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Emergency eclairs

Note: this is not my photo–I have not been to the balcony of Notre Dame lately. I merely share their dismay. [Source: Brittanica Online, with gentle modifications for parody purposes]

You may be wondering what to do if you drop half your éclair over the balcony of the Eiffel Tower, or worse yet, Notre Dame, while pondering your options for the afternoon’s conquest…YSL first, or peut-être Dior?…ooh-la-la-oops!


Screaming will not get your éclair back, though it is a good start. You need to get down to ground level and purchase another tout de suite!

No, this is not really me channeling Miss Piggy at her “Who, Moi?” finest. I don’t have the lavender satin opera-length gloves for it, for one thing. I’ve just been watching too many of the various Muppet movies with my daughter lately.

Plus, and let’s be honest about it, the one time I ever tried on a long blonde wig (for a college skit), I took one look in the mirror and fell down on the costume department floor laughing until my ribs hurt. It was 20 minutes until I could breathe again. Picture Danny deVito (his eyebrows, anyway) peering out from under that wig, hoping to stand in for La Porcette,  and you understand why Frank Oz can never, ever go on vacation.

I have not been to Paris in seven years, and when we were there (for an engineering conference, with our then-kindergartner) we did not actually eat any éclairs. We also did not shop at Pierre Hermé, nor at Hermès, nor anyplace that wasn’t either a museum, an RER or métro stop,  a café or a tchotchke booth along the Seine. Other than for food, if it cost more than 15 bucks (or 11 euros, as for example, the tiny 3-inch-long stuffed unicorn at the Musée du Moyen Age, which we paid for hastily during a shall-we-say-jetlag-inspired meltdown), it was out of the question. I actually spent two full hours–ON VACATION IN PARIS–sitting forlornly in a coin-op laundromat down the alley from our hotel, hoping I had enough change to get all the horrible perfumed detergent back out of our clothes, while my husband and daughter went to the park. Not exactly the Paris experience I’d imagined way back in my high school French class.

So what am I doing imagining that I could climb up OR down the Eiffel Tower in chic heels (instead of the more believable sneakers and backpack with the entire belongings of my family plus bandaids and extra sandwiches…), waving an éclair around with incredible nonchalance and somehow not lose it (which I’ve never actually done; I’m a fervent believer in pastry) or break an ankle (which I have actually done, wearing flats), or both, with loads of people looking on?

Who knows–daydreams like these are the kind of thing mentioning Paris does to one when one blogs about food or fashion. Practically obligatory. It’s fun to imagine a life where such trivial matters can leaven, not to say inflate, my expectations. And, of course, where I’m not the one who has to schlep all the emergency supplies up however many flights of stairs. And back down.

Let’s face it, I’m a natural pessimist and (therefore) fan of both the Muppets and Matt Groening. Tell me true, now, doesn’t the gargoyle on the right look like the original inspiration for that sad shrimpy one-horned character in Life is Hell? He’s even wearing my backpack.

Real life is hard, gritty for more serious reasons than high-heeled éclair mishaps, and it’s filled with nagging of the now-ex-7th-grader. Ahem! These are things we just have to get through because there’s no great alternative (…yet. I’m working on it, believe me.)

Eclairs, on the other hand, are not actually difficult to make. And eating them makes one feel a lot less like life is hell, particularly if one skips the high heels and eats them barefoot.

And on the other other hand, baking anything in Los Angeles, even in winter, may well make one feel that one is actually living in hell, at least while the oven’s on. And right now it’s June.

How to cope? Toaster oven? Microwave?! The eagle squawking in shock above left may not approve of my methods, but he’d find it hard to argue with the results. Especially if you’re in the mood for just a couple of éclairs Right Now, and you have ice cream on hand so you can skip the custard chilling and filling bit and go right to profiterole heaven.

The pastry for éclairs, called pâte à choux, or choux paste (shoe paste! I knew there was a connection to the sudden appearance of high heels in my daydream), takes only a couple of ingredients: flour, water, butter, sugar, eggs. Maybe a pinch of salt too, okay.

Everyone and their uncle (or aunt) who’s ever written a Frenchy kind of cookbook has a recipe for éclairs, but who do you know anymore who’s ever actually made them? Right.

But actually, they’re pretty easy to make. At least as easy as brownies from a mix, and they seem fancier. You boil the butter, sugar and salt with the water, dump in the flour and stir until it looks like stiff mashed potatoes, then take it off the heat and beat in the eggs one at a time and voilà, there you have the dough–shiny yellow stuff to pipe out or dollop out onto a greased and floured baking pan and bake at high temperature for about 30 minutes until they’re really puffed and brown and don’t collapse anymore when you let them cool.

David Lebovitz has the classic recipe on his web site — a cup each of flour and water, 6 T butter, 2 t sugar, 1/2 t salt, and 4 large eggs. Pierre Hermé of exotically-flavored-macaron fame has a richer one with more butter and 6 eggs for the same amount of flour. And I’m sure they’re wonderful. But I can’t help messing around.

