There's this dream I've been having a few times a year for the past couple of decades. In it, I'm in Paris, and I'm trying to get to a bakery to get my hands on an eclair, but something always gets in my way.
I'll dream that I'm in a neighborhood that has no bakeries, or I'm in a bakery where I've been waiting in a long line, and when it's my turn, the clerk shakes his head and says it's closing time.
I know what you're thinking, and you can just cut it out right now. Look, sometimes, an eclair is just an eclair, and this is one of those times.
When I was in college, I spent a year in Paris. I was supposed to be studying at the Sorbonne, but if the truth be known, I spent a lot of time wandering the streets, going from bakery to bakery.
I would try to walk past without stopping, but one glance at a display of glistening ruby tarts, gossamer croissants and, of course, pale, delicate eclairs topped with chocolate frosting, and I would be drawn into that patisserie like I was hypnotized.
And that first bite - could anything compare with that? Smooth chocolate frosting yielding to buttery flakes of pastry, velvety cream filling made from sweet chocolate, heavy cream, and egg yolks.
When I came home to the United States, I'd come across a display of eclairs behind glass, and think: Maybe this one will be all right. Maybe someone at this bakery knows how an eclair should be made.
Hah. The recipe for real French eclairs must be classified information because American bakers don't seem to have a clue.
Grainy frosting, pastry with the taste and texture of cardboard, whitish-yellow filling that reeks of chemicals. What are they thinking? Do American bakers ever actually taste one of those things?
I try one every few years or so, whenever someone breathlessly informs me that there's a "great new bakery" in town.
These are the kind of bakeries that have those dry, pink cookies in the display case. And birthday cakes that are thin and flavorless and filmed with garish images of cartoon characters.
Who buys this stuff?
The people who recommend these bakeries are invariably the kind of people whose mothers baked from mixes and tucked Twinkies, Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs into their lunch boxes. People who like their brownies dry and cakey.
People who don't have a clue.
A few weeks ago, I was in the supermarket when I ran into a friend and told her about my latest eclair-dream. In this one, I'm in Paris and I discover that there are no more bakeries anywhere in France.
They have become unfashionable.
My friend leaned in toward me and put her hand on my forearm. In a near-whisper she told me that there's this fabulous new bakery that just opened the other day, and guess what? they have eclairs.
I glanced down, and there was the face of Pocahontas staring up at me from the enormous sheet-cake lining the bottom of her shopping cart.
No wonder I have nightmares.