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Best Chocolate Eclair

I've been thinking about this subject lately, and wondering who might sell the best chocolate eclair in the Chicago area.

How do I define the perfect chocolate eclair? The outside layer is a classic French pate a choux dough; ideally it should be dry but tender on the outside, mildly eggy in taste. The filling is a classic French creme patissiere (pastry cream), rich and flavored with real vanilla. There should be plenty of pastry cream, no place to scrimp! It should be topped with chocolate icing in a very thin layer so as not to overwhelm the milder flavors of the other components. Size and price don't matter in my opinion (although I suppose they would if I found a small eclair selling for a ridiculously high price!).

Common faults in chocolate eclairs include the following. It must be freshly made; otherwise the outside crust/dough becomes soggy very quickly. The chocolate icing on top should be minimal; if it's slathered on, particularly if it's a thick layer of fluffy frosting like you'd find on a supermarket layer cake, it overwhelms the rest of the eclair. There should be LOTS of pastry cream in the middle, enough so that you have to be careful where it goes when eating it! Some bakeries don't use a true creme patissiere, but instead use a shelf-stable custard filling like you'd find in custard donuts at a donut shop; if you see an eclair that is not refrigerated, run away!

I recently had perhaps the best chocolate eclair I can remember, but it was out of town, at Rene's Bakery in Indianapolis. In addition to everything being just perfect, overstuffed with delicious pastry cream, one welcome twist was that they used a milder chocolate icing (light or "milk" chocolate in appearance). A definite A+. www.renesbakery.com I normally wouldn't mention it here on the Chicago Area forum, but it makes a nice standard for comparison purposes.

An excellent place for chocolate eclairs in the Chicago area is Three Tarts in Northfield, where I got some recently. Theirs are somewhat small, not mini eclairs but I'm recalling maybe 3-4 inches long, rather than the full-sized 6-8 inch version many places sell. $1.60 apiece. They slice theirs horizontally to stuff them with pastry cream; to me, that's not a fault, since I welcome whatever it takes to have enough pastry cream! The outer crust/dough is ever so slightly tough/chewy, not terribly so, but not as tender as it could be - which is only a minor fault. The pastry cream is outstanding (as well as ample) and the chocolate icing is properly minimal and tasty. I'd grade them a solid A. The good news is, they're always fresh; the bad news is, that's because they're usually sold out by some time during their lunchtime rush. www.threetartsbakery.com

Where do you find your favorite chocolate eclairs in the Chicago area, and how would you describe them?

(And I realize that excellent chocolate eclairs are not difficult to make at home, as long as you have a pastry bag!)

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  1. I am in the same search (being french ) and missing my eclair au cafe (coffe flavored). Imight add to me the look is really important. It needs to be very neat, nicely shaped, compact little thing... not some slouchy bunch of dough that came about together you dont know how :)
    I like the minis the best, and if I could ever find a religieuse (combination of a bigger round pastry choux filled the same way, with a smaller one on top..) that would be even better. Tried Vanille patisserie, they only make them on special order, and I have to say I was not greatly impressed with their stuff. It looked very pretty, but the flavors were off and it was just too sweet and too rich. (we had 3 different individual entremets)

    2 Replies
    1. re: kirikara

      Try Jarosch Bakery in Elk Grove Village. Same location since 1958, and they haven't changed a thing.
      Friends came in from overseas and all over the country a few months ago for our 40th HS reunion, and the 1st stop most made was Jarosch. I'm still in the area and get requests all the time for one item in particular- their chocolate eclairs! Craggy, crusty exterior that melts away to a soft airy interior, sweet creamy custard filling, delicious chocolate frosting- just terrific.

      1. re: Laury99

        I tried an eclair at Jarosch a week or two ago. The frosting was pretty good, just enough to add taste without overwhelming. The shell was also decent and fresh. However, the filling was not a true creme patisserie, lacking the richness and strong vanilla flavoring of the best eclairs. I'd give theirs a B-.

    2. Here's another entry in the contest. Today I bought a chocolate eclair at Gourmet Frog, the carry-out branch of Froggy's in Highwood. This one is a full-length 6" eclair, a bit thinner than some others though. But there's ample (and delicious) pastry cream inside though. The chocolate frosting is a bit stronger in taste than some, but that's offset by the fact that it's spread in a very thin and narrow coating on the top of the eclair. This works out well. The crust is nicely tender, more so than the Three Tarts version described above. This one, too, I'd grade a solid A. www.froggyscatering.com/12-bakery.html

      1. There is a cream-puff-and-eclair place in the new Block 37 mall. I forget what it's called, something like Papa Bear, but it's a branch of a (I think) California place. Haven't tried it. Got good reviews in the Trib.

