In every family, there are stories that would make us all rich if we had a dime for every time they’re told. In my family, one of those tales involves my Grandmother Ruth’s famous chocolate eclairs. As legend would have it, Grandmother made thousands of delicate chocolate eclairs for the Millholland clan’s Thanksgiving feast … and as legend would further have it, she had to hide them so they wouldn’t be scarfed up before dinner.
Grandmother kept her chocolate eclair recipe close to the vest, and for good reason: She was much lauded for these special treats, and what good cook wants to reveal her secrets?
Thanks to my Aunt Betsey, who recently sent me Grandmother’s battered copy of the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, I now have a photocopy of the eclairs recipe. And I’m crossing my fingers that Grandmother, rest her soul, wouldn’t mind my sharing it with you here.
Grandmother’s recipe is written in the off-handed manner of someone who’s made a dish from memory for years. It reads, “You can shape by hand about the size of a penny toastie roll.” (Whatever that is.) She also suggests spiking the pastry cream with rum or brandy. I don’t have her recipe for the chocolate glaze, so I found a simple combination of semisweet chocolate and heavy cream that works well.
This chocolate eclair recipe isn’t particularly challenging, but it is time-consuming, with four different steps: Make the eclairs, make the filling, make the chocolate glaze, assemble. You can prepare the components a day ahead of time and keep them, refrigerated, until the day you want to enjoy them. Fill and glaze the pastries at least 2 hours before eating, so they have time to chill and the glaze firms up.
And honestly, they’re just so yummy that your family will rave, as mine has done for years.
(Ssshhhh … I’m taking a batch of these eclairs to my Dad as a Thanksgiving surprise.)
Grandmother Ruth’s eclairs with pastry cream and chocolate glaze
For the eclairs:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
4 large eggs + 1 egg for brushing dough
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Grab a 1-gallon plastic bag and cut about 1/2 inch off a bottom corner; spray the inside of the bag lightly with cooking spray.
In a medium saucepan, bring the butter and water to a boil. Add the flour and salt; keeping the pan over low heat, stir with a wooden spoon vigorously until the dough is well-mixed and it leaves the sides of the pan and cook for 2 minutes. Transfer the dough to a food processor fitted with the metal blade or to a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Add the eggs one at a time, being sure to thoroughly blend the mixture and stopping the machine to scrape down the bowl after each addition. (Grandmother’s recipe notes that the eggs should be vigorously beaten into the dough so that the eclairs dry out thoroughly on the insides while baking, lest they get soggy.)
Whisk 1 egg with about 1 Tbsp. of water to make an egg wash. Transfer the dough into the plastic bag; gather the top and use it as a pastry bag to squeeze a fat line of dough about 3 or 4 inches long onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. Dampen the tip of your finger and use it to smooth out any bumps. Repeat to fill each baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between eclairs. Lightly brush each one with egg wash.
Bake the eclairs at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 325 and continue baking for 25 minutes more, rotating the baking sheets halfway through to ensure even browning. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let the eclairs cool.
(Note: My eclairs came out lumpy and funny-looking, more round than slim and long. Filling and glazing the pastries pretties them up quite nicely.)
For the pastry cream:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. flour
2 cups milk
4 large egg yolks
2 tsp. vanilla extract (and/or rum or brandy)
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the sugar, salt and flour. Slowly whisk in the milk. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a gentle boil. Turn down the heat. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Whisk about 1/3 cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks, beating them together. (This is called ‘tempering’ so that the eggs won’t scramble when you whisk them into the hot milk.) Slowly pour the egg-milk mixture into the pan, whisking constantly until the mixture is smooth. Return the pan to medium-low heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the pastry cream is thick and custardy and begins to bubble, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla (or rum or brandy, Grandmother says). Let cool. Transfer the pastry cream to a bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface; refrigerate until 3–4 hours before serving.
For the chocolate glaze:
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
In a small saucepan, bring the cream just to a slow boil. Place the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl and pour the cream over it, stirring constantly to melt the chocolate and create a smooth glaze. Set aside and keep lukewarm. (Glaze can be made ahead; simply re-warm in the microwave or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water.)
For assembling the eclairs:
Bring the eclairs and pastry cream to room temperature; keep the chocolate glaze slightly warm. Use a serrated knife to gently slice eclairs in half. Using a spoon or pastry bag, fill half of each eclair with pastry cream, then replace the top. (Alternately, you can gently poke a hole in the end of each eclair and use a pastry bag to pipe the cream inside.) Spoon chocolate glaze on top of each eclair. Transfer eclairs to a platter, cover with plastic wrap that’s been sprayed with cooking spray, and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours before serving.