8th October 2012 - Gayle Lazda
Chambers Dictionary used to describe the éclair as "a cake, long in shape but short in duration". The latter part of the definition evidently refers to the time taken to eat rather than create, as Gayle Lazda, fromour Charing Cross Road branch, found out when she tried out the classic chocolate éclair recipe from Secrets of Éclairs by Marianne Magnier Moreno.
I don't know about you but my experience of éclairs is twofold: the tasteless cardboardy type you (by which I mean, I) might have bought in a moment of foolish optimism from a supermarket chiller cabinet; and the inexplicably named Cadbury's sweets.
So it isn't a type of patisserie that has impacted much on my life, but that's all about to change. Secrets of Éclairs by Marianne Magnier-Moreno is a book about éclairs. Éclairs, and nothing else. I mean, profiteroles don't even get a mention, and they're basically just short éclairs. At just over 100 pages it's not the longest cookbook ever written, but still, that's an awful lot of éclair.
I've always thought there was something noble about being an expert on one, extremely specific subject - being one of those amazing people who bewilder the nation over their breakfast every Thursday on In Our Time has long been an ambition of mine, and if Melvin Bragg ever turns his attention to fine French patisserie, he could do a lot worse than inviting Magnier-Moreno to give her twopence. Although twopence is understating it: the basic choux pastry recipe alone covers six pages, and that's before you've even got to the various options for fillings and icings. But then this is complicated stuff - you won't find choux in Jamie's latest, because some things can't be simplified - but they can be explained, and by the end of this recipe Magnier-Moreno makes sure you know exactly how and why each ingredient, each technique works.
Which isn't to say it's not intimidating. To be honest, reading through this beautiful book with an eye to actually baking something from it (as opposed to just looking at the pretty pictures) is kind of giving me the fear. It's full of the kinds of words and phrases Michel Roux Jr shouts at me in my Masterchef: The Professionals-based nightmares. I've decided to stick with the most basic recipe - your classic chocolate éclair - but still, this could all go horribly, horribly wrong. Bear with me.
First, the choux pastry. Milk, water, butter, salt and sugar go in a saucepan, and are heated until the butter melts. I let the whole thing boil for 2 to 3 seconds (it is all terrifyingly precise), then take it off the heat and stir in the flour. It goes back on the heat to be "dried" before I move on to the next stage.
Which is where it starts to get really scary. Add too much egg, and the whole thing is RUINED. I mean, you literally have to start again, because there is no way to rescue it. Eek. I read through the instructions about five times before plucking up the courage to carry on. I add the egg with absurd levels of caution, stopping between each addition to perform The Spatula Test. This involves seeing how long it takes for the mixture to fall off a spatula - if it doesn't, or takes ages, add more egg; if it falls off straight away, you and your pastry are a failure. No pressure. I keep doing this until I get too scared to add any more egg, and decide to hope for the best.
At which point I whip out my shiny new piping bag. (My usual tactic of fashioning a makeshift piping bag from baking parchment and Sellotape seemed beneath this recipe's dignity, so I splashed out.) I don't know whether I'm holding the piping bag at the required 45º angle, and I certainly fail to make them all a uniform 14cm despite digging my tape measure out in an attempt at precision, but they look alright. I think. Oh well, into the oven at 150ºC for an hour.
I can't help sneaking a look through the oven door half way through, and... they look like éclairs! All puffed up and golden and éclair-like! With a renewed sense of confidence I begin on the filling: chocolate crème pâtissière. My confidence quickly evaporates with the precise demands of the recipe. Eight grams of flour. Eight grams! I do not have scales precise enough for this kind of thing. Once again, I just have to hope for the best. I mix egg yolks, sugar, salt, flour and cornflour, and pour over a mixture of hot milk and sugar. I whisk it back over the heat until it boils and thickens, and then mix it with chocolate ganache. It tastes good, so I'm asssuming I can't have gone too wrong.
Once the éclairs are out of the oven and cooled, I pipe in the crème pâtissière. It's kind of difficult to work out whether I've put enough in, but it seems to be oozing back out the holes I've made, and I think this can only be a good sign.
I feel I'm finally on the home stretch when I begin the icing. (Just to give you some perspective, I've been at this all afternoon. It's now early evening. I'm tired.) I put dark chocolate, butter and honey in a bowl, pour over scalded cream and stir until it's smooth. I dip each éclair into the ganache, at which point they are, finally, ready.
Well. I mean, they look great, just like éclairs are meant to look, which I'm pretty pleased about. But since the whole long and complicated process has so exhausted me that I'm entirely ready to go to bed despite the fact that it's only seven o'clock, they better do more than look good. And they do. As my ever-eloquent Head Taster puts it: an effing masterpiece. It wasn't simple, and I'm clearly going to have to work on my stamina if I'm ever going to master patisserie, but I think it might just be worth it.
Read Gayle's previous blogs on making Oliver Peyton's teacakes, The H ummingbird Bakery's Guinness cake, Dan Lepard's apple, walnut and custard cake and Marcus Wareing's egg custard tart.
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