Welcome to episode 4 of The Good Life France podcast – the one where we talk to Molly Wilkinson who took a huge leap of faith to give up a comfy job in Texas, USA, and start a whole new life for the love of Paris… and cakes.
Eat, Cake, Love in Paris
Molly left her hometown of Dallas for Paris to learn how to make cakes at the famous Cordon Bleu cookery school. What she didn’t expect was to fall in love with a Frenchman, move to Versailles and become a famous online cake teacher!
She shares her story of love, cake and Paris in this fun, and frankly delicious interview…
Also in this episode, we answer a listener’s question “Is it true French people eat baguette’s every day?” Listen in to find out!
And we chat about a palace built from pebbles by a postman in the south of France. An extraordinary and inspiring story of a man who had a dream to create his ideal palace..
Coming up in the next podcast we’ll be talking to Perry Taylor, a British artist who lives in the Gers. This summer he put down his paintbrush to follow his dream – to walk the Camino de Santiago, a life-changing journey…
We’ve got some fabulous guests lined up for you including Stephen Clarke author of a Year in the Merde and Dick and Angel Strawbridge of Escape to the Chateau.
Subscribe here to never miss an episode: thegoodlifefrance.com/podcast
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Eat, Cake, Paris – the transcript
If you’d like to read the transcript of Eat, Cake, Paris – see below:
Janine Marsh We are delighted to have as our guest today the lovely Molly Wilkinson. She left her hometown of Dallas, Texas, USA, to train in Paris as a patisserie chef at the famous Cordon Bleu Cookery School. But what she didn’t expect was to fall in love with a Frenchman, set up home in Versailles on the outskirts of Paris and become a famous online cake maker teaching cake-baking fans all around the world how to make the most perfect French gateau – from Mille-Feuilles to Merveilleux. She’s also written a bestselling book called French Pastry Made Simple, Foolproof Recipes for Eclairs, Tarts, Macarons, and teaches cake making through her virtual classes. So just how did this come about? Meet our guest today, Molly Wilkinson, cake maker extraordinaire.
Janine Marsh Hi, Molly. Thanks for joining us today from your gorgeous apartment in Versailles, just a stone’s throw from the stunning palace which was once home to Marie-Antoinette, who was known to love sugary macarons and cakes herself, washed down with champagne, of course. My first question to you, Molly, is what was it that inspired you to come to Paris to learn Patisserie and why cordon Bleu?
Molly Wilkinson Oh, so hello. Hello. Thanks so much for having me. I love this. This is such a good question to start with actually. So I moved to France specifically to go to the Cordon Bleu and when I was looking into pastry schools, since I’m originally from the US, I started looking there and I found that they were very expensive. I had already been to college, I had studied abroad in France for about two weeks and just absolutely fell in love with it. And so I wanted to find a way to come back, and studying pastry was the perfect way to do that. So I looked at the Cordon Bleu school which is very well known internationally. And I just I love Julia Child as well. Do you know Julia Child?
Janine Marsh Absolutely. I think she was an amazing woman. I love that film. Julia and Julia.
Molly Wilkinson Exactly. It’s like, what kind of question is that? Who doesn’t know Julia Child? And I kind of wanted to follow in her footsteps. And so I moved across the ocean and went to the Cordon Bleu and got my pastry certification.
Janine Marsh Wow. It’s such an exciting thing to do, but it’s also like going for the best of the best. You definitely weren’t prepared to take anything less than the best were you.
Molly Wilkinson That’s exactly right. So I really wanted to go to where French pastry was from. So I’m studying it in France with the best chefs that I could find… I was like, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go all the way. And that was it.
Janine Marsh Was it all fun or was it quite difficult at times? You know, chefs have quite a reputation for being difficult, don’t they?
Molly Wilkinson It was a lot of fun. I went into it with this mindset that I was like, you know, I’m trying this out. I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to make this my career, but if it didn’t work out, I had another career to fall back on, marketing. And so I think that that really helped. I went in and I had read like several books before. I was really expecting, you know, very, very strict in the kitchen, which it was, you know, you had to wear your uniform just so every day that with your hat and your necktie, with wearing a necktie, when it is extremely hot outside and you’re working with chocolate, it’s not so much fun! But that and yeah, it was this combination of just such an amazing experience learning all of these very traditional pastries that I had seen in pastry shop windows and studying with these extremely talented chefs, that the strictness of it, it didn’t bother me so much. I actually really enjoyed that.
