If doughnuts have a feudal pecking order, it’s entirely reasonable to put the custard-filled eclair on the emperor’s throne. A good scratch-made eclair combines the crisp, chewy lightness of pâte à choux with the eggy richness of sweet custard and the semi-sweet cocoa kick of chocolate glaze. Served with coffee, it’s a mind-blowing breakfast or a truly decadent dessert.
There’s a lot to learn when you tackle eclairs at home. Unless you’re a bakery hound, it’s possible that you’ve never tasted a really credible eclair — store-bought versions are inevitably miserly workarounds: the “custard” a corn syrup-based mockery with a longer shelf life, the chocolate low-grade, and the pâte à choux more of a not a choux.
It turns out that nobody should be blaming commercial bakeries for these entirely sensible workarounds. Making honest-to-goodness eclairs — as we did on a recent evening — is a ridiculous affair involving four separate mini-recipes, several thousand pots and utensils, the oven, the stovetop, drippy melted chocolate, and the eternally swear-word inducing piping bag.
Here is what you will be doing:
You will be making a custard filling (which can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge.)
You will be making a chocolate glaze (ditto.)
You will be making pâte à choux on the stovetop, and then piping it out with your pastry bag onto a parchment-lined pan, and then brushing it with an egg glaze.
You will be baking that pâte à choux, cleaning your pastry bag, filling your pastry bag with the custard, and re-warming (if necessary) your chocolate glaze.
Then you be punching holes in all your risen, baked eclairs, and filling them with custard.
Then you will be rolling the tops of the eclairs in the chocolate glaze.
Then you’ll refrigerate the whole lot of them. And that’s it! It’s a snap!
Do not embark on this mission without serious forethought.
What follows are five observations about the process, as experienced through an excellent Gale Gand recipe from Butter Sugar Flour Eggs. (Follow this link to read the original version over on Food Network; the recipe below is our adaptation, filled with more colorful language and a couple of tweaks to the ingredients.)
Observation #1: You may not have a vanilla bean handy.
We didn’t, so we flavored the custard with a 1/2 tsp. of vanilla extract and a tablespoon of Godiva milk chocolate liqueur that we received as a holiday gift. While the custard may have lacked some of the ephemeral depth of a true vanilla bean, it was still damned delicious. Mission accomplised.
Observation #2: Custard can be scary stuff.
We freaked out when our custard, which we were taking from the “liquid” stage to the “perfectly creamy and glossy French culinary school stage” suddenly picked up what looked like a lumpy texture as the yolks partially cooked. Frantic off-burner stirring ensued. The resulting chunky-looking stuff tasted wonderful — and the texture was smooth — and once pumped into the finished eclairs, it worked like a charm.
Observation #3: Know your eclair size and shape from the get-go.
We stumbled around when it came to piping the pâte à choux for the eclairs, trying different lengths / widths / piping methods. The result was some eclairs that we long and thin (not terribly great, and hard to fill) and some that were considerably more squat and wide (easier to fill, more authentically eclair looking.) Know what you’re shooting for: a jumbo-hot dog length and sized piece of dough, erring on the side of fatter rather than longer.
Observation #4: Invest in a large, regular tip for your pastry bag.
All we had was a star tip, so our eclairs picked up a goofy stripey appearance. The impact on taste was nil, and, after the chocolate glaze was applied, the aesthetic damage was also minimal… but, still.
Observation #5: Whether the process is “worth it” is entirely up to you.
You want to impress houseguests? Homemade eclairs for breakfast will probably do the trick. You want a special anniversary? Again, each of these damned things looks slaved over, despite (or perhaps because?) it’s a bit tricky to form them perfectly. Your soul will definitely gain a facet or two from going through the process, and your second attempt will be considerably easier than the first. It’s all this “sailing into the unknown” business that makes the process headache-inducing. The flipside: It’s also what makes it so much fun.
