Look around New York's pastry cases and you may notice something new.
Okay, not that new. Unlike some sweets that have become popular darlings, the humble eclair has been a fixture of New York bakeries for over 30 years. Its presence in some of the city's ritziest bakeries, though, is something of a surprise.
There's little not to like about the comforting combination of crunchy, airy pâte a choux pastry filled with sweet creams and custards, all in an elegant, easy-to-eat package. But eclairs are rarely taken very seriously, and up until recently, serious pastry chefs haven't given them much attention. Today's haute eclairs, though, are a different sub-species from the versions in your supermarket freezer aisle. They're freshly made with bold, bright, unexpected flavors, and a keen eye toward aesthetics. You can even call them exciting.
Many of these newer eclairs forgo the standard fondant icing glaze and replace it with meringue, caramel, or sculpted slabs of chocolate. At Lafayette, for instance, a sweet-tart lemon pie eclair comes with a torched meringue top and lemon curd filling, and that's only one of several on the menu.
So why eclairs, and why now? The answer takes us beyond this little log-shaped dessert into New York's changing pastry culture.
The Eclair as Blank Canvas
One reason for the eclair's reemergence is the explosion of high quality French bakeries in the city. Maison Kayser, Francois Payard Bakery, Epicerie Boulud, Dominique Ansel, and Mille Feuille have all added multiple locations in Manhattan in just the last two years. With more competition than ever before, the city's French pastry chefs have been forced to reimagine the eclair from a staid, old-school pastry to a blank canvas for exploring new flavors, fillings, and toppings.
Before chef and restauranteur Andrew Carmellini opened Lafayette he told pastry chef Jennifer Yee that he wanted the bakery counter to sell eclairs. As she tested her way through recipes, she was struck by an epiphany.
"I realized that eclairs are just as chameleon-like as macarons," she explains. "You can inject them with any filling, use any decoration, and really play with flavors. Of course you can do that with many pastries, but not usually in such a neat, compact way. I have a bit of an obsession with eclairs now—and love working on new varieties." One of Lafayette's most creative and best-selling eclairs is modeled after an apple pie, with a caramel apple pie compote filling and a pastry lattice topping.
She's not the only one to think that way. Gone are the days of only chocolate and vanilla pastry cream; these days raspberry, matcha, and mango are all fair game.
The French Connection
The pressure to innovate comes not just from local competition, but also from Paris. That city's macaron trend preceded our boom by five to 10 years, and it's happening again with eclairs. Paris currently has at least four eclair-only shops, and famous names like Fauchon offer dozens of varieties that often change the seasons. Some of the eclair trends from Paris have already been adopted by New York pastry chefs, like the use of crackly-looking craquelin-style pâte a choux.
If any one person is responsible for drumming up modern eclair excitement, it's the French pastry chef Christophe Adam, who literally wrote the book on eclairs. His distinctive eclairs are characterized by bright colors and creative toppings, from gold leaf to white chocolate printed with a photo of the Mona Lisa. Adam opened the first of his three eclair-only L'Eclair de Génie shops in Paris back in 2012. The shops are modeled after art galleries, with bright lights that illuminate over 60 varieties of eclairs.
I asked him how he comes up with new flavors. "For me, the eclair is a true source of inspiration. [Even after 10 years] I still have as much fun playing around with new flavors, textures, and colors. I get inspired by the fruit that is in season, by the world around me, by design and architecture. In fact, my brain is always boiling."*
* A big thanks to journalist Clemence Michallon who provided assistance translating some interviews for this article.
What Makes a Great Eclair?
"A great eclair is evenly tubular, hollow (before filling), crisp on the outside, heavy with filling, and uniformly glazed. That's it," says Francisco Migoya, the head chef at Modernist Cuisine and one of America's leading pastry technicians. Christophe Adam has a less technical, more emotional way of putting it. "Mix the flavors to create an explosive cocktail, play with the textures, make it burst in your mouth, and make sure the colors of the icing are dazzling. Make pastries that have oomph, with a modern look. That, for me, is a good éclair."
