My friends in Paris had warned me that true French éclairs* were very different from the ones I make, which contain a vanilla bean pastry cream lightened with whipped cream, and are dipped in bittersweet chocolate ganache. The classic éclair does double duty with its flavor profile: a chocolate éclair has chocolate pastry cream, a coffee éclair has coffee pastry cream, and so on. This sounded like a good idea to me.
On my walk back from the Arc de Triomphe, I stumbled upon one of Lenôtre’s stores. Gaston Lenôtre is one of those pastry icons I learned about years ago, in my culinary school days, and I was excited to experience his vision and craft firsthand. I decided this would be the place I would have my Parisian éclair.
As expected, it was filled with chocolate pastry cream. And it was delicious, in every way — perfectly executed, not too sweet, with plenty of ganache (rather than the sweeter fondant) draped on top. But this just might be one of those times that the American offspring outdoes its French origins! It’s the contrast between the creamy vanilla filling and the bittersweet chocolate on top that makes the American eclair such a masterpiece, and this had none of that. Mild chocolate filling with semisweet chocolate ganache on top meant one flavor experience: chocolate. At one time I might have said that was preferable, but I now see that the vanilla makes the chocolate, and the chocolate makes the vanilla. Score one for the U.S.
* There’s plenty of innovation going on in the world of Parisian éclairs. You can see some of those here.