I looked for a video of that train wreck so you could see the ginormous circus that it was to watch these people; people who can make up "masterful" dishes on the FLY for this show, totally flub on a level 1 pastry concoction. I made my first batch of eclairs 7 years ago when we were stationed in Illinois. I found a recipe online, looked at it for a couple of minutes and just MADE them without looking at the recipe again.
The place where I noticed they seemed to fail the easiest was when Chef Ramsay cut into each of the eclairs and found that NONE of them got their filling all the way evenly through the eclair. That is fairly easy in my mind, as you can FEEL the creme filling out the eclair shell as you go... When you cut into them, they should look like this:
Chantilly Creme Filled
Pastry Creme Filled
Watching that show makes you realize just how often people put themselves in a "danger zone" in the kitchen when they archetype themselves into a SINGLE style of cooking or a single area of food. People who only do desserts or only make fried foods...or a certain genre like Asian, are setting themselves up for upset after upset in the kitchen. I like to branch out and learn new things, that kind of philosophy will serve you well to adopt if you ever want to be able to have a wide range of knowledge.
One thing I will impart to you is some pronunciation of this mess. It is a French pastry so if you decide that you don't like my recipe or want to explore some others simply looking up "eclair" may not get you very far. But looking up "pate a choux" will. That is pronounced "pat a shoe"...I kid you not. Pate a choux is the fancy name for the eclair dough. The next thing you may run into is that some recipes call for a "chantilly" (which is what the chefs were charged with making by Chef Ramsay when they all had an epic fail) creme or a straight up run of the mill "pastry creme".
I personally prefer the chantilly simply because it is airy and light and delicate. It doesn't keep long (but hey...like these will make it more than a couple hours anyhow) either but, when I am up against a fairly delicate pastry to begin with I don't want to have something SUPER dense on the inside. Then add to the show a rich chocolate ganache on top...I personally would be ill after eating just half of one eclair filled with pastry creme instead of chantilly. Just to be fair, I'll show you both fillings but, most people I know seem to prefer a chantilly as opposed to a pastry creme. Traditional French uses a rich, eggy creme; the English variation is where you tend to see chantilly. Either way, read through the WHOLE list of ingredients and directions and make some decisions before diving in. This can be an easy process if you follow the steps properly and know what direction you want to go in before you begin.
Let's get to it...I mean, no one really cares about the history of the eclair, do they? I sure don't! I just wanna eat them!
Pate a Choux
3/4 c. milk
3/4 c. water
1 stick, + 2 T. unsalted butter
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 2/3 c. flour
5 large eggs, room temperature
OR if you prefer a milk free dough
1 c. water
1 stick of unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1 T. sugar
1 c. flour
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/2 c. heavy cream
2 c. heavy cream
2 T. confectioner's sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla
1 c. milk
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla bean paste
3 large egg yolks
3 T. sugar
2 T. cornstarch
2 T. unsalted butter, cut into pieces
***There are some things you need to decide straight away before you do anything. Do you want chantilly or do you want pastry cream? IF you want pastry cream you make that FIRST because it has to chill completely before it is piped inside the pastry shells. If you use chantilly, you can make that filling while the shells cool.
For pastry cream filled eclairs begin by making the cream filling by heating the milk with the vanilla bean paste until just below a simmer. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch. Ready a bowl with the butter, placing a strainer on top of it. Gradually whisk the hot milk into egg mixture and then return it all to the pot. Whisk this constantly (switching to a spatula now and again, to get into the corners) over medium heat until thickened and glossy, about 2 minutes. Pour this immediately through the strainer, whisking it through if needed, and stir in the butter. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the surface of the custard, cool to room temperature and then chill completely until ready to use.
To make the pastry shells bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt up to a full simmer over medium high heat. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the flour with a wooden spoon, stirring vigorously until the dough “cleans” the sides of the pot (no longer sticks). Scrape this mixture into a large bowl and use electric beaters or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for a minute or 2 to cool the dough a bit. Break your eggs into a small dish and pour in ONE egg at a time, adding these to the flour mixture while still on medium speed and mix until blended. Wait until each egg is totally incorporated into the flour mixture before adding the next egg. You need to pipe these onto a parchment lined pan while the choux dough is still warm.
