If the Choux Fits
3544 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis
Sometimes the whole course of an artist's life can change at the whim of a deli manager: That's what happened to Stacy Sowinski, the Twin Cities' grande dame des éclairs one fateful day when she was toiling in the bakery at the Wedge Community Co-op and also attending art school at MCAD. "One day the deli manager came back and he was like, 'Have you ever made an éclair?' Had I ever made an éclair? No. He left. But the minute he left, I got the cookbook out, found the éclair recipe, and thought, well, I'll try it. Disaster. Runny custard. Pastry that wouldn't puff. All I thought was: Who was the French guy who had this bright idea? There is no way this will ever work. But I just stuck with it, and it worked out."
It worked out, until it exploded: In 1996 Mpls.St.Paul magazine gave Sowinski's éclairs rave reviews and, says Sowinski, a big centerfold spread: Suddenly she was making 400 éclairs a week.
Now, for those of you who don't know, an éclair is a fussy bit of professional work. Nearly any ding-dong can throw together a muffin, but an éclair requires a bit of bravery: It's made by fearlessly throwing a lot of flour into a lot of boiling buttered salt water, stirring that up, and adding whole eggs one by one until a sticky, sticky paste forms: choux pastry (pâte à choux or cream-puff paste). Bake oblongs of that choux paste, and the eggs make it puff up into a dome; then all you have to do is split it, fill it with custard or pastry cream, paint it with chocolate, and there you are: ten bites of lush, rich, eggy, springy heaven.
Order one of Sowinski's éclairs ($2 to $3.25) and you'll get something she's been fussing over professionally for years and years: She left the Wedge back in 1997 and rented out the kitchen from midnight to 8:00 a.m. at the old Café Wyrd and just labored over her éclairs, which she sold to the Wedge and Lakewinds Natural Foods--where they can still be bought. (Consider that for a moment: That western, desolate, crisply maintained strip of Lake Street with the wind whipping off Lake Calhoun. Consider the groan of the snowplow at 4:00 a.m., the stagger of party drunks all summer. "I was so by myself: Just mano a mano with the puff.")
Mano a mano with the puff. For years.
"It's really kind of trippy," notes Sowinski, who talked to me on the phone as she rang up coffees and pastries for the customers at her south Minneapolis coffee shop and éclair palace, Sweetski's, which opened last spring. "I just started doing it because someone wanted me to do it. Two hundred and fifty thousand éclairs later, I'm still doing it, and still liking it. In some ways it is like art; you're just using a different medium." Can éclairs be seen as thousands of little $2 flour-and-butter sculptures? "I don't know if I'm fooling myself," notes Sowinski. "One of my friends says, 'You're an artist. Just accept the fact that whatever you devote yourself to is your art.'"
For example, consider the humble paper clip: "When I was doing art, I was bending paper clips," says Sowinski. "Pick up a paper clip and they're all the same, but unbend it and it's a line--how many different things can you do with a line? You can do anything with it. Make anything. Pâte a choux? It's the same thing. Paper clips, lines: Same thing. I don't know. On one hand, I feel really good that I have the opportunity to make this thing that so many people love and can have in their lives so easily. On the other hand, people get really obsessed and angry when we run out. They yell. Then I think: I never want to make an éclair again."
These people, they should not yell. For one thing, tomorrow is another day. Sunrise, sunset. Come back tomorrow, and there might even be a whole new flavor in the pastry case. Sowinski does vanilla éclairs every day, but she has a whole range of seasonal flavors: Right now there are slightly spicy pumpkin éclairs filled with a pale orange custard with just enough pumpkin-pie flavor to create intrigue; before Christmas there will be eggnog éclairs, vanilla custard shot through with fresh-grated nutmeg; and next spring, fresh strawberry éclairs! So there you have some reasons not to yell.
For another reason, a lot of the other stuff in the bakery case is equally delicious. Like anything with Sweetski's decadent, mouth-coating buttercream frosting, or the piroshki ($4.25). Oh, the piroshki. I almost hate to tell you about the piroshki, because these things are a little too good for heart-healthy living. Imagine a large square of homemade puff pastry folded around a savory, cheesy filling like apple and Gruyère, or bacon, egg, and cheddar. Order one at the café and it's served hot, and, holy toledo, that's good: the flaky pastry like a butter crystal net around the rich savory filling. If this is what hand-rolled pastry is like, prepare for the Luddite revolution. Somehow when I've had the egg ones they've even managed to be incredibly moist, not at all like you'd think reheated egg would be. Gather in for a little secret between you and me: This might get me knifed in a dark alley, but I'd actually say I like the piroshki even better than I like the éclairs.
And don't think you can just loll about Lakewinds waiting for piroshki to show up. Unlike Sweetski's other bakery goods, distributed through Sweetski's wholesale operation, the piroshki are available only at Sweetski's, the café, a homey little toy- and newspaper-filled coffee shop in a little commercial strip in the middle of a bucolic residential neighborhood. You can also order a variety of foods at the counter: soups, stews, deli salads, and, on Saturdays and Sundays, hot breakfasts. I sampled pretty widely from the non-sweets menu but couldn't find much to recommend, except one day's odd but good deviled ham sandwich. Ho-hum egg and home-fry dishes ($4-$7) on the weekend were impossible to reconcile with the crowds snaking out the door, so I'm guessing everyone was really there for dessert.
Sowinski modestly insists her éclairs are so beloved simply because she has no competition, and perhaps Craig Claiborne would have agreed. I looked in Mr. Claiborne's New York Times cookbook for the recipe, and was surprised to see that he calls éclairs both an "apparent miracle of cuisine" and "one of the easiest foods to prepare." Here we see the shift of generations: Mr. Claiborne obviously never considered what my contemporaries and I would consider far easier foods to prepare, such as toast, apples polished on a shirtsleeve, or a quiet coffee-shop meal of artist-made piroshki and éclairs.
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