        3 Replies
          1. re: nsxtasy

            I went to Beard Papa's today. To make a long story short, I LOVED these!!!

            Beard Papa's sells cream puffs. You can choose a shell, all of which are round (like cream puffs) not elongated (like eclairs). Choices are plain, cookie crumbs (on the outside), and "eclair" (cream puff shell dipped in chocolate). You then choose a filling, such as vanilla custard, chocolate custard, or strawberries and cream. They fill the cream puff then, after you order it. So already there's an advantage, since the shells have no chance to get soggy.

            And oh, was it wonderful! The consistency of the shells is different from any I've ever seen elsewhere or made myself. They were FLAKY. They also were very crumbly; these can easily fall apart while you're eating them. The filling was very good, like a very nice, slightly light vanilla pastry cream. I didn't get the "eclair" shell (the one dipped in chocolate) so I can't testify to the chocolate coating. But I loved these.

            The store is located on the pedway level, one flight down from street level and between the Washington el stations for the CTA Red Line and the Blue Line.

            Incidentally, I believe Beard Papa's started in Japan.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              Beard Papa's has closed their Chicago location. :(

        1. Lately I've tried a couple from Delightful Pastries ( www.delightfulpastries.com ), with locations on the northwest side on Lawrence, in the new French Market downtown, and on the near north side. The crust was pasty and flavorless; the pastry cream was a bit weak on vanilla and had a slightly gelatinous texture to it. I'd rate it a C. However, Delightful Pastries has some other items I like better, particularly their almond paste based rainbow cookies.

          1. Yesterday I got eclairs from Fox & Obel in River North ( www.fox-obel.com ). They were excellent - nice strong chocolate taste on the frosting balanced by being spread only thinly, a nice tasty shell with the proper chewiness, and creamy pastry cream filling with vanilla taste. The only downside is that they're thin, and as a result, the amount of pastry cream filling is less than I like to see, upsetting the ideal balance among the filling, shell, and icing. I'd give them an A minus.

            1. I am always on the hunt for a great Mille-Feuille (or Napoleon). Usually if a place can turn out a great eclair, that is a good place to start. Many of the same standards apply, abundant and well flavored vanilla pastry cream, a thin layer of icing and wonderful flaky pastry. Any suggestions? They are a bit harder to make at home!

              When I was a child I used to buy great Napoleons at Marshall Fields, but sadly that is long gone.

              3 Replies
              1. re: kittenwithawhip

                All very true. One of the problems with Napoleons is the same as with eclairs - if they're filled well in advance, the pastry part can get soggy.

                I'm not sure whether Gourmet Frog has Napoleons, but that's the place I would try first. I'm pretty sure they don't normally have them at Three Tarts.

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Gourmet Frog does have Napoleons and their eclairs are wonderful. I also love their slices of quiche.

                  As for eclairs, I found a small bakery next to Curry Hut in Highwood and their eclairs were incredible. Today I picked up a chocolate and a vanilla Napoleon to check them out together with really interesting looking canolis. Definitely worth a stop if you are in that area.

                  1. re: dlpens

                    It sounds like you're referring to Maria's Bakery in Highwood. They have various Italian-specific breads and pastries as well as more general types. Their eclairs don't excite me but they have a couple of types of Italian pastry made with almond paste that are quite good. www.mariasbakery.com

                    I do enjoy the quiche as well as the eclairs at Gourmet Frog. I also love their soups, which are incredibly rich and tasty, the best ready-to-go soups in the entire Chicago area IMHO. Don't miss the butternut squash and smoked chicken (which is one type of soup, not two)!

              2. Today I got an eclair at the Evanston location of Foodstuffs, and it was very good indeed. The shell was tasty but a bit soggy; this could be because I grabbed one from the prepackaged cooler rather than getting one served from the pastry display. The chocolate frosting was nice and not overdone; it was topped with some shaved chocolate that didn't do much for taste but added some visual appeal. Where theirs really shined was in the pastry cream filling, absolutely delicious and bursting with vanilla flavor, and overstuffed with a lot of it. Give them a solid A. They don't always have them, as they rotate most of their offerings; you can check the daily menu on their website at www.foodstuffs.com

                Last week I had one from House of Fine Chocolates in Lakeview, where it was a disaster in every way (particularly the tasteless filling with an oddly gummy consistency). F.

