Several years ago I watched an episode of Good Eats in which Alton Brown makes a weird type of dough and then magically turns it into éclairs (Season 6, Episode 11, "Choux Shine"). I've always enjoyed Good Eats. It's well written, peppered with humor, and breaks down the wall between "home cook" and "trained chef." Brown has an uncanny ability to explain recipes and cooking techniques in such a way that even the most novice cooks gain the confidence and knowledge they need to tackle dishes they've only ever dreamed of making. Not only is the show entertaining and empowering, but deep down, I'm really a science nerd, and a major component of each episode was to explain the science, culture, and history behind the foods they were making, so I was hooked from the very beginning.
Watching "Choux Shine" was a turning point for me. That's when I finally realized that French pastries aren't fancy and intimidating desserts… they're science projects!
Éclairs aren't made with your ordinary cupcake batter. They are made using a very specific type of dough, called pâte à choux. While pâte à choux is a typical blend of flour, butter, water, and eggs, it is prepared much differently. The butter and water are heated before the flour is incorporated, which allows for the flour to soak up more of the liquid. This results in the dough creating large pockets of steam when it's baked, giving éclairs their classic shape and cavernous quality.
They are then filled with pastry cream, a type of custard, and topped with chocolate. That's the classic éclair, anyway.
I've made the following éclair recipe several times. It's essentially Alton Brown's pâte à choux filled with Paula Deen's pastry cream, and topped with homemade dark chocolate ganache. My "secret ingredient," if you will, is the chocolate I use for the ganache. I never use your standard chocolate chips for my éclairs, but instead I use high quality dark chocolate bars. I also don't add any extra sugar, no matter how dark the chocolate (no one ever seems to notice it's missing).
I typically make these éclairs every year for Thanksgiving. They're a wonderful dish to bring when attending someone else's feast, especially if you know there will be other guests coming as well. They're not traditional Thanksgiving food, so you can rest assured they'll be the only éclairs on the dessert table. Plus, they're delicious and impressive. I initially brought them to my friend's family's Thanksgiving dinner about 5 years ago, and they were such a big hit that I knew I had to make them again the next year. It has since become a tradition, and Mike, the head chef for the day, usually eats 3 or 4 of them while he's finishing up the turkey.
Since my traditional chocolate éclairs have been so successful, I decided to experiment with a few variations! I got a little adventurous with these. I made the whole batch according to my usual recipe, but before assembling the éclairs, I split the finished pastry cream and the éclair shells into 4 groups, and then proceeded to raid my liquor cabinet.
I left the first group classic and didn't alter the cream in any way, nor did I add any toppings. These are the éclairs that I've made several times in the past, so I used them as a baseline. It's always good to have a control group in every experiment.
For the second group, I added a liberal splash (about 2 teaspoons) of amaretto to the pastry cream before I filled the shells, and then topped the ganache with chopped toasted almonds.
For the third group, I used a pecan flavored whiskey to flavor the pastry cream, and topped the ganache with toasted pecans.
For the fourth group of éclairs, I threw caution to the wind. I flavored the pastry cream with Malibu, made a white chocolate ganache (to which I added about a teaspoon of coconut oil), and topped them all with toasted coconut. Almond Éclairs
As expected, the almond/amaretto éclairs are wonderful. Dark chocolate and toasted almonds are always a winning combination. You can't taste the alcohol from the liqueur in the pastry cream, but you can certainly taste the almond notes.
If you don't have any amaretto on hand, or perhaps there will be kids eating these, you can achieve the same effect with almond extract. Add it in very small amounts until the flavor is strong enough for you. Pecan Éclairs
I was mildly apprehensive about the pecan éclairs. Unlike amaretto, the pecan flavored whiskey is not a liqueur, it's real whiskey, so it's not as sweet and has a distinct whiskey flavor (no kidding!). I wasn't entirely positive that such a boozey note would work with the pastry cream.
I need not have worried. They are fantastic. The combination of pecans and whiskey makes me want to speak with a heavy southern drawl, and I like it. It also makes me want to put on a big hat and drink a bunch of mint juleps. I like those things, too. Coconut Éclairs
The coconut éclairs were the riskiest, mostly due to the white chocolate ganache.
White chocolate is not really chocolate. It's basically cocoa butter, and therefore much softer than actual chocolate. I kind of forgot about this fact when I added the coconut oil. Adding extra fat to melted chocolate makes it softer. I also forgot about it being cocoa butter when I poured the hot cream over the chopped chocolate. I didn't follow a recipe for making the white chocolate ganache, and used a bit too much cream (by "bit" I mean like 1½ teaspoons… seemingly irrelevant but it made a big difference).
