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How-To

Impressive Eclairs Step by Step

Photos: Scott Phillips
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Éclairs were a staple on the menu at the bakery I used to own. One customer in particular, a stockbroker turned Berkeley hippie, liked them so much that he’d stop in for one just about every day, because, as he once told me, éclairs make even the worst day a good one.

Well, you don’t have to be a professional baker to brighten someone’s day with these creamy, chocolaty treats. Truth be told, you can easily make éclairs at home at your own pace, following the detailed instructions in the recipes linked below.

An éclair starts with pâte à choux, which is simply water, butter, and flour cooked on the stove and then mixed with eggs, scooped or piped onto baking sheets, and baked. The dough rises quickly in the oven, becoming crisp buttery puffs, hollow in the middle. The filling is a sweet vanilla custard lightened with whipped cream. And on top—a glistening crown of bittersweet chocolate ganache.

You can make each component separately over the course of a few days (or even weeks) and assemble the éclairs when you’re ready to serve  them. All it takes to get started are a few tools, some basic ingredients, and a plan.

Follow this 5-step plan

  1. Up to six weeks ahead, make the shells. Store them in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two days, or freeze them for up to six weeks in a ziptop freezer bag.
  2. Up to two weeks ahead, make the ganache. You can store it tightly covered in the  refrigerator until ready to use.
  3. Up to a day ahead, make the pastry cream for the filling. Refrigerate it for at least an hour and up to a day before using.
  4. About 15 minutes before you’re ready to fill the éclairs, make the whipped cream and fold it into the chilled pastry cream.
  5. Up to 3 hours before serving, assemble and glaze the éclairs.  Chill the glazed éclairs for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.

Tools

  • parchment rimmed baking sheet
  • pencil
  • medium and small saucepans
  • stand mixer
  • pastry bag and a large star tip
  • cooling rack
  • bowls
  • whisk
  • space in the fridge

Pantry

  • unsalted butter
  • table salt
  • all-purpose flour
  • large eggs
  • bittersweet chocolate
  • heavy cream
  • light corn syrup
  • whole milk
  • sugar
  • cornstarch
  • pure vanilla extract
  • confectioners’ sugar

All in the family: cream puffs and profiteroles

The pastry dough known as pâte à choux is the basis for a whole family of desserts that includes éclairs and its cousins, cream puffs and profiteroles. Apart from shape, the main difference between a cream puff, which is round, and an éclair, which is oblong, is that you fill cream puffs with straight whipped cream and dust the tops with confectioners’ sugar instead of chocolate. Profiteroles are round like a cream puff but get filled with a scoop of ice cream instead of whipped cream. Both cream puffs and profiteroles are beautiful plated in a pool of chocolate or caramel sauce, or a berry purée. For a creampuff variation, you can fold espresso powder, puréed berries, or chopped toasted nuts into the whipped cream.

Sources: piping bag, star tip, bittersweet chocolate

To pipe éclair filling, try using a large polyurethane piping bag. They’re available in kitchenware stores or online at Fantes.com; 16-inch bags are $6.49 apiece. If you prefer disposable plastic pastry bags, the site sells a set of ten for $4.49. But avoid plastic-coated cloth pastry bags; they’re hard to clean and tend to smell sour after a few uses.

You can find a 5/8-inch star tip (to pipe the éclair filling) at most kitchenware stores. Sur la Table sells a jumbo tip set ($32.95) that includes the 5/8-inch star tip and comes with eleven other tips in various shapes and sizes.

Carolyn Weil recommends 55% to 63% bittersweet chocolate for her éclairs. To find many high-quality brands of bittersweet chocolate, look to Chocosphere.com.

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