It is the end of June, it is nearly a week past the solstice, and the vague fear that the summer will be cool and tepid has just had the last nail banged into its coffin. We hit 90F on Friday and 95F yesterday. For those of you who get your weather reports in Celsius, I believe that's 30 and 32, respectively. In New York, it got so hot so early that the sidewalks sparkled brightly enough to blind one. At 10 o'clock in the morning, people were already looking weatherbeaten and drained. En route to the supermarket, I saw family after family climbing the stairs to the elevated track of the N train, parents carrying strollers, teenagers carrying beach coolers, toddlers with pails, headed either to the Rockaways or to Coney Island for the Mermaid Parade. At the Italian deli the line nearly extended out the door as people bought lunchmeats, cheeses, olives and pickled cabbage, anything that did not require heat to be applied to it. By the time I was done with my pass around the neighborhood, I was damp, curly-headed and out of my mind with thirst. I found myself wondering if it would be too degenerate of me to have a pint of spumoni for breakfast. I would have mugged a nun for a fresh lemonade.
Then I went home and got ready to bake some eclairs.
If you have visited this space more than once -- no, scratch that -- if you have visited this space at all, you may have come to the conclusion that I am not at all well. It is a sound conclusion. When I told my various office buddies and acquaintances how I was planning to spend the weekend, I heard the same good advice: Oh, no. No, Jen. How can you even think of putting the oven on in this kind of heat? Does it have to be this weekend? Can't you wait until it cools off a bit? The only people who didn't say this to me were Lloyd, because he has known me long enough to know how my mind works; Bunni, who came to our house yesterday to watch movies and drink fizzy red wine and eat eclairs in the temperature-controlled splendor of our cluttered little living room; and Kimberly, who knew that no, it couldn't wait for another weekend because this weekend was the deadline for submitting entries to Is My Blog Burning? #16, hosted by the lovely Viv at Seattle Bon Vivant. I don't know whether Viv was feeling adventurous, ambitious or foolhardy when she selected eggs as the topic for the month, but either way, I could just kiss her. I had never participated in an IMBB? before, and I agreed with Kimberly that I should not let this one get away from me. That said, I'm a bit daunted. Viv chose her topic well, because she has been inundated with links for savory eggs, sweet eggs, eggs in desserts, egg dishes gone wrong, egg dishes that have reclaimed themselves, even caviar, because, as Viv notes, eggs is eggs. If you're in the mood for some fascinating and fun reading, please do read the posts from the other participants. They are imaginative and thoughtful, and it is obvious that they are having fun with their entries.
Having diverted a bit, leave us return Chez PTMYB. Eclairs were what I decided on because, in addition to being easy to make -- time-consuming, yes; difficult, no -- they are made from the powerhouse, workhorse pastry known as pate a choux, also referred to in some baking books as "cream puff pastry." I am less enamored of this term because even though pate a choux is indeed used for cream puffs, if I'm not reading carefully, I see the words "puff" and "pastry" together and instantly think of puff pastry, the multilayered, buttery, shattering pastry that is used for napoleons, pithiviers and cheese sticks. Pate a choux is a completely different animal from puff pastry: Puff requires a high ratio of butter to flour, ice-cold water applied in small quantities, and gentle handling so as not to overdevelop gluten and toughen the pastry. Pate a choux requires much less butter, more liquid, a two-stage cooking procedure, steady beating in a mixer to develop the same gluten that is anathema to the tender puff pastry, and last but not least, eggs, plenty of eggs.
I love pate a choux, not only because it is easy to put together and tastes wonderful, but because it is one of those examples of easy kitchen science. For maybe twenty minutes of hands-on work, you get a beautiful yellow dough that is easy to pipe. You get richness from the egg yolks and butter; you get crispness from the egg whites. When you put the pastry in the oven, you get the most unbelievable rise, thanks to the abundant liquid in the dough turning to steam, and to the abundant gluten working its elastic magic. Pate a choux was one of the first things I learned how to make in culinary school, which I started at the end of a surrealistically-hot July. Maybe this is why I was less than fazed at the thought of baking eclairs on the hottest weekend in June: once upon a time I made it on the hottest Wednesday in July, *and* I was dressed in chef's whites while I was doing it. Just not having to put those silly pants on was a tremendous relief this time around.
Once I'd decided to go with pate a choux, it was a short step to decide on eclairs. What better to go with an egg-based pastry than a vanilla-rich pastry cream? In general, I'm a purist with my custards: I'm not a fan of custards that are dependent on flour or cornstarch for thickening; when in doubt, I'd rather just throw in some more eggs. Sometimes, though, you need something that is going to stay put, not quiver seductively if you so much as look in its general direction. In school we made pastry creams that were so aggressively thickened that they were the consistency of glue, so that we could divide the batches up and lighten and flavor them in different ways. This time, though, I was interested in a middle ground, just enough flour to keep it in the eclair, but not so much as to distract from the pure clean flavors of the egg yolk and vanilla bean and milk that made up the bulk of the custard. I was also interested in a simple, uncluttered flavor for the coating. In school we coated eclairs with fondant, a meltable sugar paste that is also used for petits fours. Fondant is beautiful, and once you get the hang of it, it's easy to work with, but it's not something I tend to keep around the kitchen, and I tend to get sugar headaches, teeth hurting, hair follicles buzzing, whenever I have more than a small taste. I am more than happy with a simple ganache, bittersweet chocolate melted in heavy cream, so simple ganache it was. From there, it was off to the cluttered, manic little shoebox known as the PTMYB kitchen. Armed with my copy of Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking, which has become my baking science key text of choice, I managed to turn out just under two dozen delicate little eclairs. (If you are a fan of the size of eclairs normally found in bakeries, you get about 15-18 eclairs from this recipe.) The basic formulas are Chef Yard's, but the directions, and any deviations noted, are mine.