First off, I want fewer than 24 éclairs–what do you do with the rest of the dough? (turns out you can pipe it and freeze it, then bake straight from frozen sometime later, or else freeze the baked shells. OK. But still.) So I cut David’s basic proportions in half. Limit the damage to the avoirdupois, I always say. Fewer situps required.

Second, the butter. I know éclairs are the ultimate Unalterable Classic French Recipe but…here starteth the messing around. Like I say, I can’t help it.

Does it actually have to be butter, I wondered, or could you do it with polyunsaturated vegetable oil for most of the fat and just a little butter for flavor? Don’t ask me how these bizarre ideas occur to me. I’ve been seeking treatment for them, really I have. It’s called simvastatin, but still. Desecrate a classic?  In the privacy of my own kitchen? –I’m pretty sure Bart Simpson just started laughing evilly somewhere in the background.

BUT. Turns out–yes. You can use mostly vegetable oil. And the éclairs still taste good.

Finally–I’m not good about waiting for things to boil. I’m just not. So I dumped everything but the eggs and flour in a bowl, microwaved it until just bubbling hot, about a minute, took it out, dumped and stirred the flour.

Instead of cooking it further to dry it down, which I probably should have, very briefly, or else added an extra spoonful or two of flour, which probably would have been easier and worked just as well now that I think about it, I just went ahead and stirred in the eggs directly. It was a little gooeyer and less solid than you’d need for piping, but it still worked really well.

I baked some of the puffs in the toaster oven, some in the regular–for batch baking, sometimes a toaster oven doesn’t give the same results as a proper full-sized oven. So I thought it was worth a test check since the toaster oven takes so much less time to heat. Made about 9 medium puffs in all and both ovens did fine. And the éclairs tasted right, despite the floppiness of the dough and the lack of extra butter.

But as I said, this was an emergency of sorts, so I stuffed a couple of them with coffee ice cream and bits of chocolate and decided this was Moi’s day after all.

Emergency Eclairs, svelte version (i.e, half the standard amount, half the calories?…well, possibly not, but it’s fun to think these should be on one’s French Fantasy diet, and just make up the logical excuse for why…)

  • ½ c. water or skim milk
  • 1 T butter
  • 2 T light-flavored polyunsaturated vegetable oil (i.e., not coco butter)
  • 1 t. sugar
  • pinch or up to ¼ t. salt
  • ½ c. flour + 1 to 2 T extra
  • 2 large eggs

Preheat your oven to 425°F (in France, 220°C) or just use a toaster oven for 1 éclair and figure you’ll pipe out the rest of the dough to freeze and bake later.

Put the milk, butter, oil, water, sugar and salt in a large microwaveable ceramic bowl and microwave on HIGH for 1-2 minutes or until everything starts to bubble up and the butter is completely melted.

Remove the bowl to a trivet or the stove top, dump in all the flour at once and beat with a whisk or two large forks until smooth and the consistency of mashed potatoes. Traditionally you need to beat it over medium-low heat to dry it out. Feh. You could renuke 20 seconds and restir. OR just add an extra tablespoon or so of flour as in the ingredients list above. Or don’t bother. Beat in the 2 eggs one at a time.

Tear off a sheet of parchment paper or brown kraft paper, or plain tin foil, lay it in a metal baking pan (lasagne pan will do) and butter and flour it. Dollop the dough onto it with a soupspoon—a heaping soupspoon for round profiterole-style puffs or a couple of dollops smoothed out to a bar shape 3-4 inches long and an inch wide for éclairs. Leave 2-3 inches between puffs. For added chic, take a fork and rake the tops of the éclairs lightly  so they look like you piped them with one of those fancy star-tipped pastry bags that are such a mess to clean up.

Pop the pan into the hot oven and bake until everything’s puffed and golden, about 25 minutes. If you smell burning, blame it on Paris.

Remove from the oven and let cool. If the puffs start collapsing, put the pan back in the oven to reinflate about 5 minutes or so more. Then let them cool for real, split on one side and fill as desired. Coffee ice cream, plus a little dark chocolate fudge sauce or ganache drizzled on top, is killer. I mean fatale. And svelte. Svelte!

Even more svelte: if you really want, you can make the ganache with heated skim milk instead of half-and-half and as long as the chocolate’s okay it comes out fine. If it’s a little too loose after melting the chocolate in, nuke it 15 seconds or so and stir again.

Supersvelte: naaah. The only way to be supersvelte is to light a chocolate-scented candle and skip dessert. Only I discovered the hard way that chocolate-scented candles actually make you feel hungrier rather than assuaging the raging chocolate beast that lurks in the Eiffel Tower of your heart. Damn. There goes another fine plan!

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