"Food: Science, Art, Passion, Pleasure, Adventure & Exploration"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Baking Adventure 19: Nomtastic Chocolate Eclairs

Photo of some of my chocolate eclairs with vanilla pastry cream

Who dares to say they don't like eclairs?

Not me!

I've totally developed a new-found appreciation for eclairs. I've always seen and had these lush French treats at gourmet bakeries, once in a blue moon.  For that reason, up until recently, I regarded them as an exclusive treat, something I didn't get to have anytime I wanted, unless I was wiling to go out and search high and low for the best offerings of them around town.

So I thought to myself, how cool would it be to make these sweet pastry logs of decadence at home!
Eclair in French means "lightning," although no one is quite sure how the meaning ties into the dessert. (Maybe because they don't last very long on a platter or they always light up faces in a room when finally presented in full glory on a dessert tray? Just sayin'. LOL)
Eclairs are heavenly French pastries made with a choux pastry dough and are the cousins of cream puffs, beignets (which are fried rather than baked) and profiteroles, also made with choux paste. Choux paste is usually made with eggs, flour, butter, water and sugar (if it is for a dessert as choux pastries can be savory, too). The choux paste is piped out, through a pastry bag affixed with a large round tip, in long 4-6 inch strips on a baking sheet to make the characteristic hot dog bun shape of the eclairs. Eclairs are split in half lengthwise, hollowed out, or punctured at the end to make a filling hole and then they can be filled with puddings, custards, pastry creams, fruit preserves, whipped cream, mousses, curds and icings. *exhales* The tops of eclairs are usually dressed with a coat of chocolate ganache, chocolate glazes, chocolate poured fondant, chocolate icing and sometimes alternative toppings like caramel and butterscotch sauces. Yum! 
Through my research, I found that eclairs are rather easy to make, but you must set them up in 3 stages or what I like to call "dessert scenes."
Little Pink Dictionary: Desserts scenes are distinctive parts or stages in a dessert recipe. They are different than merely steps. For example, basic butter cakes often have 2 dessert scenes -- the cake batter-making scene and the icing-making scene: two parts that come together as a whole to create an exhilarating dessert "cinematic" experience on the taste buds and in the mind. When you think of dessert scenes think of a movie totally made out of sugar, sweet spices, and sprinkles comprised of fun and sparkly dessert scenes.
The three dessert scenes for an eclair are the scene for the dough, a scene for the filling, traditionally a pastry cream, and a scene for the topping.

I began my chocolate eclair adventure by doing the dessert scenes in this order and I gathered up the initial ingredients for my choux paste.

Some ingredients here were used for making choux pastry dough

The first step was to create the choux paste. Now when you think of making a dough for anything, you normally don't think of doughs that are heated or boiled in any way, however, this dough is. Well, it starts off with heated ingredients.

I combined salted butter, sugar, and water in a saucepan and heated it all on the stove.

Next, I took the melted butter mixture off the stove, added flour to the saucepan, and stirred continuously for a couple of minutes until the bottom of the pan became dulled by a very light film of raw paste.

Once the paste was set in the pan, I transferred it into a larger bowl and beat the dough for a few minutes until it became firmer and began crumbling. Eggs were added, one at a time, to the paste and I continued to beat until I had a very smooth paste that resembled a texture between cake batter and cookie dough.

Finished choux paste ready to be bagged and piped into logs
Below, you can see that I piped out the choux paste into several 5 inch logs onto a baking pan lined with parchment paper. This part was very fun and I winded up going over some of the strips, so you'll notice that some of the logs have a rather "rustic" shape to them, which is kind of cool.

Loosely piped into 5 inch logs
After piping the choux paste and placing them in the oven to bake, I began making my pastry cream. The first step of the second dessert scene of this recipe (making the pastry cream) begins with milk. I prefer using whole milk for full, rich flavor. No other way to go, in my opinion. I also must mention that for the moment, I am out of vanilla beans. As a result, I used vanilla bean paste as an alternative to beans (love that paste retains the seeds over extract), added that to the whole milk in a saucepan, and brought the milk to a boil.
You can't see but there's vanilla bean paste in there with the cream
While the hot vanilla milk waited, I quickly whisked together my sugar, salt, and cake flour in a separate bowl and added in my egg and egg yolks. While I continued to whisk, I slowly added the hot vanilla milk and kept stirring constantly. Once the cream base fully came together, I poured everything back into the saucepan I used to heat the vanilla milk in and placed the pot back on the stove.
Pastry cream is in the custard family, so if you've made pudding, creme anglaise or custard before, it is very similar to making these sauces. and pastry cream, at this stage, begins to thicken quite a bit and "set." This is where it blossoms.
As the cream heated in the pan and came to a boil, I kept on stirring to keep the mixture from burning as it thickened.

For awhile, it will seem as if the cream is not thickening all that much, but you just wait as you'll suddenly start to see the cream thicken dramatically second by second. You'll feel very proud, even. LOL

Once the cream changed into a light pudding texture and the sound of heaven opening up faded away, I took it off the stove and continued to stir it on the countertop to thicken further. I stopped when I finally had a wonderfully true pudding texture.

I loved seeing the vanilla seeds throughout the pastry cream and when I tasted it, it had a very creamy, vanilla flavor. Pastry cream can totally be eaten by itself and placed as layers in a fruit parfait or a cookie trifle, by the way.

Now that the pastry cream had bloomed, I placed it all in a glass prep bowl and wrapped it with plastic wrap to chill in the refrigerator for at least half an hour.

The choux pastry logs for my eclairs were done at this point, so I took them out of the oven, and placed them on a cooling rack while my pastry cream continued to cool in the fridge.

When it was time to take my pastry cream out of the fridge, I needed to add one last step. I needed to make whipped cream from scratch (very easy and I always LOVE doing this) and fold the soft-peaked whipped cream into the pastry cream to create a richer, creamier and fuller texture. *ding! ding!*

The pastry cream was ready to place into the waiting eclairs. I cut the cooled eclairs lengthwise, so that they opened like little submarine sandwiches (back edges still intact) and stuffed generous amounts of pastry cream into the centers and closed them each back up.

Beautiful vanilla pastry cream
The last dessert scene involved making the chocolate glaze, used to grace the tops of the eclairs.

This was rather simple. I melted the chocolate over a double boiler set up (glass bowl over saucepan filled with boiling water). I used a mixture of dark chocolate and milk chocolate.

When the chocolate completely melted, I took it off the stove and stirred in a good helping of butter and let it dissolve and establish its enriching properties.

My cream-filled eclairs were finally ready for the last act, which was to top them handsomely with lots of delicious and satiny chocolate glaze.

Tray of Nomtastic chocolate eclairs. These were SOOOO good!
These eclairs did not last long and later down the road, they will be a part of my bakery menu, when it's feasible. Eclairs needs to be refrigerated, so for now, my bakery menu will only feature less environment-specific items. Eclairs are best eaten freshly made. It is not good to keep them too long. But then again, I don't see how they'd last that long anyway, posing such an unfathomable problem. Not in my household and not in my grasp!

Check out the recipe here for these tasty chocolate eclairs: Diana's Desserts - Chocolate Eclairs

As always, I encourage anyone to put their own little spin on things and experiment as I constantly love to do. This was my first time making eclairs, so I had fun just trying out the recipe in the link as is, with just a few differences. This was also a learning adventure!

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