French pastries can seem daunting and complicated, but there are only a few basic recipes that you need to make some classic French pastries. Almost every French pastry has two main components; a cream, and a paste or dough. There are only a few different creams and pastes/doughs that you need to be able to make to create a huge range of seemingly complicated French pastries.
There are three creams to know before you start making classic French Pastries. One of the most common creams is Creme Chantilly: whipped cream sweetened with sugar and flavoured with either vanilla or kirsch. Creme Chantilly is used in Gateaux St. Honor, and can also be mixed with other creams. Pastry cream is one of the most versatile creams, and is extremely common. It is the most common filling of choux (cream puffs), claires, mille-feuilles (sometimes called a Napoleon,) a jalousie, some tarts, and can be used as a filling for danishes and pain au raisins (the french version of a cinnamon bun.) Another common cream is Almond cream, though it is mostly used in filling tart shells. There are other creams, but they are not as common, such as chocolate cream, lemon cream, and buttercream (which is common in America, but not used as often as one would think in French pastries,) however, these creams are not used nearly as often, are not as versatile, and will not be as useful to a beginner making French pastries.
French pastry doughs and pastes seem complicated, but after a little practice you will find that they are relatively easy, and at worst, time consuming.
Pate choux (choux paste) is what makes cream puffs, claires, and part of the Gteau St. Honor. Recipes for choux paste are usually fairly close, but, like anything else, you need to find the perfect on that works for you (and your flour type.) The methods for different choux reicpes are all the same: Water (or water and milk,) the fat, and salt and sugar (if required by the recipe and use) are brought to a boil. All of the flour is poured into the water/fat and mixed with a wooden spoon until all of the flour has been absorbed. The more you cook the paste at this point, the more eggs you can add later, which will result in a nicer product. The paste in transfered to a mixer bowl, and mixed on a med-low speed until you can hold the bottom of the mixer bowl (this will avoid cooking the eggs.) Once the paste has cooled, add the eggs one or two at a time, making sure to mix completely before adding any more eggs. Once all of the eggs have been incorporated, pipe the paste (or drop using spoons) onto a parchment papered baking sheet. Choux paste can be baked at a few different temperatures, I find 375F works the best with the recipes that I use. Steam is what makes the choux rise, so it may benefit from placing a baking dish in the bottom of the oven and filling it part-way with water.
Sweet dough (or paste) is used for tart shells. There are lots of different recipes and different methods for making this dough, my preferred recipe involves mixing all of the ingredients together at one time. Sweet dough (or any type of pie dough) needs to be wrapped and refrigerated to rest for at least 30 minutes before you can roll it out, and then rested again after being pressed into the tart form and docked (poking holes in the bottom of the shell using a fork. This helps eliminate air bubbles and results in a more even shell.) You are almost always going to blind bake the tart shells, so line the shell with parchment paper and fill with uncooked rice, beans, etc. Some kitchen stores sell pie weights (heavy little balls used for blind baking) but it’s usually just more convenient, and cheaper, to take a visit to your pantry. The biggest problem people have is overworking their sweet dough, which makes it tough, so resting the dough, and knowing how much you need to roll out is important.
Pate feuilletee is another classic French pastry staple. Puff dough is alternating layers of fat and dough. It does take a long time to make, because the fat must be folded into the dough, which must then be rolled out and folded over at least three times, with lots of resting time. Depending on the fat that is used and the recipe, the amounts of folds (or turns), and the amount of resting time may vary greatly. One recipe in my collection takes nine and a half hours from start to finish. Puff dough is used to make some tart bases, but most commonly for the mille-feuille.
There are many ways to combine these six recipes that will impress any dinner guest. Choux cream puffs or claires can either be filled with a flavoured whipped cream and fruit, or pastry cream. Sweet dough can be used to make tarts filled with pastry cream, or a variety of other creams (such as lemon, chocolate, etc), or filled with almond cream and fruit before finishing baking. Pate feuilletee can be used much the same as sweet dough, though it is usually only filled with almond cream and fruit. The most basic pate feuilletee recipe is probably the apple tart tatin, which involves only apples, a basic baking caramel, and the puff dough.
Like anything else, with practice comes perfection. So good luck and happy baking!