Éclairs are one of the most delectable French pastries you can treat yourself to, but it's a hard dessert to find if you don't have a good French bakery in your area.Éclairs are best when they're fresh. Fortunately, even though there are a few components, éclairs aren't too hard to put together at home in your own kitchen!
Éclairs have three components to them: the pastry, the filling and the frosting.
While there are an almost unlimited number of flavor variations that you can put on each of those components, you can't go wrong with the classic combination of vanilla pastry cream and chocolate frosting inside of an egg choux pastry case.
The pastry used to make éclairs is pâte à choux , aka choux pastry. It's a dough that is made with flour, water, milk, butter and eggs.
While that ingredient list sounds like it could apply to a number of pastries, this one is special in that it's cooked in a saucepan before baking. The dough is soft and easy to pipe using a pastry bag. For eclairs, the choux is piped into long, thin ovals.
A traditional éclair is fairly large, about 1" wide and 5" long. When you're piping them yourself, you can make them that size or smaller, depending on how many you want to make and how large your baking sheets are.
I often make mine a bit smaller because it makes the finished pastries a bit more snack-able and allows me to stretch the choux to feed more friends. The important thing is that you try to get all the éclairs the same size, so that they bake evenly.
The filling for a classic éclair is a pastry cream, a type of custard that's cooked on the stovetop and thickened with cornstarch, much like many pudding recipes.
Pastry cream is very stable and quite thick, which means that it's very easy to pipe into a pastry like this one. The pastry cream should be prepared several hours in advance or the night before to ensure it has plenty of time to chill and thicken.
Vanilla is the most common flavor for pastry cream, and that's what I'm using here.
I used a whole vanilla bean, in fact, which gives the pastry cream a pretty look as well as a nice flavor. You can make the pastry cream with vanilla extract instead of a whole vanilla bean — a less expensive, but still delicious alternative — by skipping the infusion step in the recipe and stirring 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract in with the butter.
The chocolate glaze on top of an éclair is the finishing touch that makes this pastry memorable. There are a wide variety of glazes you can use, but this is a favorite of mine because it's very easy to work with and very tasty.
The glaze — which is made with water, dark chocolate, powdered sugar and cocoa powder — is applied to the pastry shells while still warm, so it goes on very smoothly. In fact, I simply dip the top of the shell into the glaze, then smooth off any excess with a knife (though it will even out as it sits on its own).
If the glaze gets too thick, simply warm it up in the microwave for a few seconds and stir before applying it to the next pastry.
Assembling your éclairs
Once you have all your components ready to go, you are ready to assemble your éclairs! There are two ways to fill your shells:
- "Injecting" the pastry cream using a piping bag
- Cutting the eclairs open like a hot dog bun
The injection method is easy and not very messy, but you must be sure to inject the pastries in two or three spots to ensure you get an even amount of filling in every part of the pastry shell.
Cutting the eclairs in half is more straightforward than the injection method, though the filled éclairs tend to be a bit more fragile to handle.
You also have more options for the filling when you cut the shells in half. For instance, you could add some fresh berries to your pastry cream, which adds a nice pop of color to the dessert and is not as easy to do if you're injecting the filling.
After they're filled, the éclairs should be served right away or refrigerated until ready to serve. They're at their best when they're fresh, so don't hesitate to treat yourself to one right away!
Classic French éclairs recipe
Makes about 10 éclairs
For the pâte à choux:
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup milk (preferably whole)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine water, milk, butter and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
Add the flour to the boiling butter mixture all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon or spatula until dough comes together in a ball.
Continue to cook and stir for about 1 minute, until dough comes together and begins to look firmer and drier, then turn off the heat.
Transfer dough to mixer or clean bowl, and mix at a low speed for 2-3 minutes or until slightly cooled (bowl should not be too hot to touch). Beat in eggs one at a time, waiting until each egg is fully incorporated to add the next one. Increase mixer speed to make batter smooth and velvety.
Transfer dough to a piping bag fitted with a large (approximately ½") round tip.
Pipe dough onto prepared baking sheets in ovals that are about 1" by 5". Bake for about 35 minutes, or until dark golden brown. Allow éclairs to cool completely before filling.
For the vanilla pastry cream:
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1¼ cups milk
- 2 large egg yolks
- ¼ cup sugar
- 2½ tablespoons cornstarch
- 6 tablespoons butter, cold and cut into 5-6 pieces
Cut vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape seeds out using the back of a knife or a spoon. Transfer seeds to a medium saucepan. Add milk to vanilla and bring to a simmer. Turn of heat and allow mixture to sit for 15 minutes. Bring milk back to a simmer.
In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch until well combined. Drizzle in the hot milk while whisking constantly. Return mixture to pan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until pastry cream is bubbling and has thickened.
Remove pastry cream from heat and stir in the butter until completely incorporated. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, at least 6 hours.
For the chocolate glaze:
- 2 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
- ¼ cup water, divided
- 1½ cups powdered sugar
- ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
In a small, microwave-safe bowl, melt dark chocolate and 2 tablespoons water, stirring until smooth.
In a large bowl, whisk together powdered sugar, cocoa and remaining water, along with the melted chocolate mixture. Mix until icing is very smooth. If icing is extremely thick, add in a few additional teaspoons of water. It should have a thick, syrupy consistency.
Put vanilla pastry cream in a piping bag fitted with a small star tip. Pipe directly into éclairs using the tip to make holes in the base of the pastry (injection method). Alternatively, use a knife to cut the eclairs open like hot dog buns and pipe the cream into the resulting cavity (cutting method).
Dip the tops of the eclairs into the warm chocolate glaze, allowing the excess to drip off or removing excess with a knife. If glaze is too thick, heat in microwave for a few seconds and stir to thin as you go.
Serve immediately or refrigerate for a short period before serving.