Preheat the oven to 425 F and line two baking trays with parchment paper. Fill a piping bag fitted with a large plain tip with the choux paste. (Or you can do what I do. Seriously, I fill a gallon sized ziploc and cut the end off and "pipe" mine out of the corner of the bag. Easy clean up that way!)
Pipe 12 éclairs, each about 4 inches long and 1 ½-inches wide onto each baking tray. Wet your finger in cool water and tap any points on the batter. Bake the éclairs for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 F and continue to bake for about 20 more minutes, until they are a rich golden brown color and are very light. Allow the pastries to cool completely before filling. (I pierce the end of my eclairs with a chopstick. It allows the steam to escape more quickly and ensures it all comes out so the steam doesn't remain trapped and cause the eclair shells to become moist and collapse. No one else I know does this...so, if you don't want to, don't worry.)
Make your ganache now by either tossing the cream and chocolate into the microwave for 30 second spurts, stirring after each 30 second increment or use a double boiler on your stove and melt the cream and chocolate together that way. Set aside until ready to assemble.
If you chose to use chantilly, now is the time to make that. You don't NEED to use a chilled mixing bowl and beaters. I do sometimes. If you have a good whipping cream, it really isn't necessary UNLESS your kitchen retains a lot of heat when the oven is on at high temperatures. If it IS you should chill the bowl BEFORE you start the pate a choux. To make the chantilly is quite easy. Pour the whipping cream and vanilla straight into the mixing bowl and let the machine begin to whip it. As it is whipping, gradually add in your confectioner's sugar. After you have put all the sugar in continue whipping until the cream becomes at least doubled in mass/size. Set aside until eclair shells are completely cooled.
To fill, stir the pastry cream or chantilly to soften and fill a piping bag with a medium plain tip (or an éclair or donut tip, if you have one). Insert the piping bag in the same end you poked a hole in and fill each with creme until you feel resistance.
Dip the tops of each filled eclair into the ganache and set aside on wax paper until the ganache sets. Refrigerate what you don't consume right away. Once they are filled though, they SHOULD be eaten within the same day. UNFILLED eclair shells can be frozen a day or so ahead of time...no more than 3 days.
Pastry Creme Filled Eclair
Chantilly Creme Filled Eclair
A small note here, these eclair shells can TOTALLY be made into chocolate as well. I did it, my Mister loved them and I was quite partial to them as well. I made them completely dairy free when I did them chocolate. I just added 3 T. of Callebaut cocoa powder to the recipe and omitted 2 T. of flour when using the "milk free" choux paste recipe. I used a almond and cashew milk based product called "Healthy Top" from a company called "MimiCreme". The chocolate eclair shells looked like this just out of the oven...
Another thing I will inject here is a little warning...it is VERY easy to screw up the sizing of eclairs simply because you are free form piping these babies onto a sheet with no way to quickly and easily measure them. This is what eclairs look like when a 3.5 year old helps...
The one on the left was what I piped as my 3.5 year old was pressuring me to "hurry up" so HE could pipe some eclair shells. The middle shell...the PROPER sized eclair in width and length, was before he walked into the kitchen to harass me. The shell on the end...the too short, too wide shell was the one of the shells that the Sprout made. There are some people that might prefer a mini eclair like the one on the right just to limit their calorie intake while indulging but you can't be sure those are cooked all the way through. There also might be some folks that prefer a chantilly filling and would LOVE to bite into a HUGE torpedo of light, whipped creme filling which is what you would get with the monstrosity of a shell on the left. But, that shell might also not be "done" when the shells like the one in the middle have finished. The ONLY good news is, you really can't "over cook" a eclair shell unless you BURN the sucker. But, you surely CAN under bake a shell and then they are totally worthless.
Even with all of these little idiosyncrasies I have listed out here on this page...eclairs are STILL a fairly easy dessert pastry to make. I hope you take a stab at them at least once. Then you can feel like a Masterchef in your kitchen and chuckle a bit when people whine about how hard these are. Don't be afraid to try new things in the kitchen! As always...just have FUN!