Nothing lights up the eyes faster than the prospect of a freshly made chocolate eclair. Crisp, light and delicate, dipped in the most bitter chocolate and filled with good cream, chocolate eclairs are simply peerless. That is, until you consider the other eclairs – iced and filled with praline cream, delicate caramel or coffee – that grace the vitrines of any fine French patisserie. And then there are the unexpected variations: Fortnum & Mason does a most fetching eclair in pink, delightfully Norman Hartnell-esque.
Beyond the eclair, of course, there are all the other choux pastry treats to be had. The St Honoré, named for the eponymous patisserie on the Paris street where it was created. The Paris Brest, conjured to celebrate a famous bicycle race. The religieuse – or nun’s cake – made from two choux buns, one filled and iced with coffee-flavoured cream and icing atop another filled and iced with chocolate. Each pastry with its own evocative name, the epitome of epicurean deliciousness.
When made well. And, aye – there is the caveat. Choux pastries are the cinderella of French pastries: their spell lasts only a short while. Where a tart might last a day at least, and a gateau or a cake a fair few days, the delicate crisp of really good choux pastry lives, alas, but a few hours at best.
So, when making your own, while the recipe is reasonably straightforward, the key lies in the timings. Never cook the pastries in the morning or, saints preserve us, the day before. Instead, make your pastry then refrigerate it in a tub with a close-fitting lid until right before needed: it keeps remarkably well for a few days and also cooks and cools quickly.
Now, eclairs are best left to those home cooks who are adept at piping. For anyone else, you’ll need little more than a teaspoon to make profiteroles.
I have used Monsieur Michel Guérard’s recipes for both pastry and fillings since I was a nipper: crème chantilly – cream lightly whipped with sugar; crème chibouste – confectioner’s custard lightened with cream and whipped into soft folds; ice-cream flavoured with honey or vanilla; and, of course, chocolate sauce – made with the finest chocolate, extravagant but vital. Needless to say, on the pudding menu at Quo Vadis, we love and use them all accordingly.
With this final instalment, this column goes off to the great pudding basin in the sky. It has been a great gorgeous adventure, which I have been honoured to be a part of. Thanks so much for having me.
Makes about 30
For the dough
110g softened unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 level tsp salt
140g plain white flour, sifted
5 whole eggs
For the filling
1 litre milk
Half a vanilla pod
6 egg yolks
100g caster sugar
200ml double cream
For the chocolate sauce
300g dark chocolate 70-75%
280ml double cream
1 Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7 and line a baking sheet with baking paper. To make the dough, put the milk, water, butter and salt in a pan over a high heat and bring to the boil. Add in the flour and stir gently until a mass forms, then beat until the dough comes away from the sides of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat on to a trivet. Beat for minute or so until the steam subsides.
2 Crack the eggs into another bowl and whisk together lightly. When the dough in the pan is tepid, add in a little egg and beat well until thoroughly mixed in. Continue thus until all the egg is incorporated and the dough is made.
3 Scrape the dough into a tub for which you have a lid, and refrigerate for at least half an hour. This just makes spooning or piping the dough that bit easier.
4 When sufficiently chilled, spoon little rounds on to your prepared baking tray, a few centimetres apart so they may puff well. Put the tray in the preheated oven and bake for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and bake for a further 15-20 minutes. The profiteroles should be golden brown all over and as light as air. When cooked, remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
5 To make the confectioner’s custard, pour the milk into a pan, then cut the vanilla pod down the middle and scrape out the seeds into the milk. Bring this to a simmer over a gentle heat.
6 In another bowl, with an electric beater, mix the egg yolks and sugar together until pale and voluminous. Reduce the speed of the beater and add in the flours. Remove the vanilla pod from the milk, and pour the latter in a gentle, steady stream into the egg mixture, stirring all the while. Pour it all back into the pan and return to the heat, stirring until the custard thickens. Lower the heat and beat for a minute until the custard is smooth. Remove from the heat and tip into a bowl. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and pierce lightly all over to allow steam to escape. When cooled, put in the fridge.
7 In another bowl, whip the cream, then fold into the cold custard until smooth. Return to the fridge while you prepare the rest.
8 For the chocolate sauce, break the chocolate into small pieces. Put the cream in a pan and heat until simmering then tip in the chocolate and whisk until smooth. Then set it aside, keeping it warm so it doesn’t harden.
9 To assemble, split each profiterole and fill each with a spoonful of custard and a small scoop of vanilla ice-cream. Put the lids atop the profiteroles. Heap them in a bowl or on a large serving plate, spoon all over with the warm chocolate sauce and serve swiftly.
Jeremy Lee is the chef-proprietor of Quo Vadis restaurant in London; @jeremyleeqv