Have you even gotten all ready for an event, only to show up and realize that you’re a week early? With the number of times I’ve managed it, you would think I’d start paying closer attention to dates. Last week’s inattention wasn’t as bad as the time I actually showed up on my future sister-in-law’s doorstep, ready for movie night a full seven days ahead of time, but I did get all my baking done before it was gently pointed out to me that I was getting ahead of myself. Which just makes me look bad next to this week’s cookbook.
If ever there was a collection of recipes that represented planning ahead, organization, and the scientific approach, it’s this one.
Baking Illustrated was written by a test kitchen crew that has not only tested multiple variations on each recipe to narrow down the best approach, but has included pages and pages of lab reports detailing what initially went wrong and how the final conclusion was reached. This book is an excellent resource for developing the baking knowledge that can help you know how to overcome setbacks and issues in your own recipes. I still remember kneeling on the bookstore floor, flipping back and forth between this hefty volume and another, unremembered, cookbook, choosing which one was going to be my birthday book. I managed to settle on this one and haven’t regretted the choice for an instant. It can be read as a collection of essays, or a guidebook for navigating new techniques, and sometimes I just flip through the glossy, full page photo section and sigh over the lovingly staged cakes, breads, and cookies.
Bear with me here, because we’re going full French pastry this week. Eclairs aren’t hard to make, but they do have multiple components, so the recipe section might look daunting. Stick with me and we’ll break them down into their basic building blocks.
Pâte à Choux (literally ‘cabbage dough’, commonly known as ‘cream puff pastry’)
This is the dough for the eclair shells. It’s known in the pastry world for being ‘twice-cooked’, once on the stovetop and once in the oven. I have vivid memories of my chef-instructor saying “stir like a mad-woman!” while my class was learning how to mix the paste, and of pulling out little wads of dough to see if it would pass the “tacky test” and be ready to pipe out. I still use the tacky test, but more commonly pour the paste into a Kitchen-Aid mixer for beating.
1 egg white
5 TBSP butter
2 TBSP milk
6 TBSP water
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup flour
To make your own shells, first beat together the eggs and egg white and measure out half a cup. Consistency is very important to this dough, since it doesn’t have any chemical leaveners, so you’ll want to set aside any excess for some other project. Then, bring your butter, milk, water, sugar, and salt to a boil in a small saucepan. When the butter is fully melted, dump in your flour all at once and start stirring. The mixture will come together in a clump fairly quickly, but keep it over the heat until it’s glossy and leaving a film behind on the bottom of the pan. Dump the contents of your saucepan into a mixer bowl and beat it for a minute or two until it’s lost some of its heat (we don’t want to scramble the eggs as we add them). Then, while the mixer is running on low speed, gradually pour in your eggs. Once they’re not splashy, you can crank up the speed until the paste is thick, glossy, and uniform in texture. Check the hydration by taking a pinch off with your thumb and forefinger and then stretching your fingers apart from each other. The dough should be thin enough to stretch out, but thick enough to hold its shape as it does. Too thin and you won’t be able to pipe it, too thick and it will turn out dense and wet.
The easiest way to form the shells is to pipe long logs of dough – I used a large star tip, because I like the little ridges it makes, but a plain round tip is the norm. I also pipe my dough just two to three inches long, because I prefer fun-sized eclairs. Pipe onto a parchment lined baking sheet, being sure to allow at least an inch of space between eclairs. Pop the sheet into a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes. They should expand dramatically and start to take on color, but if you open the oven to peek, you could ruin them, so resist the urge. Once the 15 minutes are up, leave the oven closed and drop the temperature to 375. Bake another 8 minutes to give them a final crisp and deepen up their color. Make sure you turn off the oven at this point – you’ll need it to cool down for the next step.
You’re still not quite done, because these crispy little shells are full of steam that will make them sag and sog if you don’t give it a way out. Flip them all over and slit the bottom with a paring knife. Once you’ve given them all steam vents, put the tray back into the (turned-off) oven and let them dry out for half an hour. Congratulations, you’ve made eclair shells!
Mocha Creme Patissiere (Pastry Cream)
Basically really, really, good pudding, pastry cream is probably my favorite of the pastry chef’s building blocks. This version of it is technically diplomat creme, since I fold in whipped cream to lighten the texture. If you want to turn it into a pure chocolate version or a pure coffee version, just drop the unwanted flavoring.
6.5 ounces half and half
1.5 oz sugar
2 egg yolks
3 1/2 tsp cornstarch
.75 oz butter
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 oz chopped bittersweet chocolate
1 tsp espresso powder
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
Warm the half-and-half in a small saucepan, with .5 oz of sugar, until it just comes to a simmer. Meanwhile, whisk together the yolks, salt, cornstarch, and remaining 1 oz of sugar until pale and fluffy. You want to be able to leave a ribbon trail with the whisk that will sit on top of the mixture for a few seconds before fading back in.
Slowly, slowly, start pouring the warm half-and-half into the eggs, whisking constantly. Once you’ve gotten started, you can increase your speed, but the goal here is to incorporate the eggs without curdling the yolks. When that’s done, pour the mixture back into the saucepan and stir it constantly over low heat until it just starts bubbling and thickening. Pull it off of the heat and stir in the butter, vanilla, chocolate, and espresso powder until the mixture is thick and smooth. Like pudding, pastry cream will form a skin if you leave it uncovered, so place it in the fridge with a layer of plastic wrap on top so that it can cool.
At this point, you technically have pastry cream, which is the traditional filling for eclairs, so you could stop here. But my family has always preferred diplomat cream for fillings, which is lighter and more mousse-like. To turn your pastry cream into diplomat cream, simply whip the 1/2 cup cream to medium peaks and gradually fold it into the pastry cream (I recommend folding in about 1/3 of the whipped cream at a time).
Your basic glossy frosting for finishing the tops of the shells. It will turn into a hard coat as it cools, so don’t make it until you’re ready to start dipping your eclairs.
1.5 TBSP half-and-half
1 oz chopped bittersweet chocolate
1/3 cup powdered sugar, sifted
Pour the half-and-half over the chocolate in a microwave safe container and zap them until they’re warm enough to stir together (about 30 seconds). Whisk them into a ganache and then beat in the powdered sugar.
Take the tops off of your eclair shells and dip them into the chocolate frosting. (They can be shatter prone, so dipping is easier than trying to frost them with a knife.) Spoon or pipe your cream filling into the bottom halves of the shells, which have hopefully puffed up enough to act as little pudding boats. Drop the tops back on and gently press down to glue the pieces together. Eat with enthusiasm. Sadly, eclairs don’t hold up well once assembled, so eat them within a few hours to enjoy them at their best.
They’re eclairs, they’re delicious, and everyone should go make some right now.
Okay, that’s not quite the totality of the verdict. I love making pâte à choux and I have a fond spot for any recipe that lets me use a piping bag. There’s also my irrational love of creating miniature food and my excitement over traditional pastries to take into account. That is to say, I make eclairs because I like making eclairs more than I do because they’re my favorite dessert ever. While the shell does provide some crisp contrast to the filling and is a fun way to turn pudding into finger food, I don’t think it’s anyone’s favorite part of an eclair. Which explains why, once I looked at the schedule more closely and realized that I wasn’t making eclairs to share at a party, we just inhaled the diplomat cream straight out of the bowl.
So if you’re in this for the fun of making and sharing eclairs, go ahead and make all of the components. But if you’re just looking for something simple and delicious, feel free to make the filling and eat it with a spoon, like we did.