Chocolate Éclairs

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!

Before I saw this particular episode, back when my baking prowess was limited to Toll House cookies and boxed cake mix, I thought that éclairs were individually hollowed out by hand before they were filled. Lol. So naïve.

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.

Classic Éclairs au Chocolat

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.

minis!

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.

Almond Éclairs: Filling flavored with amaretto liqueur and topped with toasted almonds.

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.

Pecan Éclairs: Filling flavored with pecan whiskey and topped with toasted pecans.

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.

Coconut Éclairs: Filling flavored with coconut liqueur, and topped with white chocolate ganache and toasted coconut.

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.

Ingredients

Preparation

Classic, Almond, Pecan, & Coconut Chocolate Éclairs