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?”
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.
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
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)
1 ¼ tablespoons chocolate pearls
1 ¼ tablespoons finely grated chocolate
1 tablespoon bronze baking dust
Starting with the Choux pastry :
Then the crème caramel filling:
The caramel fondant:
Assembling the éclair:
This appeared in the November/December 2014 issue.
© 2016 AFAR Media