When I started cooking, there wasn’t necessarily a dedicated pastry chef in the kitchen. It was just part of your training and you worked your way through the pastry section.
I was lucky enough to work for a while in a pastry kitchen with a French chef who wore a silk glove on his iron fist and who instilled a sense of discipline, which is very important for pastry. Accuracy is key. And consistency. Timing and organisation can’t be faked. Elsewhere in the kitchen, cooking has a lot to do with ingenuity and spontaneity and inherent feel. All that is important with pastry, but you can’t cover for having a measure wrong.
It was at that restaurant with the French pastry chef that one of the petits fours was a small chocolate eclair, exactly the length of a 50-cent piece. If they were any shorter or any longer, there were various threats that they would be placed in orifices where chocolate eclairs do not belong.
There is something quite special about an eclair. As soon as you bite into it, you know you shouldn’t eat it. Growing up, it was the pinnacle of treats. It trumped coffee scrolls. It trumped vanilla slice. It trumped lamingtons.
The combination of ingredients is tried and true. Who doesn’t like whipped cream or chocolate or choux pastry? But it’s the delivery of textures that makes an eclair truly special, and the combined and unexpected lightness.
Sadly, choux pastry is also mistreated and sometimes dragooned into service as a profiterole. The fillings are undignified – sweet and savoury patés, mousses and creams. They are to be avoided.
When piping choux pastry, it is good to aim for a consistent size and shape, so they cook evenly. When they come from the oven, they should be pricked with the tip of a knife or a skewer to let any steam escape and then cooled on a wire rack. If for some reason they become a little sodden later, they can be refreshed in the oven.
What’s interesting about choux pastry is there is no evident rising agent – only the fact that it is quite a wet dough and, as it cooks, steam puffs up inside it. A similar dough in principle is that used for Yorkshire pudding, which is based on a wet batter being poured into a hot form.
The good thing about making eclairs at home is that you can make them just before eating them, so the cream doesn’t have a chance to dampen the pastry – the peril of bakery eclairs.
Makes 12 eclairs
- 125ml water
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1½ tbsp butter
- 6½ tbsp flour
- 2 eggs
- 1 tbsp milk
- 200ml cream
- 2 tbsp icing sugar
- 200g dark chocolate
- In a stainless-steel saucepan bring the water, butter and sugar to a rolling boil. Pour the flour in all at once and stir the paste constantly until it pulls away from the sides of the pan in one mass. Continue stirring and cooking for one or two minutes.
- Remove from the heat. Beat the eggs briefly and pour them, bit by bit, into the paste, beating well after each addition until they are thoroughly incorporated and the dough is shiny.
- The paste must be soft but retain its shape when piped onto a baking sheet. If it is too stiff, beat in a portion of an egg or a teaspoon or two of milk.
- Preheat your oven to 180ºC.
- Line a baking tray with baking paper. Using a piping bag fitted with a large (about two-centimetre) nozzle, pipe the eclairs in 10-centimetre lengths. When the paste has been pushed out, raise the piping bag and fold whatever thread of paste remains back over the eclair shape.
- Before placing the eclairs in the oven, brush them gently with a pastry brush dipped in a little milk, and at the same time gently push down any untoward peaks in the dough.
- Cook for 25-30 minutes until puffed and golden.
- Tap the shells; they should sound hollow. Prick each one with a skewer to release the steam inside. Turn off the oven. Partially open the oven door and leave the shells in the oven for 15 minutes to dry completely.
- Meanwhile, prepare some Chantilly cream by whipping the cream and icing sugar together until stiff peaks form, and melt the chocolate over a double boiler.
- Cut the eclairs in half horizontally, pipe some cream onto the lower half, dip the top half in the melted chocolate and allow it to set. Top the cream half with the chocolate lid and serve.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 13, 2015 as "If the choux fits".
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