- ANDY BRUMBAUGH
When I was a young teenager, I was a Girl Scout. My troop was small, comprising fewer than 10 girls from Grand Isle County. As a troop, we only lasted for a year or two. Still, some of the memories of those years as a Girl Scout have followed me into adulthood. In particular, I remember that, in order to earn a baking badge, we went to our troop leader's house and made éclairs. I don't know how authentic they were, but I do remember how fancy and grown-up I felt to be making French pastries.
Last summer, I traveled to France with my mother and sister. Though we didn't get a chance to sample the local éclairs, we did see them in the pâtisserie windows. My old memories of Girl Scouts flooded back, and I knew that I wanted to try my hand at making them again. And what better time for elegant pastries than Valentine's Day?
Éclairs — like many types of French pastries including cream puffs, profiteroles and the towering masterpiece that is the croquembouche — start with pâte à choux, a simple pastry dough. To make it, heat water — or a mixture of milk and water — with butter, then mix in flour, cook a little more, and whip in eggs until the mixture is light and fluffy. The dough then can be piped into any number of shapes.
I can't guarantee that these éclairs are the most traditional version. But they are fun, delicious and easier to make than you might imagine. Filled with a delectable raspberry pastry cream and topped with festive heart decorations, they are perfect for Valentine's Day, or really any day you are craving a sweet treat.
(Makes approximately 24 éclairs)
For the raspberry pastry cream:
- 3 cups whole milk
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 4 egg yolks
- ¼ cup butter
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- ⅓ cup raspberry purée (fresh or frozen raspberries, puréed and strained to remove seeds)
For the pâte à choux:
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- 1¼ cup all-purpose flour
- ⅜ teaspoon salt
- 4 eggs
For the decoration:
- ½ cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons white chocolate chips
- ANDY BRUMBAUGH
To make the pastry cream:
- In a medium saucepan, bring 2 - cups of milk, along with sugar and salt, to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
- In a glass measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together the remaining milk, cornstarch, flour and egg yolks. Add a little of the hot milk mixture to the eggs and whisk well to temper (this will keep the eggs from getting scrambled).
- Pour the tempered egg mixture into the warm milk mixture through a fine mesh sieve to prevent lumps later. Return the mixture to heat and bring to a boil, whisking the whole time. Cook until thickened.
- Strain through a mesh sieve again into a bowl. Stir in butter, one tablespoon at a time, until melted, then add the vanilla.
- Stir in the raspberry purée and cover with plastic wrap pressed onto the surface of the pastry cream so that it doesn't form a skin. Refrigerate for at least two hours, until ready to use.
To make the pâte à choux:
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, water and butter. Bring to a rolling boil.
- Remove from heat and add the flour and salt all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon until incorporated.
- Return to heat and cook over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the dough forms a cohesive ball, and a film forms on the bottom of the pan. (Do not scrape the film up into the dough; leave it in the pan. You might not see this film if you are using a nonstick pan.)
- Transfer mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer. Whip with a paddle attachment until there is no more steam, and the dough no longer feels hot to the touch. (Alternatively, allow to cool in a bowl for five to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.) Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until entirely incorporated after each. After the final addition, continue whipping for about two minutes. The dough should look smooth.
- Fit a large pastry tip (either round or star-shaped) into a piping bag and pipe dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets into even lines, about 5 inches long. (Some people draw lines onto the underside of their parchment paper to use as a guide; I was not that exact.) The pastry will keep its shape when you bake it, so use a finger dipped into water to flatten any irregularities. If you have used a round pastry tip, run the tines of a fork along the top of the éclairs before baking to help them crisp up.
- Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower heat to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 25 minutes. Do not open the oven during baking. When the éclairs are done, they should be a deep golden brown.
- Remove from the oven. Cool completely on wire racks before filling.
- Cut the éclairs in half lengthwise or poke a small hole on both ends of the bottom of the éclair, then pipe pastry cream into each one, until the éclairs are full.
- Melt the semisweet chocolate in a dish long enough to fit the éclairs. (I added the vegetable oil to the chips, then heated them in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time, stirring between intervals, until melted. Do not overheat, or the chocolate may become stiff and grainy.) As an alternative to microwaving, you can melt the chocolate with the oil in a double boiler, stirring until smooth.
- Place the white chocolate in a piping bag and melt by heating in the microwave in 30-second intervals, squeezing to mix between each heating. (You may need to reheat during decorating to keep it melted.)
- Dip the tops of the éclairs into the semisweet chocolate, then run a finger or a knife over the edge to clean off any excess chocolate. (This can get messy, but what a delicious mess.)
- To make white-chocolate heart decorations, cut a very small hole into the tip of the white-chocolate-filled piping bag. Pipe two small circles next to each other on top of the semisweet chocolate. Use a toothpick to draw a line of white chocolate down the middle of the two dots to form heart shapes. Repeat a few times on the top of each éclair. This decoration works best if the semisweet chocolate is not yet set.
- Let the chocolate cool and harden before serving.
Note: Éclairs taste best served right away. You can store unfilled shells in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two days, or freeze them in an airtight plastic freezer bag for up to six weeks. To refresh before filling, arrange the shells on a baking sheet and warm in a 350-degree oven until dry, firm and almost crisp — 10 to 15 minutes for room-temperature shells, 15 to 20 minutes for frozen shells. Cool before filling.