Chocolate Eclairs

I've been dreaming of homemade eclairs for months. They were the suggestion of my dear chef friend when I asked for some input on what to try next. This proved to be a slightly challenging recipe. I can say that with spunk as this one took me two tries to get right. It's not that the steps are difficult in nature, but that you have to do them right. You see, some recipes have some leeway. You can make a few adjustments and the only thing that changes is flavor. Baking is a different beast when it comes to the basic ingredients and steps.



While making baked goods comes down to following a systematic process, the timing and quantity of ingredients are vital to get correct. With chocolate chip cookies, for example, you better not dump the flour and sugar in with the butter right off the bat and expect it to work. It is a must that you cream the butter and sugars, add the eggs, then gradually mix in the flour and other dry ingredients. Failing to do so will result in a cute looking but cardboard-like cookie in texture. Why? Because baking is science. When beat together, the butter and sugar create air bubbles that give the cookies their texture. Check out King Arthur Flour's baking tips for more detail.

Eclairs are pastry shells filled with cream--a bigger version of a cream puff. Unlike doughnuts, the shell is baked rather than fried. When I first went to make them, I noticed that the recipe was expected to make 12. Since I like to share so many of my recipes, I try to increase the size of my recipes when I can. No one wants 1/4 of an eclair to try. So I doubled the recipe by just taking all the ingredients and multiplying them by 2. Sometimes this works, but others it messes up the chemical composition, creating something different than the recipe intended.

In my case, there were a few factors that contributed to my baking fail. The quantity change in ingredients was one. I also used my hands to shape the dough into their forms, possibly handling them enough to get my finger oils in there and mess it up (because let's be real - that happens in food handling even with the cleanest of hands). The third possibility was that the shells also take time to bake in the oven and dry out with the oven off. In my attempt to create more dough, I also lacked oven space for all of the shells to cook at once. To try and bake them all evenly, I disturbed the process of drying by removing one batch, baking another, then replacing the first batch in the oven for drying. This was not a sound plan. The end result were gooey blobs of dough that just never became an eclair shell.
For my second attempt, I stuck with a single batch. This dough is made completely different than any I've attempted before--you make a paste on the stovetop, then bake it.

I added the water, butter, and salt to a medium pot and brought it to a boil. I mixed in the flour, then stirred the mixture until it was combined and began to form a ball shape. The eggs were gradually mixed in next, resulting in a dough that resembled mashed potatoes.


I ever so gently used a knife to spread the dough into little ovals. You can also use a piping bag to do this. I was careful to avoid touching them with my hands much so that I did not risk ruining the dough as I had last time.


I then baked the dough for right about 40 minutes, then took them out and cut a slit in the side of each for the filling and popped them back in. After 10 more minutes, I turned the oven off and let them sit in the heat. This is essential to drying out the dough to produce the desired "shell" texture of the outside of a cream puff or eclair.


Now, where's the cream filling? I got that started on the stove as well, combining sugar, flour, and salt in a saucepan. I mixed in the milk, then continued stirring and cooking on medium heat for about 10 minutes, allowing the mixture to boil. It thickened, becoming more of a gravy consistency. In a small bowl, I beat the egg yolks together the eggs together, then tempered them with some of the hot milk mixture. I then slowly stirred in the eggs. I simmered it medium-low heat to prevent boiling, and continued stirring constantly for about 10 minutes, until the mixture had thickened into a pudding consistency. I turned off the burner and moved the pan, then added in vanilla and almond extracts and some nutmeg (because nutmeg makes everything sweeter). I then laid a piece of plastic wrap on the surface and put it in the fridge to cool.


A little while later, I beat some heavy cream in my mixer until I had whipped cream, and folded in the pudding to lighten the filling.


I made the chocolate glaze next, melting some dark chocolate with butter on VERY LOW heat, then whisking in powdered sugar and a small amount of milk. It turned into a relatively thin glaze that was perfect for pouring over an eclair.


Then it was time to fill the eclairs, and I knew I would need to consult with my piping bags. I may want to have perfect aim with all that I do, but you know what they say: wish in one hand...
So the piping bag made this easy, I just cut the tip off and spooned in some of the filling (a plastic sandwich or ziploc bag could work as well).


It was a good thing I had cut the slit in the side, because this made the filling process pretty easy. It was like one of those little rubber coin purses you used to see. Remember those things?


And in I put the filling. It was a bit thinner than expected but it worked!


After filling each one, it was time for the chocolate topping. I simply spooned a bit on top and let it cool. The topping solidified well.


There we have it, my little egg-shaped eclairs were ready to go.


But who cares what they look like, amirite? Let's get to the breakdown. First off. That little shell. I am trying to find an adjective that works here. Not quite crispy, but not totally soft...not super chewy...pastry-like, with a slight hardness on the outside to keep it solid. Nice and airy in the middle. The cream filling was this yummy vanilla flavor, but let me tell you, these bad boys were kinda messy. I have yet to perfect bavarian cream, but in flavor these were super great. And that chocolate. Do I really need to say that it was delicious? It was chocolate. Of course it was awesome. I kept them in the fridge, as I don't think I made the shelf stable version given my use of cream. Long story short: Make these. Try them. Don't let the steps intimidate you; it is NOT that hard and you will be happy when you wake up to a super delicious donut-esque breakfast. It'll be like waking up at Starbucks.

Chocolate Eclairs Recipe

Ingredients:

For the dough / choux paste:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
6 egg yolks

For the pastry cream:
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups whole milk
6 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

For the chocolate glaze:
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used 75% cocoa)
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup powdered sugar
2-3 tablespoons milk

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Heat butter, water, and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan until boiling, then remove from heat. Add flour and nutmeg, then stir with a strong spoon until the dough is well combined and shapes into a uniform ball. Gradually add eggs, mixing well after each. Use a spoon and knife or pastry bag to form the dough into about 6-10 ovals about 3-4 inches long, leaving about 2 inches of space between each to allow room for rising. Bake for about 40 minutes, until slightly browned. Cut a slit in the side of each and bake an additional 10 minutes. Shut off oven and leave in the oven for 10 more minutes to dry out, then remove and allow to cool.

To make the pastry cream, add a medium saucepan again to medium heat and mix the sugar, flour, and salt together. Stir in the milk, then continue stirring and cooking on medium for about 10 minutes, as the mixture starts to simmer and boil. The mixture will thicken. Beat the eggs together in a small bowl, then spoon in some of the hot milk mixture to temper the eggs. Then, slowly pour the eggs into the pan. Cook over medium-low heat to prevent boiling, and stir constantly for 8-10 minutes, until the mixture is thickened into a pudding consistency. Remove from heat, then mix in vanilla and almond extracts and nutmeg. Cover the surface with plastic wrap, laying it directly on the top of the mixture. Refrigerate for about 2 hours to solidify. Once cooled, beat the heavy cream in a mixer for 2-3 minutes on high until the mixture has formed the consistency of whipped cream. Fold in the pudding mixture until combined.

The chocolate glaze, melt chocolate and butter on low heat in a small saucepan. Whisk in the powdered sugar and add 1 tablespoon of milk at a time until the the glaze is smooth.

To complete the eclairs, either spoon in or use a pastry bags to add pastry cream into the eclairs. Top with chocolate glaze.

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