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After not making éclairs for decades, I decided to revisit my old recipe, brush up on details, and write a simple post. Easy, right?
Like most pastry chefs, I endlessly test a recipe to get it exactly how I want it. But every now and then, I’m reminded that perfection can be a function of too many interrelated variables. Who says that a single recipe will work perfectly for every cook in every oven on any given day? Some recipes need to be practiced and perfected in one’s own kitchen—since what works in someone else’s may not work the same in yours. Fortunately, some of these same recipes are perfectly imperfect—that is, they are exquisitely delicious, even as works in progress.
Pâte à choux, or choux paste—from which éclairs, cream puffs, and profiteroles are made—is a perfect example. Choux is also the French word for cabbage; they share a name because a piped mound of choux paste puffs up and expands in the oven to resemble a cabbage. When split and filled with cream, that cabbage shape becomes a cream puff. Deceptively “easy,” the first recipe a French pastry apprentice may learn, choux starts as a simple paste of flour, butter, and liquid that’s cooked on top of the stove. Off the heat, eggs are beaten into it. The resulting batter is piped into mounds for cream puffs or long fat fingers for éclairs. We want crispy, hollow shells—and for éclair shapes in particular—we want even expansion and with a relatively smooth surface for glazing.
Recipes seem similar at first but details differ: the type of flour, ratio of water to milk, how long to cook the paste, how long to beat, and what temperature (or temperatures) to bake at. And there’s that scary judgment call about how much egg to add. Will it or won’t it expand in the oven? That is the question.
I thought I could encourage everyone to make éclairs by addressing all of the questions about choux and making the process more accessible. To that end, I made my old recipe three times: once with all-purpose unbleached flour, once with bread flour, and once with half of each. I baked a portion of each batch at different temperatures, and tested some of each batch brushed with water, left naked, and slightly textured with the tines of a fork. I tried different ratios of milk to water, single and double baking sheets, and different positions in the oven.
Here’s the thing. I never got bad results. I just never got perfection: my shapes weren’t perfectly even or perfectly crispy, or perfectly dry inside. However, the éclairs I made from them were completely yummy. A couple of my guests said they didn’t know éclairs could be that good.
But I was looking for perfection, so I asked my friend, Robert Wemischner (Author of The Dessert Architect) for advice. I also exchanged emails with a cooking teacher that I met on Twitter! I tweaked the amount of butter in my recipe and added an egg white, per Robert’s advice, and tested some more. (Keeping track of all of this was the hardest part.)
I did not achieve the perfection I sought. I did come to see choux as a metaphor—a journey towards an elusive treasure, with valuable lessons, and many pleasures (aka éclairs), along the way. Some advice was very helpful but some did not work for me. After making dozens of choux, I am convinced that there is no one recipe that fits all. What works in one chef’s kitchen may need adjusting in yours. But that is okay.
Here’s what I learned about making perfectly delicious, if not perfectly perfect, éclairs:
Use a pot that is 7 to 8 inches in diameter, so there is plenty of cooking surface to spread and the paste, so it dries out to the ideal consistency
Cook the paste longer than you probably thought you should; set a timer. Expect some crust—not just a film of butter— to form in the bottom of the pot.
- The right amount of egg has been added when the batter is slightly glossy and slumps or relaxes slightly and very slowly (like lava) down from the beater when it’s turned off, or flows very slowly off the beater when you dip it back into the paste and lift it again. Some chefs use a pinch test to determine when enough egg has been added: pinch some batter between your thumb and forefinger and then separate them slowly—batter with enough egg forms a 1-inch thread between your fingers. But, alas, in my kitchen, a successful pinch test resulted in my worst batch of choux!
- After beating in the eggs, beat the batter some more to develop gluten—the right amount of beating depends on the type of flour that you used and how long it took to beat in the eggs.
- Brushing the surface of the éclair shells before baking helps them expand more evenly and with a smoother surface. You can brush with water or egg wash—but it’s the brushing itself that helps, not whether you use water or egg wash. A natural bristle brush provides the right amount of very light friction on the surface of the paste—a silicon brush will not do. Dragging the tines of a fork gently along the length of each éclair shell also helps with even expansion. I use the brush and the fork.
- Bake choux as much as you can without burning them— until they are more brown than golden. This helps crisp the shell, dry out the inside, and prevent collapse after cooling. A little moist gooey stuff inevitably remains inside the baked shells. Get over it—I did. The still-gooey batter is deliciously custardy—reminiscent of the buttery custardy insides of another, extremely famous, pastry called a canelé—and the flavor and texture will merge perfectly with your éclair filling. (Try the one below.)
Vanilla Rice Flour Pastry Cream
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons (40 grams) sugar
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (13 grams) superfine rice flour or 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons (13 grams) Thai rice flour (see headnote below for flour details)
- 1 cup whole milk, divided
- 2 large egg yolks
- If cooled éclair shells are not as crisp as you like, pop them back into a 375° F oven for 6-8 minutes until they are extremely hot to the touch. Cool completely before filling. Here’s a bonus: You can bake shells in advance and freeze them in a Ziploc bag as soon as they are cool. On the day you will serve them, put them directly into the oven as described—twice baked éclairs may be the best éclairs of all!
For the Choux paste:
- 6 tablespoons (85g) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/2 cup (65g) all purpose unbleached flour
- 1/2 cup (65g) bread flour
- 4 eggs
- 1 egg white
For the filling and glaze:
- 3 cups (triple recipe) of Vanilla Rice Pastry Cream (link in directions) or your favorite pastry cream, chilled
- 4 ounces (115g) dark chocolate (55% to 70% cacao)
- 6 tablespoons (85g) unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 teaspoons light corn syrup
- 2 1/2 teaspoons water