Ever had “flashes of lighting” alongside “tubes of rich goodness” ? If the answer is in the negative or a query; with the month of June nearing to an end, it would be a good time to take up on the celebratory days of the éclair (choclate éclair, to be very specific, June 22nd) as well as the cannoli (June 16th), respectively. With the local deli’s and bakers’ going on full swing of celebratory discounts as well as interesting combinations to mark these days for foodists; delving a little bit into their food history would be quite interesting.
Originating from the 19th century France, also known as sweet baguette, an éclair was an oblong pastry made with choux dough filled with a cream and topped with chocolate icing. Typically piped into an oblong shape, the dough is baked until it becomes crisp and hollow within. When cooled, the pastry can be filled with a wide range of flavours, like vanilla, coffee or chocolate-flavoured custard (crème pâtissière), with whipped or chiboust cream and then iced with fondant icing. More exotic fillings include pistachio and rum flavoured custard, fruit-flavoured fillings or chestnut purée. If the icing is of caramel, the dessert is known as “a bâton de Jacob.”
Etymology speaking, the pastry title comes from French éclair “flash of lightning”, named so because it is eaten quickly (in a flash). Initially known as “pain à la Duchesse” or “petite duchesse” til the 1850. Towards the 1860s the word eclair took over, both in English and French. Historically the speculation was that this little delight was first made by Antonin Carême (1784–1833), the famous French chef of grande cuisine.
“Leave the gun. Take the cannolis.” Clemenza, in ‘The Godfather’
Moving across to the Sicilian and the Italian-American cuisine, delicate “tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough”, usually with a sweet, creamy filling (most commonly containing ricotta) have been quite popular especially in the island of Sicily. Known as “cannoli”, they range from sizes of cannulicchi (smaller than finger sized) to the fist-sized proportions typically found south of Palermo, Sicily, in Piana degli Albanesi.
With its roots tracing back to the Middle Ages; this best known Sicilian pastry takes its’ name “cannolo (cannoli in English)” from the long tubular shape, as a diminutive of canna (a cane like reed) like sugar cane stalk. Back in the ninth centruy, Arabs had introduced sugar cane into the Sicilian cooking, thereby replacing honey as the sweetener of Sicilian confectionary to sugar. Similar desserts from the Middle East include Zainab’s fingers (filled with nuts) and qanawāt which were deep fried dough tubes filled with various sweets.
During the medieval years, the tubular shell shape was formed by rolling the paste into a flat, circular shape, then wrapping it around a sugar cane stalk. Legends abound but among them, most lead to the origin from western Sicily, probably in Palermo or nearby. Made often as a springtime item, most commonly associated when sheep produced more milk for ricotta around the Fat Tuesday (Carnevale).
Summer still going strong and picnics in full swing, for the first timers it would be a good time to experiment the sweet delicacies for a change. As for the kitchen experimenters and part time chefs, getting creative with homemade eclairs and cannoli would be a good change from the routine desserts.