When Lindsay announced that this months Kitchen Challenge was éclairs, I was all like “I got this one”. I was pretty cocky about the whole thing. Which is funny because I had actually never made éclairs before. But you see, I have made all the different parts of éclairs many times, so I figured simply combining those three parts wouldn’t be very difficult. And for the most part it wasn’t. But I had a few mishaps along the way…..
The dough for éclairs is called pâte à choux. It is a very light, airy pastry dough that is the basis for several French pastries, including gougères, which I’ve made a couple times at the restaurant. So no biggie there. The filling is a traditional pastry cream, very similar to the ones I used to make practically everyday at the bakery where I previously worked. Check! And the chocolate glaze. Well, you all know about my love of chocolate. I’m no stranger to using that ingredient in my kitchen!
So with all this prior knowledge and experience, I dove right into making these éclairs. My first attempt was decent. The taste was spot on. But they were lacking in the appearance department. My piping skills aren’t the best. And they didn’t puff up as much as I had hoped. A little research suggested that weather can play a big role in how well the pâte à choux rises. So I waited (and waited and waited…..this is Seattle after all) for a drier day and tried a second time. On my second attempt I also decided to make the éclairs shorter (3 inches long instead of 5 inches), for easier piping. And they came out beautiful! I was thrilled! And then I dropped them on the floor. All of them. Chocolate glaze side down. Before I had a chance to take any photographs. Yup. Saddest day ever.
Eventually I got my s**t together and managed to pull off (and photograph) a decent batch. And really, they aren’t that difficult to make. So don’t be scared off by my tale of misfortune. And once you get the basic technique down, you can play with a seemingly endless array of flavor combinations. I decided to infuse my pastry cream with lavender. The lavender flavor is very subtle here, but if that’s not your thing, just leave it out for a more classic version of this traditional French pastry.
Recipe slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book
- For the Pastry Cream
- 5 egg yolks
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 cups half and half
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1/8 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. dried culinary lavender
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- For the Pâte à Choux
- 6 tablespoons water
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
- 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 eggs, plus 1 egg white
- For the Chocolate Glaze
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 3 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
- 1 tablespoon confectioners sugar
- Special Equipment
- A least 2 pastry bags (I used plastic disposable ones)
- Large (1/2 to 3/4-inch) plain tip (I used an Ateco 11/16 plain #9 tip)
- Small (about 1/4-inch) plain tip (I used an Ateco 230 plain bismark tube)
- Make the pastry cream filling. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Set aside. In a medium heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the remaining 6 tablespoons of sugar, the half and half, vanilla extract, salt and lavender over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved. Temper the egg yolks by whisking in about 1 cup of the simmering half and half mixture. Then slowly whisk the tempered egg mixture back into the remaining half and half mixture. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, whisking constantly, until the pastry cream starts to bubble and has thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter. Strain the pastry cream through a fine mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Use a spoon or whisk to help push the pastry cream through the strainer. Cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap, pushing the plastic down onto the surface of the pastry cream (this prevents a skin from forming) and refrigerate until firm, at least 3 hours or up to 3 days (I made mine 1 day in advance).
- When you are ready to make your éclairs, pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees. Using a ruler and pencil, draw guidelines on a piece of parchment paper to help you space out the pâte à choux (I know this seems like overkill, but it helps a lot with the piping). You’ll want to space the pâte à choux at least 1-inch apart (any closer and they won’t rise properly). And make them 3 to 5 inches in length (shorter is definitely easier). Then flip the parchment paper over and place it on a large baking sheet that has been lightly sprayed with non-stick cooking spray (flipping the parchment paper over prevents you from getting pencil marks on your éclairs - trust me, I learned this one the hard way). Set aside.
- Make the pâte à choux. In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the water, butter, milk, sugar and salt to a simmer. Turn the heat down to low and then add the flour, stirring the mixture constantly with a wooden spoon for about 3 minutes. The dough should appear slightly shiny and should clear the side of the pan (a thin layer will stick to the bottom of the pan, that is a good sign). Immediately transfer the warm dough to your stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Turn your mixer on the lowest speed and mix for about 2 minutes to allow the dough to cool slightly. Then turn your mixer up to medium speed and add the eggs and egg white one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then mix for an additional 30 seconds until a smooth, thick, sticky paste forms.
- Pipe and bake the éclairs. Fit a pastry bag with your large plain tip and fill it with your warm pâte à choux. Twist the top of the pastry bag to keep it closed. Pipe the pâte à choux onto your prepared baking sheet, following your guidelines. Use a steady, even pressure on the piping bag to help you keep all the piped logs a similar diameter (aim for 1-inch). When all the pâte à choux is piped, you can use the back of a teaspoon dipped in cold water to even out the shape or smooth the surfaces, if necessary. Transfer to your pre-heated oven and bake for 15 minutes. Without opening the oven door, reduce your oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking for 8-10 minutes. The pastries should be golden brown and puffed and fairly firm. Remove from the oven and poke a small hole in each pastry with a pairing knife to release steam. Return the tray to your still warm oven (heat turned off), leaving the oven door ajar, for about 20 minutes to dry the pastries. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. (Note: Cook’s Illustrated says that once cooled, the pastries can be frozen in a zip-lock bag for up to 1 month, then re-crisped in a 300 degree oven for a few minutes. But I have not tried this).
- Fill the éclairs. Fit a pastry bag with your small tip. Remove your pastry cream from the refrigerator and give it a stir. Fill your pastry bag with your pastry cream. Twist the top of the pastry bag to keep it closed. Working with one éclair at a time, insert the pastry tip into one end of the éclair and gently squeeze to fill the éclair part way (don’t squeeze too hard or you may break through the surface of the pastry). Then repeat, this time starting at the other end of the éclair. Continue until all the éclairs are filled. I like to insert the pastry tip closer to the top of the éclair, to ensure that I don’t poke through the bottom of the pastry. And you’ll be able to cover any holes with your chocolate glaze.
- Make the chocolate glaze. Heat the heavy cream until it’s just simmering. Add the chopped chocolate and confectioners sugar and stir until the chocolate is completely melted. Let the mixture sit for about 5 minutes to thicken slightly. Then spoon it over the tops of the éclairs, being sure to cover any holes.
- Filled and glazed éclairs are best when they are eaten within a few hours of making them. But they can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 1-2 days.