Chocolate Éclairs

For Christmas in 2014, my mother-in-law bought me a gift certificate for a cooking class at Sur La Table. Titled “Four Desserts Every Cook Should Know”, I learned how to make a few things that I had never made before, including creme brûlée and chocolate soufflé. I enjoyed the class so much that I signed up for a second class, this one called “Lessons in French Pastry”. I learned the basics of puff pastry, as well as chocolate éclairs, one of my favorite sweet treats. Intimidating though they were at first, with a little patience and preferably a partner who can provide a second set of hands, making éclairs from scratch is manageable and well worth the effort.

M. and I spent an afternoon making these together while we waited for the results of his Russian language exam- a great activity for a cold winter day and to keep our thoughts occupied, with a rewarding finish!

There are four key components to making éclairs: making the pastry itself, making the pastry cream, filling the éclairs with the pastry cream, and dipping the filled éclairs in a chocolate glaze. Below are the steps for each, as well as photos that M. took along the way. I am using the recipes and instructions that I received in the class, which are adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet. This recipe will yield about 20 4 x 1-inch éclairs. This amount will vary if you make larger or smaller éclairs or cream puffs.

Part 1 – Make the Pastry

Éclairs are made with a basic pastry called pâte à choux. The pâte à choux itself is relatively flavorless, which makes it quite versatile for both sweet and savory recipes. Making the pâte à choux involves a few steps, but take your time and and all will go well.

You will need:

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, plus another tablespoon, if needed as described further below
1 egg, beaten separately (set aside)

You will also need some parchment paper and a pastry bag with a half-inch round tip. If you do not have a pastry bag, you can fashion one yourself using a quart-size ziploc bag with the tip cut off.

Steps:

1. Place the butter, water, and salt in a medium saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring from time to time with a wooden spoon, so the butter melts evenly.

The butter will melt faster when cut into smaller chunks.

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Stirring gently will help the butter melt evenly.

2. When the butter has melted, increase the heat and bring to a boil. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and add the flour all at once.

Having the flour pre-measured will assist in adding it immediately after you remove the pan from the heat.

3. Beat and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together in a mass around the spoon. This mimics the process of kneading the dough.

You’ll need to put a little elbow grease into stirring this dough vigorously. You want to keep it moving around the pan; otherwise it will burn.

4. Place the pan back over medium heat and continue to cook, beating it for another minute or so to dry out the dough. The pan will develop a thin film on the bottom.

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When you see the thin film coating the bottom of your pan, your dough is ready for the next step.

5. Immediately transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 1 minute to slightly cool the dough and develop the gluten in the flour. With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs one at a time (beat them first), allowing each addition to blend completely into the dough before continuing. At this point, you should preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Adding too much egg at once can over-moisten the dough.

6. When all the eggs are incorporated, the mixture should be shiny and elastic and stick to the side of the bowl. It should also pass the “string test”: Place a bit of dough between your thumb and forefinger and pull them apart. The dough should form a stretchy string about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. If the dough has not reached this stage, beat another egg and continue adding it, a little at a time, until the dough passes the “string test”.

When the dough passes the “string test”, it is finished.

7. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. If you’d like, you can draw a template on the paper for your éclairs. Use a ruler to draw 20 4 x 1-inch rectangles with a pencil, dividing and spacing them evenly within the sheets. You can also put a small amount of pastry dough on the corners (the same side that you drew on, if using a template) of your parchment paper. I chose to forego the template in my example below. Either way, make sure to leave about 1 1/2 inches around the edges and in between each éclair when you pipe them onto your baking sheet. Turn the sheet of parchment paper over so that the clean side is facing up. The pastry at the corners will serve as glue to hold the paper in place.

Pastry also makes great glue!

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If you are using a template, don’t forget to turn your parchment paper over after you’ve drawn on it. You don’t want pencil in your éclairs!

