Way Better Than Doughnuts
I love éclairs. This is a recent development. Or at least a recent discovery. I don’t recall eating more than maybe a few as a kid. You see, I used to have a strange aversion to custard: cream-filled doughnuts, puddings, crème brulée. Off the table. Something about the texture. I’ve since overcome this dislike because I’ve realized the deliciousness available to me in such desserts.
My pastry instructor at the Art Institute is very French and very much believes there is no greater achievement than making the perfect éclair. We spent no less than 15 hours last quarter mastering this art. At one point, Chef even pulled out a ruler to determine if our éclairs were the right length. It was worth the stress, though. The moment that cold pastry cream floods your mouth when you break through that tender shell…heavenly.
When the time came to make a special treat for my Grandma’s birthday, I felt fairly confident in my éclair-making skills. But how to make them unique? How to bring the flavor of fall to these classic French delights? Since I already brought a slew of spices to the table in my mini Squashy Apple Pies (see previous post), I decided to leave them out of this dessert. Maple was the quintessential fall flavor I wanted to use, in the form of a delicious glaze. Mmmmm…filled with vanilla cream these may truly be one of my greatest creations to date.
© Copyright 2010 Carly Sullivan, Tart to Heart
Pâte à Choux: This is the basic dough used for making éclairs, cream puffs and profiteroles. It’s pronounced like “pat ah shoo”. The dough itself is very easy to make. The trickiest part comes when you are shaping the éclairs.
- 1 cup milk (any fat % is fine)
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 5-7 eggs
- In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, water, salt, sugar and butter and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the flour and whisk briskly until the flour is fully absorbed and the mixture resembles mashed potatoes.
- Remove from the heat and place the dough in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a hand mixer). Turn the mixer on low and mix the dough to release the steam. After about a minute, when the dough is barely steaming, begin adding the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition on medium speed. Depending on how you measured your ingredients or how wet the day is, you may need 5 eggs or you may need 8. You want the dough to be smooth and have a toothpaste-like consistency– thick, but squeezable.
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line two sheet pans with parchment paper. Prepare a piping bag with a fairly large, plain round tip. Yes, you do need a piping bag for this. Luckily, you can buy a reusable or a disposable bag for pretty cheap. Fill the piping bag with your dough. Like I said, this is the hardest part, since you want all your éclairs to be the same size and shape, about 1 inch wide by 6 inches long. Perhaps it’s cheating, but I like to make a template out of cardboard and trace it into my parchment paper. Then I just follow my guide et voila! Perfect éclairs! When you’re piping, go slowly. Hold the bag at about a 45-degree angle and squeeze firmly to fill in your template. It will take some practice, but you’ll get the hang of it. And if it looks like crap, just scrape the dough off and try again!
- Once you’ve made all your éclairs, dip a fork in water and run it gently down the length of each one, dipping it again in water each time. This makes pretty little ridges and helps smooth out any lumpy spots. Place in your preheated oven and bake for 10-12 minutes. Rotate your pans 180 degrees, reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees, and bake another 10-12 minutes until dark golden brown. Let cool completely.
Vanilla Pastry Cream: Mmmm…that cool, delicious custard filling that convinced me to place éclairs near the top of my dessert list (sticky toffee pudding, molten chocolate cake and bananas foster will be tough to displace).
- 4 cups (1 quart) whole milk
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup vanilla sugar (if you don’t have it, use 1 full cup regular sugar)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 4 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (use 2 tsp if you didn’t use vanilla sugar) or 1 vanilla bean
- Pour the milk into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Meanwhile, whisk together the eggs, sugars, salt and cornstarch in a large mixing bowl.
- When the milk comes to a boil, pour about a half cup over the egg mixture and whisk immediately. This is called tempering and prevents the eggs from curdling. Gradually whisk in the rest of the milk, then return the mixture to the saucepan. Heat, whisking constantly until it comes to a boil. Boil the mixture for 1 minute, still whisking, until it is thick like pudding. Immediately remove from the heat and spread into a 9×9 baking dish or other shallow vessel to cool it down. If you by chance overcooked the cream and it has large lumps in it, strain it through a sieve. Cover with plastic wrap so that it presses against the entire surface of the cream, to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled completely.
- Once cool, remove from the fridge and whisk in your vanilla extract. I like to do this when the cream is cool so it doesn’t just evaporate out. If you’re using an actual vanilla bean, feel free to add the seeds when the cream is still warm.
- Prepare your éclair shells by poking three holes in the underside of each with a small star tip. If you don’t have one, you can use a knife, just be gentle!
- You’re feeling overwhelmed, aren’t you? I know, it’s a lot of steps and a time-consuming process, but it’s honestly not very difficult and it’s sooooo worth it. Trust me. Just imagine that vanilla-scented cream and the sweet, sticky maple glaze that will reward your hard work.
- Feeling better? Let’s fill the éclairs. Fit your handy-dandy piping bag (see, you’ve used it twice already– so worth it!) with a small plain, round tip and fill the bag with your cool cream. Hold your éclair shell upside down in your hand. Starting with the hole farthest from you, insert the tip of your piping bag and angle it towards the top of the éclair, squeezing to fill, then angle it back towards the center and squeeze again. You should feel the éclair expand in your hand, just be careful not to burst it! Luckily, if you overfill the cream will just ooze out of the hole and you can just scrape it off. Repeat this process with each hole until the éclair is completely filled with cream. Yum!
Maple Glaze: The perfect way to bring this classic French treat into fall dinner menus. Reminiscent of a maple bar, but oh so much fancier (and tastier)! Prepare to be dazzled.
- 2 2/3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- 2 Tbsp milk
- 2 Tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp maple flavoring
- Whisk everything together in a bowl until smooth (add more milk if it’s too thick).
- Drizzle generously over the filled éclairs.
Worth all the effort, right?