What a fine day for pastry. I suppose any day is a fine day for a pastry, but I liked that today had a specific pastry in mind. It was something to look forward to, I just needed to know where to get one. And not just any one, a good one. I had looked for them at Stop and Shop yesterday. I thought I’d find them in the bakery section. But no luck. Lots of other pastries but not what I was looking for. I found some frozen mini-éclairs in the freezer section, but I wanted a full sized one. A mini éclair is more like a cream puff, especially the frozen kind. I’ve gone the cream puff route. I felt that to truly celebrate the éclair I needed a fresh baked one, so I left the freezer section empty handed and continued my search online. I was looking for the best éclair in Rhode Island and I think I found my answer.
An éclair is not unlike a cream puff. They are made with the same type of dough called a pâte à choux which is a dough made only from butter, water, flour and eggs. There is no rising agent in to the dough like yeast. Instead, the dough relies on the excessive moisture which creates a steam when cooked which helps the dough rise and to turn into that light, airy yet crispy pastry. An éclair is made in an oblong shape which also separates from the other boys in the pastry cabinet (excepting the crullers, I suppose). It’s a good eating shape. There are two key elements to a good éclair too. First it is filled with a nice fresh custard which is piped into the pastry after it has cooked and cooled. Then it is topped in chocolate icing. It is generally believed that the éclair was created in the late 19th century by the famous French chef Marie-Antonin Carême who was the first celebrity chef. So famous was he that he would cook for the likes of Napoleon and King George IV, hence the celebrity status. In any case, we can thank him for the éclair. As a point of trivia, in French the word éclair means “flash of lightning” and it is called that either because it is eaten so fast (in a flash) or because the shine of the frosting. Now you know.
My online search brought up two names immediately. The first was Gregg’s which is the local restaurant chain with a famous bakery. I had just been there for National Blueberry Cheesecake Day. In fact, I think I recalled seeing some éclairs in their display case that looked pretty good. Gregg’s was only a short drive from my office too, so it would have been pretty convenient. But I thought that I was limiting myself by going there especially for an item that’s not too difficult to find. I didn’t want to do repeat of a Gregg’s experience. Not that their offerings aren’t delicious, I just felt I wasn’t really stretching myself by going there again. The other spot that came up on my search was a spot in Providence called Pastiche. They are located in the Federal Hill section which is a great area for anyone that enjoys food. They were open until 10 pm so I could stop there on my way home. I had found my answer and the only thing that stood in my way was traffic. But I’m used to traffic.
I had been to Pastiche before. We had popped our heads inside back when we were searching for Spumoni earlier in this quest. They didn’t offer spumoni which is more ice cream, than pastry, but we looked there. The place was packed when we went – wall to wall – so we didn’t stay very long, although we wanted to. It’s part of the famous Federal Hill section of Providence famous for its Italian food and other great food. Pastiche is tucked away on Spruce Street on the other side of Atwells Avenue (the main street through the Hill), but a spot easy enough to walk to especially when you want to walk off some pasta. It’s fairly well-known in those parts and I was excited to taste their offerings. When I decided to go to Federal Hill for pastry, I figured I might as well get dinner while I was there and because I didn’t think Lola would take kindly to me enjoying a meal alone at one of our favorite spots as she eats a can of Progresso soup, I stopped to get some take out. Actually, I told Lola my plan and she called in our order to Andino’s. We ordered their house chicken dish along with their carbonara. We timed it perfectly too so it was ready when I got there. I pulled up to their valet parking spot right in front of the door, said I was just picking up some take out, and I was in and out in less than three minutes. I felt like I had beat the system.
