by Gabriella Gershenson
How to master the éclair? For this Modernist Cuisine pastry chef, it’s precision, precision, precision.
Francisco Migoya may be the world’s foremost baking authority that you’ve never heard of. The former head of pastry at The French Laundry and Bouchon Bakery left a professorship at the Culinary Institute of America to head the Modernist Cuisine test kitchen—a state-of-the-art kitchen and test lab in Bellevue, Washington, dedicated to using science to advance cooking with new techniques and innovations—where he has been spearheading its forthcoming opus on bread. It turns out Migoya’s all-time favorite pastry is the éclair, and he has gone to great lengths to perfect the tubular cream puff—all in the name of science.
What’s the correct texture for an éclair?
Francisco Migoya: There are different schools of thought on this. I’ve always understood éclairs to be crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside. Back in the day when I used to work at The French Laundry and Bouchon Bakery, we would fill éclairs to order so that you could get that textural contrast.
What made you decide to perfect the éclair?
FM: Aside from the fact that it’s one of the top five pastries I want to eat, I had pastry envy. I was in Paris the year before last, and I went to Christophe Adam’s L’Éclair de Génie. He set a new standard for éclairs with this shop, similar to what Pierre Hermé did for the macaron. They were so beautiful that I wanted to master them, too. The simplest things are often the hardest to accomplish, and when something is the backbone of pastry, you need to know how to do it right.
What is an ideal éclair?
FM: A perfect éclair is about the length of a person’s palm. The choux is evenly tubular, hollow, and crisp. It will be filled with enough cream so that it feels heavier than it looks. There’s also a topping or a glaze that gives you a visual point of reference to what’s inside. Say, a coffee glaze if the éclair is filled with coffee cream. You should be done eating it in five or six bites.
How does baking it create a hollow shell?
FM: There are many tiny bubbles within the batter. What happens is, as it starts to bake, these bubbles coalesce into each other. So you multiply it times a million and you end up with one big bubble inside and that’s your hollow core.
What are your tips for making the perfect éclair shell?
FM: The piping tip matters. I use an Ateco #869 [French Star Large]. It’s pretty large, but what matters the most is that it has very fine fluting, so basically it’s going to make very thin but pronounced ridges through the surface of the dough, which is important. Think of when you score bread dough, which releases steam through a designated channel when it’s baking and prevents the dough from blowing out. That’s what the ridges do for the éclair. They give the steam that’s in the batter a lot of intentional places to escape from, which allows for a very even expansion of the shell as it bakes. Simply put, having a fluted surface helps you prevent cracks in the surface of your éclair.
Any advice for making éclairs at home?
FM: Besides using the special tip, make sure you’re piping choux in a straight line, because the way it looks piped is the way it’s going to look baked. Use a guide if you need to. Use parchment paper, a Sharpie, and a ruler, and make 5-inch lines about 1½ inches apart. Flip the parchment over since you don’t want to eat ink, and pipe directly on the line so it has enough space on both sides to expand.
It helps to pipe the batter when it’s cold from the fridge. It’s like piping butter, so you have a lot more control. I also recommend spraying cooking oil on top of the shells before baking them. That helps keep the surface from hardening too soon, which allows for maximum expansion before the crust sets and prevents cracking, too. Finally, cooking them on a baking stone is also a good idea. It helps you get a nice expansion on your choux.
How about tricks for filling? That part can be daunting.
FM: If it’s a well-baked shell, it will be hollow enough that when you fill it, the cream will flow right through the tube. I use the smallest metal tip I can find and use the tip to make three small, evenly spaced holes in the bottom of the shell. Fill the first hole, and when you see the cream come out of the center hole, you stop. Then, you do the same with the last hole, and when cream comes out of the center hole, you know the cream from both sides has met at the middle and you have enough filling in your éclair.