And so the baking begins. January’s challenge is ECLAIRS!
Like all these baking attempts, I’m not pretending to be an expert and I’ll share as I go where I found information or help, and reflections on how things turned out. If, dear reader, you’ve made anything I bake and have suggestions I’d love to hear them! Even when I think I’m succeeding I’m generally flying blind (or basing it on things I’ve read on the internet/ eating the thing at some point in my life and trying to remember what it was like). So as this adventure begins be advised that while I’ve used recipes and adapt or follow them here this is also a self-reflective process of baking that I’m trying to record.
So: January! Why eclairs? Well, several years ago, in my ignorance I decided to make eclairs one evening. I found a recipe on the internet and went for it. Suddenly I found myself making the dough in a saucepan, and realised I’d definitely, inadvertently stepped out of my normal baking zone.
Those mini-eclairs I made (mini both in length and puffiness) were still eaten with glee by work colleagues but to be honest they did not puff as choux pastry is meant to, and I think it was really the combination of chocolate whipped cream and chocolate topping that saved me.
So for my first challenge this year I decided to re-make eclairs. This entails a triple skill challenge: choux pastry, creme patisserie, and ganache. Good thing I gave myself a whole Saturday! The basis of the recipes for the first two components come from the Laduree’s Sucré: The Recipes by Philippe Andrieu–a birthday gift from a wonderful friend several years ago, this book is gorgeous to look at with its soft green fabric cover and gilt edging, and contains a multitude of gorgeous (but intimidating) recipes.
For this bake I needed all up:
- 8 eggs (4 whole, 4 for just egg yolks)
- ‘granulated’ (white) sugar
- ‘cake flour’ (see discussion in the choux pastry section)
- full cream milk
- chocolate (70% or higher is best, and good quality is always better)
- cream (not pictured because I forgot to include it)
- vanilla extract (also not pictured, whoops)
Part 1: Creme Patisserie
Creme Patisserie is basically a custard but with a thickener like flour or cornflour (or apparently some times gelatin, but the internet seems to think this is sacrilegious). It has always seemed to be a terrifying prospect to me for some reason…I could only imagine it ending badly (and wasting 4 delicious eggs!). As an aside, the first season of Great British Bake Off (GBBO) that I ever watched was season 5 and they all kept using “cream pat”, and it legitimately took me about half the season to figure out this was a short-hand term for creme patisserie (now I’ve seen more GBBO I know that in early seasons they refer to it in full and describe what it is!). It also seems to be one of those things that if you stop paying attention for a second its all over.
So for my attempt I adapted the recipe given in Andreiu’s Sucre. My budget this month did not cover buying whole vanilla bean pods, so I followed the LittleFrenchBakery blog’s suggestion to add vanilla extract at the end instead, meaning I could skip the first steps about infusing the milk with vanilla.
For the ‘creme pat’ I used:
- 400m of full cream milk
- 4 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- dab of butter
1. After separating the egg yolks I whisked them together with the sugar in a bowl. Once it had gone pale and smooth I added the cornstarch. You have to whisk it well here to make sure there are no lumps of cornstarch left.
2. Heat up your milk in a saucepan on the stove (make sure you use a medium sized saucepan because you’re going to eventually add the egg and whisk frantically and you don’t want it to spill over… I had to upsize my saucepan when I realised). You want it at a gentle simmer. Don’t boil it! The internet tells me this is a terrible idea at this point.
3. Once its at a simmer remove it from the heat and pour about a quarter/ a third of the milk into the egg mixture and whisk it in immediately and well! This is to “temper the yolks”…in other words to stop the egg from freaking out about getting hot and scrambling immediately (which is what would happen if you tipped all the milk in/ tipped the eggs into the milk). Once it is whisked well you can pour the whole mixture back into the saucepan with the rest of the milk
4. Bring to the boil while stirring with a whisk. It’ll start thickening, and I got lovely looking foam on the top which eventually subsided as it got thicker. To be honest I took it off the heat a bit as it thickened because the pan was really hot, and I have a crappy electric stove so I can’t control the element’s heat very well.
5. Once you’ve brought it to the boil pour it into a clean bowl or dish and leave it on the bench to cool down for 10 minutes or so. The Little French Bakery blog actually recommends pouring it into a baking tray so it is in a thinner more even amount and can cool more evenly. I did this. It seemed to work well (but I’ve never cooled it in a bowl for comparison).