8. Spoon the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain round tip. If you don’t have a pastry bag, use a quart-size ziploc bag and cut the tip off so that the remaining hole is about a 1/2 inch in diameter.

I am using this fabric pastry bag from Wilton. All of my tips happen to be with our household goods, but thankfully, the bag itself has about a half-inch hole at the tip, so I will just improvise with that.

It helps to put the pastry bag in a tall container, such as a vase, and fold the sides down over the container to help the bag stay open. This will make it easier to spoon the stick pastry into the bag and is less messy, especially if you are working alone and do not have someone to hold the bag for you.

With the smooth edge of just about anything, so long as it’s not sharp, push the dough toward the tip of your bag. This will help remove air and make piping much easier.

9. Pipe the dough into 1/2-inch high rectangles about 1 inch wide and 4 inches long onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. If you made a template, just fill in the rectangles with the dough. To stop the flow of dough from the pastry bag and disconnect it from the piped dough, apply a tiny amount of pressure on the end of the piped pastry and lift up.

My éclairs are a bit uneven… and if I had them to do over, I would make them a little bit wider. Ah, well. Next time.

If you prefer to have bite-sized eclairs, you can make them cream puff style, like these ones.

10. Brush a light coating of the beaten egg over the tops of the piped dough with a silicon pastry brush, being careful not to let the egg drip down the sides, as it will glue the éclairs to the parchment paper. And we can’t have that! You will not use all of the egg. You can save the rest for later.

If you forget this step, do not fret. I forgot it with my first two trays, and they are still marvelous.

11. Place your baking sheets in the oven at 400 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Switch the sheets between racks, rotate the pans from front to back, and bake for 20 minutes longer. Reduce the temperature again, to 300 degrees, and bake 10 to 15 minutes longer (to dry out the interior).

Use the top and bottom thirds of your oven for best results.

12. The éclairs should be a deep golden brown, with no more bubbling moisture visible around the sides. Transfer the éclairs to a wire rack to cool completely.

These are a bit misshapen… but hopefully with a little more practice, I’ll get them looking better.

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And speaking of misshapen! The good news is, with a little vanilla pastry filling and chocolate glaze, they will taste divine.

Part 2 – Make the Vanilla Pastry Cream

As you wait for your éclairs and/or cream puffs to bake, you can make the vanilla pastry cream, which will serve as the filling for your éclairs and cream puffs.

You will need:

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 Tablespoon vanilla bean paste (or 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract)
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
6 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter

Steps:

1. Fill a large bowl halfway with ice and water and set it aside.

2. Pour the milk in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the vanilla bean paste. (If you are using vanilla extract, wait to add it until step 5.) Heat to just below the boiling point and remove from the heat.

Have you ever baked with vanilla bean paste? You should give it a try. It is wonderful!

If you are using vanilla bean paste, add it to the milk. If you are using extract, wait a bit. You don’t want the alcohol from the extract to evaporate as you cook the milk; you’ll lose good flavor that way.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks, and sugar until well blended and smooth. Add the flour and whisk vigorously until the mixture is very smooth.

Remember the egg that you used to brush your pastry dough? I used the rest of that here, with a little of the egg white after separating my yolks, in place of the full egg. Waste not, want not, right?

3. Slowly pour about a 1/2 cup of the hot milk into the yolk mixture, a little at a time, whisking constantly to temper the yolks. Be careful here- you do not want to end up with vanilla-flavored scrambled eggs.

Slowly, slowly add the hot milk to the eggs. Constant stirring will prevent the eggs from cooking.

4. Slowly pour the yolk mixture back into the rest of the hot milk, whisking all the while.

Again, take your time, stir constantly, and you won’t end up with a pot of scrambled eggs.

5. Heat the mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the flour from lumping, until it reaches a boil. Continue to cook and whisk for another minute, until the pastry cream is very thick, similar to pudding. Put some elbow grease into it as you feel it thicken. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter. If you are using vanilla extract, this is the point at which you should add it.