Janine Marsh Sounds good to me. So I know because I follow you on Facebook and I read your website and I’ve got your book in my cabinet. I know that you didn’t just come to France and learn how to make the most amazing cakes. You also met a Frenchman and that you now live with your Frenchman in Versailles. So I’m wondering, how did that come about?
Molly Wilkinson So this is like the first time I’m sharing this actually. I feel like I’m going to disappoint a couple of people maybe, but it’s not the most romantic story – as we met online. The best part about it, I would say, though, is the first time that we met, he did know that I was in pastry, that I loved sweets. He himself really loves really good food, too. And so for our first meet up, for our first date, he went around the corner to a patisserie and he bought what he thought was the best tarte au citron. And he also got some cheesecake because he knew that I was American and he wanted my thoughts on it. And I have to say, I still think about that Tarte au citron, probably because of the good memories of meeting him at the same time, but he had very good taste and so that kind of solidified it. I was like, he knows what he’s talking about.
Janine Marsh The way to Molly’s heart is with the Tarte au citron.
Molly Wilkinson Exactly. And to this day, I make it very frequently for us, it’s like his Mousse au chocolat and my Tarte au citron. It’s a good combination.
Janine Marsh And what was the cheesecake like?
Molly Wilkinson The cheesecake actually wasn’t that bad. It was pretty good. It was like it’s a cool American cheesecake. But you know what? He had chosen a pretty good one from a good patisserie, and so it wasn’t that bad. I enjoyed it.
Janine Marsh It was a good first date. Was it in Paris of Versailles?
Molly Wilkinson It was in Paris. So we were both in Paris at the time during our first date, or maybe it was our second date. He told me that he was moving to Strasbourg. At the time we were talking in French and I believe I maybe misunderstood a little bit because when he said that I was like, oh, he means like in two years or something like that – not in like three weeks. So he moved and we decided because we just met for one month to not do the long distance thing, to just, to see how it went. And after a couple of months, he returned to Paris. We ended up spending the whole weekend together, and when he was driving back to Strasbourg, we were like, you know what? I think we need to try to make this work. And, you know, since then, long story short, after about a year, I moved in with him to Strasbourg and then, his job changed, and then we both decided to move to Versailles. And that’s where the business really took off as well. So, you know, couldn’t do without him. We make a good team for sure.
Janine Marsh I think that’s actually really romantic, you know, because he moved to Strasbourg three weeks after you met and it could have all just fizzled out and come to nothing. But it didn’t.
Molly Wilkinson Exactly. Like, I think we were both in each other’s minds. Like before he moved to, we were spending a lot of time together and I was pretty heartbroken after we called it quits, you know, after like a couple of weeks. And maybe he felt the same way, too. I would say he probably did.
Janine Marsh I think he did. He definitely did. So. What’s your favorite cake? Is it tarte au citron because of Frenchman or is it something else?
Molly Wilkinson Wow. Okay. This is a really hard question because it is actually, you know, you have to ask me, which one do I like to eat and which one do I like to make? Yeah. And because it’s actually two different responses. The one that I really enjoy making is Croquembouche, also known as a Piece Montée, which is the traditional French wedding cake here. It is a stack of cream puffs that are combined together in this domed shape with caramel acting as the glue. And it is a quite a tricky dessert to make. When we learned it in school, it was a five-hour class to put it together. And I remember looking to my classmate and we were both just like, oh, we have to open a Croquembouche store, this is so much fun. I love it. The neat thing about it is that you can like create most of the pieces in advance, but you can only assemble it and eat it on the actual day that you put it together. Okay. So it is very ethereal. It’s a stunning dessert. That is certainly the masterpiece in any room for sure. And I just love it. I think they’re really delicious, too. So that would be the one that I love to make in terms of the one that I like to eat. That’s just, it’s constantly changing. If I just want something really, really, really delicious. I always go back to a chocolate chip cookie. I know it’s not a French pastry, but I grew up on it. That is what I love. And I just, I love that. It’s just a great combination to with all the pastries that I make, too. It’s there’s always a little bit of an American touch, even if it’s a very traditional French dessert.
Janine Marsh It’s cake Molly. If it’s cake, we love that. It doesn’t matter.
Molly Wilkinson I know. No, and it’s funny if it’s like a French pastry, like which French pastry do I like to eat? It’s just, it really is like constantly changing because I like to try lots of different ones. If we are traveling to a different region, I am constantly looking for the best pastry shop in the town that we’re in and then looking for regional desserts to try as well, because it’s just it’s interesting. It’s always inspiring for me too. So yeah, it really is. I will eat just about any pastry at any time.