For the pate a choux, you will need 5 oz. (1 dip-and-sweep cup) bread or all-purpose flour; 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup water, 3 oz. unsalted butter, 5 large eggs (for the dough) and the egg wash of your choice (whole egg + egg yolk, egg + milk, egg + water, etc.).
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and set a rack on the center rack. (Sherry Yard recommends putting a pan at the bottom of the oven and pouring hot water into it when you add the eclairs to the oven, to help facilitate the rise. It's not mandatory, but I do it anyway, just to hedge my bets.)
Mix the dry ingredients together and set aside. Combine the milk, butter and water in a saucepan and heat to boiling. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry, mix vigorously, return the mixture to the pan and return the pan to a medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, for at least 4 minutes. In that time, the mixture should come together like thick mashed potatoes, and the bottom of your pan will be coated with a thick layer of flour and milk cooked together. Yes, you will have to soak the pan to get it off, but this is a key step in a successful pate a choux, and you really don't want to err on the side of easy dishwashing here. The classical French name for this mixture is panade, and this step is called "roasting the panade." (In school, I used to sing "roasting the panade" to the tune of the old hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves" while I stood at the stove, roasting panade. My classmates thought I was weird. The philistines.)
Above: Roasting the panade, roasting the panade, we'll stand rejoicing as we roast the panade...
Once your panade is successfully roasted, transfer it to a stand mixer (or another bowl, if you don't have a stand mixer -- it is easier to finish mixing in a stand mixer but it certainly can be beaten by hand). With the paddle attachment, beat on low speed for about 2 minutes, or until the lion's share of the steam has dissipated and you can just touch the bottom of the bowl. (If you have a thermometer, the temperature should be around 180 degrees.) Add four of the eggs, one at a time, beating on medium speed until the egg is incorporated, scraping the bowl after each addition. Do a pinch test with about a teaspoon of dough between your fingers; if it stretches, it's done. If it breaks into clumps, add the fifth egg and beat well. Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag and pipe 4" lengths of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush them with egg wash. Bake for 10 minutes at 425, then rotate the pan, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes. Cool on a rack. Once cool, these can be frozen in freezer bags if eclairs are not in your immediate future.
For the pastry cream, you will need 2 cups of milk, 1/2 cup of sugar (divided)a pinch of salt, 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped (Chef Yard calls for half a bean, but I like a lot of vanilla) or 2 tsp. vanilla extract, 3 tablespoons of all-purpose flour, 5 egg yolks and 1 tablespoon (1/2 oz.) unsalted butter.
Heat the milk with 1/4 cup of the sugar, the salt, and the seeds and hull of the vanilla bean (or the vanilla extract). Meanwhile, combine the flour with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and beat them with the egg yolks until everything is a thick eggy paste. When the milk comes to a boil, whisk about 1/2 cup into the egg mixture to temper it, then pour the eggs into the pot with the milk. Bring to the boil and cook, stirring constantly, until the custard pulls away from the bottom and sides of the pan when you tilt the pan -- again, this should take about 4 minutes. Strain the custard into a bowl set into an ice bath, or onto a plastic-wrap-lined sheet tray (Chef Yard recommends this when you are in a hurry). Do NOT strain this with your finest-meshed strainer. Use about a medium mesh. Trust me, I learned this the hard way yesterday. My strainer is still soaking. Do not be like the Bakerina. A regular-mesh strainer is fine for pastry cream. Dot the surface of the cream with butter and press another layer of plastic wrap on it to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool.
For the ganache, you will need 1/2 pound bittersweet chocolate, 3/4 cup (6 ounces) heavy cream (or 1/2 cup cream and 1/4 cup milk) and 2 tsp. light corn syrup. (Chef Yard recommends adding some clear apricot jelly to balance out the flavors; she's right, but I only have apricot jam, not jelly, and jam will not work here.)
Chop the chocolate finely and place in a large bowl. Bring the cream, milk (if you're using it) and corn syrup to a boil and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for two minutes, then stir very gently with a rubber spatula until the chocolate and cream are fully amalgamated, smooth and glossy. Don't rush this part. Patience will pay off, as will the patience to let the ganache cool to 90 degrees, when it is at the perfect consistency for coating. Just for a control, I coated some of the eclair tops with the ganache as soon as I finished mixing it, then saved the rest to coat them later. When you look at the photos below, you can see what a difference the temperature makes.
For assembly: Cut the eclairs in half lengthwise. Put the tops on a cooling rack set over a sheet pan. With a large spoon, pour the ganache over the tops. (You can also invert them, dip them into the ganache and replace them; this is a bit messier, but it still works.) Refrigerate the tops for 15 minutes to set the ganache. Put the pastry cream in a pastry bag (or a disposable plastic bag) and pipe a line of cream onto the eclair bottoms. Top with the tops. These are good for up to four hours after assembly. If you can't eat or give away two dozen eclairs at a single go, the ganache will keep for about a week; the pastry cream will keep for 48-72 hours. The pate a choux will keep for about 3 days, or, of course, longer if you freeze them.
Below: The "control" eclairs with the too-warm ganache, followed by two that I got right. Mmmmm.
I won't deny it, dear friends: it is a bit of a production. But it's a fun production, and at the end of it, you get to eat an eclair. I love it when that happens.