From Butter Sugar Flour Eggs by Gale Gand, Rick Tramonto, Julia Moskin, Clarkson N. Potter Publishers, 1999; adapted with commentary by the Heavy Table (original recipe here)
Note: The Food Network site claims: “[Active] Prep 10 min”
Hardy har. You may find more than 10 minutes of active prep will be required.
2 cups whole, 2 percent fat, or 1 percent fat milk (we used whole milk, on the “ah, what the hell, it’s French” principle — the custard was rich and lovely)
½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise (lacking said bean, we subbed in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and 2 teaspoon Godiva Milk Chocolate Liqueur; other liqueurs like Kahlua would have worked just fine, as well)
6 egg yolks
⅔ c sugar
¼ c cornstarch
1 tbsp cold unsalted butter
1 c water
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp sugar
1 c all-purpose flour
3 eggs, plus 1 extra, if needed
1 ½ tsp water
½ cup heavy cream
4 oz semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (we had four ounces of semi-sweet Tollhouse morsels, but suped them up with about a teaspoon of Valrhona cocoa powder, which seemed to add some depth and kick to the glaze)
Filling: In a medium saucepan, heat the milk and vanilla bean to a boil over medium heat. Immediately turn off the heat and set aside to infuse for 15 minutes. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cornstarch and whisk vigorously until no lumps remain.
Whisk in ¼ cup of the hot milk mixture until incorporated. Whisk in the remaining hot milk mixture, reserving the saucepan. Pour the mixture through a strainer back into the saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until thickened and slowly boiling.
This is where we hit some turbulence; the “thickening” looked a lot like breaking or curdling. Everything turned out fine, however, and the custard was delicious.
Remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Let cool slightly. Cover with plastic wrap, lightly pressing the plastic against the surface to prevent a skin from forming.
Chill at least 2 hours or until ready to serve. The custard can be made up to 24 hours in advance. Refrigerate until 1 hour before using.
Pastry: Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. In a large saucepan, bring the water, butter, salt and sugar to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. When it boils, immediately take the pan off the heat.
Stirring with a wooden spoon, add all the flour at once and stir hard until all the flour is incorporated, 30 to 60 seconds. Return to the heat and cook, stirring, 30 seconds.
Scrape the mixture into a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or use a hand mixer). Mix at medium speed. With the mixer running, add 3 eggs, 1 egg at a time. Stop mixing after each addition to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix until the dough is smooth and glossy and the eggs are completely incorporated.
The dough should be thick, but should fall slowly and steadily from the beaters when you lift them out of the bowl. If the dough is still clinging to the beaters, add the remaining 1 egg and mix until incorporated.
Using a pastry bag fitted with a large plain tip, pipe fat lengths of dough (about the size and shape of a jumbo hot dog) onto the lined baking sheet, leaving 2 inches of space between them. You should have 8 to 10 lengths. Take extra care with your first eclair, piping slowly, making sure to get somehing 4-5 inches long and an inch+ wide.
Egg Wash: In a bowl, whisk the egg and water together. Brush the surface of each eclair with the egg wash.
Use your fingers to smooth out any bumps of points of dough that remain on the surface. Bake 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375°F and bake until puffed up and light golden brown, about 25 minutes more. Try not to open the oven door too often during the baking.
Let cool on the baking sheet. Fit a medium-size plain pastry tip over your index finger and use it to make a hole in the end of each eclair (or just use your fingertip). Using a pastry bag fitted with a medium-size plain tip, gently pipe the custard into the eclairs, using only just enough to fill the inside (don’t stuff them full).
Glaze: In a small saucepan, heat the cream over medium heat just until it boils. Immediately turn off the heat. Put the chocolate in a medium bowl. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. Set aside and keep warm. The glaze can be made up to 48 hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use, and rewarm in a microwave or over hot water when ready to use.
Dip the tops of the eclairs in the warm chocolate glaze and set on a sheet pan. Chill, uncovered, at least 1 hour to set the glaze. Drink a beer or two and make someone else do the dishes. You’ve earned it. Serve eclairs chilled.