Eclairs and cream puffs, both made from the same dough, are among the easiest of typical bake-shop pastries to produce at home. Francine should really love this version: the shells are filled with chocolate whipped cream and topped with a chocolate glaze. You can make the pastry by hand or in a food processor; both methods are described here. The yield of this recipe is flexible, since you can make shells large or small, but it should make at least 16 4-inch shells, which is a good dessert size—large enough so one is a nice serving, but not so large that a dedicated chocolate lover couldn't handle a second if the spirit moves!
1 cup water
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, salt, and sugar to a rolling boil. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately pour in the flour, then stir vigorously to combine (it will form a thick, sticky paste). Return the pan to medium heat and cook and stir for 3 minutes, mashing the paste against the sides and bottom of the pan, so the flour becomes thoroughly cooked. Then proceed either by food processor method or hand method.
By hand: Remove the pan with the cooked paste from the heat. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition, until all the eggs have been incorporated and you have a smooth, shiny soft dough that just barely holds its shape.
By food processor: Scrape the cooked paste into the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the steel mixing blade. Process for 15 seconds, then, with the processor running, pour in the eggs all at once through the feed tube. Continue to process for one minute. The result will be a soft dough that just barely holds its shape.
Line two large baking sheets with foil or cooking parchment. The easiest and fastest way to form the eclairs is with a pastry bag and a 1/2-inch plain decorating tube, piping out approximately 16 3/4-inch-thick, 4-inch-long strips of dough about 3 inches apart. Or, spoon out dough by hand in strips, smoothing and shaping them with a spoon dipped in cold water. The dough may also be formed into round puffs.
Bake the pastry in a preheated 400°F oven for 30 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven and, with the point of a sharp knife, pierce a small hole in the bottom of each shell to allow steam to escape (this step is not absolutely necessary, but it will result in crisper shells). Return the shells to the oven, turn off the heat, prop the door open slightly with a wooden spoon handle, and let the shells sit in the oven for 10 minutes. Then close the door and leave the shells in the turned-off oven for an additional 1 1/2 hours to finish drying.
Prepare filling and chocolate glaze, below. Slice eclair shells in half horizontally and spoon a generous amount of cream filling into each bottom half, then cover with the top half of the shell. Swirl a little chocolate glaze over the top of each eclair. Refrigerate until serving time. Ideally, eclairs should be filled no more than an hour or two before serving, and they will be most crisp if you fill them just before serving. Makes approximately 16 eclairs.
Chocolate Whipped Cream Filling: In a large, deep mixing bowl, stir together 2 cups heavy cream, 5 tablespoons sugar, 3 tablespoons cocoa powder (preferably Dutch process or "European style"), and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Refrigerate for 1 hour. Then whip the chilled cream mixture just until it is smoothly stiff and holds its shape (be careful not to overwhip or it will become grainy).
Chocolate Glaze: Melt 6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate in 1/2 cup heavy cream in the microwave or over hot water until the chocolate is just melted. Stir to combine the chocolate and cream into a smooth glaze. Let the mixture cool to room temperature or until it is thick enough to spread (don't refrigerate the glaze at this point; it will become too stiff).
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