Purify me, Eclair

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First pastry love: Andreae Prozesky tells all.

There is more than one kind of first love.

There’s the obvious first love, the romantic sort, where life is forever altered by a young person’s agonizingly obsessive highschoolian passion. Then there’s the accomplishment sort of first love, where you find out you’re good at something—guitar, math, basketball, comic book art, whatever—and, high as a kite on praise and ambition, you decide to forsake all other activities for the rest of your life. As preschoolers we fall hard for the charms of our parents, and are blind to their faults. As pre-teens we (the girls, at least) fall harder for the charms of dimpled, bright-eyed, non-threatening celebrities whom we will later deny. There’s live band first love, ass-enhancing-jeans first love, car first love.

Then there’s pastry first love.

For me, it was—indeed, has always been—the chocolate éclair. Ah, loveliest of pastries, I would send you a card if I could. Accessible, even in the St. John’s of my youth, but not ubiquitous. The eggy pastry shell, the creamy, custardy filling, the shining chocolate glaze… You, éclair, are a thing of pure beauty.

The éclair has none of the cheesecake’s lactic density, none of the mille-feuille’s thousand layers of flakes and crumbs that flutter down the front of your top. More erudite than the doughnut, more approachable than the savoyard, the opéra, the various délices, babas, and bûches… The éclair asks for neither fork, nor sauce.

The éclair stands on its own.

Of course, there are good éclairs and less-good éclairs. Were we a town of many French pastry shops, top-notch éclairs would pave the streets and I would be the size of a house. The éclairs at the various bakeries through the years have always been passable, and there’s even something to be said for the boxes of frozen éclairs from the grocery shop, filled by injection with greasy ultrawhite petroleum product. They’re sleazy, yes, but they’re always there for you should you need them.

I’ve sampled the éclairs of Montreal and of Paris and yes, yes, they’re quite delicious. I worked in a bakery once where we counter girls were routinely called into the kitchen to gorge on broken éclair bits. They were fabulous.

The thing about éclairs, though, is that they’re not at all difficult to make. Seriously. The kind of pastry they’re made from is called “choux”, and it is possibly the weirdest thing you’ll ever cook. You mix it up on the stove then squirt it into lines, pop it in the oven and what you end up with is, well, a tray of éclair shells. Just like that. No rolling, no nothing. It’s very forgiving.

North American recipes for éclairs generally suggest you fill them with a combination of French Vanilla Jell-O Pudding and (shudder) thawed Cool Whip. By rights, you should use crème pâtissière, which is a sort of thick, sturdy custard. Recipes for crème pâtissière are easy to find on the internet—it’s a basic egg custard, fortified with a little flour. If you don’t want to be mucking about with home-made custard though, powdered instant custard from a tin—made nice and thick and then cooled—is a reasonable substitute. At the bakery where I worked, they used to pipe one line of custard into the éclairs, then another of whipped cream. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the best sort of filling. You can experiment with other flavours; there’s nothing inauthentic about a chocolate- or mocha-filled éclair, and there’s nothing to say you couldn’t stuff some raspberries or strawberries or mango slices or something in there. But vanilla works for me. Just don’t do what I did and try to beat custard and whipped cream together. I have no idea what I was thinking. It turned out kind of curdle-ish. Delicious, yes, but not like it should have been.

…Not like that perfect, shining memory of first pastry love.

Eclair Shells
makes 12 4-inch shells

1 cup water
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup flour
4 eggs

In a medium pot, bring the water and butter to a rolling boil. Add flour and beat it like hell with a wooden spoon over low heat until it looks kind of like play-dough, kind of like shiny mashed potatoes. Remove from the heat and add the eggs, one at a time, beating like hell all over again between each addition. You will need some arm muscle, it’s true. You want the dough to go back to its play-dough-potato consistency between each egg.

Load your dough into a pastry bag or into a heavy freezer bag with one corner snipped out of it. Squeeze twelve four-inch sticks onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. The sticks should be about 3/4- inch wide. Bake shells at 400F for forty minutes, until dry and hollow inside. Cool and slice open.

Fill with your choice of custard or whipped cream, but first, dip the tops in warm chocolate glaze. Allow glaze to harden slightly before serving.

Chocolate Glaze

5 squares semi-sweet chocolate
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup butter

In a small saucepan, over medium-low heat, melt chocolate with water, stirring. When chocolate is melted, add butter. Stir until smooth and glossy. You will likely have more than you need – the rest is good on ice cream.

Send your questions, comments, and
crème-filled suggestions to dreae@thescope.ca

8 comments

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28 September 2006

  1. rachel · September 28, 2006

    ha… to the rheotatics reference in the title there

  2. The Scope · September 28, 2006

    I give that comment a thumbs up!! :)

  3. dreae · September 28, 2006

    All hail the Editor! Hip, hip, hooray!

    Seriously, I wish I could come up with stuff that cool.

  4. The Scope · September 28, 2006

    One day, grasshopper.

  5. Melody · September 28, 2006

    I’m fairly sure thats the best title I’ve ever seen. Whoo Rheos!!

  6. Sherri · September 28, 2006

    OMG! I made these delicious eclairs last night – yum, yummy! I made them a little too small and had to put the chocolate and cream on the exterior – but they were freakin’ delicious.

    You, Dreae, are a kitchen goddess….

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