6. Once its cooler Sucré and others on the internet recommend you stir in a good dab of butter which apparently makes it shinier and richer. Then I covered it with clingwrap and left it while I got on with the rest of the baking.
Reflections: On the whole it was not nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be. I wasn’t sure what it was meant to look like as it came to the boil so I was freaking out that I’d over-cook it or not cook it enough. I’m still not sure what it is ideally meant to look like, but it tasted pretty great. Before I made it again, I’d definitely read even more about making it, but I was pretty happy with this attempt.
Part 2: Choux Pastry
The first time I made choux pastry, as I said, I didn’t realise what I was getting myself into. A pastry that you cook as you make it, in order to make it?! What will they think of next!
The trick with this one was the recipe, both in Sucré and elsewhere asked for ‘cake flour’. Some interneting revealed this is a US thing. Apparently it has a lower protein content (and is also often bleached); both these things giving a better rise and more stable consistency apparently. Cake flour is normally not self-raising (although, just to confuse things there are self-raising versions on the US market!). The solution for those of us in the rest of this world is to add cornflour to plain flour to lower the protein content. There are a million versions of how you should do this and in what proportions, but I ended up going with the suggestion on Nigella’s Kitchen Queries that recommends for one cup of plain flour substitute in two tablespoons of cornflour (elsewhere on the internet, although I’ve lost the link now, it suggests this ratio shouldn’t just be maintained if you increase the amount of flour…ie. for 2 cups of flour you should use less than 4 tablespoons of cornflour because it starts negatively affecting the consistency after a while).
Again, I think the trick with choux pastry is to not get distracted and again to follow the process carefully. This time I didn’t really do much different to the Sucré recipe at all.
- 1 cup ‘cake flour’ (ie. 1 cup of plain flour with two tablespoons removed and substituted with cornflour)
- 100ml full cream milk
- 1 tablespoon of white sugar
- 100ml of water
- pinch of salt
- 80g of butter
- 4 whole eggs
More ingredients than creme pat! But lots of them go in together to kick us off here.
1. In a saucepan put milk, water, salt, sugar and butter and bring up to the boil. Pay attention to this, but sift the flour while you’re waiting for it to boil. You’ll have to stir the saucepan to dissolve the sugar (I could feel it sticking on the bottom).
2. Remove it from the stove and add the flour into the liquid. Stir a lot and stir quickly. I had to trade the spatula recommended in the recipe for a wooden spoon because my spatula wasn’t stiff enough (hurr hurr) and I couldn’t stir it well enough. It’ll quickly start to form a lump of dough.
3. You have to put it back on the heat (at a low temperature) and continue to stir it for about one minute (this whole process since you added the flour will probably only take you 3 or 4 minutes tops). You do this to draw out the moisture in the batter and it should be not sticking to the sides and forming one mass.
4. Put it in a bowl to cool down. Once it’s basically cool add the eggs one at a time, making sure they are well combined before the next one. Don’t do this step before its basically cool or you will risk cooking the egg. I also found it awkward to combine the egg, particularly for the first two eggs, the batter/dough doesn’t want to accept it. By the third and fourth egg the batter is way more receptive to the eggy goodness you are heaping upon it, and it’ll become goo-py and you’ll think to yourself ‘ok, yes I can get that in a piping bag and pipe it now’.
Part 3: Making The Actual Eclairs (oooOOooo)
Your oven should be preheated to 180C (fan-forced) for this bit. So get the oven on!
Now recipes want you to use a piping bag (with a “10-mm plain tip”). I don’t have one, and couldn’t buy one before doing this. So I got a solid plastic sandwich bag and spooned all the pastry batter into it and snipped off the end and it went ok.
You’ll need to butter some baking trays in preparation. Then make the actual eclairy shapes with you choux pastry.
1. With your piping bag squeeze a consistent amount out in a line on the baking tray. Mine were a bit squiggly in places, I’ll admit. A ‘proper’ eclair should be about 10-12cm long, but I made them about half-size (so I could share them with more friends). Make sure there are a couple of cm between each of them because they puff.
2. Once they are all piped on your tray put it in a preheated oven and BAKE! After about 10 minutes they will have started to puff. Sucré tells you at this point to very slightly (“2-3mm”!) open your oven door to allow steam to leave–it is suggested to put a spoon handle in the door to hold it open. Then continue to bake for about half an hour. They should be golden when done.
