Sunday, August 31, 2008
August Daring Bakers: Chocolate Eclairs and My Sticky Little Secret
I officially have a tummy ache from sneaking licks of the different elements of this month's Daring Bakers challenge, and all is right with the world. And in case you were wondering, the tummy ache was worth it.
I was excited from the get-go for August's challenge, because it wasn't a multi-layer cake that required the dreaded buttercream, and because it was something I'd never made before: Pierre Herme's chocolate eclairs. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I've ever even tried homemade eclairs, let alone bake them myself.
[so this is what pate a choux looks like]
For this reason, eclairs have always seemed like the kind of cheap treat that you get with a supermarket assortment of party pastries. Not so. I learned my lesson, and I also learned how to make 1) choux pastry, 2) creme patissiere, or pastry cream, and 3) salted caramel. A pretty good month, don't you think?
[the only downside: caramel cleanup]
I more or less followed the Pierre Herme recipe, with a few important changes. Herme calls for a basic choux pastry, filled with a chocolate pastry cream and topped with a chocolate glaze. Chocolate is great and all, but I wanted a little something extra....something like salted caramel.
[caramel in the making]
In the spirit of challenging myself, I made two small batches of salted caramel (my first caramel sauce, ever!). Let me tell you something about homemade salted caramel. It is awesome. Totally, mind-blowingly, deliciously awesome. With just a hint of burnt sugar and a subtle, salty punch, it could just be the solution to all things pastry. Having made my chocolate pastry cream (I first tried a regular pastry cream, and let's just say things got a little, um, lumpy), I added the cooled caramel directly to it. Bingo. At first taste, the chocolate cream had been a little flat, but the caramel perked it right up. The second batch I used to drizzle over the filled eclairs, which created a zebra-esque aesthetic when combined with the chocolate ganache I used for the eclair glaze. Because the salted caramel was a bit sticky for drizzling, I mixed it with a spoonful of fromage blanc to get the proper consistency. Hot damn. Let's leave it at that.
But back to the recipe. Once I had my creative fun with the pastry cream and glazes, it was time to look that choux pastry in the face. I've never made a choux, which is also used for making cream puffs. I was a little anxious about the baking, because I'd heard about some deflating pastry shells, but I was sure to bake them amply, so that they were rigid and deep golden brown, and this did the trick. Still without a proper pastry bag, I used a big zip-top plastic bag to pipe little mini-eclair shapes, and some freaky-looking round specimens, onto a baking sheet:
Then I baked them for about 20 minutes. They were puffed and lovely by the time I took them out of the oven:
Once they were cool, I sliced them in half. They were pretty much hollow inside, as if begging me to stuff them full of delicious chocolate-caramel goodness:
From there, all I had to do was fill them with the caramel-chocolate crack (or pastry cream, if you prefer), and drizzle them with more crack (chocolate ganache and caramel glaze).
When I warned my mom about the impending baking project in my apartment, she was so excited (she's an eclair connoisseur, apparently), that she practically demanded that I invite her to share in the fruits of my labor. She and my dad came over for some serious eclair indulgence. And the verdict? Everybody enjoyed the eclairs, although the chocolate filling wasn't as popular as I thought it would be. Alone it was incredibly good, but there is something about a vanilla-filled eclair with a chocolate glaze on top that is just hard to beat. If I ever made these again, I would definitely go for a vanilla pastry cream, perhaps with caramel. My only other minor complaint about this recipe is that I found it difficult to make the eclairs pretty. What with all the filling and the glazing, they can look a bit messy. And since they aren't supposed to be made in advance, timing can get a little iffy when serving these to guests. Still, though, the good outweighs the bad for this month.
As far as the Daring Bakers challenges go, this one was low on the time-intensity scale (at least compared to July's challenge, which took two whole days), but produced very tasty results.
Thanks to this month's hosts, Tony and Meeta, for a great challenge! Be sure to check out the Daring Bakers blogroll for some more renditions of the Pierre Herme eclair.