I've learned that most good things in life come when you look beyond the expected. It is nice to be pleasantly surprised from time to time.
The same is true for food. Sovrana's has long been my favorite pizza joint in Albany, since my days in Brubacher Hall at Saint Rose. (When I wasn't studying and writing papers at Mahar's, I was doing the same at Sovrana's).
The North Lake Ave shop is a little out-of-the-way, but it's a hidden treasure -- much like the éclair that graces the cold case beneath the pizza counter.
Most people probably know Sovrana's for the thick, chewy crust that is the hallmark of the shop's pizza, or perhaps for the giant six-foot party subs that are regularly carried out the shop's front door. Few people consider that the pizzeria might be slinging out some of the best Italian pastries in the area. That's a bold statement, as there is a plethora of good Italian pastry in the Capital District. As I've mentioned before, Albany was founded by the Dutch, colonized by the British, and governed by the Irish. But we eat Italian.
Éclairs are technically a French dessert, consisting of a choux (twice-cooked egg, butter, water, and flour dough) shell filled with custard and sometimes drizzled with a chocolate coating. Everything in Sovrana's éclairs ($2) is house made.
The shell is light and airy, though sometimes does suffer the same fate as other refrigerated pastries: a quick passage into staleness. Instead of a crisp, delicate shell, the dough becomes chewy. This says more of the storage issues surrounding éclairs than the technique in which Sovrana's makes them. Much like cannoli, éclairs are best fresh and filled-to-order.
The chocolate coating on the top of the éclair reminds me a bit of Magic Shell or a chocolate-flavored ice cream dip one might get from Dairy Queen. It tastes more milk chocolate than anything.
But the thing you should be concentrating on here is the custard. It's not that runny vanilla pudding, or even the off-white, closer-to-whipped cream stuff you find in most éclairs. Sovrana's éclair filling is closer to a room temperature ice cream. It is velvety and golden yellow. Most stuff this color and consistency comes from a factory-made can, but this is a study in expert execution combined with real ingredients -- and a ton of egg yolks. All the lecithin in the egg yolk binds with the sugar, cream, and vanilla (and perhaps a bit of flour) to create custard that is thick without being gummy.
If that description doesn't whet your appetite, consider this: It's rumored you can buy just the custard under the alias "Death in a Cup." Like heaven? Surely. (As long as the afterlife is a fluffy cloud of sugar, dairy, and egg.)
I was denied much of a backstory about the éclair recipe, save for that Sovrana's has been around for more than 30 years, and the recipe hasn't changed in that time. Some say the lore surrounding the recipe stretches back a century, coming over from Italy. Sovrana's remains pretty tight-lipped about it all.
Most people probably wouldn't walk into a pizza joint in search of other-worldly pastry, but the éclair at Sovrana proves why it is important to keep your eyes open to the world around you.
63 North Lake Ave
Albany, NY 12206
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