Janine Marsh I’m exactly the same. Wherever I go, I seek out the best pastry shop and I take photos and, you know, window licking. That’s what they call it in France. They don’t call it window shopping. When you look in a window and drool over something, they call it window licking. And actually, it’s very true when it comes to cake shops, I think.
Molly Wilkinson It’s so true. And I think they positioned all the pastry so that you can see them and that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re like, which one do I need for gouter?
Janine Marsh Ooh, those clever patisserie bakers. Now, I don’t know if this is a decent question to ask, but I’m going to ask it anyway and I’m going to tell you about my least favorite cake and try to find out if you have a least favorite cake, if that’s even possible. I don’t really have one. I just love cakes. Full stop. I love cakes. But there is one cake that they make in the region where I live, which is northern France, and it makes me laugh every time I see it. When I go in the local bakers and on the counter there is a cake called Le Doigt de Charles Quint, which means the finger of Charles the Fifth. I mean, yeah, seriously. He was a 16th century holy Roman emperor, and he had gout. And this cake is a sponge cake shaped like a finger, and it’s filled with raspberry jam. And it’s meant to be his gouty finger…
Molly Wilkinson Oh, my goodness.
Janine Marsh Yeah, this is real. And you would think it’s not that appetizing, but I can honestly say it doesn’t put me off eating it because it’s a cake. So we know your favorite cake now, but do you have a least favorite cake?
Molly Wilkinson I really want to go find that specific cake because I think it’s so funny. When you’re describing that the one that immediately came to mind, which I apologize, I can’t remember the exact French name for it. I know the translation now, and maybe you know of it very well, but I hadn’t seen this before I moved to Alsace. I’m going to tell you two, actually, and one that I absolutely like. But this one like it just cracks me up, the name. Essentially, the name means Nun’s farts. And have you heard of it?
Janine Marsh Yes (laughing).
Molly Wilkinson They’re like little donuts. That’s how you describe it right. And they’re delicious. And I just think the name is absolutely hilarious. I think I’m like you. Like, I definitely wanted to try it even with the name and it was good! The other one that I love the name of is a Pomme de terre. Have you heard of this one either?
Janine Marsh No. A Pomme de terre is a potato to me.
Molly Wilkinson Exactly. Well, it’s a pastry in the shape of a potato, and it looks like a potato. And it is so delicious. It is essentially a center of pastry cream, wrapped around that is a very thin layer of genoise sponge cake. And then wrapped around that is a very thin layer of marzipan that they have decorated with cocoa powder and lines to look like a potato. And it is so good.
Janine Marsh I make a point of looking for cakes and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that cake. Olivier, you’re listening in on this. Have you ever seen a Pomme de terre cake?
Olivier Jauffrit Nope. I know the other one yes: Les Pets de Nonne. En français, in French. But the Pomme de terre one, no, I don’t know that one.
Janine Marsh So is this an Alsace specialty, then?
Molly Wilkinson It might be. I’ve only seen it in that area. I was living there for one year and I got it on a very consistent basis. And I can tell you that I’ve seen it in all of the little towns around Strasbourg as well. And it is it is so good. It’s very rich, but very delicious. So you’ll have to try it one day.
Janine Marsh Definitely. I don’t need any excuse to go to Strasbourg or Alsace, but now I have one. I want to eat a Pomme de terre cake. Talking of cakes. What got you started teaching cake making online. And it’s so much fun. And I know this because I’ve done a class online to make a raspberry roulade, which was absolutely delicious, and it’s now our go-to cake treat when I’m at home and even my French neighbors are impressed by it, which is quite some achievement because believe me, when I first came to France, my friends here used to say, Janine, you are a Flop Chef, not a Top Chef. But it’s true, they used to say that but they don’t it say anymore. And now they say, I make excellent raspberry roulade. But what got you started teaching cake making online?
Molly Wilkinson And so it was a big shift that happened when the pandemic came. So before that, I was teaching in-person classes. I started out teaching just private classes and weekend workshops, things like that. And I had a lot lined up for 2020. Then the Pandemic came along and I very quickly switched to online. And that has been such an amazing thing for my business because I’m able to reach clients all over the world. I think it’s very unique too, because people are cooking out of their own kitchens, so they’re using their own equipment, their own oven, and that is a very key point, sometimes when you’re making pastries, when you’re making cakes, because there are little adjustments that you have to make depending on what you’re using. And so I’ve absolutely loved that. I can look in the screen and be like, oh, you need to bake that just a little bit longer or I can tell that the texture looks correct, and that’s led to launching an online school as well where the classes are recorded. So I do this combination of classes that I record on Zoom, classes that are professionally recorded in my online pastry school, and then one off virtual classes that you can join whenever you like, like the raspberry roulade cake.
