I want to talk briefly today about éclairs, because I do not believe I have done so before, and because many of you appear to love posts about baking in general, and pastry in particular.
The word sounds French, because it is. In its original language, it means ‘a flash of lightning.’ Presumably this name was chosen because of the speed with which they can be eaten (because of their airy lightness,) or must be eaten (because of their desirability to your tea-time companions.)
In the unlikely event that you have not heard of the éclair, it is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘A small finger-shaped cake made of choux-pastry, and filled with any of various kinds of cream.’ ‘Chou(x)’ of course, is French for cabbage, and this is because profiteroles (also made from choux pastry) are approximately cabbage-shaped. An éclair then, is simply a value-added profiterole.
‘First mentions’ are a favourite topic of mine, as you know, and the OED has opinions on that topic which are not always correct, but I love it anyway. First mention of choux paste is given as:
1706 Phillips's New World of Words (ed. 6) Petits Choux, a sort of Paste for garnishing, made of fat Cheese, Flower, Eggs, Salt, etc. bak'd in a Pye-pan, and Ic'd over with fine Sugar.
This is clearly later than the first actual iteration of this type of pastry, but that explication must wait for another day.
First mention of the éclair is given as:
1861 Vanity Fair (N.Y.) 2 Feb. 50/1 A waiter, whereon stood..a plate of macaroons, éclairs and sponge cake.
Secure in the knowledge that recipes are made for years or decades before they reach cookery books, I intend to find references earlier than before 1861, but that too, must wait for another day.
I give you a basic recipe, with many variations, from Pierre Blot’s Hand-book of Practical Cookery, for Ladies and Professional Cooks (New York, 1867)
Pâté à choux.—Weigh four ounces of flour, to which add half a teaspoonful of sugar. Put two gills of cold water in a tin saucepan with two ounces of butter, and set it on the fire, stir a little with a wooden spoon to melt the butter before the water boils. At the first boiling of the water, throw into it the four ounces of flour and stir very fast with the spoon, holding the pan fast with the left hand. As soon as the whole is thoroughly mixed, take from the fire, but continue stirring for about fifteen or twenty seconds. It takes hardly half a minute from the time the flour is dropped in the pan to that when taken from the fire. The quicker it is done, the better. When properly done, nothing at all sticks to the pan, and by touching it with the finger it feels as soft as velvet, and does not adhere to it at all. Let it stand two or three minutes, then mix well with it, by means of a spoon, one egg; then another, and so on; in all four. It takes some time and work to mix the eggs, especially to mix the first one, the paste being rather stiff. They are added one at a time, in order to mix them better. If the eggs are small, add half of one or one more. To use only half a one, it is necessary to beat it first. Let the paste stand half an hour, stir again a little, and use. If it is left standing for some time and is found rather dry, add a little egg, which mix, and then use.
Eclairs au Chocolat—Make some pâté à choux as directed above, and put it in the pastry-bag with tube No. 1 at the end of it. Force it out of the bag into a bakingpan greased with butter. By closing and holding up the larger end of the bag and by pressing it downward, it will come out of the tube in a rope-like shape and of the size of the tube. Draw the bag toward you while pressing, and stop when you have spread a length of about four inches. Repeat this operation till the baking-pan is full or till the paste is all out. Leave a space of about two inches between each cake, as they swell in baking. Bake in an oven at about 370-degrees. When baked and cold, slit one side about half through, open gently and fill each cake with the following cream, and then close it. Cream: put in a block-tin saucepan three tablespoonfuls of sugar, two of flour, four yolks of eggs, and mix weU with a wooden spoon. Add a pint of milk, little by little, and mixing the while; set on the fire, stir continually till it becomes rather thick, and take off. Have one ounce of chocolate melted on a slow fire in half a. gill of milk, and mix it with the rest, and use. Put one ounce of chocolate in a tin saucepan with a teaspoonful of water, and set on a slow fire; when melted, mix with it two tablespoonfuls of sugar, stir for a while; that is, till it is just thick enough to spread it over the cakes, and not liquid enough to run down the sides. A thickness of about one-sixteenth of an inch is sufficient. The cakes may either be dipped in the chocolate or the chocolate may be spread over them with a knife. Serve cold.
Eclairs au Café —It is made exactly like the above, except that you mix with the cream three tablespoonfuls of strong coffee, instead of chocolate and milk.
Eclairs au Thé—It is made like the preceding one, with the exception that strong tea is used instead of strong coffee.
Eclairs à la Vanille.—Proceed as for the above, but mix a teaspoonful of essence of vanilla in the cream instead of tea.
Eclairs à l’ Essence.—The meaning of eclairs a à l’ essence is, that a few drops of any kind of essence are mixed with the cream instead of chocolate and milk, and prepared and served like the others.
Eclairs aux Fraises.—Instead of filling the cakes with cream, fill them with strawberry-jelly, and for the rest proceed as for eclairs au chocolat.
Eclairs aux Groseilles.—Made like the above, but filled with currant-jelly.
Do the same with apple, blackberry, cherry, grape, peach, pear, plum, quince, raspberry jelly, etc.
Dearly love eclairs. Going to need to file this list of variations!
This is the earliest English-language appearance of Pâté à Choux which I have located, though its use can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians:
Pâté à Choux is included as an entry in Randle Cotgrave’s, 1611 “A French and English Dictionary”: “Petits choux: A kind of puffe-cakes of two sorts; the one round, and plump like an apple; the other also round, but much flatter.”
I haven't located any mention of Eclairs earlier than the 1861 Vanity Fair reference you cited. However, the recipe was known as "Pains a la Duchesse" for quite a few years, though I have not yet been able to identify which Duchess they might have been named to honor.
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