“Keep stirring until the dough forms a ball,” the French chef explained during our basic class on pâte a choux. This statement, the same my mom always used while teaching me, transported me through time to the first time I made éclairs.
I was perched on a stool eyes glued to the saucepan. My mom stirred the éclair dough, while explaining the procedure. Her thin but deft arms swirling like helicopter blades mixing the dough into a ball. After that she handed the pan over to me and let me stir in the eggs, one at a time. I was eager to do anything to be involved in making éclairs, even something as simple as stirring. My mom would make cream puffs or éclairs only for Easter and Christmas. I, ever the chocoholic, pleaded each year for her to make éclairs instead of the cream puffs, whining, “But mommmm, there’s no chocolate in cream puffs.” To me, the cream puff was the ugly stepsister, and I wanted Cinderella, the éclair with chocolate.
After I stirred in the eggs, she took back the saucepan and used two spoons to form lumpy mounds onto the baking sheet. I took about 30 minutes to make two mounds. I started the second over and over again to make them exactly the same. My mom just shook her head and laughed, “We don’t have all day to make them perfect.” How a piping bag would have helped, but we never had kitchen “gadgets” to make things prettier and easier. Instead flatware was our baking equipment; spoons took the place of piping bags, butter knives were offset spatulas, forks were pastry cutters and crimpers. “Gadgets,” she’d sneer, “are for people who don’t really bake.” My guess is that we really didn’t have the extra money for gadgets, and she improvised with what we had.
After the éclairs baked for the first 25 minutes, she used a wooden spoon to jar the oven door open and let the steam exit. Instead of fondant and chocolate pastry cream, we used melted chocolate chips for the icing and made out-of-the-box pudding for the filling. To fill the éclairs, she cut them in half, sacrilege to the French pastry chef. With a butter knife, she plopped the melted chocolate chips onto the éclair top, and flicked her wrist once to spread it, one éclair after the other, not paying attention to any of the chocolate dripping from the sides.
As she spread, I used a paper towel to wipe away the drippings and any smears. She let me help with the pudding, and I carefully filled each éclair trying to make sure no pudding ran off the sides. Again, she shook her head and mumbled my nickname, “piddicusa,” (Sicilian dialect for the Italian term, pignola – meaning excessively fussy). My mom didn’t have time to be piddicusa. She had three holy terrors adorable kids, a tight budget, and even tighter amount of time to spend worrying about chocolate dripping from the side of éclairs.
We made about 20 éclairs, not all the same length, with ragged and uneven tops, resembling mountain ranges. They were not the perfect little cylinders exquisitely coiffed with fondant that you see in Parisian patisseries but they were good. I was so proud of my first endeavor into French pastry, looking upon them like a mother swan admiring the potential of her baby ducklings. My mom packed them into her Tupperware and carted them off to my Aunt Rosalie’s, where I displayed them on a crystal platter with paper doilies underneath. Now my aunt, who has never baked once in her life, had all the “gadgets.”
Somewhere in the background, I heard someone ask, “Kathy, what’s wrong?” Suddenly, I was back in the present, in class in Paris, and the chef was piping one clone after another onto the parchment-lined sheet tray. Each strip of dough was exactly 12 mm in width and 4 inches in length. I blinked away the tears and wiped them from my cheek, responding “Nothing, I'm just happy to be learning how to make éclairs.”
As many of you who follow this blog know, my mom passed away almost 8 years ago. She is still a huge part of my food-loving life. She wasn’t a professional like her father, from whom she learned to bake. After arriving in the U.S. from Italy, he had a bakery in New York. (I wonder if he used “gadgets”?) She did make delicious and simple baked goods that people still remember and talk about today. Even though I can make fancy French pastries, I’m constantly asked by my family, and long-time friends, to replicate her pies, cakes, cookies, and cream puffs (only I loved the éclairs more). Although I use more of the professional techniques, even gadgets, than my mom did, I hear my mom every time I stir the flour into the milk mixture "until it forms a ball."