Janine Marsh It sounds like your apartment in Versailles is just completely full of cakes 24 hours a day!
Molly Wilkinson It pretty much is, yes. My neighbors love me and it’s funny, everyone’s very excited when I come to see them because there’s usually some sort of sweet treat in my bag for them. I’m like, please help me out.
Janine Marsh Molly, you can expect a visit from me in Versailles quite soon I think.
Molly Wilkinson I love it. You let me know and I will keep the very best.
Janine Marsh Thank you very much. You’re on. Now, I’ve got a question for you, which is about Christmas, because we’re nearly at Christmas and in the UK where I come from, mince pies and Christmas pudding or figgy pudding are what we put on the table. They’re traditional Christmas desserts, but if someone one wants a bit of French flair on their table, what would you tell them to make apart from a Croquembouche? Or would you say you have to make a Croquembouche, set aside 5 hours if that’s what it takes, that’s what you’ve got to do.
Molly Wilkinson Actually I teach a Croquembouche class, and I really love that one because it does take the fuss out of making it and also the fear out of making one too. Because I do show that you can if you’ve made the pieces in advance and I tell you how to do that, just dividing up the work, essentially, you can assemble it in about 20 to 30 minutes if you know what you’re doing. And I really do love that. I essentially have everyone on the screen watching me. Everything’s ready, prepared. And I talk about assembly and, you know, we hang out and I’m working with hot molten lava caramel. People are watching, we’re listening to Christmas tunes, and it’s a great time. If you don’t want to do that, though, the other one is the Buche de Noel, not Bouche de Noel, which is the mouth of Christmas. You have to be careful with the pronunciation and how you write it. That is the Yule log cake. So that one has been around since the late 1800s. Before that, it was a pagan tradition that happened for the winter solstice where they would put a real log in the fire and they decorate it with mushrooms and moss and even dowse it with wine and burn it. And the longer it burns, the more luck that you would have in the year to come. But people started to not do that so much. And so the pastry chefs took it on and they made a cake that looks like this beautiful log. And you can even see them in the very fancy hotels nowadays where they are multi layered, very complex. But the original, the traditional gets back to a really beautiful genoise, just like that raspberry roulade that you made with me and then a really nice filling. So sometimes a mousse, a lot of times a beautiful buttercream, chocolate ganache on the outside to look like wood and then maybe some meringue mushrooms. And that class, I teach it, start to finish in an hour and a half for assembling the cake. And then we talk about decorations and it’s a really fun one. I love that one.
Janine Marsh Oh, God. I can’t choose from one or the other. The fact that you could do a Croquembouche and make it in less, you know, assemble it in less than an hour is so tempting. I think I might have to do both.
Molly Wilkinson Okay. I’ll sign you up.
Janine Marsh Thank you very much. Olivier, what would you choose? Croquembouche or Buche de Noel?
Olivier Jauffrit Oh Buche de Noel for me, definitely, yes.
Molly Wilkinson Any specific kind that you like?
Olivier Jauffrit Um, chocolate, ice cream, Buche de Noel.
Molly Wilkinson Oh, yes.
Olivier Jauffrit That would be my choice. Yes.
Janine Marsh I think we’re all sitting here drooling now.
Molly Wilkinson I know. I’m glad that I have lunch before this.
Janine Marsh I’m actually thinking I might have to make one early before Christmas or any time of the year just for the practice.
Molly Wilkinson You know, it is really fun and there is a trick to getting the role right and not having any cracks. And the base itself, like you saw with your raspberry cake, you can use to make all sorts of different things. So you could add lemon curd on the inside, a beautiful vanilla mousse, different things like that, lots of fresh fruit and serve it year round. So it’s a great way to get in a little bit of practice before the holidays too.
Janine Marsh Yeah, I’m just going to call it a Buche. I’m leaving the de Noel bit out, so I’m going to make it anytime I like now. So you love cakes, you love Versailles, you love your Frenchman. I know you have a dog called Elliot that you love too, but what do you love most about life in France?
Molly Wilkinson It just all goes back to the food for me. It really does. The fresh markets and the accessibility of really impressive, good quality butter and eggs and all of the ingredients that I need to make amazing cakes because a lot of the quality goes back to the quality of your ingredients. So having that on hand just to easily make something head is just fantastic. So that’s what I love the most, for sure. That and the culture surrounding around food as well.
