Wednesday, September 12, 2007
A big coffee éclair
Coffee éclairs and I go back a long way, to my first year in Paris when I was four. My memories of that year are vivid, probably because I was learning a new language (I entered the maternelle knowing only how to say "oui" and "non" and came out fluent, at least temporarily) and adjusting to a new culture (in Canada park wardens don't blow the whistle and aim a threatening finger at children who step on the grass).
I particularly remember going for walks with my dad and marvelling at the chaotic traffic along boulevard Garibaldi. At the time no self-respecting Parisian would drive anything but a Citroën 2CV and these seemed to crash into each other a lot more often than cars do nowadays in Paris. I entertained myself by watching cars back down our one-way street - reversing at high speed was still an acceptable way of getting around the one-way street problem - and waiting for the inevitable crunch of metal on metal. The drivers would get out of their cars, yell and shake their fists, then get back in and casually drive away.
My dad, being a fellow gourmand, always found time for a pastry or ice cream on these walks. In the early 1970s (!! am I that old?) most pâtissiers still made their own ice creams and sorbets, which were displayed outside the shop. Eating coffee ice cream made me feel very sophisticated and it wasn't long before I discovered the coffee éclair, with its crisp choux pastry, coffee pastry cream filling and shiny coffee glaze.
I think my love of cooking may have sprung from the coffee éclair - or, rather, the lack of it in Canada. My mother had a book called La pâtisserie pour tous by Ginette Mathiot (Le livre de poche) and, as soon as I was old enough (around 8 or 9 years old), I began teaching myself to make French pastries. The results were often pretty disastrous and I shed my share of tears but after a while I did master the éclair, more or less.
Our family's original copy of this classic book has gone missing and only recently did I think to buy one of my own. Looking at Mathiot's brief instructions for the most complex French pastries, I could understand why my pastry apprenticeship was strewn with obstacles (the instructions for making bûche de Noël, a complicated rolled and decorated cake, are six lines long). The book also made me realize how flawed memory can be: I eagerly started looking for the croissant recipe I remembered, only to realize there isn't one.
I haven't yet revisited Mathiot's coffee éclair recipe, but when I do I promise to give you a full report. In the meantime, I had one of my most spectacular éclairs ever in Paris at the restaurant Rech, which has recently been taken over by star chef Alain Ducasse. The XL éclair has always been a specialty at this art deco seafood restaurant in the 17th arrondissement, and Ducasse has wisely kept it on the menu. The glaze was so good that I wanted to pick up the éclair and lick it, but I've grown a little more dignified in the past 30 years or so, at least in public.
After all these years I still have a special fondness for the éclair, an untrendy pastry that has lately taken a back seat to the show-off macaron. I feel gratified that Sam, with no encouragement from me (really!), has developed his own passion for the coffee version. Though he is tolerant of my solo trips to Paris, he is having a hard time forgiving me for eating this entire éclair without him.