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The Éclair Affair: Revamping a Classic

Photos by Jessica Antola.

The classic French pastry gets a 21st century makeover.

“You’re having that…at lunch?” I asked my Parisian friend Pauline, when we went for a midday picnic just outside the 15th arrondissement. It wasn’t the ham and cheese on a crunchy baguette that surprised me but, rather, the long, glistening, dark chocolate éclair.

“Why not? I love these!” she exclaimed.

“They’re too precious to be an everyday luxury.” I teased. Surely éclairs must be reserved for Sunday brunch with family or holiday gatherings.

Mais non! I’ve eaten them regularly my entire life. It’s like biting into a piece of my childhood,” she said, with a wistful look in her eyes. “Don’t you have a favorite treat?”

Employees at L’Éclair de Génie pose behind a case full of creative éclairs.

Employees at L’Éclair de Génie pose behind a case full of creative éclairs.

I immediately recalled my childhood fondness for humble chocolate pudding, but in comparison to her éclair, it felt too trivial to mention.

Pauline’s reverie over the éclair isn’t unusual. For an entire nation, the oblong choux—an airy puff pastry also used to make profiteroles and beignets, traditionally filled with vanilla cream and glazed with chocolate—embodies the essence of gourmandise, an affectionate word for serious indulgence.

“It’s one of the first grown-up treats given to children,” explained Xavier Pichon, second in command at Stohrer, Paris’s oldest pâtisserie, when I visited the pastry shop. “That’s mostly because it’s so easy to eat.”

A tot in a stroller can clutch an éclair between tiny fingers, and in a few bites it’s gone, with minimal mess. An adult’s appreciation is rooted not only in nostalgia but also in a profound respect for the baking skills required to master such a seemingly simple dessert.

Among the thicket of theories surrounding the éclair’s origin is that it derived from the pâte à choux, which was invented in 1540, and a 19th-century pastry called pain à la duchesse or petite duchesse. The renowned Parisian chef Antonin Carême—a pioneer of high-art grande cuisine who served a who’s who of 19th-century elite (Talleyrand, Napoleon, King George IV, and Tsar Alexander)—is said to have perfected the dessert in the early 1800s. By 1850, as it rose to popularity in the capital, the petite duchesse became known in local parlance as the éclair— “a flash of lightning.” Historians speculate that the name was a nod to how quickly one could devour it, a quality it retains today.

Patisserie Stohrer is known for traditional flavors and exceptional quality.

Patisserie Stohrer is known for traditional flavors and exceptional quality.

As staples of every corner bakery, éclairs are typically offered in classic crowd-pleasing flavors such as chocolate, caramel, and coffee. But one man has transformed them from cultural touchstones to gourmet obsessions. Chef Christophe Adam worked for 15 years at Fauchon, the upscale pastry mecca in Paris. During his tenure, he experimented wildly and developed more than 100 original éclair recipes. The first, à l’orange, was a career-defining creation. “It was the first time an uncommon flavor was used,” he told me by phone, “and without question, it’s where this modern éclair story began for me. Since then, I’ve considered the éclair a creative tool that allows me to showcase an endless variety of flavors.”

But about 10 years ago, the global stardom of such miniature treats as cupcakes and two- bite macarons drew consumers’ focus away from France’s historical favorite. For several years, it became easy to overlook the éclair in pastry cases when cute became the barometer of good taste. In 2012, however, Adam opened L’Éclair de Génie in the Marais district and put the éclair, with a capital É, back on top. Luscious flavors such as lemon yuzu, praline-hazelnut, and raspberry passion fruit draw crowds of French and foreign patrons daily. Some come to rekindle an old love for the classic dessert, others to taste a piece of this endearing pastry narrative for the first time. I didn’t need to be reared on éclairs to be smitten, especially by one in particular: the vanilla-pecan éclair. The unmasked flavor of each ingredient—a soul-warming smoothness and rich kick from the Madagascar vanilla bean, mixed with the pecans’ caramelized crunch—channeled memories of family feasts and Thanksgiving pies. My friend Pauline was right. That kind of joy needs no special occasion.

Find out where to get the best éclairs in Paris here.

RECIPE:  Caramel Eclair

(Makes 10 éclairs, 4 inches each)

Recipe by Christophe Adam, L’Eclair de Génie

INGREDIENTS

Choux Pastry :

2/3 cup milk

2/3 cup water

11 ¼ tablespoons unsalted butter

½ tablespoon granulated sugar

¼ tablespoon salt

½ tablespoon liquid vanilla

1 ¼ cup plain (all purpose) flour

3 large eggs

Crème caramel (filling) :

½ cup granulated sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

¾ cup mascarpone

1 cup whipping cream (35% fat)

½ teaspoon gelatin powder

3 teaspoons water

Pinch of sea salt

Caramel icing (fondant)

2 1/3 tablespoon granulated sugar  

½ cup whipping cream (35% fat)

2 ¾ teaspoons glucose (or light corn syrup)

2/3 teaspoons semi-salted butter

8.5 ounces white fondant (packaged)

Decorations

1 ¼ tablespoons chocolate pearls

1 ¼ tablespoons finely grated chocolate

1 tablespoon bronze baking dust

MAKE IT

Starting with the Choux pastry :

  1. In a medium saucepan, heat the water, milk, butter, salt, granulated sugar and vanilla extract
  2. When it reaches a boil, remove from heat, pour in the flour and stir vigorously with a spatula until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 375°F
  4. Using a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, emulsify the dough by pouring in the eggs one by one. The mixture should be smooth.
  5. Pipe 4cm of dough into the oblong éclair shape onto a lined baking sheet, each 2 inches apart.
  6. Bake the pastry for roughly 30 minutes or until golden brown

Then the crème caramel filling:

  1. Bloom (hydrate) the gelatin in a small ramekin of water for at least five minutes.
  2. Cook the granulated sugar to a dark brown caramel and deglaze the pan with warmed whipping cream.
  3. Add the butter and sea salt then let the mixture cool to about 120°F before incorporating the gelatin.
  4. Slowly pour the caramel mixture, cooled to 112°F, on top of the mascarpone and mix with a hand beater.
  5. Remove from heat and store (covered in plastic film) in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before assembling.

The caramel fondant:  

  1. Cook the granulated sugar and glucose (or light corn syrup) to a dark caramel and deglaze the pan with warmed whipping cream.
  2. Cook at 228°F
  3. Add the salted butter and mix
  4. Remove from heat and let cool
  5. Mix the caramel mixture (still warm) with the slightly heated fondant using a spatula.

Assembling the éclair:

  1. Put the chocolate pearls, finely grated chocolate and bronze baking dust in a closed container
  2. Shake the contained to uniformly coat the chocolate with the baking dust
  3. Spoon the crème caramel filling into a piping bag fitted with a ½ inch nozzle and use the nozzle to poke a small hole into the end of each éclair.
  4. Fill each éclair with the crème caramel mixture
  5. Once filled, dip each éclair into the heated fondant until the coating is smooth and even.
  6. Sprinkle immediately with the chocolate pearl and bronze dust mixture

This appeared in the November/December 2014 issue.