For the following two weeks, while I am in France, I am going to try a new pastry. Every. Single. Day.
In case you haven’t memorized your multiplication tables yet (don’t worry, I haven’t either), that’s fourteen pastries. Is that a lot? Honestly, I would be eating that many pastries—or more—anyway, so I might as well get something out of it besides an empty wallet and a gourmet French dessert baby kicking at my stomach.
So what is culturally significant about fourteen variations of dark, rich, chocolate, flaky dough, and vanilla beans? I plan on finding out, one bite at a time.
Read the entire series here.
Remember Marie-Antoine Carême from the millefeuille? He is back and bigger than ever with today’s quintessential French pastry, the éclair.
For such a traditional dessert, I found one that was fairly unusual. Flavored with spéculoos (that delicious Belgian cookie spread that’s become popular lately), the éclair that I literally scarfed down in less than a second was to die for. The shining glaze, smooth and delicious, the light, fluffy, sweet cream center found beneath the crisp pastry shell—this pastry is delicious in any flavor, classic or modern.
Éclairs are marvelously regal looking, like the staffs of ancient kings, bejeweled and brilliant. Do I sound like a catalogue yet?
I’m noticing a similarity amongst French pastries. No one knows where they came from.
But they all seem to mention one particular name. You guessed it, Marie-Antoine Carême. In case you’re not caught up on Daily Pastry posts, Carême was essentially Guy Fieri hundreds of years before Guy Fieri was even born, and just as flamboyant.
At the age of eight, Carême’s parents abandoned the young boy in Paris. This was during the height of the French Revolution, in 1974, when the climate of Paris was tumultuous. Years later, he was working in kitchens and chophouses to survive. Cooking became his passion, and he became a premier chef in the development of French grand cuisine.
Carême’s popularity came with his invention of pièces montées, structurally elaborate and complicated pastries he used to decorate the window of his Parisian patisserie, Pâtisserie de la rue de la Paix. These creations were sometimes several feet high, always exquisite, and only ever made with edible ingredients like sugar, marzipan, and pastry. Even Napoleon, who believed desserts to be a waste of precious time, ordered custom pieces from Carême for special events.
Food historians speculate that it was Carême who invented the éclair, though of course no one knows for sure. In the nineteenth century, éclairs were called “pain à la duchesse” or “petite duchesse.” They are made with choux dough, or pâté à choux, which is a very particular type of light pastry dough used to make a variety of pastries including profiteroles, beignets, quenelles, and éclairs, among many others. The word éclair translates to a “flash of lightning” because of how quickly they can be eaten—in a flash—and, interestingly, I would describe the feeling of biting into one as being hit by a flash of lightning.