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When it comes to these classic Italian pastries, homemade is totally worth the effort for special occasions.
“Cutting and filling eclairs was one of the first jobs I was ever saddled with at Carlo’s Bake Shop,” says Buddy, “where the old pros would cup the shell in one hand and slice through it with a knife held in the other (please don’t try this at home). It was one of my first and vivid memories of how a great baker can mimic the timing, efficiency, and exactitude of a machine. Not that I was able to function like that right off the bat; I was so afraid of cutting myself that I would slice away from my body and make the cut crooked. At home, where you’re not concerned with generating hundreds of eclairs in one afternoon, you can simply set the baked éclairs on a cutting board and slice them like a piece of bread.”
PRO TIP: With most cookies, you can usually tell when they’re done by looking at them, but to know if your cream puff shells are done, just gently pick one up and it should come off the pan easily.
PS: The same easy pastry batter used here can also be used to make Buddy’s Cream Puffs.
Excerpt from Baking with the Cake Boss by Buddy Valastro. Copyright © 2011 by Buddy Valastro. Used with permission by Atria. All rights reserved.
For the Italian custard cream: Put the milk and the vanilla in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
In a bowl, whip together the sugar, flour, and egg yolks with a hand mixer. Ladle a cup of the milk-vanilla mixture into the bowl and beat to temper the yolks.
Add the yolk mixture to the pot and beat over medium heat with the hand mixer until thick and creamy, about 1 minute. As you are beating, move the pot on and off the flame so that you don’t scramble the eggs. (Buddy’s Tip: The longer you cook this cream, the thicker it will become, so you can-and should- adjust the texture to suit your taste.)
Remove the pot from the heat, add the butter, and whip for 2 minutes to thicken the cream. Transfer to a bowl. Let cool, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 6 hours or up to 1 week.
(To make chocolate custard cream, add 1½ ounces melted, cooled unsweetened chocolate along with the butter. For a richer chocolate flavor, add a little more.)
For the choux pastry: Put the water, butter, and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until the ingredients come together in a smooth, uniform dough, about 2 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. (You may also use a hand mixer.) Start paddling on low speed, then add the eggs, one at a time, until thoroughly absorbed, mixing for 1 minute between eggs, and stopping the motor periodically to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Finish with the final egg and mix for an additional two minutes. (Buddy’s Tip: Use the dough immediately. It does not refrigerate well.)
For the eclair shells: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450˚F.
Transfer the dough into a pastry bag fitted with the #6 plain tip. Pipe eclairs onto nonstick baking trays in strips 1 inch wide and 3 inches long. (You may need more than 2 trays; if so, save some batter until after one tray has been baked, cleared, and cooled.) You should be able to make 24 eclairs.
Bake the eclairs in the oven, in batches if necessary, until they are golden brown and they have set enough that you can pick them up (test by gently pinching one with your thumb and forefinger to see if it can be lifted), 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven and let the eclairs cool on the tray for 20 minutes. (The éclair shells can be frozen in a plastic freezer bag for up to 1 month; let come to room temperature before cutting and filling.)
Assemble the eclairs: Working on a cutting board, use a serrated knife to slice the eclairs open like hot dog buns, without cutting all the way through the pastry.
Spoon the custard cream into a pastry bag fitted with the #7 star tip. (You can rinse out, dry, and reuse the same bag you used for the dough.) Pipe filling into each éclair.
For the icing: Bring the water to a boil in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water. Whisk in the sugar until the mixture is uniformly smooth and white, then stir in the chocolate until it melts and blends in. Use an icing spatula to ice the tops of the eclairs. (If the icing seizes up while you’re working, simply return the pot to the double boiler over low heat and whisk to reinvigorate.)
Serve the eclairs right away or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 2 days.