By Laura Aiken
Oh éclairs, you take a skilled hand to make but nothing more than a chewing reflex to vanish in a wink. Such is the nature of beautiful desserts, but perhaps particularly so with this French specialty whose name means “flash of lightening”, purportedly because they are consumed in a flash.
The oblong shaped, cream filled choux pastries so common in the bakeshops of Paris have the opportunity to be the next cupcake or doughnut in Canada. They fit the bill of being small, portable and lend themselves well to a decorative touch.
The Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionary Arts in Toronto, a boutique and on-trend institution, recently introduced a new general interest class called The Art of Éclairs. Bakers Journal was lucky enough to be invited to one of their first sessions. The class was taught by Michael Smith, a patient and laid back instructor who doled out plenty of tips as he demonstrated each step of making the pâte à choux, pastry cream, and filling the dough before icing and decorating.
Making pâte à choux
The college’s pâte à choux recipe calls for milk, water, sugar, salt, butter, bread flour and eggs. The water, sugar, salt and butter are first brought to a boil, then flour is added and stirred for a couple minutes until the dough comes to comes together. Once the dough is transferred to a stand mixer, it needs to cool. Use a paddle attachment and begin to gradually add the eggs. Keeping the mixer on low will help it cool down faster. Smith recommends adding cold eggs while the paste is still warm, but not too hot. There aren’t a precise number of eggs to add necessarily – you are looking for a specific texture and look. He says some days he adds more, and some days less, but if you add too much egg the dough won’t rise properly and will collapse when they come out. Don’t go above speed 2 on the mixer or you will incorporate a lot of unwanted air pockets. For variations, you can make it savoury by adding grated cheese and making the sugar optional. You can also add ½ tsp of vanilla extract with the eggs.
The dough will have a glossy appearance when it’s almost done. To test for readiness, you should be able to pull a long stream of dough with the paddle from the bowl before it breaks. Or, if you pinch it between your fingers it should stretch like gum.
At this point, you can pipe it right away, keep it in the fridge for three days or freeze it. It will thicken upon chilling and need to be brought back to room temperature to work with it.
Use a large plain or star tip to pipe the dough in hot dog shaped strips. He draws a grid onto parchment paper to use as a guideline for consistent sizes. Smith uses a technique where you keep even pressure but then when you stop at the end, push back across top just a little to banish the peak. If you do get one, you can use a wet finger to tap it down.
Pastry cream and filling
Pastry cream is rich, thick and forms the heart of an éclair. The college’s recipe for vanilla pastry cream combines whole milk, egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch, salt, butter and vanilla extract. There are many variations one can make, and this class also teaches how to make coconut caramel, raspberry passion fruit, tangerine, chocolate, pistachio and eggnog flavoured pastry cream.
When making a pastry cream, it’s important to pour it through a sieve onto a tray at the end, and cover it with plastic wrap to stop it from forming a skin. It should be chilled immediately to ensure food safety. When you are ready to fill your éclairs, pour into a stand mixer and mix on medium to low speed until it is smooth and ready for piping.
Filling the éclairs can take some practice. Smith recommends filling from the underside of the baked choux, rather than the ends or the top, for best presentation. Using a dowel or chopstick, make two holes in that are evenly spaced apart from the ends (not too close) nor too close together. Poke in vertically, breaking the surface and then slide your dowel horizontally in each direction to open up the inside. Insert pastry bag tip into the hole and squeeze gently in each direction. You can feel the dough fill as you work.
For the glaze, you can use a soft white fondant or a confectioner’s glaze. After that, let your imagination run free with the decorations you can create. Smith demonstrated how to temper chocolate and make decorations using transfer sheets. You can cut shapes from these or use the chocolate as long planks covering the entire top of the éclair. He showed students how to make bubble sugar decorations by baking Isomalt. Smith uses macaron shells sprinkled with coconut or lustre dust, then placed tipped over dominos fashion on top. He created raspberry flowers by chopping the berry down to a level bottom and filling it with chocolate ganache.
While all choux and pastry cream should have the same fundamental standards of high quality, you can be as unique as you like in how you stamp your éclairs with your bakery’s signature.
When you’re done, enjoy a moment of pride with your pretty creations. Before you know it, they’ll be gone in a flash.