While trolling through Pinterest recently, I came across a blog about chocolate éclairs that included some mouthwatering photos and I felt myself being pulled by the magnetism of this lucious treat. The blog made it sound so easy and I realized as I read that I’d never made choux pastry, the basic pastry for éclairs, cream puffs and profiteroles. I remember my mother making this pastry and I’ve seen it done on television hundreds of times. I started looking up various recipes and thought I’d give it a whirl.
Éclairs were my goal and they are typically filled with pastry cream, which I’d also never made before. I decided to do this up right by making everything from scratch and since the pastry cream has to cool completely before it can be injected into the éclairs, that is where this project began.
2 cups of whole milk
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
1/4 cup of cornstarch
3 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract or 1 whole vanilla bean, split down the middle
Again, looking up recipes, I found that this is just custard with the addition of corn starch to thicken it. I’ve made custard dozens of times, so this was not a big leap for me. I started with two cups of whole milk in a saucepan over medium heat, to which I added 1/4 cup of sugar. Most of the recipes I found called for vanilla extract, but I decided to use a whole vanilla bean to make this pastry cream extra flavorful and beautiful. During a recent move, I’d discovered a stockpile of vanilla beans in my pantry. These babies can be expensive, so this is the kind of thing I buy when I see them on sale. Apparently, I must have found quite a sale because I had half a dozen vanilla beans in my spice cabinet. I cut the vanilla bean in half which makes it a little easier to work with. With a sharp paring knife, I split the vanilla bean long ways down the middle and with the tip of the knife and scraped out the black paste from the center. These are the actual seeds of the orchid from which the vanilla bean is harvested and there is no deeper vanilla flavor. I scooped out all the vanilla goodness from the inside of the pod and dropped it into the milk, along with the empty vanilla bean itself to steep and add more flavor.
I separated three extra-large eggs and dropped the yolks into a separate bowl. To the egg yolks, I added another 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 of corn starch and whisked them all together to form a thick paste. When the milk was on the verge of simmering, I slowly added a half cup of it to the egg yolk mixture, whisking frantically as I dribbled the hot milk into the bowl to insure that I didn’t end up with scrambled eggs. This technique is called tempering, the concept of slowly bringing up the temperature of delicate products so as not to break, scramble or burn them. Once I was sure my eggs weren’t scrambled, I pulled the vanilla pods out of the hot milk and added the egg yolk/milk mixture to the pot on the stove. Any thickener such as flour or corn starch reaches its maximum thickening power when it comes to the boil. But again, milk and sugar burn very easily and must be stirred constantly to avoid scorching. Over medium heat, I stirred my custard constantly until it thickened up, and then ran it through a strainer into a bowl to catch any noodly bits or slightly scrambled egg that might have run amok during cooking. I covered the surface of custard with plastic wrap so it wouldn’t form a skin and put it in the fridge to cool.
Next, I turned my attention to the hard part – the choux pastry or as the French pronounce it pâte à choux. It’s a somewhat sticky dough that rises in the oven from the steam generated inside each pastry. It therefore requires a relatively high moisture content to generate enough steam to lift the pastry up. I referenced a number of different recipes for the right proportions and techniques. Here is what I came up with:
1 stick of butter
1 cup of water
1 cup of all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 tbsp of sugar
a pinch of salt
The trick to getting this recipe right is all in the technique. I set my oven to preheat at 425, lined a cookie sheet with parchment paper and started working on the dough. All the recipes I found suggested that the butter be mostly melted before the water goes in. This will help cut down on evaporation as the water and butter heat up together. So I put a heavy pot on the stove and melted one stick of butter over low heat. When it was melted I added the water, sugar and salt and turned up the heat to medium high. Once the water and butter started to boil, I took it off the heat, dumped the cup of flour in and stirred like mad with a wodden spoon, moving the pot on and off the heat, until the flour/water/butter mixture formed a ball. I stirred this stiff dough as it heated up and when it was coming away from the sides of the pot with ease, it was ready. It took about 5 minutes over medium high heat to get it just right. At this point the dough had a pasty texture, but that was just the first step.
Next, I transferred the dough into the bowl of my standing mixer that was outfitted with the paddle attachment and I let it cool off for about 10 minutes. In all the recipes I found, it was suggested that the dough cool off for a bit before adding the eggs. Several recipes also called for leaving the dough in the pot and stirring the eggs in one by one off the heat. But I opted for the mixer just to give my arms a break. I remember watching my mother add the eggs one at a time, stirring like crazy to get each egg incorporated before adding the next one. I figured I’d let the miracle of modern technology save me some of the labor. It is important to add the eggs one at a time, which I did with the mixer at low speed. The dough looks pretty gross as the eggs get added. It actually looks ruined and broken, but keep mixing and you’ll see how the egg becomes incorporated. I did have to stop frequently to scrape down the sides of the bowl, but I got all four eggs mixed in and my dough was looking just as I remember my mom’s dough looking, kind of sticky and gluey. I scraped all this sticky dough into a large Ziploc bag and cut a hole in the corner about the size of a quarter. Using the corner of the bag, I piped the dough onto the parchment paper, some shaped like long tubes for éclairs and some in rounded mounds that I was hoping to turn into cream puffs. I used one of the leftover egg whites to glaze my little creations, scrambling it up and smearing a little over the top of each dollop of dough with my fingers. I put the cookie sheet in the oven and hoped for the best.
Now, I know what you’re thinking right now. You’ve got the vision of a Hollywood happy ending in your head, another “Abby’s Perfect Kitchen Adventure” mental image of Jason and I lustfully devouring my flawless creations. You’re expecting to see my final pastries, all puffed up and perfect. Well, I’m sorry to rain on your little parade, but my pastries didn’t exactly hit perfection this time. You see, when I was researching recipes, some suggested baking the pastries at 425 for 10 minutes, then turning the oven down to 350 and baking them for another 20 minutes. Some recipes suggested baking them at 450 for 15 minutes, then turning the oven down to 325 and baking them for another 20 minutes. Some said bake them for 20 minutes at 400 and another 15 minutes at 350. To be honest, I got a little confused. I think I baked them for 10 minutes on 425 and another 15 minutes at 350. When I took them out, they looked all browned and puffed, but within seconds, then began to flatten out. I popped them back in the oven and tried giving them another 10 minutes and they puffed up again, but they sunk again when I took them out. After one of my flat éclairs had cooled a little bit, I sliced it open to see what inside looked like. Alas, they were spongy and I just didn’t bake them long enough at the higher temperature. So, I know what I did wrong and I know how to fix it next time I make this recipe. And in the meantime, I have a big bowl of delicious vanilla pastry cream that can pretty much go with anything. Instead of éclairs, we had vanilla pastry cream with angel food cake (store bought) and strawberry/blueberry compote that I just happened to have in the fridge. It was yummy.
Oh, if you decide to make this recipe, there are a number of different chocolate frosting recipes. The one that looked the most traditional to me consists of 1/2 cup of semisweet or bitter chocolate, 2 tbsp of butter, 1 cup of confectioners’ sugar, 1 tsp of vanilla extract and 3 tbsp of hot water. The butter and chocolate are melted together over low heat, the sugar and vanilla get stirred in and the water is added one tablespoon at a time until the frosting is smooth and reaches the right consistency, which is thick but slightly runny so you can drizzle or spread it across the top of the éclairs. Next time, I’m going to try that.