(Paul Hollywood on GBBO says the egg ‘explodes’ in this initial hot bit. The BBC Food website says the following:
Choux pastry has a high water content. The water in the mixture creates steam during cooking which forces the pastry to expand in volume, leaving it with a hollow centre and a light texture.
Also, other recipes actually say to have the oven hotter here and then turn it down: I don’t trust my oven to do this fast enough to be effective but Paul Hollywood’s recipe for example starts at 200C for 10 minutes and then without opening it turns it down to 170C for 15 minutes).
3. Take them out of the oven when they are cooked and put them on a wire rack to cool. This is important so the pastry doesn’t go soggy on a solid surface as it cools. 4. Once they are totally cool pipe in the creme patisserie into their bottoms. To prepare the creme pat take your whisk and loosen up the mixture again (it will have gone a bit solid… well mine did!). At this point I added a teaspoon of vanilla essence (instead of the vanilla bean at the start). I used a cake decorating bag to pipe it in. You’ve got to check that you’re filling it all; I tilted the nozzle while it was in the pastry to ensure it was full both ways. They feel much heavier once you’re done.
Reflections: Overall, my eclairs were ok. They baked unevenly in the oven, but I was scared to open the door and flip them around or anything because of all the stuff I’d read about steam and egg and baking temperatures. So some were definitely on the softer side of done, and some were a little dark (don’t worry, covering them in chocolate does wonders to hide this!). I can see the benefit of the consistency of a formal piping bag and tip, but they were ok (they have ‘character’). Much better than my previous eclair attempt: these fellows actually had a pastry structure inside, they weren’t just tiny hollow flat things.
Part 4: Chocolate Ganache
The Sucre book wanted me to make a fondant based chocolate topping, but as I couldn’t figure out definitively what “white pouring fondant” was, I instead left Sucre here (I should point out Sucre also wants you to mix chocolate into the creme patisserie before piping it into the eclair… I didn’t do this either). I made a ganache. Now I’m on slightly more familiar territory here. Ganache is a mixture of cream and chocolate that uses the lightly heated cream to melt the chocolate.
I used the internet for some advice on ratios of cream to chocolate because I know it varies depending on if you want a pouring ganache or a more solid one (for something like truffles, mmmm truffles). The Kitchn has a fabulous piece on ratios for different kinds of ganache and useful advice. As I currently lack a kitchen scale I did some dodgy maths and probably ended up somewhere between the 1:1 chocolate to cream (for thick glaze) and 1:2 (for pourable glaze).
- 1/2 cup of thickened cream
- 100g good quality chocolate
1. Put the cream in a pan and heat it. It shouldn’t be simmering or boiling. It should be warm enough that you can put your finger in it for a couple of seconds and it is warm but not uncomfortable.
2. Take it off the heat and add the chocolate (if the chocolate is chopped up into small bits it is easier here). Stir, stir, stir. It’ll look like a mess at first, but should slowly melt and combine and be delicious. (I didn’t need to, but if you’re doing it and the chocolate isn’t melting (or your using it and the mixture goes solid) you can gently re-melt it over a bain-marie.)
Part 5: Finishing it All Off
Once the ganache was at the right consistency, I picked up each eclair and put it into the ganache, squiggled it around a bit and used the spoon I had been stirring with to smooth the top and catch any dripping.
I put them back on a wire rack to cool. And DahDAH! That was it!
My partner Brendan and I ate at least 4 each yesterday evening, so I’m calling them a success.
Reflections overall: On the whole things went well. I was pretty concerned that I’d mess up the creme patisserie, so once that went ok my biggest fear was the eclairs wouldn’t puff at all. In future I’d definitely like to try the turning-the-over-down version of the baking instead. If I’m being super-critical the pastry didn’t quite have that perfect slightly-crunchy outside. I would perhaps also consider adding a smidgen of sugar to the ganache to sweeten it a bit, it is quite a heavy taste on top. But both those are just minor-quibbles. Overall I’m glad I did the eclairs again after all these years. I can feel much more contented with my eclair-baking efforts now! Perhaps next time I’ll branch out from ‘traditional’ eclair flavours to something exotic!
The finished product: