The éclair, originally called “pain à la Duchesse“or “petite duchesse,” were first made by Antonin Carême, the famous French chef, around 1850. The first known English-language recipe for éclairs appears in the Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Mrs. D.A. Lincoln, published in 1884.
Eventually the pastries came to be known as éclairs...the French word meaning ‘flash of lightning’…because the eclair is supposedly eaten quickly, or “in a flash.”
The classic eclair consists of a crispy golden shell of pâte à choux, a rich pudding-like filling of vanilla pastry cream, and a chocolate ganache glaze on top…
And a batch of eclairs takes about the same amount of time to make as required to make a batch of homemade cinnamon rolls.
So let’s “Take Up Baking”…
1. Making the Eclair Shells…The ingredients in pâte à choux are simple–merely milk, water, eggs, butter, flour, sugar, and salt…but actually making the pâte à choux and the eclair shells is probably the most intimidating piece of the puzzle.
2. Starting the choux dough on top of the stove…Bring 1C water, 8Tbsp butter, 1/2tsp salt, 1-1/2tsp sugar to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Remove from heat. Add 1 cup flour. Stir with a wooden spoon until combined. Using a spoon instead of a whisk or fork will keep the flour from getting stuck in the tines.
Return to the heat. Cook, stirring constantly until the dough comes away from the sides of the pan and forms a thick smooth ball… about 2 minutes.
At this point, move the dough from the stove to the mixing bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Controlling the amount of air that gets worked into pâte à choux dough is crucial…because too much air will make the shells either crack in the oven or explode and collapse. Using a paddle attachment and mixing at a slow speed will keep both the amount of air in the eggs and the amount of air in the choux at a minimum.
Add three eggs, one by one, making sure each egg is completely emulsified before adding the next. As you add the egg, the dough will at first break apart, but as you continue to beat it will come back together.
Continue to mix until you have a smooth, glossy, thick paste-like dough…and the eggs are completely incorporated. The dough should be thick, but should fall slowly and steadily from the beaters when you lift them out of the bowl. If the dough is still clinging to the beaters, add the fourth remaining egg.
It is important that you only add as much egg as the dough will hold. If you add too many eggs, you will have trouble piping the dough, and the pastries will have trouble puffing and drying out in the oven.
If the dough is ready, it will look soft, creamy-colored, and very smooth…and will leave behind a little “V” of dough on the spatula if you scoop up a little bit with your spatula and let it slide back into the bowl.
Spread the mixture onto a sheet pan and cover with Saran Wrap until cooled to room temperature.
Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the template under the parchment paper.
Place the dough in a pastry bag fitted with a large plain tip.
Pipe eight to twelve oblong lengths of dough, about the size and shape of a jumbo hot dog, onto the lined baking sheet using the template as a guide.
Whisk an egg and water together in a bowlto create an egg wash. Brush the surface of each eclair with the egg wash. This gives the pastry a lovely golden brown sheen and allows you to smoothe out any imperfections on the surface of the pastry.
5. Baking the Shells…Preheat oven to 475.
Bake 15 minutes. Starting the baking process at a very high heat allows the steam from the butter and eggs in the dough to expand very quickly, which creates the space for the filling, the most important thing about an éclair.
Remove shells from oven. Let cool to room temperature.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350.
Bake shells 15 more minutes. Baking the éclair shells this second time dries out the choux and makes the shells extra firm and crispy.
The shells are ready once they are a nice light golden brown color and are almost dry inside when split.
Remove from oven. Place on a wire rack to cool.
Poke each of the shells with a toothpick to release any steam trapped inside.
Let them cool completely before filling them.
6. Making the Filling …Eclairs may now be filled with chiboust cream…chocolate, coffee, pistachio, rum, or vanilla custard…fruit-flavoured filling…lemon curd…pastry cream..or whipped cream.
Eclair Filling...Heat 2C milk and 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, to a boil over medium heat. Immediately turn off the heat. Set aside to infuse for 15 minutes. Whisk six egg yolks and 2/3C sugar until light and fluffy. Add 1/4C cornstarch. Whisk in 1/4C of the hot milk mixture vigorously until no lumps remain. Whisk in the remaining hot milk mixture. Pour the mixture through a strainer back into the saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until milk starts to foam up. Remove from heat. Stir in 1Tbsp cold unsalted butter.
For a chocolate pastry cream, simply stir two ounces of finely chopped semi-sweet chocolate into the hot pastry cream.
For a mocha flavor add 1 1/2tsp instant coffee or espresso powder.
Cover with plastic wrap, lightly pressing the plastic against the surface to prevent a skin from forming.
Cool to room temperature or refrigerate up to 24 hours.
7. Filling the Eclair Shells…Split the pastry shells in half, lengthwise. Place pastry cream into a piping bag. Fit the piping bag with a medium-size plain tip. Pipe filling into each eclair shell. Use just enough filling to fill the inside…Don’t stuff them full.
8. Making the Glaze…The final step is to ice or glaze the eclairs with vanilla, caramel, brown sugar, or chocolate glaze. Caramel-glazed eclairs are often referred to as bâton de Jacob.
Chocolate Glaze…Heat 1/2C heavy cream over medium heat just until it boils. Immediately pour it over 4oz coarsely chopped semisweet chocolate. Stir in 1tsp vanilla extract. Whisk until melted and smooth. Cover.
Glaze can be made up and stored in the refrigerator up to 48 hours in advance. Rewarm in a microwave or over hot water when ready to use.
Dip the top halves of the eclair shells in the warm glaze, letting the excess drip off. Place on a wire rack to dry for ten minutes.
9. Assembling the Eclairs…Once the glaze is dry, gently place the top half of the pastry shell on the cream. Spread icing over the top of each. Let sit for about 5-10 , until the icing hardens, before serving.
Chill, uncovered, at least 1 hour to set the glaze. Serve chilled.
Finished eclairs can be covered and stored in the refrigerator for up to two days…if they last that long…