Auguste Escoffier, the patriarch of all subsequent cookbook writers, includes a single éclair recipe in his Guide Culinaire (1903): "Prepare some very small Chou Paste éclairs and fill them with a purée of the trimmings and intestines of woodcock prepared à la fine Champagne then rubbed through a fine sieve and mixed with butter and well seasoned. Coat the éclairs with brown Sauce Chaud-froid, decorate with a few shapes of truffle and glaze with jelly."
As Harris Teeter does not carry woodcock intestine and nobody is going to let me play with Burgundy truffle at $1,000 per pound, the chocolate éclair will have to suffice. Happily, Weaver Street Market produces an éclair so technically correct that it might have been plucked from the gracefully stemmed table of an art nouveau patisserie. The Triangle is a long way from the epic buffet of France, but a slab of buttered miche (Weaver Street's supernal rustic loaf) and a few éclairs surely close the distance.
clairs are the baked realization of pâte a choux (paht a SHOO), a mixture of flour, butter, milk and egg that becomes a crisp and feather-light conveyance for whatever rich load you prefer. Weaver Street's éclair recipe is standard, but its execution is meticulous. Its choux paste benefits from fine local ingredients (milk from Maple View Farm, flour from Lindley Mills, eggs from Latta's Egg Ranch) and, in the ultimate demonstration of cost-ineffective commitment, its pastry cream is flavored with fresh vanilla bean rather than vanilla extract.
Keith Rogers, manager of the pastry department at Weaver Street's 20,000-square-foot production facility in Hillsborough, explains that the key to successful éclairs—and so much else—is simple patience. Many will yank éclair shells from the oven as soon as they have risen and turned a pleasant yellow-golden, not realizing that the shell's crispness depends on nearly complete evaporation of its moisture. clair shells are done only when they have turned a uniform medium-dark brown (the color of lightly creamed coffee) and become curiously weightless in the palm of the hand.
"I tell everyone here that they need to test the shells by picking them up," says Rogers. "They should feel airy and light, almost like nothing, and they should sound hollow."
As "woodcock intestine" suggests, the éclair is a model of versatility. By spiking the warm pastry cream with whatever you like—espresso, dark chocolate, zested orange peel, rose water, Grand Marnier, Kahlúa, kirsch—you can work countless variations on the classic theme. You can also redeploy the choux paste to make profiteroles (cream puffs filled with whipped cream or ice cream) or blend the choux paste with grated Gruyère and a pinch of nutmeg to make gougères—in plebian terms, cheese popovers.
For the pâte a choux (choux paste for éclair shells)
3/4 cup (172 grams) whole milk
3/4 cup (168 grams) water
1 stick (113 grams or 4 oz.) unsalted butter
3/4 tsp. (4 grams) kosher salt
1 1/2 cups + 1 tbs. (225 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
9 large eggs (number may vary depending on size of eggs)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Combine the milk, water, butter and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to avoid burning. Add the sifted flour all at once, stirring vigorously over low-medium heat until the dough has released much of its moisture and formed a dry mass, about five minutes. Transfer the dough to a stand mixer or large bowl. Add the eggs one at a time. After the addition of each egg, mix thoroughly on low-medium speed or vigorously by hand until the egg is fully incorporated and the dough has reconstituted as a tacky, homogenous mass. Continue to add eggs until the mixture has become a soft paste. To test whether the paste is correct, run a finger through it, making an inch-deep rut. If the rut slowly closes, the paste is done. If it remains open, add additional eggs, one at a time.
Chef Rogers pipes his éclairs in the elegant form of a flattened "s," creating a triple-layered shell for larger interior volume. Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Transfer the dough to a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip (Ateco, size 8). In one continuous stream of extruded dough, pipe a 2-inch line in one direction. Bring the dough back over itself 4 inches in the other direction; bring the dough back over itself 3 inches in the original direction. Leave plenty of room between shells to accommodate expansion.
Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, resisting the temptation to open the oven door. Lower the temperature to 400 and continue to bake for another 20–30 minutes, or until the éclair shells are uniformly medium-dark brown, crisp, dry, hollow and nearly weightless.
For the crème pâtissière (pastry cream)
3 1/4 cups (750 grams) whole milk
1 cup (187.5 grams) granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped for pulp (or 1 tbs. vanilla extract)
2/3 cup (150 grams) whole milk
4 (210 grams) large eggs
3 (50 grams) large egg yolks
10 tbs. (75 grams) cornstarch
5 tbs. (75 grams) unsalted butter
In a medium saucepan, simmer the milk (3 1/4 cups), sugar and scraped pulp of the vanilla bean. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let it cool slightly. Combine the eggs, egg yolks and remaining milk (2/3 cup), whisking to blend. Add cornstarch and whisk until perfectly smooth. Add 1 cup of the hot milk-sugar-vanilla mixture to egg-cornstarch mixture and whisk to incorporate. Pour the tempered egg-cornstarch mixture into remaining milk-sugar-vanilla mixture. Cook over low-medium heat, whisking continuously, until the pastry cream has developed the consistency of pudding and reached a minimum temperature of 160 degrees (to avoid the danger of salmonella), about five minutes. Remove the pastry cream from the heat and transfer to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the butter and beat at low speed until the butter is melted and the pastry cream is well aerated and silken, about 15 minutes.
For the chocolate ganache
7 oz. (200 grams) semisweet or bittersweet dark chocolate, no more than 65% cacao
1/2 cup + 1 tbs. (133 grams) heavy cream
Roughly chop the chocolate and place in a bowl. Gently bring the cream to a simmer and pour over the chocolate, stirring to form a smooth and glossy ganache.
To assemble: Using a chopstick or similar implement, poke a deep hole in one end of the éclair shell. Pipe the shell full of pastry cream and dip the upper half of the éclair in the warm chocolate ganache, taking care to plug the hole. Serve at room temperature or refrigerate.
Notes: Weaver Street Market, like most professional bakeries, weighs all ingredients in grams. I have converted grams to spoons and cups, slightly rounding as necessary. For maximum accuracy, weigh all ingredients. In the absence of a piping bag, spoon the choux paste onto the parchment-covered cookie sheet and sculpt into a small oblong (or opt for profiterole-like dollops, which will look neater). Instead of piping or injecting the pastry cream, slice the baked éclair or profiterole shell horizontally and spoon the pastry cream into the hollow, replacing the top sandwich-style. This approach will result in what we'll politely call rustic charm, but in no loss of mouth appeal.