Eclairs always looked so darn fancy to me when I was little. Honestly, they seemed almost too fussy for a five-year-old with an extreme sweet tooth. Give me frosting! Give me an ice cream cone! Give me an entire g-d sleeve of Oreos and leave me alone for 20 minutes! But I like to think I've become far more mature and sophisticated in my ripe old age, and my appreciation for eclairs has deepened.
I should explain, too, that my tie to eclairs stems from an unusual Thanksgiving tradition. We never, ever had pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Instead, there would be apple crisp for dessert and swans. The apple crisp would come to the table in a big rectangular Pyrex pan, the fruit inside steaming hot with the scent of cinnamon wafting from below the cap of crunchy, sugary oat streusel. We'd spoon that onto our plates and douse it in rivers of thick raw milk cream from our Jersey cows. The cold cream would hit the soft, hot fruit, cooling it just enough to take a bite.
So that's nice: autumnal and sweet and very good cold for breakfast the next day. But the real star of the show were the pastry swans. If you've ever watched or read Jacques Pepin, maybe you've seen him make this French classic: pate a choux dough is piped into circles, which are split open and filled with pastry cream and a dollop of whipped cream. You cut the top circle into two halves, making "wings", then pipe a line of pate a choux dough in a graceful curve, which bakes up and becomes the neck of the swan. The entire thing is oh so elegantly plated atop a pool of chocolate sauce (who wouldn't want to swim in a pool of that?!).
Is it odd that we ate a very old-school, very complicated French dessert on Thanksgiving? Odd that we had it instead of pie? Odd that I never once questioned it, until I got older and would casually throw it into conversation come November, and got the strangest looks and questions from everyone at school? Yes. Yes to all of those things. Here's me, age 12, amongst my school friends, discussing the upcoming holiday. Everyone else: "Oh my gosh, we are going to have so many kinds of pie on Thanksgiving." "I love cranberry sauce, and leftover turkey sandwiches." "Pumpkin pie is the very best thing since sliced bread." Me: "I know. I am so excited, I am going to have at least three swans!" Everyone else: Silence.
But it was the best tradition, and continues to be. And a swan is really just a dressed-up eclair. And both pastries are classics for good reason: the trifecta of creamy, eggy, vanilla-flecked filling and rich chocolate sauce and crisp, crunchy pastry shell is unbeatable.
Not to ruin your image of me, but I don't typically go about whipping up homemade eclairs on the regular. (Okay, I kind of do that sort of thing. But not eclairs.) So when I was tasked recently with inventing a recipe for Food52 with some kind of nod to an eclair, I had to think a bit. I like the idea that you could enjoy all the flavors but in a very simple, one-bowl type of cake. This is the opposite of an eclair in skill and effort. Does it taste exactly like an eclair? No! Of course not. But it really does taste reminiscent of those flavors in such a fun way.
I took my favorite condensed milk pound cake recipe and added custard powder to the batter for that pastry cream taste. Then I coat the entire cake in a quick chocolate ganache. Voila! Eclair cake.
If you wanted to replicate the texture of the pastry cream, not just the taste, you could leave off the glaze, toast a slice, top it with pastry cream or whipped cream, and then drizzle the sauce on top. That would not be bad.
Note: I use Bird's Custard Powder in this recipe, which I can find at my local grocery store in the baking aisle. You can buy it online, too. If you can't find custard powder, you could either leave it out altogether, or sub an equal amount of cornstarch plus 1 extra teaspoon of vanilla extract. I've been told you can sub in instant vanilla pudding powder as well, which I have not tested but I suspect would work just fine.
Eclair Pound Cake
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons custard powder
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 cup chopped dark chocolate (or chocolate chips)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon espresso powder (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease a 9" x 5" loaf pan (you can also line it with parchment paper and then grease the parchment).
Whisk together the flour, custard powder, baking powder, and salt.
In the bowl of stand mixer (or in a large bowl with an electric handheld mixer), cream together the butter and sugar until pale in color and fluffy.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add the sweetened condensed milk and vanilla, alternating with the dry ingredients, in two parts, and mix until the batter just comes together.
Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for about 60 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool for at least 20 minutes before turning it out of the pan to finish cooling completely before glazing.
To make the glaze: Heat the chocolate with the cream in the microwave in 30-second increments, stirring between each until smooth and melted. Add the espresso powder, if using. Pour over the cooled cake.