The Pastry Trail: Eclair, the moment I met you…

Michael Nagrant / 06.22.09

For many folks, a first trip to Paris turns out to be a bolt of culinary enlightenment. For me it was pretty much about trudging up thousands of really old stone stairs with the occasional side of mediocre pan au chocolat. Of course, as in substandard sex or pizza, one can always find something to love in a bad croissant stuffed with the gooey chocolate. But the point remains that during that trip I was not sophisticated enough to know where I should have gone for good pastry.

As such, my formative pastry education did not come from some burly handlebar-mustachioed European tall-hat-wearing chef. Instead, on weekend mornings, where Bostonian kiddies had mountains of Dunkin Donuts’ crullers and Jewish New Yorkers their H & H Bagels, I had Josef’s European Pastry Shop.

My father, a blue-collar machinist for a General Motors-affiliated shop, often worked third shift on Detroit’s East Side, and on his bleary-eyed way home stopped by a small red-brick corner bakery with a scalloped green awning in Gross Pointe Woods, Michigan to pick up an assortment of goodies for the family.

On the rare occasion I got to visit the shop, I’d press my germy little kid nose and hands against the shiny glass cases and freak out over the bejeweled confections, the barber-shop-pole-like winding chocolate straws and the seven-layer Black Forest cakes.

Gross Pointe was the home of the rich, the original suburban settlement of Detroit’s auto barons, and Michigan’s version of Chicago’s North Shore. It was always a nice place for a wide-eyed Sunday drive, but a place we’d never live. For a kid who grew up in the outer Detroit suburbs on the very edge of the right side of the tracks in Shelby Twp, Michigan—for those who know Michigan geography via our rap stars, that’s smack between Kid Rock (Romeo) and Eminem (Warren)—a trip to Josef’s in the flesh, or through the bakery box, was tasty and aspirational.

My mother was a fan of Josef’s Sachertorte, the dense chocolate Viennese cake with apricot jam in the middle, invented in 1832 by Franz Sacher for Prince Metternich, the legendary German-Austrian diplomat who also happened to be Henry Kissinger’s idol.

I have no idea how a 7-year-old has a favorite pastry, especially one whose only culinary precocity was mixing bacon bits into Kraft Mac and Cheese. But, I did, and for me it was the airy, eggy Josef éclair stuffed with crème anglaise and topped with marbled ganache.

The éclair was born in 1533, when Catherine de Medici hooked up with the Duke of Orleans and moved to France and brought her head chef Panterelli with her. Panterelli invented a hot dried paste with which he made cakes. Exercising the only perk a humble chef of the court had, he dubbed the paste Pâte à Panterelli.

Later his invention became became known as Pâte à Popelini after a cake made in the shape of a woman’s breasts. A patissier named Jean Avice mofified the paste in the middle of the eighteenth century and created choux buns, thus Pâte à Choux, the base pastry dough for an éclair. Antoine Carême, the legendary chef, perfected the Pâte à Choux recipe used today.

Eclair is the French word for “lightning” and thought to be a nod to the bright reflection one gets from its chocolate glaze.

I still crave a good éclair these days, but I’m also a Napoleon and macaron junkie. French macaron, airy almond paste meringues glued together with creamy flavored fillings, are tough to find in Chicago outside of a mignardise tray at L20 or during the holidays at NoMI. The same holds for good French or European-style pastry. The only pastry shop that’s moved me like Josef’s has been the Felliniesque dream sequence of a store in Andersonville that is Pasticceria Natalina. But that’s pastry via Sicily. So when I got word of a new macaron-serving spot, Fritz Pastry in Lakeview, I hopped on my scooter to check it out.

Unfortunately, I tried three different macarons and all three were dry. In addition to their dryness, the dome-to-filling ratio was off. The almond meringue domes were much bigger than NoMi’s or L20’s, and I found the size dwarfed and masked the flavor of the filling. Like the macaron, brioche, which should be buttery, was also dry. There were no éclairs.

However, the tarts at Fritz turned out to be the thing. Most local tarts I’ve found are made with tooth-busting-dense shortbread or dried-out puff pastry. Fritz’s pineapple tart-tatin feature glazed caramelized fresh fruit with rum-like notes and a perfect flaky undercarriage. The chocolate tart has a rich sweetness offset by a smart sprinkling of sea salt and is nestled on a chewy chocolate cookie-like bottom. So if you’re looking for a bakery tart, this might be your spot. As for me, the search for a regular source of transcendent macaron, Napoleon and éclair rages on.

Fritz Pastry, 1408 W. Diversey, (773)857-2993