                1. Yesterday I bought a chocolate éclair at Bennison's in Evanston, and I had some of it as soon as I got home. It was just plain awful.

                  As noted above, a chocolate éclair consists of three components: the shell, the filling, and the frosting. The shell in a classic éclair is made of pate a choux. So was Bennison's, and it was fairly good - slightly harder than others, but fresh. The filling in a classic éclair should be made of crème patissiere (pastry cream, sometimes simply called "custard"), whose recipe is rich in egg yolks, giving it a yellow color and rich flavor and texture, and flavored with pure vanilla (usually extract, although flecks of vanilla bean are not necessarily a fault). Unfortunately, Bennison's éclair filling was nothing like a classic crème patissiere; instead, it had no vanilla flavor (not much flavor at all, really) and was thin, smooth, and semi-gelatinous, reminding me of packaged vanilla pudding or the filling of custard donuts at a donut shop, which I mentioned above as a common fault. There was ample filling, but quantity can't make up for quality. The frosting in a classic éclair should be a chocolate glaze, which has not been whipped to incorporate air. Unfortunately, Bennison's éclair filling is a whipped frosting, and seems very low quality - not even a buttercream type whipped frosting, but seemed like the kind of frosting you find in a can or in a supermarket layer cake. As mentioned in my opening post, this overwhelms the rest of the éclair. I noticed that they use a denser chocolate glaze on top of their Napoleons (mille feuille) and they ought to use the same on top of their eclairs. Overall, their eclairs are just not good at all; I'd give them a grade of D-.

                  I have often mentioned that the quality at Bennison's varies enormously, with many items that are fairly good, few that are great, and few that are terrible. Fortunately, I've been going to Bennison's so often, for so many years, that I'm familiar with most of their products, and I know which are good and which aren't. (This is the first éclair I've bought there in many years.) In addition to the eclairs, I bought numerous other items which I've found to be decent, including donuts, cup custards, rum balls, etc. They make only one item that I consider truly outstanding - their palmiers, which are always exceedingly fresh with a great flaky crispness and rich sweetness. I got a couple of those too.

                  Bennison's Bakery
                  1000 Davis St, Evanston, IL 60201

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    I've had some good eclairs from Baker Boys in the Ravinia section of Highland Park. They mostly do cupcakes, but also do some nice croissants and eclairs. The eclair shell when fresh can be on the crunchy side for some people, but I like it. However, I don't think the store gets a huge turnover on these, so there is a risk of getting one that is a bit stale.

                  2. Hendrickx Belgian Bread Crafter makes eclairs exactly as you describe.
                    100 East Walton Street
                    Chicago‎ IL‎ 60611
                    (312) 649-6717

                    1. I'm not thrilled about recommending this place because of poor service, yet if you can get the fresh eclairs at Beans and Bagels on Rockwell and Leland, they are made from scratch on-site I believe. I think they're delicious, yet I will try the recommendations here also. Thanks.

                      9 Replies
                      1. re: layne123

                        They are quite possibly the slowest coffee people in the world. But I do love the coffee and the croissants. Will have to try the eclairs! Thanks

                        1. re: lbs

                          I'm under the impression that the same person that makes the delicious croissants (I agree - they are the best I have ever had) makes the eclairs. I saw mini eclairs late last week...

                          1. re: layne123

                            Wow, best croissants - gotta try them!

                            Wait till u.of.c. eddie hears about this!

                            1. re: nsxtasy

                              Let me be specific. I have had the chocolate and the plain. I have had better chocolate croissants elsewhere and the plain croissant cold is good, yet warmed up in my oven, the plain croissant is amazing. Either way, I would stop by to try the eclairs and grab a croissant if they have any. Many times by about 11 on the weekends all they have left are meat and cheese filled ones, which I have yet to try.

                              1. re: layne123

                                >> warmed up in my oven, the plain croissant is amazing.

                                Hey! That's cheating!

                                Just kidding. :) Actually, *all* croissants improve by warming, and lots of so-so croissants become damn good when they're warm. Come to think of it, I bet that's why the ones at Pret a Manger are so good - they keep them in a warmer, yet they're always making them fresh so they don't dry out by doing so (the way they would if they were warmed for an extended length of time).

