It really doesn’t take much to set me off on a baking project–watching back-to-back episodes of The Great British Bake Off (damn, Paul and Mary are harsh!)…perusing the latest online issues of Delicious or Donna Hay (two of my favorite food magazines). I was already primed, itching to bake something, when an online Saveur article about the beauty of a well-made eclair caught my eye…and I was off.
I bake pâte à choux pastry at work on occasion, usually in the savory cheesy form of gougères, which are then filled with smoked trout mousse. Last year I decorated a friend’s “naked” wedding cake with rings of caramel-dipped, custard-filled profiteroles–a cross between a Gateau St. Honoré and an Italian creme cake. But I very rarely make eclairs. I’m not sure why. I’ve loved eating them since I was kid and they’re usually the first thing I gravitate towards at a bakery. More often than not though, the eclairs are a bit soggy, having sat pre-filled for hours in a moist refrigerated case. The best eclairs are the ones filled to order, which sadly are hard to find.
So, I set out to satisfy my craving for eclairs by whipping up a batch. Oh, in case you’re wondering how I don’t weigh 800 lbs. by now, the answer is I don’t eat the entire batch and I work out. Anyways, back to the eclairs… The process is not particularly difficult, if you stick with the classic vanilla pastry cream filling and dark chocolate ganache frosting, which I favor. However, I did get fancy this time (for the sake of a great photo op) and turned out a few different flavors.
The trick is to bake the choux pastry until it is very crispy. They should feel very light, being mostly hollow in the center. If you don’t bake them crisp enough they will collapse as they cool and won’t hold up to the filling. Start off at 425°F for the first 12-15 mins., then reduce the heat to 375°F for the rest of the bake, about another 18-20 mins. depending on the size of the eclairs. I piped my choux dough with a star tip in short batons, yielding 18 pieces.
Pate a Choux
Yield: 18 – 3″ eclairs or about 1 dozen 4″ eclairs
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 stick or 4 oz. butter
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 eggs
- 1 egg white
Combine the first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn the heat off and add the flour, then stir vigorously to incorporate all of it into the hot liquid. Turn the heat back on to medium low and continue stirring until the dough forms into a ball. Transfer the choux base into a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed to cool down the dough a little bit before gradually beating in the eggs and white.
Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream Filling
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 4 yolks
- 3 Tbsp. cornstarch
- pinch of sea salt
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split & scraped
- 1-1/2 cups whole milk
- 3 Tbsp. butter
Combine the milk and vanilla bean in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile whisk together the sugar, yolks, cornstarch and salt until smooth. Gradually whisk in a little of the hot milk to temper the egg mixture, then whisk the tempered mixture into the rest of the hot milk. Cook mixture on medium low heat, whisking constantly, until the pastry cream is very thick and almost comes to a simmer. Remove pan from the heat and whisk in butter. Take out the vanilla pod and transfer the mixture into a bowl and press a film of plastic onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming while the pastry cream cools.
Dark Chocolate Ganache Frosting
- 6 oz. semi sweet chocolate chunks
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 1 Tbsp. light corn syrup
- pinch of sea salt
Combine all the ingredients in a microwave safe bowl and heat on full power for about 90 seconds. Stir to fully melt the chocolate. If you don’t have a microwave, just place the everything in a heatproof bowl over a pot of low simmering water for about 5 mins., stirring occasionally.
To fill the eclairs, make an incision along one side and pipe in the filling using a small pastry tip. Carefully dip the top half of the eclair into the ganache, shaking off the excess.
To make white or colored and/or flavored icing, whisk together 2 cups sifted powdered sugar with 3 Tbsp. whole milk and a pinch of sea salt to make a thick paste, then add color and flavoring to taste, thinning the mixture out with a little more milk to achieve the desire consistency for glazing.
While we’re on the subject of indulgent cravings, I have to mention another guilty pleasure of mine, the underrated and charming film Simply Irresistible (1999).
Eclairs play a central role in this romantic comedy about a struggling restaurant owner Amanda (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who falls in love with a department executive Tom (Sean Patrick Flannery) and magically awakens her dormant talent for cooking.
If you can suspend your disbelief of Amanda’s kitchen attire (sparkly sleeveless Todd Oldham designer tops and open-toed shoes!), it’s a delightfully enchanting tale. Be careful though, you might suddenly find yourself overwhelmed with an irresistible urge to make eclairs!