An eclair: that incredible lightness of being

September 15, 1993|By Ronda Diguglielmo | Ronda Diguglielmo,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Eclairs, those very European pastries, are staples of French bakeries here and abroad. Usually filled with sweet pastry cream and topped with a generous swipe of shiny chocolate or vanilla icing, they are beloved by generations that consider them the ultimate pastry. As adored as the original may be, we have taken the eclair to places it has never gone before, transforming it into a very modern dessert of stunning diversity, subtle flavors and cosmopolitan style -- without compromising its integrity.

All eclairs begin with a simple egg dough called pate a choux or choux paste. This is the same dough from which cream puffs, gnocchi, profiteroles and beignets are made. What makes them different from each other is their shape and the way they are cooked.

Classic choux paste is light and airy and without much intrinsic flavor and is as easy to make as beating together water, melted butter, flour and eggs. Be sure the butter melts completely in the water, the mixture reaches a full boil and that you whisk the flour and other dry ingredients into it with vigorous strokes so the paste becomes very smooth.

Finally, when incorporating the eggs, beat them with a wooden spoon until the shiny dough is soft enough to slide from a spoon without completely losing its shape. For eclairs, its consistency should be such that it can be piped into simple shapes before baking. Eclairs emerge from thick, piped strips of dough that, when baked, puff up to nearly three times their size and assume the familiar shape.

To augment the mild flavor of traditional choux paste, we can enhance the pastry by adding a variety of spices, extracts or citrus zests. Bolstering the flavor of the pastry accentuates the flavor of the filling, for it is this creamy, sweet interior that describes the essence of the pastry.

It's important to let the eclairs cool completely before filling them. If they are even slightly warm, they will turn soggy when filled.

While you can bake the eclairs a day ahead of serving them, or, if you want to freeze them, a month ahead of time, it is not advisable to fill and glaze them until just before serving. The light pastry will turn leaden if allowed to sit too long filled with moist, creamy filling.

As the final touch, these eclairs are either glazed, as is traditional, or served with a sauce. Either way, they make a pretty presentation, sure to please anyone already an eclair aficionado as well as those who may not have tried the French-style pastry before.

Raspberry-peach mousse eclairs

Makes 8 eclairs

DOUGH:

3 large eggs, at room temperature

2/3 cup water

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

1/8 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup sifted flour

, 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest

FILLING:

1/4 cup cold water

1 envelope unflavored powdered gelatin

1 cup whipping cream

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

4 ounces Swiss white chocolate (such as Lindt), coarsely chopped

1/2 cup frozen raspberries, thawed

2 tablespoons Chambord liqueur

0 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh or canned peaches

SAUCE:

1 (12-ounce) bag frozen raspberries

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons Chambord liqueur

powdered sugar for garnish, optional

peach slices and fresh mint sprigs for garnish, optional

Position rack in center of oven and heat to 425 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

For dough, place eggs in glass measuring cup and stir with fork until blended. Pour about 2 tablespoons egg mixture into small cup, leaving 1/2 cup egg mixture in measuring cup.

Combine water, butter and salt in medium heavy saucepan and set over medium heat. Heat, stirring occasionally, until butter has melted. Increase heat to medium-high and bring mixture to boil. Remove pan from heat.

Using wire whisk, stir in flour and whisk vigorously 20 to 30 seconds until mixture is smooth and pulls away from side of pan. Return pan to heat and, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, cook 30 to 60 seconds, until paste forms a very smooth ball. Stir in lemon zest. Transfer paste to large bowl.

Pour reserved 1/2 cup beaten eggs over paste and beat vigorously with wooden spoon 45 to 60 seconds, until mixture forms smooth, soft dough. Dough should hold its shape when scooped up with spoon but be soft enough to slowly slide off spoon when tilted. If dough does not slide off spoon, add 1/2 tablespoon reserved egg mixture, beat until smooth and retest dough with spoon. (Remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons egg will be used to glaze tops of eclairs before they are baked.)

Fill pastry bag fitted with 5/16-inch plain tip with eclair dough. Pipe 4 1/2 -inch strips about 1/2 -inch wide on prepared baking sheets, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between eclairs. Dip finger into some remaining beaten egg and gently smooth down any "tails" left from piping. Lightly brush tops of eclairs with more of egg.

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