You may or may not have noticed from my photos on Facebook and Instagram that I have a weakness for éclairs. Being able to indulge in éclairs from the wonderful pâtisseries in Zurich, it never occurred to me that I should make my own éclairs at home. But when I was recently asked to have a look at Ruth Clemens’ new book, Creative Éclairs, I was instantly inspired to create a batch of my own. After all, I’m no stranger to choux pastry; I often make profiteroles and chouquettes at home, and éclairs can generally be described as profiteroles in a different shape.
Ruth Clemens was a finalist on the Great British Bake Off and writes a wonderful baking blog at The Pink Whisk. Creative Éclairs is her latest cookbook and which has some wonderful decorating ideas, as well as different flavour suggestions, for the humble choux. Despite the many exotic and eclectic variations of éclairs in the book, I am ever aware of my limitations on cake decorating and wanted to keep my first attempt simple and straightforward by making my favourite combination – chocolate éclairs filled with a chocolate crème patissière.
Making éclairs might sound fiddly but each component is rather straightforward. You should start by making the crème patissière for the filling which needs time to cool down and chill, and you can get a head start by making this the day before. The choux pastry can also be made ahead of time as you need to let it chill in the fridge for at least an hour so that it is easier to pipe. And the chocolate ganache for the coating takes mere minutes to make once you are ready to assemble the éclairs.
Choux pastry is generally quite easy to make, and even easier if you use a food processor or standmixer to do the hard work for you. However, and rather regretfully, I must confess that Ruth Clemens’ recipe for choux pastry was not successful for me on the first try. And unfortunately, nor was it successful on the second. Having agreed to review a recipe from her book on my blog, I was not expecting to report on a failed recipe. But as is the case with any cookbook, some recipes work out fantastically for some, whilst the same recipe may be a baffling flop for others.
If you are not familiar with choux pastry, Harold McGee offers the following description:
“Choux paste … is prepared in a very distinctive way. It’s a cross between a batter and a dough, and is cooked twice: once to prepare the paste itself, and once to transform the paste into hollow puffs. A large amount of water and some fat are brought to the boil in a pan, the flour is added, and the mixture stirred and cooked over low heat until it forms a cohesive ball of dough. Several eggs are then beaten sequentially into the dough until it becomes very soft, almost a batter. This paste is then formed into balls or other shapes and baked in a hot oven or deep-fried.”
On my first attempt, I proceeded as per Ruth’s recipe but my resulting choux pastry was a sloppy, runny liquid. I chilled it for an hour in the hope that it would magically firm up, but it remained too liquid to even pipe. I wrote off my first attempt on the grounds that my eggs were perhaps too large. On my second attempt, I added only three eggs instead of four, but my choux pastry was still too liquid in texture.
It’s unclear to me why Ruth’s choux pastry recipe would not work for me as others have reported much success in recreating her recipes. So the error is perhaps on my part somewhere, possibly in my failure to cook the pastry for long enough on the stove to draw out the excess moisture and thereby allow it to better absorb the eggs later. Ruth’s recipe gives instructions to cook the pastry for 3 minutes over low heat, which is a rather long time compared to most other recipes which tell you to simply cook the pastry until it comes away from the sides of the pan into a ball – a process which, in my experience, usually takes less than a minute. But even though I followed Ruth’s timings on both occasions, my pastry was still too runny to work with.
Determined to get my éclair fix by the end of the day, I resorted to my tried and trusted recipe for choux pastry from Nigella Lawson (sorry Ruth!), as well as having to ask the neighbours for some extra eggs. A dozen eggs and several sticks of butter later, and with much gratitude to a 15 month old who patiently played at my heels while I spent the good part of a day in the kitchen making a big mess, I was relieved to finally assemble the éclairs before collapsing into an armchair with a cup of tea nearby. The best part of making your own éclairs at home is being able to eat as many as you want, especially to reward yourself after an unplanned, and day-long, kitchen experiment.
In the end, I am happy to have finally tried making my own éclairs at home. Sometimes when a recipe goes wrong, it helps you to better understand the food science behind the recipe which, in turn, makes you a better cook.
Chocolate Crème Patissière
Recipe adapted from Creative Éclairs by Ruth Clemens
To make a vanilla crème patissière, simply add a teaspoon of vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste to the milk, and omit the cocoa powder and dark chocolate.
If you don’t have a standmixer, you can, of course, make the choux pastry by hand if you don’t mind an upper-body workout. Simply use a wooden spoon to beat the egg into the mixture, one at a time, until the egg is fully incorporated and the mixture is smooth before adding the next egg. As you add each egg, the mixture will look like it has curdled, but keep beating the mixture until it comes together.
You can make the éclairs as big or as small as you wish, but adjust the baking time accordingly. Make sure you bake them for long enough until they are golden and crispy, otherwise they may be uncooked on the inside and deflate if you take them out of the oven too soon.
If the chocolate ganache splits, try to quickly whisk the mixture to emulsify it again. If this does not work, heat a small amount of double cream in a small saucepan, and whisk this into the chocolate ganache.