The process for making the vanilla pastry filling is similar to homemade pudding.

6. If you think you may have cooked some of the egg during the process, don’t worry. Just strain the pastry cream through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium bowl to remove lumps or tiny bits of egg. Next, press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream. Set the bowl into the larger bowl of ice water that you previously set aside. Once the pastry cream has completely cooled, use or store in the refrigerator until needed.

The plastic wrap will prevent a skin from forming on the pastry cream as it cools.

Setting the bowl of pastry cream over ice will help it cool faster.

Part 3 – Fill the Éclairs

Now it’s time to fill the éclairs and cream puffs with the vanilla pastry cream. You will need a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain tip. If you don’t have these materials, you can use a ziploc bag with the tip cut off.

Steps:

1. Using a metal or bamboo skewer, a paring knife, or, in my case below, a corkscrew, to gently make two evenly spaced small holes in the bottom of each éclair. For your cream puffs, just make one hole in the center of the bottom. These holes will serve as the portals for filling your pastry.

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The éclairs are easier to fill through two holes rather than one. You will find that the baked pastry is a bit delicate. Be careful while making holes in it so that your éclairs do not break.

One hole is enough for the cream puffs.

2. Spoon the cooled vanilla pastry cream into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain tip. Fill the bag about 1/2 or 2/3 of the way. If you do not have a pastry bag or the correct size tip, you can improvise with a quart-sized ziploc bag, as I did below.

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Again, folding the edges of the pastry bag over a tall container, such as a vase, will help keep the bag open and prevent a big mess.

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Frieda keeps us company in the kitchen as we work on our éclairs.

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I did not have a 1/4-inch pastry tip, so I used a ziploc bag and cut a very tiny piece of the tip off.

3. Insert the tip of your filled pastry bag into the each hole in the pastry. Using your dominant hand, squeeze firmly to fill the center of the pastry. You will feel the pastry fill up and become heavier as you squeeze. Repeat this process for all of your éclairs and cream puffs. Refill your pastry bag with the remaining pastry cream when necessary.

For best results, fill about half of the éclair through one hole, and the other half through the other hole.

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You may find that the cream puffs are a bit easier to fill. I did.

Step 4 – Dip the Éclairs in Chocolate Glaze

We’re almost done! This final step will add some chocolatey goodness to your éclairs, and soon, they will be ready to eat.

You will be glad to know that the chocolate glaze is very easy to make and involves three simple steps.

You will need:

4 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

Steps:

1. Place the chocolate in a heat-proof mixing bowl, preferably shallow and large enough to accommodate the length of your éclairs. In my case, I decided to use a pot as my dipping bowl, so I just measured out the chocolate and set it aside.

If you can find good quality dark chocolate chips, use them. It will save you the step of chopping the chocolate.

2. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Stir it a bit to keep it from burning. As soon as it comes to a boil, pour it over the chocolate and let the mixture sit for 1 minute. The hot cream will melt the chocolate.

Since I am using my saucepan as the dipping bowl, I removed the pan from the heat as soon as the cream came to a boil and added the chocolate chips.

3. Whisk the cream and chocolate until the mixture is completely blended smooth. Cool for 10 minutes.

This simple glaze will be delicious!

4. Now you are ready to glaze your éclairs. Turn them upside down, so that the holes are facing up. Dip the top of each one halfway into the chocolate glaze, then lift and let the excess glaze drip back into the bowl. Set right-side up on a platter lined with wax paper or parchment paper and allow the glaze to set for about 30 minutes. Refrigerate until serving time. Reserve any leftover glaze for another use.

You’re almost to the finish line.

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Mmmmmmm….

The glaze will become firm but not hard as it cools.

Voilà! Ready to eat. These definitely won’t last long in our house.

Congratulations! Enjoy your éclairs with a hot beverage. They are best when served the same day they are filled, as the pastry will absorb moisture and become soggy the longer they sit. Not a problem in our house!

Let me know how your homemade éclairs turn out!

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