Sunday, February 18, 2007

Éclairs: Make them right, or BURN in HELL!

By way of introduction to myself and my quest, I have decided to republish my first "rant" on the topic of éclairs (from my main web site). I shall from time to time update that site with more extended epistles, but the day-to-day (or week-to-week) progress of my quest shall be recorded here.

So, without further ado, I give you the timeless "Éclairs: Make them right, or BURN in HELL!"

Éclairs. Surely the most sublime of French pastry.

Oh, some might argue for the croissant or some kind of apple torte, or perhaps a Napoléon, but I can only assume that most of them have never tasted a truly well-made éclair. And that those who have tasted a proper éclair and still prefer something else are somehow mentally deficient. Or perhaps have atrophied taste buds. Or maybe they are the kind of people who like licking all the glue off the backs of stamps.

We shall never know the truth on that, I am sure, but the glue licking thing would be my bet.

"But wait," you say, "I got an éclair from my local French bakery the other day, and I didn't like it that much."

I say to you, dear reader, that unless you are one of the aforementioned glue-lickers (a distinct possibility, I suppose, for I have never met you), that so-called "French" bakery has perpetrated a heinous fraud upon you. That confection which they had the brazen temerity to call an éclair (or probably just "eclair," because the concept of an acute accent would doubtless sail over the tiny little empty heads of these culinary miscreants) was not a proper éclair.

Oh, it may have been roughly éclair shaped, but then, so is a hot dog. It may have had chocolate on top, but so would I if I put a Hershey bar on my head. No, my friend... Let me tell you about a proper éclair.

The first requirement for an éclair is that it must be made of proper puff pastry dough, the classic French "choux" paste. It is called a "choux" paste because in the course of preparing it, you must roll it into a ball that looks like a cabbage (“choux” means “cabbage” in French, for the less mentally agile among you who hadn’t figured that out from context). So, you must make the puff pastry dough, extrude it into lines, and then cook it into perfectly moist éclair shells, all ready to be filled with crème pâtissière.

The éclair should also be topped with a nice chocolate ganache, or some variant thereon. The topping is the one area where the chef can experiment and still produce something worth serving.

Crème pâtissière (or pastry cream, for those who dislike French) is the really vital ingredient, though. It is not simply custard. It is a sublime concoction of eggs, milk, sugar, starch, vanilla (whole bean only, if you value your extremities), and flour. Yes, flour. The rawness of the flour perfectly enhances the other flavors to give the whole a remarkable lightness.

The crème pâtissière melds perfectly with the puff pastry outside and the chocolate on top to create a precise balance of flavors and textures that will lift your soul above all pedestrian concerns and leave you floating gently on waves of gustatory bliss.

And yet, an éclair is not simply some namby-pamby lightweight cream puff. No, the crème pâtissière gives the éclair a denseness, a solidity that binds its ethereal flavors to your earthy inner passions; a smooth, seductive, sensual substance that provides the perfect counterpoint to the lightness of its taste.

On biting into the éclair, your tongue will be exposed first to the sublime combination of the puff pastry and crème pâtissière, shielded for the moment from the chocolate topping. Then, just as the last of the filling dissolves away, before you come back from the edge of the ecstasy to which it has taken you, the dark, erotic flavor of the chocolate comes down upon your tongue, pushing you over the edge into orgasmic culinary intoxication.

That is what a proper éclair can do.

Now let me tell you where it all goes wrong.

The most obvious offenders are the donut shops that make rectangular blobs of dough, fry them up, fill them with pudding, glaze them with sugar, and cover them with chocolate. I would say that this violates my number one rule (don’t try to deceive ol’ Ram), but it’s so pathetically obviously not an éclair that I can’t really consider it a serious attempt to deceive anyone. It is more on the order of opportunistically preying on the ignorance of weak-minded fools. Those they prey upon are as much to blame as they are, so I will instead apply my “enchirito principle" (it’s all right as long as you think of it as unrelated to all other food)… I mean, they’re not bad custard-filled donuts, I suppose.

No, those troglodytes are not the ones who earn my deepest ire, my greatest loathing, my sheer psychopathic homicidal rage, and my burning desire to drive heated shish kebab skewers through reproductive organs. No, these feelings I reserve for the diabolical fiends who have actually gone to the trouble of making puff pastry and putting chocolate on top, but who then proceed to put something other than crème pâtissière inside it.

I have personally witnessed so-called éclairs filled such abominations as Bavarian cream (are éclairs Bavarian? Of course not, you ignorant carbuncle), Chantilly cream (which is really just whipped cream, as far as I’m concerned), some kind of random pudding (tasted like Jell-O brand vanilla), chocolate mousse, marzipan, and perhaps worst of all, flavored crème pâtissière.
Let’s get a few things straight: éclairs are not oblong cream puffs. They are not donuts. They are not some random pastry you can just mess around with. They are the one pastry worthy of beatification in their true perfect form.

Deviating from the formula of the crème pâtissière filling in any way is an abomination. If you put chocolate in the filling, you prevent the languid buildup to the ganache. It is like bad sex with a lot of visual teasing up front, no real foreplay, and a joyless, unsatisfying climax at the end.


Do you understand me, you so-called French chefs of America?

I have scoured the Seattle area for a decent éclair, and so far, only once have I found something acceptable, and that was at a now-defunct supermarket, of all places. Even then, the puff pastry was a bit dry, but I was so happy to find a place that at least tried to get it right that I would have forgiven them anything.

You hear that, you smarmy “very French”, “best in Seattle”, pieces of pseudo-Gallic excrement with the nerve to call yourselves bakeries? You’re so busy trying to show how freaking creative you can be that you end up creating something worse than simply bad. These pseudo-éclairs are vile, base deceptions; confectionary succubae taunting me with their perfected exteriors but then draining my soul with their foul, degraded innards.

You have created things of pure evil, abominations that have no rightful place on earth, let alone on the shelves of your pastry shops. Turn back now, and return to the proper path of pastry making. Otherwise you will surely burn forever in justified torment for the wrongs you have done to us all.

- Ram

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