Here we go again, because it’s been Valentine’s Day this past weekend and I have pretty loose time standards for such things…I did actually make these before dinner on the 14th, so it counts. Not that you really need VDay as an excuse.
Éclairs are a lot simpler than they look in the pastry shops, and a lot cheaper than you’d think to make at home–in fact, cheaper than almost any American-style dessert in terms of calories, sugar, fat, salt… A surprisingly small amount of ordinary pantry staple ingredients goes a very long way and makes a bigger show than if you tried making brownies.
If you have a microwave, they can also be a lot quicker than most cookbook recipe specs, even though there are three separate parts to prepare and assemble–the filling, the shell, and the chocolate topping–rather than the usual American one-bowl dump-mix-and-bake scheme.
Éclairs don’t hit you over the head with sweet–they rely on the contrast of textures and flavors between the mostly unsweet pastry shell, the delicately sweet pastry cream, and the deep chocolate (or other flavor, but it has to be an actual flavor to be good, not the typical flavorless, oversweetened canned cake frosting) topping.
Éclairs have also become something of a canvas for artistic expression in Parisian bakeries; David Lebovitz has some great photos of ones with reproductions of paintings screened onto the tops, woodland scenes in colored icing and fondant and flavored marshmallows, fruit fantasias, and I don’t know what else, not to mention the fillings. They’re gorgeous to look at in the glass pastry cases but you couldn’t walk down the street, find a park bench, and just eat them with your fingers. You’d end up wearing them.
So the classic chocolate-topped, pastry cream-filled éclairs are still my favorite, partly because you can’t find them in most of the bakeries here.
Baking the dough is the one part you can’t really do in the microwave, more’s the pity (although you can do it in the toaster oven for a small batch). But otherwise, I can say it was worth it and–although I needed to step on a scale Monday morning to be certain–not that devastating dietwise…or even diabetes-wise. But, as with rugelach, you probably shouldn’t do this too often. Holidays and sharing are a pretty good idea. Leftovers are not. Limit the dietary badness.
Unromantic morning-after nutrition stat check: At the medium-small size I made, they weigh in at about 22 grams of carbohydrate, 160 calories, 6 grams of fat (mostly saturated, from the butter and chocolate plus egg yolks) and maybe 40-50 mg max of sodium apiece. Verdict: Not too shabby for a French dessert. Could be worse and often is. Stick to one apiece, plus some fruit, and eat it with a light supper that includes a green salad and you should be reasonably fine. Also svelte, happy, and able to sing «Non…je ne régrette rien…» the next morning. But please don’t. Not before coffee.
Even if you eat two at a time after supper because you’re not sure how long you can store the extras in the fridge so they don’t go all soggy the next day, it shouldn’t hit you like a ton of lead…well, not too much like a ton of lead. At least they weren’t full sized; they were pretty filling. Afterward, when we were lying in a daze on the couch recovering, my husband suggested just freezing any extras next time. He had a point.
About halving a recipe
I was in a hurry and couldn’t find the lower-saturated-fat recipe I’d used successfully for “Emergency éclairs 1.0” so I went with the recipes for choux paste shells and pastry cream in the “basics” back section of the white Silver Palate Cookbook. The dough and pastry cream worked fine in the microwave, as I think almost any standard recipes would.
Since there are only myself, my husband and our daughter here for dinner and eligible for éclairs (plus the cat, who is miffed that we didn’t count her), I cut both recipes in half–I repeat, limit the dietary badness…
The pastry cream was fine, but I hadn’t read all the instructions for the choux pastry, or I’d have known that the 3rd egg was for a completely unnecessary egg yolk glaze. When I halved the recipe I used an extra egg white as the “half egg,” and when the puffs puffed, they left nothing behind, no base, just a hollow, once I peeled them off the foil. The result was still fine for us but a little awkward for presentation–I had to sit them upside down like boats to fill them, and then cover the filling with the ganache. So definitely go back to the right proportions for the choux recipe (repeated below).
The ganache…is always very chocolate, very microwaveable, very forgiving of awkwardness and therefore perfection itself. It covers a lot of sins and makes you feel much better about them.
Mostly Microwaveable Éclairs
This is half-recipes all the way: it makes 6-7 half-size éclairs, 3″ rather than the standard 6″ monsters at the bakery. We each had two after supper and were completely stuffed.
Timing: If you’re doing the whole thing in one go, start by preheating the (regular) oven to 400 F, then make the pastry cream, which is really fast, and chill and stick it in the fridge, then do the choux paste, because as soon as you make that you need to dollop it out and bake it right away. If you use the microwave for the pastry cream, and you should, the choux will be ready to go just about when the oven beeps.
Half-recipe; makes ~1 1/4 cup; just enough for 6-7 3″ éclairs. Adapted from the white Silver Palate Cookbook. This one’s not too sweet and could possibly use a very tiny pinch of salt, nutmeg or grated orange peel if you’re using it as a custard for some other purpose. It’s a bit bland on its own but surprisingly good against dark chocolate ganache in the actual éclairs.
The Silver Palate recipe calls for scalding milk, stirring it into the sugar and flour, cooking 10 minutes on the stove while stirring to avoid lumps, adding egg yolks and cooking while stirring another 10 minutes over a pot of simmering water. No. You know how I feel about waiting for a pot of water to boil, and simmering is not much less annoying. Only about half a minute worth.
All the steps for pastry cream can definitely be done, and done faster, with a lot less washing up, in a microwave instead. Keep in mind that this is a half-recipe and takes somewhat less time than the full volume would, it’s a 4-minute operation (if you’re doing a whole recipe, you may need another 30-60 seconds for each step).