Janine Marsh I totally get you. And I know as well because I’ve been to the market in Versailles that you actually have a market right on your doorstep that is just amazing. For me, it’s one of the best in France.
Molly Wilkinson It’s fantastic. It’s massive, you know, the one in the Notre Dame quartier. It is beautiful. It’s very inspiring for me to visit as well because I get to see the change of seasons. Right now we have figs in season, apples and pears and things like that. And so I started dreaming up, you know, different desserts to make. And so I try to go on a weekly basis and that’s where I get all the food that we work with for the week here.
Janine Marsh Yeah, I don’t blame you at all. We have a tiny market where I am, but even so, you know, it’s fresh seasonal product, it’s local cheeses. And I just think we’re so lucky to have this in France really.
Molly Wilkinson I would agree.
Janine Marsh Now, cakes are your life, pretty much, so when you go on holiday in France, is your choice of where you go ever influenced by regional cake specialties or do you just go, oh, we’re going on holiday to Brittany, and then you just find a cake, you fall in love with. Or do you go? I’m going on a holiday to Brittany. I can have a galette.
Molly Wilkinson No. Oh, my gosh. Are my travels influenced by the pastries I want to try? I will say I have a short list of places that I want to go to and they are often related to food, that’s for sure. Because I know for the Brittany region, I really wanted to try a Kouign-Amann in the area. I had tried them many times before, but I was like, if I wanted to try the buttery caramelly amazingness, that is a Kouign-Amann, I have to do that in the Brittany region. And so that was like, I knew we were going to go see Mont St Michel and St Malo and all of those places, I was like, I know while I’m there, I had to go to a really good place to eat a Kouign-Amann. So I would say the mixture of your response there is more or less. It’s definitely a huge part of the vacation, that’s for sure.
Janine Marsh You know, I totally get that. I think I read somewhere that the Kouign-Amann has about 60% butter in the recipe.
Molly Wilkinson Oh, I would say yes. It is very close to at least 50%. I would say. Actually I went into a shop there and the description, it was great. It was like butter and sugar and more butter and more sugar. I was like, yes, that’s pretty much it. Well, good.
Janine Marsh I think that’s French cooking, is it? You can’t have too much butter according to French cooking.
Molly Wilkinson It’s so true.
Janine Marsh I agree. I love the butter here. They do that butter with salt crystals in which I’m sure is probably really bad for you, but it’s addictive.
Molly Wilkinson It’s the best. Just on toast. I don’t know how you do it, but for me it’s like a tartine, like in the morning on toast. And I really appreciate the butter. I love that.
Janine Marsh I put it in everything now, even in crumble with this little hint of salt in the crumble. I really love that.
Molly Wilkinson It’s so good. It is really good. And there’s, like, all the different kinds of flavors too. Like framboise, you even have vanilla, you have seaweed and paprika, all sorts of different kind of flavored butters, which are super good too.
Janine Marsh I think it doesn’t take you very long to be in France before you realize just why French gastronomy has been UNESCO-listed because I mean, it really is a way of life. For me, it’s totally different from the gastronomy at the UK, not saying it’s bad in the UK it’s just totally different because in France everything is about food. I mean if you’re not talking about food, you’re thinking about food, and when you’re having breakfast, you’re talking about what you’re going to cook for lunch. When you having lunch, you’re talking about what might be for dinner. Food is life here, isn’t it?
Molly Wilkinson It really is. And you just nailed it. It’s so true. Like you’re constantly talking about it. If you’re even just walking on the streets, you know, there’s beautiful windows of the boulangerie. The pastry shops are just calling your name essentially constantly.
Janine Marsh Yeah, they’re calling my name as well. And my hips I’m sorry to say.
Molly Wilkinson It’s a good thing that we’re living on like a top floor. So we get a little bit of exercise.
Janine Marsh I have to say, it’s a good thing I’ve got 50 animals!
Molly Wilkinson Exactly. Exactly.
Janine Marsh Molly, thank you so much for being our guest today. It’s been absolutely brilliant talking to you. Everyone. You can find Molly on Instagram at Molly J Wilk, which is a jam-packed Instagram page with tempting delicious photos and tips and recipes. And you can also find her on her website, MollyJWilk.com, where you’ll find all the details of our online cake classes, which you can join from anywhere in the world. And you’ll also find details of her gorgeous book, French Pastry Made Simple and everything cakey A la Molly.