                                1. re: nsxtasy

                                  I think you should try em and let us know how you like em! :)

                                  1. re: layne123

                                    Hey, I didn't mean to imply anything else about them. Based on your recommendation, I'd like to try the croissants AND the eclairs! There's always room for another place making a really good eclair...

                                    1. re: nsxtasy

                                      I didnt take the comment adversely, hence the :)
                                      I was serious - I'd like your opinion.
                                      All this talk has guaranteed I will be going there Sat morning before chores for croissants AND eclairs!

                              2. re: nsxtasy

                                Just to note - I never said they were the best. I like them a lot but I don't go out of my way to eat croissants or eclairs for that matter. When I have that craving for a croissant, it hits the spot for me. I will have to try the eclairs next time to see if it will fulfill that spot.

                        2. Today I got an eclair at Gerhard's in north suburban Lake Forest, and it is right up there among the best in Chicagoland, along with Three Tarts and Gourmet Frog. The chocolate frosting was *perfect* - not too much, not too little, not too hard, not too sweet, not too intense, just right. The shell was very very fresh, which is always a sign of a great eclair. And the pastry cream filling was full of vanilla flavor. Theirs is a bit narrower and smaller than the others, but it was sooooo good, with just the right balance of frosting, shell, and custard. Just an all-around outstanding eclair. Definitely deserves an A!

                          Gerhard's Elegant European Desserts
                          720 N. Western Ave.
                          Lake Forest, IL 60045
                          847 234-0023

                          1. I get it that you are reciting a Shakespearean sonnet and what I am going to say is in the category of "rude limerick" but, nevertheless, in this season of having to produce lots of food suddenly for visiting children etc, I will put in a pitch for the frozen DeLizza mini-eclairs. They don't meet ANY of your criteria but they're edible and cheap and handy and everybody seems to be carrying them and the kiddies think they're special. BTW the expiration date is for next year---I called the company because I thought they were all expired. A good thing to have on hand in the freezer.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Querencia

                              Hey, I'm with you! Sometimes you don't want to make a special trip to a bakery miles away when you can pick something up in the freezer section of your local supermarket. The convenience of being able to keep them on hand in your freezer can make up for any differences in quality. I've had those tiny mini-eclairs - the ones you buy in packages of 30 for $5 - and I still buy them occasionally. No, they're not bakery quality, but they're still quite tasty, and being able to take them out of the freezer and eat them an hour later is very handy. (Their biggest flaw is that they don't use much pastry cream, so the balance of the three main components is way off.)

                              Another thing to consider is freshness. The very best eclairs at bakeries are at places where they've been made within a few hours of purchase, so the shell doesn't have a chance to get soggy or stale. And many of the not-so-great ones at bakeries are flawed due to freshness issues. That's not a factor with mini-eclairs that are fresh-frozen and thawed.

                              Incidentally, not to stray too far off-topic, but I think an even better frozen product is the chocolate and vanilla French macaroons they sell at Trader Joe's. Same thing - very convenient to have something you can thaw in an hour, and they're really delicious!

                            2. When I have a craving for the delectable taste of chocolate éclairs, I head out to Itasca, IL.

                              Kean’s Bakery
                              Address: 217 N Walnut St, Itasca, IL 60143
                              Phone:(630) 773-0339
                              Hours: Tue-Sat 6 am - 3 pm
                              Sun 6 am - 1 pm

                              I will usually call ahead and put in an order for the day I intend on arriving, and in doing so will also know when they are going to be closed for vacation, holiday schedules. There’s nothing worse than showing up at your favorite place and the door is locked.

                              Also on another note, when the temperature is really steaming outside, master baker Mister Kean won’t be making any crème patissière that day. So it’s a good idea to call ahead. Being, that it’s November 2013 now, no chance of that happening anytime soon.

                              Coming back to the chocolate éclairs, sometimes they have both the 6-8-inch preferred size and the mini, Hors d'œuvre. My personal best, I would have to eat about 24 of the minis to satisfy my cravings. Parties undertaken by myself would be serving the 6-8-inch size. Otherwise the true taste of the over stuffed pâte à choux, crème patissière and rich fudge topping would not be appreciated.

                              We (my taste buds and myself) have enjoyed every pastry they serve up over the past 30 years!