And you thought it couldn’t be done. Molly J. Wilkinson, Instagram’s expat pastry darling, has released the go-to guide for baking à la française… without all of the snobbery and drama over getting exactly the right cake tin.
The Texan native moved to France in 2013, leaving her corporate marketing job for a stint at Le Cordon Bleu, and then a stage at an all-female kitchen, La Fabrique á Gâteaux. After some back and forth between the U.S. and France (every professional expat knows that following your dreams comes with a lot of time spent waiting on the embassy), she then moved to Versailles with a Frenchman and began teaching pastry classes in her apartment. They quickly caught on, and she capitalized on lockdown baking trends by offering online Zoom classes for $25 a pop. Now that restrictions are loosening, she will again be offering in-person classes starting this month, which can be requested on her website. “The in-person classes are particularly special as you can take them yourself, or with your family and friends to share a fabulous moment in the kitchen together,” she says. “We bake through everything from start to finish, and of course there are gorgeous views of Versailles! After the class, a lot of my students decide to take their box of treats to the Versailles gardens just a five-minute walk away for a little sweet picnic.”
During classes, the sounds of Édith Piaf and Charles Trenet float through Wilkinson’s beautiful 18th century apartment, with its parquet floors and massive French windows through which her rescue dog, Elliott, watches people on the street go by. She’s a collector, and her cabinets are full of vintage glassware and porcelain (including oddities like a miniature nude china torso of Marie Antoinette). Many of these are picked up at vide greniers, yard sales where little French grannies deposit their kitchenware for next to nothing. She’s hoping that one day one of them will turn up a vintage Julia Child cookbook, with handwritten notes and butter stains on every page.
Wilkinson was approached to write her own cookbook in January of 2020, which turned out to be “the perfect lockdown project.” By working with students over Zoom, she was able to test and fine-tune recipes, as well as workshop her instructional skills. “I wanted my recipes to read like my classes so it feels like I’m right there beside you in the kitchen offering helpful tips and telling you exactly what to do for each step,” she says.
French Pastry Made Simple: Foolproof Recipes for Éclairs, Tarts, Macarons and More is a guide that builds upon foundational baking elements to let you learn skills that you can mix and match later on. Learn how to make mousse, meringue, or pâte sucrée, all with basic tools you probably already own.
The level of detail in the book is exhaustive but not exhausting, including everything from how to pour liquid from a bowl to a saucepan (“One fell swoop!”) to why you shouldn’t use the ripest berries for a tart. She even offers options for how to arrange pears on top of a Chocolate-Walnut-Pear Tart with Caramel Sauce, or tips on how to make it gluten free (the answer might surprise you!). They are recipes that leave room for interpretation and whimsy (like a suggestion that Lunettes de Romans could be made with dinosaur-shaped cookie cutters if you don’t happen to have the traditional shape). Unlike many cookbooks devoted to pastry, the ingredients tend to be standard fare. So if you’re the kind of person who climbs on a chair to reach the baking goods on the highest shelf only after you’ve preheated the oven, you’ll probably be fine.
Though she operates in France, Wilkinson made a concerted effort to make sure her recipes translated. All recipes are explained in terms of cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons, but they also include grams and milliliters for those who choose to weigh their ingredients… which she highly recommends. “One of the biggest challenges was getting the details just so, and making sure that the recipes worked with different kinds of flour,” she explains, as French flour tends to be finer ground than American. The solution? “Well, the easiest was to have my mom send me about 10 pounds of a generic All Purpose flour from the US. I’m sure we confused customs but it was worth it!”
Her favorite recipe in the entire book is the Tigré cake recipe. “This is a buttery almond cake with small pieces of chocolate stirred inside to look like tiger stripes, then once baked, a circle of ganache is piped in a well in the middle. It’s a pastry I’ve always been super fond of but the patisserie where I would always go stopped offering it.” So, like any determined foodie, she just had to make it herself.
Pick up a copy of French Pastry Made Simple here, follow her on Instagram, or sign up for a pastry class in person or online, and let Molly J. Wilkinson’s bubbly personality, infectious laugh, and stunning pastries reel you in.