The elusive chocolate éclair

When I mention the words ‘chocolate éclair’ most people’s eyes light up and they say, “I haven’t had one of those in ages!”

They are still around, but are certainly not the same as the light, bubbly pastry that oozes Chantilly cream and is covered in a rich chocolate glaze that I fondly remember receiving as a treat on the way home from school.

Choux pastry (pronounced ‘shoo’) really just takes four ingredients and a bit of technique to master. Once you have the basics, you can create an array of different styles, from delicate, crisp cream puffs filled with custard and strawberries to fried doughnut types called beignets, and the cheesy French gougères.

Then there are those choux swans that seem not to be in fashion anymore – I haven’t seen the graceful puffs with their slender piped necks grace the glass shopfronts of bakeries for many years. The word ‘choux’ actually means cabbage – the pastry resembles the vegetable because, once baked, it puffs up quite irregularly.

Years ago, the croquenbouche was all the rage: a magnificent tower made from these choux puffs, filled with a crème patisserie and encased in golden spun sugar. A long time ago, my wedding cake was a croquenbouche. It was quite the talking point of the high tea table, as caramel in Paarl in high summer really does set a bit like cement.

It must have made an impact, however, as my friend asked me for one to celebrate her big 50th at the weekend. We decided to opt out of the caramel even though it was the coldest day here in Cape Town. I asked pastry chef extraordinaire Lorraine Meaney from the Cape Grace to make the tower, and we spent the week designing it. She used wacky orange stencils on the chocolate, as well as the new caramel chocolate from Valrhona called Caramelia, and she covered the structure with finely piped butterflies. These didn’t last too long with the gold candles, but it seems the croquenbouche always has a story.

Have a sweet week!

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