Puffed and Stuffed

I’ve just been waiting for another Daring Bakers challenge to feature pate a choux, ever since the remarkable gateaux St. Honore that inspired me to apply for membership last year. So when this month’s challenge was announced to be Pierre Hermé’s Chocolate Éclairs, I couldn’t be happier: my first pate a choux, my first pastry cream, and actually my first éclairs period. In view of all these firsts, I decided to stick with the recipe, despite the creative leeway permitted by our hosts, Tony Tahhan and MeetaK, and make both chocolate glaze and pastry cream.

I’m still not sure what happened to August, but before I knew it, the challenge posting date was looming, so I stocked up on whole milk, eggs and bittersweet chocolate, and looked for an open time slot in the baby’s schedule. Jeremy sat down to watch a Red Sox game with Nolan a few days ago, so I pounced on the opportunity and set to it.

Chocolate sauce: check. (I still don’t quite understand why this step was necessary, but oh well.) I cut the sauce recipe in half and still had too much. Next came the pate a choux. I wasn’t sure how long to cook the dough to dry it out, but it came together really quickly without incident. I stuffed the resulting dough into my pastry bag with no tip attached, and piped my éclair shells. They seemed really small. I was tempted to try different shapes or sizes, but worried about differing bake times, so I restrained myself.

Into the oven they went, and I fastidiously followed the instructions about rotating and switching the pans, and cracking the oven door. After 20 minutes, as called for, I proudly pulled my beautifully golden, puffy éclair shells from the oven—and watched them turn into sad little pancakes. I recalled having read some comments that this could be caused by underbaking, so they went back in the oven for several more minutes, with another tray switch to keep them from cooking unevenly. They puffed up again, felt hard and sounded hollow, but flattened again after a minute or two out of the oven. I was worried about overbaking them, so I ended up just calling it good enough, and moving on to the pastry cream.

By this point, Nolan was sleeping like a little angel on Jeremy’s chest. The pastry cream turned out to be oddly familiar. Am I crazy, or is it basically just pudding? I think I made pretty much this same stuff for a chocolate cream pie a week or two back. Anyway, it tasted good, but never got quite as smooth as I would have liked, despite sieving it. It was also still a tad loose for piping after its ice bath, but would have firmed up a little better with some fridge time.

I started making the chocolate glaze and slicing my shells, finding the end in sight and optimistically thinking I could finish the whole project before the baby woke up again. Then Dustin Pedroia hit a grand slam, Jeremy yelled excitedly, and Nolan instantly woke and started crying. Sigh. The rest of the assembly was a blur: I frantically sliced through the impossibly thin shells, then dipped their top halves into the runny glaze, a messy proposition because it dripped everywhere and took its sweet time setting up. I then shoveled cream into my pastry bag with the star tip, hurriedly piped out the filling, sandwiched everything together, and gave two to my husband for sampling while I calmed Nolan down. The rest went in the fridge, where I hoped the glaze would set up a little more firmly.

It was the first time since I joined the Daring Bakers that I have completed a challenge with a sense more of frustration than accomplishment. My pate a choux shells were nothing like what they should have been. My pastry cream was essentially chocolate pudding. The chocolate glaze had the seemingly extraneous step of making chocolate sauce first, leaving me with tons of leftover sauce, glaze, and pastry cream—and 4 stranded egg whites as well. The glaze was too runny to spread with an icing spatula, and dipping them made a mess. For that matter, I managed to dirty half the dishes in my kitchen making this recipe, partly because I was rushing to get through it and didn’t have time for my usual practice of washing up as I went. All I got for my trouble was a trayful of small, flat, sloppy éclairs, and my husband ate the two I brought him with a fork and a shrug, and said they tasted right but éclairs aren’t really his thing.

Once I got Nolan fed and napping again, I went back to the kitchen and tried one of my éclairs from the refrigerator. The glaze had set, and the pastry cream firmed up as well, melding together the halves of the shell so they no longer slipped to and fro. The flavor was good, the pastry tasted properly cooked, and the cream filling was delicious. They still weren’t pretty, but at least each éclair appeared as a single unit. I ate another one, and another, and my frustration faded. Jeremy decided they were much better cold as well, and I caught him standing behind the refrigerator door eating éclairs surreptitiously later that day.

So thanks to Meeta and Tony for choosing this recipe. It was an excellent learning experience, if not an out-and-out success, and that’s what the Daring Bakers are all about. I don’t know that I would make this particular recipe again, but I definitely still want to master pate a choux, so I’ll continue playing with it in the future. At least now I have a baseline to start from. Next time I need to do a chocolate glaze, though, I’ll go back to Alton Brown’s no-fuss recipe, which has worked beautifully for me. Now please go check out the Daring Bakers blogroll to see some fantastically puffed and stuffed éclairs in every possible flavor combination.

I am a member of the Theta Class of the Daring Bakers, induced in July of 2007. For more information and a list of my previous challenges, click here.

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