I do enjoy sampling the many varieties of pastries in France, but the chocolate eclair is still my favorite. When I make them and when I eat them, I think of my mom. I share this story and the recipe in honor of her. The technique for making these is what I learned in France, but the icing on this recipe, a ganache one, is closer to my mom's version than the one of fondant that you'll find in French patisseries.
me in Provence in 2013 for a French Pastry Culinary Vacation and learn how to
create these and other classic French pastries! Details here: Pastry-Making Vacation in Provence
(makes 20 eclairs)
For the pâte a choux:
2/3 cup (150 ml) whole milk
2/3 cup (150 ml) water
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon (120 g) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cup (180 g) all-purpose flour
4 to 5 eggs, at room temperature
In a sauce pot, bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt to a rolling boil. Keep the mixture on the heat until it has expanded and then fallen. Remove from the heat, and pour the flour in all at once. Stir vigorously until the mixture becomes a ball. Place back over medium-low heat and continue stirring about 10 minutes to dry out the dough. Remove from the heat and stir until you no longer see steam rising from the dough. Place the dough in a stand mixer using a paddle attachment (or you can do this by hand), and stir in one egg at a time. With the electric mixer or by hand, the dough will break up into pieces and come back together as you incorporate each egg. After the fourth egg, lift the dough up with the spoon or paddle attachment to test if it's ready. As you lift it, it should come to a point, stay for a few seconds, then fall back on itself. If it doesn't fall, add the fifth egg, or part of it.
Using a pastry bag and round tip, 12 mm or 1/2-inch in diameter, pipe out cylindars 4 1/2 inches long onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. Leave 2 inches between each eclair you pipe. Bake at 375 F for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 F and bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Turn off the heat and open the oven to keep the door ajar (yes, you can use a wooden spoon to do this, if necessary). Let the eclairs dry out for 20 minutes more with the oven off.
For the chocolate pastry cream:
3 1/4 cup (750 ml) whole milk
1 cup (185 g) granulated sugar, divided in half
8 egg yolks
1/3 cup (65 g) cornstarch
9 ounces (300 g) quality dark chocolate, 70% cacao, melted
Bring the milk and half the sugar to a boil. As the milk is heating, whisk together the othr half of the sugar and the egg yolks until the mixture is combined and has lightened in color. Whisk in the cornstarch. Once the milk boils, slowly pour it into the egg yolk mixture, whisking the entire time, until you have added all the milk into the egg yolks. Pour the mixture back into the sauce pot and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Once the mixture boils, keep over the heat for about 30 seconds more, whisking continuously. Remove from the heat and pass through a fine mesh seive into a bowl. Add the chocolate and stir until all the chocolate has been combined into the pastry cream. Place the mixture over an ice bath and let cool for 10 minutes. Spread the mixture into a 13x9-inch glass dish and cover with platic wrap (the plastic wrap should be touching the pastry cream, so a film doesn't form). Refrigerate until the pastry cream is cold.
For the chocolate ganache icing:
2/3 cup (150 ml) heavy cream
4 1/2 ounces (150 g) dark couverture chocolate, finely chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
Place the chopped chocolate in a bowl. In a sauce pot, heat the cream just until it's scalding (little bubbles appear around the rim). Pour the cream over the chocolate. Let the mixture rest for a minute, then slowly whisk together. To create a smooth ganache, place the whisk in the center of the mixture and whisk in a small, slow, circular motion until the chocolate and cream combine. Break the butter into four pieces and place on top of the mixture. Once the butter melts, slowly stir it in with the whisk. Let the ganache cool and thicken just to the point that it will not run when you frost the eclairs, about 90 F.
To assemble the eclairs:
The eclairs should be completely cooled, and the pastry cream should be cold before assembling. It is best to assemble the eclairs 1-2 hours before serving. Using a star tip about 1/4 inch in diameter, poke three holes in the bottom of each eclair.
Fill a pastry bag with a round pastry tip that is 1/4-inch in diameter. Fill each eclair by piping the pastry cream into the holes you've just made in the bottom of the eclairs. Continue piping until the cream starts to run out from each of the holes. (This will ensure that you have a nicely filled eclair.) Wipe away the excess pastry cream with a spatula.
To ice the eclairs, the ganache should be just at the point where it won't run, about 90 F. The ganache should also be in a bowl that it at least as wide as each eclair. Gently and lightly lay the top portion of the eclair into the ganache, stopping right when the eclair has just touched the ganache. Pull the eclair back up and run an arched finer over the top's center to smooth out the icing. You should only have excess at one end of the eclair. At that end run your index finger around the edge to wipe of the excess. Do the same for each eclair.
Refrigerate until serving. Enjoy!
A Few Notes:
Like my mom, you can use chocolate pudding mix, but once you've tasted chocolate pastry cream, you'll never go back to the box stuff.
When making ganache, I wouldn't recommend using chocolate chips for cookies. They have a wax in them so they will keep their shape in the heat, exactly the opposite of what you want when making ganache. A high quality couverture chocolate will not only taste better, but also give you the shine you want on the topping.
What is one of your most memorable cooking or eating moments with your mom?