I was never a coordinated child and most certainly not one that could ever stretch into gracefulness (sadly these attributes didn’t manifest themselves in adulthood either). Neither did I really enjoy physical exertions (that didn’t come with adulthood either), preferring to burrow with a book and a big bowl of rice and beans liberally laced with extra virgin olive oil and a spattering of red wine vinegar. I was round and soft and white with a mass of wild curly hair (those attributes did decide to stay on into adulthood I am sorry to report despite semi-starvation, scorching hair-straightening, and truly death-defying tanning). Slap that into a pink leotard in the middle of a flock of twirling, shiny-haired, lighter-than-air little ballerinas and that, my dear friends, is my version of hell.
Not that the little ballerinas where bad people (now, wouldn’t that have been horrid? You might as well have thrown in the chicken livers!). Not at all, in fact they were all quite nice and relatively harmless. I actually like ballerinas a lot – they are lovely to watch! It’s just that, heavy-footed and heavy-handed, I knew, even in my young and immature heart, that I was in a place I so totally was not meant to be. And in my inexperienced youth, all I could helplessly think was “why am I here??”
It’s been a very long time since ballet class, and I have learned quite a few things about trying to stick a curly peg into a straight hole. I have since learned to embrace most things about myself (my hair and I, I fear, are still fated to remain frenemies). I am also learning to pay more attention when I hear that voice plaintively ask “why am I here??” And realize that, no longer a child, I can actually do something about it.
I am still heavy-handed however, which is why I can never quite pull off delicate confections like éclairs. Unlike ballet class though, I love desserts, so I do my best anyway.
Vanilla Bean Éclairs
(pâte à choux and crème pâtissière slightly adapted from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, glaze slightly adapted from Sweetapolita)
For the vanilla bean crème pâtissière (pastry cream)
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup sugar, divided in two
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthways, seeds scraped
- A pinch of salt
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
For the pâte à choux (cream puff and éclair pastry)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
- 4 large eggs, plus 1 large egg white if needed
For the vanilla bean glaze
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthways, seeds scraped
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
- Make your crème pâtissière. In a saucepan, combine the milk, 1/4 cup sugar, vanilla bean and seeds, and salt. Cook over medium heat until this comes to a simmer.
- In a bowl whisk the egg yolks, cornstarch, and the remaining 1/4 cup sugar until homogenous. Whisking constantly, slowly pour about 1/2 cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture. Continue to add the milk mixture, about a half cup at a time, whisking, until everything is incorporated.
- Pour the mixture back in the saucepan and cook over medium high heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens (or reaches 160F on an instant read thermometer –I didn’t have one). Remove from the heat and remove the vanilla bean from the mixture.
- Transfer the mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the butter and beat on medium speed until the butter has melted and the mixture cools, about 5 minutes.
- When the mixture cools transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing it direcly onto the surface of the crème pâtissière to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled, for a minimum of 2 hours or a maximum of 2 days.
- Make your pâte à choux. In a saucepan combine the butter, sugar, salt, and 1 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat, then immediately remove from the heat. With a wooden spoon, quickly stir in the flour until combined. Return the pan to medium-high heat and cook, stirring continuously, until the mixture pulls away from the sides and a film forms on the bottom of the pan, about 3 minutes.
- Transfer the batter to the bowl of an electric mixture fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until slightly cooled, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium and add the whole eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated before adding the next egg. Test the batter by touching it with your finger and lifting to form a soft peak. If it doesn’t form a soft peak then add the egg white, a little at a time, until a soft peak forms.
- Place the batter into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch plain tip. Pipe the batter onto a parchment lined baking sheet about 1 1/2 inches apart. Martha instructs to mark lines of about 3 1/2 inches with a pencil and ruler on your parchment to guide you (flipping the parchment over before piping on the batter) but I didn’t – you may want to though, seeing as how my éclairs came out a tad crooked.
- Place your baking sheet in a pre-heated 425F oven. If you have two racks, place them on the upper and lower thirds so you can bake two pans at once, if not you will just have to do it in batches like I did. After 10 minutes at 425F, lower the heat to 350F. Continue to bake for 25-30 minutes more until the pastries are golden brown. Transfer pastries to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Make your glaze. Scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the milk and mix thoroughly. Let this stand for about an hour. Whisk the confectioners’ sugar gradually into the milk, until you get the desired consistency. It shouldn’t be too runny. It will feel quite thick but still slowly run down the sides of the éclairs.
- Assemble your éclairs. Poke a hole on the side of one pastry shell. Widen the hole with the pastry tip you will use for filling. Repeat with the other pastry shells.
- Place your crème pâtissière in a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4 inch plain tip. Insert the tip into the hole you’ve made in the pastry shell and pipe to fill it. Repeat with the other pastry shells.
- I didn't have a small pastry tip so I sliced the shells open and filled them that way. Not the tidiest thing but in a pinch it does the job.
- Place the filled éclairs on a wire rack and drizzle, drape, or pipe on the glaze. Sprinkle with some gold or silver dragees if you are feeling fancy, and let the glaze set.
This may seem like a very multi-step process, and it is, but you can break this down over a couple of days so as not to overwhelm. You can make the crème pâtissière up to two days before, stored in the fridge. The glaze can be made a day before and stored in the fridge as well. Just give each a good stirring before using. The pate au choux can be made a day before and stored in an airtight container at room temperature (note though that it will soften as it sits). You can assemble everything before you plan to serve the éclairs, but make sure to leave enough time for the glaze to set.
***Now, a giveaway!!***
I used some of the vanilla beans I received from the kind folk at The Vanilla Company, who bring these precious beans to our shores. For the crème pâtissière I used a gold label Tahitian bean, plump and moist and headily aromatic. For the glaze I wanted a softer version of the same so I used the regular Tahitian. This was my first time baking with real vanilla beans and I so enjoyed it! Now, I’d like to share the joy with one of you (because you’re a fantastic bunch and because I love that you come here and keep me company!) :) I will be giving away one pack of these vanilla bean beauties!! All you have to do to join is leave a comment on this post. I will be placing your names in a hat and picking one. This is open to all readers in the Philippines and beyond.
These may not at all look like the elegant French pastries that we press our noses against glass to stare at, but delicious nonetheless, and proudly my own. The vanilla beans impart such a deep and encompassing fragrance and flavor that a few uneven edges can and will be forgiven. I loved the crème pâtissière! Creamy and vanilla-infused, I wanted to eat it out of a bowl with a spoon, like a comforting as English custard.
Many times, unusual and odd parts together make the most charming wholes. Let’s embrace what makes us, us, and never let anything keep us from making our éclairs and eating them too!