The éclair. A finger-like choux pastry filled with pâtisserie cream and topped with a chocolate glaze. Even bad ones are yummy. And rightfully so. It is tough to imagine what could go wrong with pastry + pâtisserie cream + chocolate. As long as the milk doesn’t scorch, the eggs don’t curdle and the chocolate doesn’t burn, you are all but assured of a delicious treat.
That said, éclairs were always something I thought best bought as opposed to made. Milk scorching, eggs curdling – that’s scary stuff. And “choux pastry”? Too “French pâtisserie” for this home cook. Besides, since our move to Provence, I travel less than a kilometer to buy an éclair at our local boulangerie. If out and about, I can find them anywhere. Éclairs are in every boulangerie, a de facto standard French pastry. Besides the croissant and the baguette, there is nothing more quintessentially French than the éclair. They are to French boulangeries what the bagel is to New York delis.
So why bother making my own?
For three main reasons. First, éclairs are not as difficult to make as you probably think. Second, the taste of a newly filled and freshly lacquered éclair defies explanation and puts its distant store-bought cousins to shame. Third, and clearly most important, the amount of admiration, appreciation and adoration you will receive from loved ones you share these with will make every moment spent in the kitchen worth it – ten times over. And if you don’t share them – the self-admiration and appreciation is pretty great too!
So let’s begin. I adapted the below recipes from Tartine. I’ve tried other éclair recipes and found these the most consistent and reliable.
A few thoughts before you tackle “L’éclair”:
– The éclair comprises three basic recipes: choux pastry, pastry cream and chocolate glaze. None of these recipes is particularly difficult or time-consuming. If you are short on time, however, I’d split the cooking into two sessions. Also, if this is your first time making éclairs, you might split the work into two sessions. First, I’d make the pastry cream and store it properly in the refrigerator (up to 5 days). Then I’d make the pastry and chocolate glaze the same day I planned on eating them.
– In addition to basic kitchen equipment, you will need 2 pastry bags, a 1/2 inch (13mm) tip and a very thin tip. If you don’t have tips/bags – use a plastic bag to pipe the pastry and then cut the éclairs in half horizontally with a serrated knife, dip the top half in the chocolate glaze and then spread the cream between the two halves to fill.
– The oven timing I give is a general guideline. Pay attention to the fist batch and calibrate your cooking times as needed to get the best result with your oven.
– I made 17 éclairs shells with the below recipe, but only filled/dipped the amount we could eat today. I froze the remainder. You can do the same. Then place the frozen shells in a 450ºF/230ºC oven for 8-10 minutes to re-crisp, fill when needed.
For the pastry cream (Yields: 2 1/2 cups/625 ml):
2 cups/500 ml Milk
1/2 Vanilla bean, split
1/4 tsp/1 ml Salt
4 tbsp/60 ml Cornstarch
1/2 cup +1 Tbsp/115 grams Sugar
4 tbsp/55 grams Unsalted butter, divided into four pieces.
To make the cream: Get all your equipment out and ready because once you begin you want everything at your finger tips. You will need: a heavy sauce pan. Never use an aluminum pan for pastry cream. The yolks react with the metal and turn the cream gray. Fail. You will also need a damp towel on hand to help stabilize the bowl of eggs as you whisk milk into it (to free up your two hands to pour and whisk) and a bowl with a fine mesh sieve resting on the rim (for cooling the pastry cream once cooked).
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and the sugar. Then add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Set aside.
Into a heavy saucepan, pour the milk and scrape the seeds from the split vanilla bean. Add the salt and place over medium-high heat. You want to bring this mixture to just under a boil. Stir often to make sure milk solids are not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
When the milk is ready, ladle about a third of it into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. This allows you to warm the eggs without cooking them. Then pour the egg-milk mixture back into the hot pan with the rest of the milk and continue whisking over medium heat until the custard is as thick like lightly whipped cream. This takes about 2 minutes. A few slow bubbles in the mixture is fine, but don’t let it boil.
Remove immediately from the heat and pour through the waiting sieve into the bowl. Let it cool for 10 minutes or so and then add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Whisk to incorporate each pat of butter before adding the next.
To cool or store the cream, cover with plastic wrap directly on top of the cream surface (to prevent a skin forming) and place in the refrigerator until you are ready to use. The cream will store well for 5 days; don’t over whisk cold cream because it may break down and become thin.
OK. With the cream made and cold you have two choices. Grab a spoon and start eating the cream straight out of the bowl. No one will be the wiser. Or make the éclairs.
For the Choux pastry (yields 12 or more éclairs):
1/2 cup/125 ml Milk
1/2 cup/125 ml Water
1/4 tsp/1 ml Salt
1 tsp/5 ml Sugar
1/2 cup/115 grams Unsalted butter
1 cup/140 grams Flour
To make the pastry: Preheat the oven to 425ºF/220ºC. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
In a heavy saucepan, combine the milk, water, salt, sugar and butter and place over medium heat. Let the mixture come to a full boil (not just a simmer); stirring on occasion. Add the flour in one fell swoop, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring and the mixture will form a smooth mass that pulls away from the sides of the pan. Let some of the moisture evaporate as you stir – about 3 minutes.
Transfer this mass to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. On medium speed – add the eggs, one at a time. Incorporate each egg before adding the next. When done, the dough will be shiny, smooth and thick.
Transfer the dough to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch tip (no. 6 or 7) or cut the bottom of a disposable pastry bag at roughly 1/2 inch. Pipe out 1 inch by 5 inch fingers onto the baking sheet. Space about 2 inches apart and cook in batches as needed. Keep a steady hand and be precise because the dough will magnify all imperfections as it cooks. If you really mess up, scoop the dough back into the bag and begin again.
Bake until puffed and starting to show some color (8-10 minutes) and then turn down the oven to 375ºF/190ºC. Cook for another 8-12 minutes. The casings should be nicely browned all over, feel light for their size and hollow.
Remove from the oven and quickly poke a small hole in one end to allow steam to escape and to prevent the casings from shrinking. Use something like a skewer or a toothpick. I used a chocolate fork because that’s what I had on hand. Then cool on a wire rack.
As soon as they are cool enough to fill, do so.
For the glaze (makes more than you need, but left-overs are always good on ice-cream…):
4 ounces/115 grams of Your favorite baking chocolate, coarsely chopped (I used a dark/milk mix)
1 tbsp/15 ml Corn syrup (makes the glaze shiny)
1/2 cup/125 ml Heavy cream
To make the glaze: Combine the chocolate and the corn syrup in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to just under a boil on the stove top or in the microwave. Pour over the chocolate and let sit for about 2 minutes. Then stir gently with a rubber spatula (to incorporate as little air as possible) until smooth and shiny. Let cool until just warm. Place in a container that will allow you to dip the éclairs.
At long last! Assembly: Take the cold cream out of the fridge and get it into a piping bag fitted with a thin tip. Fill one end and then the other end of an éclair – until the éclair feels substantial (not overly heavy, but heavy). Repeat. When the éclairs are full, dip each one into the chocolate glaze. Shake gently to remove excess chocolate and then return to the wire rack to allow the glaze to set.
Serve the pastries at once or refrigerate for up to 6 hours before serving. Definitely serve these the same day you make them. I was so proud of these pretty little presents I practically stood on the street and gave them away to folks driving by…but Armon (my husband) banned me from taking any out of the house. I did manage to sneak a few to our kids and friends when he wasn’t looking, however…