The combination of added fat and too much cream resulted in a very soft ganache, which means it doesn't firm up on the éclairs the same way the dark chocolate one does. You may notice in the pictures that the white chocolate drips down the sides of each éclair, whereas the dark chocolate sits proudly on top. Not to worry though, because even though they are slightly sticky, the coconut éclairs are amaaaaazing.
These were experiments, done on a total whim, but I'm very happy with the results. The only things I would change for next time would be perfecting the white chocolate ganache, and perhaps using extracts to flavor the pastry cream, rather than liqueurs. I don't regret using the liqueurs, they are delicious and interesting in the éclairs (especially the whiskey one, that was a nice surprise). I just think it would be more practical to use extracts, especially since the liqueur is added well after the pastry cream is cooked, which means the alcohol molecules are still in there. Must be 21+ to eat! (If you're not worried about who might be eating these, then by all means, use your favorite liqueur to flavor the pastry cream!)
I do feel like I should mention that this is not a quick recipe. Making chocolate éclairs takes a few hours. Even if you're an especially skilled baker, it will still take you quite a while. So, if you're making them for a particular event, be sure to factor that fact in. I always make sure I have at least 4 hours to devote to making them.
However, the good news is that you can make the shells and pastry cream a day or two in advance, and then assemble them the day of. Store the pastry cream in the refrigerator with a piece of plastic wrap pressed right down over the top so that a skin doesn't form. The pastry shells can be kept at room temperature in an airtight container. I wouldn't make the ganache until you're ready to assemble the éclairs, though. Reheating chocolate is risky business, and you don't want to burn it accidentally.
Assembled éclairs will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, or can be frozen for up to a month. They don't really keep that long, though. Once people know they're there, they tend to disappear very quickly.
This recipe will yield roughly 12 large, 24 medium, or 50-60 mini éclairs.
- 1 cup water
- 6 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp sugar
- ⅛ tsp salt
- 1 cup + 1 tbsp flour, sifted
- 4 large eggs and 2 whites
- 3 cups milk
- ¾ cup sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 6 tbsp all-purpose flour, sifted
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 2 tsp vanilla (+ other flavorings, if you wish)
- 7 oz good quality dark chocolate
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
Pâte à Choux
Pâte à Choux
- Preheat oven to 400 °F.
- Prepare 2 cookie sheets by lining with parchment paper.
- In a medium sized saucepan, combine water, butter, salt, and sugar. Bring to a boil.
- Add flour and remove from heat.
- Work mixture together and return to heat. Continue working the mixture until all flour is incorporated and dough forms a ball.
- Transfer mixture into bowl of a standing mixer and let cool.
- Once cooled, add eggs, 1 at a time, making sure the first egg is completely incorporated before continuing.
- Once all eggs have been added, continue beating until the mixture is smooth.
- Spoon the dough into a piping bag fitted with a large round tip.
- Pipe immediately onto parchment lined sheet pans.
You can pipe the pâte à choux into whatever size you like. A 4 inch line of dough will puff up to be about 5 inches long once it's baked. I got 25 medium éclairs and 7 minis out of the this batch.
- Bake at 400 °F for 25-30 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Larger shells might need to bake a little longer.
- Remove from oven and pierce each shell with a paring knife to release steam.
- Allow to completely cool before filling.
- In a large saucepan, whisk together milk, sugar, salt and flour.
- In a separate bowl, beat eggs.
- Over medium low heat, while whisking constantly, cook the milk mixture slowly until it begins to thicken. Mixture should evenly coat the back of a spoon (see photo).
- Remove from heat and temper in the eggs by slowly adding 1/2 cup of the heated milk to the eggs, whisking until smooth, and then returning the eggs/milk back to the sauce pan, whisking constantly.
- Return saucepan to medium low heat and continue to cook until mixture begins to boil and large bubbles form (don't lean too far over the stove, when the bubbles pop that cream is very hot!). The mixture will heavily coat the back of a spoon now (see photo).
- Remove from heat, cool, and add vanilla (and other flavorings, if using.)
- Spoon pastry cream into a pastry injector, or a pastry bag fitted with a long tip.
- Insert the tip of the injector or pastry bag into the end of each éclair shell and slowly fill with pastry cream.
- Chop chocolate into small pieces (the size of chocolate chips) and place in a heat safe bowl.
- In a small saucepan over low heat, heat the heavy cream until it just begins to boil (don't burn it!).
- Immediately remove from heat and pour over chocolate.
- Allow the cream to melt the chocolate for 7-10 minutes.
- Whisk together until very smooth and silky.
- Dip the top of each éclair into chocolate ganache and place on cookie sheet or cooling rack. Top with chopped nuts at this time, if using.
- Allow ganache to set for at least an hour before serving or packaging.