The last time I tried to make eclairs from scratch, it was a disaster.
I’d made them 20 times before, but on this day — my husband’s birthday — it was impossible.
When we first got married, I made him cupcakes for his birthday. I didn’t know anything about baking, but I got a mix and some frosting and I figured it couldn’t be that hard to bake some cute little rainbow chip cupcakes. I was wrong.
I overfilled the cupcake papers, and the batter spilled all over the pan and burned. The cupcakes themselves were flat and misshapen, with the frosting pooled on the top like a sad, white lake. Back then, I figured looks didn’t matter, as long as it tasted good, so I stuck a candle in the top and presented it anyway.
For the next few years, I tried to make him birthday cupcakes, and they never turned out. They were always too short, too tall, too burned or too undercooked. Then one day, I decided to make eclairs (his favorite) on a whim. I didn’t know they were hard to make, and they turned out fine, unlike the cupcakes. So from that time forth I made him eclairs, year after year, and sometimes on Father’s Day, without any problems.
That is, until March 2017 rolled around.
I started following the recipe, melted one stick of butter in a pan, added a cup of water and waited for it to boil. I added a cup of flour, scraping it up until it turned into a ball, just like the instructions said. Then I cracked four eggs and started mixing them into the batter with my hand mixer. It was supposed to become a little bit firm, a little bit fluffy, to the point where the batter would hold its shape if I put it on a flat cookie sheet, but the mixture curdled and never came together.
I figured I must have made a mistake. Maybe I needed to add more flour. I began again with another stick of butter, water, flour, four more eggs, the hand mixer, and again, the batter failed. It was a sloppy yellow mess. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t working. I tried a third time, again, it failed. I went to the grocery store to buy another pound of butter and a dozen eggs and attempted the recipe a fourth time, this time with a sink full of dirty dishes, flour all over my stove top, my blood pressure through the roof, heart beating, sweat on my hands and fear in my mouth, crossing my fingers and hoping it would work. But after the last step, mix in the eggs, again, it failed.
I figured I would bake the batter anyway. Perhaps it would rise, even if it was different than any other batter I’d ever made. I scooped the slop onto my cookie sheet in loose ovals and rectangles and put it in the oven at 350 degrees for 32 minutes. But no, a miracle had not occurred. They were flat and burned and looked more like crackers than a pastry puff.
I gave up, bought my husband an éclair from the grocery store and tried not to think about how much butter, eggs and flour I had wasted. I felt like a failure.
At some point in my life I had learned the lesson that if there is a problem, and you see a hint of it early on, you will save yourself grief by stomping it out while it’s still small. It’s called "nip it in the bud." It’s an expression that refers to clipping a plant’s bud to stunt its growth before it blossoms into something harder to remove.
When I learned that lesson, a lightbulb went off in my head. I realized that I could use my powers of detection, which were already rather sharp, to discern potential problems in situations around me. That way I could correct the problem before it became too difficult to erase. I told my roommates in college I didn’t like to share, so don’t bother asking me if they could borrow my things. I jumped on little messes and disagreements early on in my marriage. I responded strongly when my kids showed some behavior that scared me.
I didn’t realize my theory of "nip it in the bud" was actually a representation of judgmental paranoia, an irrational fear built on a small amount of evidence that sometimes caused problems instead of solving them.
When I made those eclairs and failed, I thought I would never again be able to make a successful batch. Past performance is the best predictor of future behavior, right? But as my husband’s birthday rolled around again this year, he again asked for the dessert, and I agreed to try again.
I melted the butter, added the water and flour, cracked the eggs, and again got to the part where I mixed it all together. Just then, my daughter interrupted me for the third time and I was pretty frustrated.
As I looked around the kitchen, thinking of how to save this batter. I was about to get some flour to thicken the mix when I decided to try the beater one more time. Somehow, because it sat for a second and cooled slightly, the batter mixed perfectly with just a few more seconds of attention. I wonder if the four wasted batches I made last year just needed a little time. Could those disasters have been avoided if I hadn’t thrown in the towel so quickly?
Perhaps, sometimes, it’s best to let a bud show a little blossom before it gets nipped. Sometimes you have to wait to see what happens.
It just might be the best batch of eclairs you’ve ever made.