The humble 19th-century eclair has surpassed the macaron as the most buzzed about Parisian bonbon of the moment, in no small part thanks to a redesign.
In contrast to the rainbow-hued macaron, the eclair has long been more delicious than it was beautiful. Traditionally glazed in neutral shades of chocolate or coffee, this classic French childhood snack had an enduring charm, but it has never been a visual standout in the pastry case.
Nevertheless, the finger-shaped, cream-stuffed choux pastry has always been beloved, and pastry chefs have been making it pretty much the same way since the 1800s, unmoved to fix something that wasn't ever really broken.
But French pastry chef Christophe Adam saw the classic eclair not as a fait accompli but a point of departure. While working as a chef at Fauchon in Paris, he began experimenting with ways to modernise eclair design, producing a bright orange eclair and a memorable iteration adorned with a digital image of the Mona Lisa.
Pastry design dates from the 18th century and the days of Marie-Antoine Careme, father of the elaborate pastry tower known as the piece montee. But Adam belongs to a new generation of French pastry chefs who know that innovative design is the best way to set their brands apart, and the 40-year-old chef has earned himself something of a cult following.
Adam has injected excitement into the traditional world of French pastry not by inventing something new along the lines of a cronut (Adam is friends with the croissant/doughnut creator, New York-based French pastry chef Dominique Ansel), but by giving an old silhouette new sex appeal. He bathes eclairs in pop art colours and blingy high-gloss finishes made with edible powdered silver, their flavour profiles enlivened with novel ingredients such as the citrus fruit yuzu, fresh strawberries, popcorn, and salted caramel. Adam has also engineered the eclairs to be lighter in texture and reduced the sugar content of the icing.
To showcase his design-driven vision, Adam opened what he calls a "concept store", L'eclair de Genie, less than a year ago in the Marais district of Paris. With an all-glass storefront, concrete floors, exposed stone and a jewel-like pastry case, it has been thronged with customers since.
On a recent afternoon, Parisians and a stream of visiting Americans stood in line to buy eclairs at 5 euros a pop, a Japanese journalist was photographing the pastry case, and a fan asked the chef to autograph a pastry box for her son.
When I asked why the eclair made a good canvas for his artistry, Adam offered only a Gallic shrug. "I always loved working on the look and the design of a pastry," he said. "An eclair has to taste good of course, but it's also very, very important for it to look beautiful, to have that high-end, contemporary, modern quality. Five euros isn't cheap for an eclair, but they're made fresh, with sought-after quality ingredients, in an environment where we pay a lot of attention to aesthetics, and all of that has a cost."
Adam also sells updated classics such as coffee or vanilla, but his ever-evolving collection of more than 80 variations leaves room for constant invention and allows him to take creative risks that may or may not pay off.
A blue-tinted eclair was "too chemical looking", said Adam's pastry chef Jean-Pierre Rodrigues, and deemed a flop. It remains to be seen whether customers will want to eat an all-black chocolate-and-truffle eclair that he said is inspired by Coco Chanel and the little black dress when it goes on sale for 10 days in December.
"If I'm selling something for a few days, I can permit myself to design something that reflects who I am, just because I feel like it," Adam said. "And if people don't understand the design choices that I make, which some people don't, it's no big deal."
He has opened another store in Paris, has a Japanese location in the works, and is looking for an opportunity to bring his eclairs to New York and other cities that have previously embraced the macaron.
Next up, though, he's tackling Christmas. In the basement kitchen of the shop, assistant pastry chef Coralie Coms was preparing a tray of limited edition Christmas eclairs stuffed with salted caramel cream and chocolate. Last year Adam decorated his holiday eclairs with a digital image of a bearded Pere Noel; this year it's a busty blonde named Xmas Mama. "This year I wanted to do Santa's mistress, or his wife," Adam said. "We don't know exactly who she is."
Kristin Hohenadel is a Slate writer and editor.