Now that my car was loaded up with pasta, it was time to get some pastry which meant I’d have to find a parking spot. It was probably a two-minute walk from where I was but I couldn’t stay in the valet spot at Andino’s. I took off towards Spruce Street which was of course a one-way street going in the opposite direction, so it took me about ten minutes to reroute and get there by driving down narrow alleys and tiny side streets. There is a Spring Festival on Federal Hill this weekend so the neighborhood was getting ready for it which meant there were booths and tents partially set up on every corner. It was exciting reminder of what was to come, but for the driver in search of a pastry, it meant more obstacles to deal with. When I was finally heading the right way down Spruce and I could see Pastiche, I saw an empty spot a few yards from the door. I thought it was my lucky day but as I got closer I realized why it was empty – it was in front of a hydrant. I pulled in anyway. I knew I’d only be a minute. The hydrant was in front of a big empty fenced off lot which was not in any immediate fire danger. I figured I’d be in and out long before anyone would get in a huff about my parking job. I felt like a rebel. Or at least a scofflaw.
As luck would have it, I was the only one in Pastiche. It was an off-peak hour for them – after the afternoon coffee rush but before the after-dinner dessert rush. It would have been the perfect spot to slowly peruse their display case and enjoy with a nice fresh made cappuccino. However, I was illegally parked and had fresh pasta going cold, so I stay focused. I noticed their éclairs in the case and quickly ordered up two of them. They only had two on display. Had they more, I probably would have ordered a half-dozen or something silly, but I stuck with the two even though it turned out they had a whole tray behind the counter. Then, because I was in an Italian section of town and there was a big display right in front of me, I ordered two cannolis too. They packaged them all into a nice little pastry box and they sealed it with their label. I was back outside within five minutes. My car was still there – no tickets or boots on the tires. I put the box in the back seat so I wouldn’t be tempted on my journey home and I was off to go sit in some I-195 traffic.
When I got home, we had an Italian feast that couldn’t be beat. The carbonara at Andino’s is really something special. It’s creamy, cheesy and packed with crispy pancetta and peas. You couldn’t have it every day but every now and then it’s worth the treat. The chicken was good too. Our bellies were full so we kept the pastries in the fridge for later. When the sun started to go down, we started to watch Orange is the New Black. We have been binging on this lately and we were down to our last two episodes. It’s a great season, in case you were wondering. Taystee deserves an Emmy nod. They’re not afraid to address some of the issues about race out there. It’s a good perspective on some topical issues and it’s good to see on the screen. OITNB is also the perfect fodder to enjoy with an éclair, so half way through the episodes, I busted them out.
As far as éclairs go, these were outstanding. I think it’s because they were fresh. The pastry part had a great texture. Light and airy with a gentle crunchiness when you bit down. That’s when the magic happened. That’s when the custard squeaked out. You can’t just jump into an éclair. You have to be ready for the custard otherwise it will squirt out and all over you. You have to be prepared and I was. It was really creamy too with just the right amount of sweetness. It mixes well with the pastry too. To top it off, the chocolate icing on top brought it all home. It was a dark chocolate which added some sweetness, but not too much. It was the perfect amount too. Enough to cover every bite and leave some on your lips. An éclair isn’t the neatest food to eat, but it rewards you in every bite. I gave it an A-plus, as did Lola. We were both kind of surprised too. We’ve had éclairs before but there was something satisfying about this one. The cannoli was awesome too. I always have high hopes for a cannoli and I am often disappointed. This one delivered. I think it was the filling. It was the usual ricotta cream, but there were bits of shaved chocolate swirled in, but not too much. It was the perfect combo and another fine pastry. As far as quality, Pastiche had won the day.
A fine éclair indeed and a fine celebration. Even though I was just in and out for take out, it felt exciting to be on Federal Hill. It had a certain bustle about it that you don’t find in most neighborhoods. It made me recall our dinners there last summer, each one special in their own way. It made me yearn to go back with Lola and truly enjoy. However today was about éclairs, not Italian food. There will be time for that this summer. I’m glad I made the journey to seek out a fine local bakery in the middle of a special culinary area. I know when you think of Italian bakeries you don’t usually think of éclairs, but a good baker knows their craft and the folks at Pastiche know theirs. It was worth the traffic, the illegal parking, the ups and downs crowded allies and the long ride home. It was the perfect ending to the night. It brought joy to our plate, like a flash of lightning, and left us wanting to go back for more. And we will.
Next up: National Pecan Sandies Day