Eclairs seem like a daunting foodstuff to make, and I always figured they where hard to make. The truth is that they where incredibly easy. That is not to say that they are not time consuming, but with good instructions I believe that eclairs are cake.
I will start you where I started. Years ago I watched an episode of Alton Brown's Good Eats titles Choux Shine (choux is pronounced like shoe)season six episode ten, and you can probably find it on youtube.
Chocolate eclairs are made with a special kind of dough/batter called pâte (pronounced like pot) and it is basically a dough/batter that has a high fat content and has been cooked before it is baked. It was developed in the middle ages originally to create sealed vessels for meat. If you cooked the meat in this dough the dough acted as a can and sealed the cooked meat in with its own juices. The high fat content of the dough creates a barrier between the moisture and microbes in the air from the meat. This allowed the food to not spoil for far longer than other means available to people at the time.
The specific dough that eclairs are made from is called pâte à choux. It is a pastry dough and is used differently. Cooking the dough allows the starch molecules to gelate and absorb tons of water, while the fat gets in the way of gluten chains and allows the dough to be light and fluffy. When the dough is then baked water is released from the dough in the form of steam which is trapped in the dough and creates a large air pocket in the center of the dough and forces it to rise. When the pastry finishes cooking the side is pierced with a knife to allow the steam to escape, and the pastry sets. It can then be filled with the substance of your choice, traditionally pastry cream.
Lets start with a recipe.
1 cup of water
6 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon of sugar (you would skip this if you where making a savory pastry)
a pinch of salt (about 1/8 of a teaspoon) for sweet
or 1 teaspoon of salt for savory
4 large eggs and 2 egg whites (the egg white we will acquire in an efficient manor)
5 and 3/4 ounces of flour (flour can get packed and this recipe requires a very accurate ratio of water to flour)
This should yield about 14 eclairs.
Put the water, butter, salt and sugar into a small pot, and bring to a boil.
Now if you have a stand mixer you can use, I recommend you use it, but I did not use one when making this dough. Add one egg at a time and mix completely into the dough.
Transfer the pâte à choux into a pastry piping bag and using a large head portion it out into strips on a greased baking sheet. Alton Brown uses an S (an S on top of itself so that the batter makes one oval shape). Then wetting your finger with water poke down any spiky edges, if you skip this step those little spiks will expand while baking.
Now place the dough into a 425 degree preheated oven for ten minutes. Then turn the oven down to 350 and leave it in for another 10 minutes, this dries the dough out without burning it. The most important thing about the baking stage is that you do not open the door to the oven while baking. I don't care how tempting it is, don't do it.
Pull the baking sheet out of the oven and after a minute you should be able to touch them. Pierce the side of every one with a sharp knife. Congratulations you have made some hollow pastries. Time to fill them, but with what. Well you will just have to wait until next week to find out wont you.