- 1 c. milk (I used skim to perfectly fine effect)
- 1/4 c. (30 g.) flour
- 1/4 c. (50 g.) sugar
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 t. vanilla
- 1 t. butter
- Scald a cup of milk by heating it in a mug–2 minutes.
- Stir it into a microwaveable bowl that already has the flour and sugar in the bottom, whisk well–it’ll start thickening a little–and nuke it another minute to thicken seriously.
- Crack and separate an egg, take the yolk and whisk it thoroughly into the hot mixture, nuke 30 seconds.
- Whisk again to make sure it’s not making clumps anywhere (it isn’t) and while you’re at it, add a capful of vanilla and a teaspoon of butter, nuke 30 seconds more to make sure the yolk is really cooked but not curdled, whisk again. Beautiful, perfect, thick…but hot.
5. Chill the mixture. I’m paranoid about lightly-cooked eggs; I want it to chill asap. The fastest way is to do the lab tech thing and make an ice-water bath to sit it on. Scrape the custard out of the hot bowl and into a thin-walled snaplock container with a lid, sit it on top of some ice cubes and water in a pan for a few minutes until it’s cooler than room temperature. Much quicker than trying to get it air-cooled in a hot kitchen. Then stick it in the fridge while doing the choux paste.
Do half of a nice, evenly divisible recipe, not my mistaken one with the extra egg white that left the shells open on the bottom. This below is the properly halved Silver Palate recipe, no glaze, and should work better.
- 1/4 c. water (60 ml or g)
- 2 T butter (30 g)
- 1 t sugar
- pinch of salt
- 1/4 c. flour+ up to 1 T (~40 g; I add the extra flour for body because I’m microwaving only the liquid, not reheating the dough on the stovetop the classic way)
- 1 whole egg
- Butter a length of foil or baking parchment on a baking sheet, lasagna pan, whatever. Make sure the oven’s on and just about ready to reach 400 F.
- Microwave the water, butter, sugar and salt for a minute, just enough to melt the butter and get the mixture near-boiling.
- Dump in the quarter-cup of flour all at once, whisk until it’s the consistency of mashed potatoes, add the egg and whisk until smooth. It’ll be a hot, gooey dough, not stiff like cookie dough, not runny like cake batter. If it doesn’t mound up a little on the spoon and hold its shape for even a few seconds, whisk in a teaspoon at a time of extra flour as noted in the ingredients–not too much or it’ll become rubbery.
- Pipe it out. According to most recipes, the shells need to be piped out in strips with plenty of room (3″) between. Which means a pastry bag and a star tip and patisserie technique and extra washing up. Forget that. Fake it by using a soupspoon to dollop 3″ x 3/4 ” stripes of dough onto the foil–do keep about 3″ between them because they really puff up. Once you’ve got them dolloped out, just run the tines of a fork down them to get those picturesque ridges. No muss, no fuss. Stick the pan in the oven as soon as it’s up to temperature.
5. The puffs bake brown in about 20-25 minutes. If they start collapsing when you take them out, stick them back in the oven quickly and let them reinflate and go another couple of minutes to dry out a little more until they can stand on their own.
6.Let the puffs cool and peel them very gently off the foil.
Assembling the éclairs
Closer to serving time is probably a good idea, but they can sit filled and glazed for an hour or so on a plate in the fridge with a loose tent of foil over them. Just keep that cut onion far, far away from them.
As I mentioned, my puffs had an extra egg white and didn’t form a good bottom crust, but yours should do okay if you use the recipe above. I had to fill and glaze mine upside down, with the ridged tops underneath. They still tasted good, if that’s any reassurance. (I am not too proud to show the resulting picture, just to show you can survive it without mortification, even though you might not win any big pastry contests…)
To fill the éclairs, either cut them in half lengthwise along one side, like a hotdog bun, or else if you do have a star tip lurking somewhere in your silverware drawer, poke a small hole in one end of each éclair with a thin knife (butter knife is okay) and turn it around inside the éclair to clear out the hollow all the way.
Stir up the chilled, set custard to make sure it’s smooth. Either scoop some of it into each sliced éclair with a spoon and sandwich it back together, or clip a tiny bottom corner off a plastic ziplock sandwich baggie, push the star tip halfway out through the hole, scoop all the custard into the bag and seal it, then carefully pipe the custard into the ends of the pastry shells to fill them. Set the filled éclairs on a plate in the fridge to chill again.
Make the ganache to glaze the tops–it only takes a minute or so to make it, but it still has to be pretty warm to be able to spread, so you want the éclairs cold.
This amount was just enough for a stripe over each of the half-size éclairs, so scale up as desired; the leftovers make nice chocolate truffles once chilled…you might also want this a bit sweeter or smoother, but I was impatient last night and did a pretty minimalist version.
- 1/4 c. half-and-half or milk
- 1.65-oz bar of dark/bittersweet chocolate (TJ’s 72% cacao red bars are what I used) or half a 3.5 oz bar, broken up
- ideally, 1-2 t apricot jam or a bit of sour cream, optional
- a spoonful of sugar might not be a bad idea if your dark chocolate is really more bitter than sweet
- Heat the half-and-half or milk 20-30 seconds in a mug.
- Break up the chocolate bar and let the pieces melt in it, then start stirring until the whole thing stops looking like little brown shreds and comes together as a dark, glossy thick sauce. If it looks a bit milky and thin, nuke it again for 10-15 seconds (no more) and stir further.
- Stir in the apricot jam or sour cream and sugar if using
While the ganache still warm and spreadable, spoon half-inch-wide stripes over the tops of the éclairs (or in my more awkward version yesterday evening, the bottoms with the exposed but at least cold custard filling).
Chill the éclairs again until ready to serve.