In a less poetic way of looking at things, the eclair needs to be fresh—choux pastry doesn't benefit from sitting around in a display case. It should be balanced, the filling not too sweet and the pastry not too heavy. And it should look nice—when it comes to pretty French pastries like eclairs, aesthetics matter.
The Best Eclairs in New York
With those considerations in mind, here's where you can find New York's most interesting—and delicious—eclairs right now.
My favorite eclair filling is Bouchon's Mango Yogurt. Heady, concentrated mango is enlivened by citrus and balanced out by cool, creamy yogurt. It reminds me of an orange creamsicle, though far more interesting. Crunchy pâte a choux completes the package.
You'll have a hard time choosing an eclair at Lafayette, as they're all good and offer a level of inventiveness not seen elsewhere in the city. The key lime pie version, with its winning combination of Italian meringue, crunchy choux, and tart filling, is my hands down favorite here. If that one isn't available, the lightly sweetened pineapple features a sharp punch of distilled pineapple flavor that's equally enjoyable.
Francois Payard Bakery and Payard Patisserie
If presentation is as important to you as flavor, try Payard's pretty blood orange eclair stuffed with a tongue-tingling citrus-based pastry cream. It has a restrained sweetness, and the pâte a choux stays crisp into the early afternoon.
A great choice for the berry fans, and one of the lighter éclairs I tried, Kayser's mure-frambroise uses a silky smooth mousse-like berry filling inside a thin-walled choux pastry. Ripe, juicy raspberries and blackberries on top round out this berry treat.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
Salted caramel eclairs are one of the most popular varieties in New York right now, and Dominique Ansel makes the best. It sets itself apart with an unusually powerful and complex caramel in the filling and glaze that delivers a nutty finish, and it's less sweet than most.
Eclair is right there in the name, and eclairs make up for more than half of the bakery's offerings. Flavors change daily and include a black currant eclair that tastes like extra-concentrated black currant jam. That dark, juicy pastry cream is housed in a modern crunchy craquelin-style pâte a choux and is topped with plump, ripe blueberries. The eclair itself isn't as precisely made as some on this list, but the filling's flavor is easily one of the best.
Bosie Tea Parlor
Bosie's meticulously made caramel eclair with craquelin crust goes very light on the sugar, resulting in a caramel that's almost bitter. The pâte a choux is well baked and slightly crunchy. I also recommend the green tea eclair, which has a similarly restrained sweetness, and is decorated with a thin rectangle of white chocolate on top.
Boulud's dulce de leche eclair features a sweet but luxurious nutty milk caramel. The matching glaze is thin and the choux is well baked. If you're looking for something less sweet, try the excellent classic dark chocolate.
For years Cannelle has floated under the radar in Queens, offering pastries at comparable quality to the best shops in Manhattan at a fraction of the cost. Their chocolate eclair is no exception. No bells and whistles here, just a rich and a velvety smooth chocolate pastry cream filling and a perfectly crunchy choux crust.
Mille Feuille's beautiful chocolate eclair with gold flakes and a mirror-shiny glaze features a whipped mousse-like filling and a thin but uniform choux crust. An especially elegant version.
Caprices by Sophie
This small Williamsburg pastry shop features a surprisingly large selection of pretty eclairs every day, and I'm a fan of the raspberry. The filling is sweet but with a nice fruity aroma, and the excellent crust keeps crisp well into the afternoon. For something less sweet, try the bright, tart lemon curd.
Lady M Confections
Lady M is best known for their excellent crepe cake, but they also carry a small number of eclairs daily. The green tea's pastry cream has only the slightest hint of sweetness but plenty of earthy matcha flavor. The matte finish on the glaze has a beautiful opalescent quality.
12-year-old Dumbo favorite Almondine isn't dipping into new eclair fashions, but their consistently excellent versions are a good value at only $4 apiece (compared to the $5.50 or $6 for many of the above). The chocolate includes a mild milk chocolate pastry cream stuffed in a larger than average tube of quality pâte a choux.