRELLE remembers how you started baking in France, leaving your marketing career in the US to come to France and study at Le Cordon Bleu school. Fast-forward five years and you have a cookbook coming out worldwide! Was the book part of your planned journey?
Not at all. I didn’t think I was going to write a book for another five years maybe because I was still trying to figure it out. When I started writing for INSPIRELLE, I was really dipping my toes in the culinary world and seeing what direction I wanted to go because since graduation, there are so many things you can do in the culinary world.
And my dream was never to open a bakery. Never! (laughs) I worked at several so I got a taste for it, and I was able to learn as much as I possibly could. I knew I never was going to open my own shop so I was exploring writing, developing recipes or teaching.
I discovered that teaching really called to me because I love interacting with people and I love teaching new things and techniques, watching everything come together. It’s wonderful to coach people through their creations and see the awe on their faces reacting to how their final desserts came out.
How did you learn to make original French pastry and then evolve to add your own personal twist to baking?
How I do pastry is different from what you see in a pastry shop. It’s taking those basics such as pastry cream, pâte feuilletée, lemon curd and then also those very classical desserts like Saint Honoré and then putting your own spin on it. I think that happens with time. I’ve worked at several different places and with time, developed my own style.
And for me, that means it’s very whimsical. It has a rustic sophistication to it if I can say so. (laughs) It’s not messy but it’s not super precise because a lot of French pastries have the perfect lines where you are placing hazelnuts on with tweezers for a very artistic final result.
Perhaps your pastry is more authentique?
Yes, yes. I’ve had a lot of French people say that my creations are a good mix between my American background and being in France. My pastry is very playful, very colorful.
So perhaps my pastries seem more accessible because it’s not absolutely perfect, perfect.
Many of us used our time in confinement during the pandemic to cook and bake. Is that true for you?
That’s exactly when I developed the cookbook. I was reached out to in 2020 about writing a cookbook and the contracts were signed in April. At that time, I was launching virtual classes as well because my in-person classes got canceled because of the pandemic.
During 2020, I was very busy starting a new way of doing classes virtually. This meant teaching and baking online. I suddenly was composing everything. I was the videographer, the sound person, the stylist. It was crazy! Plus I started developing this book with 60 recipes at the same time so it was very busy!
I will continue with virtual and in-person classes. Each has its advantages. With virtual, people get to cook in their own kitchen because with in-person cooking classes you’re often in a professional kitchen with all the utensils so it’s hard to duplicate it at home. I like to use real at-home equipment and not a lot of it in both my online and in-person baking classes
I don’t like using specialized tools. I rarely use special molds for different desserts and that is very common in pastry. You have the financier molds, and molds for baba au rhum but for me, and especially for this cookbook I made sure it was equipment you already had in your kitchen.
Are you making French pastry accessible to everyone?
Yes, that’s what it’s all about. Also, because this book is for an international audience, these French techniques are very unfamiliar so my descriptions are nice and long as well as detailed so you know what textures to look like for every step of the way.
If you’re making browned butter, you know it will foam first, and then the bubbles and even the sound will change. I’ll walk you through every step while you’re making these desserts.
When you think of French pastry what do you think of? Taste, texture, smell?
Ohh, that’s a good one. French pastry uses all of your senses. For example, when I’m making an Italian meringue, I know to touch the side of the mixing bowl to feel whether it’s a little bit warm or it’s getting colder to know when it’s done.
Also, a common thing with baking is just when you start to smell something it’s practically done.
You really do use all of your senses when you’re baking. Your eyesight too. You can tell after you’ve made something for awhile the exact stages you go through in terms of consistency. You’ll learn that vanilla pastry cream takes about 5 minutes or so and then it will look like it’s separated, cooking faster on the bottom than on the top, but you know if you keep whisking, visually it will tell you it’s almost there.
It’s quite exciting to bake!
What’s cooking next for Molly?
I want to do another book even though this one was so stressful. I ate so many pastries and gained so much weight but it was so worth it. I went through a ton of butter, which is essential to French pâtisserie.
For my next book, I’d love to do something where you’re exploring those old recipes and doing more modern twists. Diving into different variations. I start that in this book with the Paris Brest, normally made with praline. It’s complicated if you don’t do it right so I did a raspberry version. And for a madeleine, I used an Earl Grey ganache. My nod to Proust.
And that’s what makes it fun, and that’s what makes it fresh too. It allows you to get creative! If you know 10 of the classic French pastries then you know how to do tons of other things.