The French have a favorite dessert and it is not, as you might expect, macarons, nor mousse au chocolat (chocolate mousse), or even crême brulée... It’s the éclair, that elegant finger-shaped pastry filled with cream and glazed on top!
Éclairs were created in the 19th century by chef Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the first celebrity chefs of French culinary history. Carême is also credited for inventing the profiterole, a choux pastry covered in chocolate syrup typically filled with ice cream, and the croquembouche, a cone of choux pastry balls fixed together with caramel! The éclair was an adaptation of the “duchesse”, a pâte à choux dessert shaped like the present-day éclair, but made with almonds. Carême removed the almond component from the recipe and filled the dessert with either cream or jam (typically apricot).
The name “éclair”, which means lightning, was given many years later, and it remains a culinary mystery as to why this particular name was chosen. The most common explanation is that the pastry is so exquisite, it is eaten in a flash, at lightening speed!
There is some confusion these days when it comes to differentiating an éclair and a Long John doughnut. This mix up is due to the fact that doughnuts are sometimes marketed as éclairs in certain parts of the United States! As far as I can tell, the only similarities are their oblong shape and the fact that they contain filling, like cream or jelly. As doughnuts, however, Long Johns are a lot softer than éclairs. They are also deep-fried, a typically un-French way of making pastries.
If you would like to try your hand at making homemade éclairs, I would suggest starting by mastering the choux pastry (the crust part of the pastry). Like puff pastry, desserts made with pâte à choux do not rise with yeast. Instead, they obtain their final swollen look through the effect of steam and heat in a very hot oven. Moreover, allowing the ingredients (milk, sugar, salt, butter, flour and water) to first boil and then thoroughly cool off before adding eggs makes for a tastier dessert! Once the dough is cooked and cooled, the cream is added through a hole in the éclair thanks to a piping bag (also known as pastry bag) fitted with a nozzle. You can even make the filling yourself from scratch with a simple, fool-proof recipe: whisk together egg yolks, milk, butter and a thickening agent, like cornstarch! Thick cream is key to ensuring that your éclair will not have an unpleasant soggy or overly moist texture. Be sure to refrigerate your pastries in order to preserve their fresh and firm consistency; the icing should harden like ganache. Ideally, the éclair will stay slightly cold but still melt in your mouth.
If your taste buds are urging you to find and eat these tasty treats during your trip to Paris, let me share some words of wisdom. First, while you can find the éclair “classics” – the chocolate and coffee flavors – in most French boulangeries (French bakeries), some of the high end stores recommended to me by locals either no longer sold éclairs or suggested that I buy a different version of this pastry. However, I have found that this dessert’s quality dramatically increases in these types of Parisian gourmet shops because the choux pastry is often more fresh and crisp! I am also glad to report that I have not yet encountered a truly mediocre/bad éclair (which had been the case on my macaron hunt).
My conclusion is that while the éclair may not be sold everywhere these days, the pastry is nevertheless thriving in Paris. This pâtisserie is even sparking a fair amount of creativity: I have seen extra long éclairs (three times their normal size), designer éclairs (completely decadent and festive, decorated with golden nuggets), and salty éclairs (a delightful cross between an amuse-bouche and a sandwich)!On my hunt for the best éclair in Paris, I went to the Maison Pradier, a local favorite and the winner of 2015 Best Éclair in Paris competition, Dalloyau, a luxury bakery and fixture in French culinary history, L’Éclair de Génie, the new up and comer in the éclair world, and Jean Paul Hévin, the general favorite in online rankings! My winner is the Maison Pradier’s wonderful dark chocolate éclair on the Boulevard Saint-Germain; they call it the “80% chocolat”. It fit all of my criteria (the choux pastry was flavorful, light and had a good consistency, the cream was rich and velvety, but not too sweet, and the chocolate glaze was perfectly melted, not too thick and delicious). However, the éclair’s shape was noticeably irregular! I resolved that this should not matter and did not affect how I felt about the pastry’s taste... until I ate other éclairs, like the Dalloyau éclair, which was perfectly round and smooth! Although definitely less delicate and savory overall, the éclair and its filling actually tasted “fuller” and more “round” to me! Thanks to this éclair tasting, I am now a die-hard fan of this pastry. My new go to snack (or even breakfast) is coffee and éclairs! Specifically, I like the plain, classic éclair au chocolat, without the fuss of trendy flavors like salted caramel or unexpected frostings topped with colored sprinkles or crunchy nuts!