Tomorrow is Rosie’s birthday, but because tomorrow is a school day and then I have an extra long selectboard meeting (I know, I know–my term is almost over), we decided that we’d officially change the day to last Friday and she could be the boss of the day. She wanted to go skiing. And then she wanted to invite her friends for dinner. And then she wanted eclairs.
That is how Joey and I found ourselves sitting on the “Sun Deck” at Butternut Basin, watching the girls plummet down an icy hill.
(Although I grew up right next to Butternut where I was lulled to sleep by the hum of the snow-maker, and Joey grew up in Colorado, we do not ski. Sitting in the lodge eating terrible lodge food for lunch on this particular day, Sadie felt it necessary to point out that we’re “not very athletic”. I reminded Sadie that I never skied because I was a ballet dancer and my teachers didn’t allow it, and that although dancing is TOTALLY a sport (and I know all you dancers out there have fought this one with me), I’m not really one for speed. “You do cook,” she admitted, “but not very fast.” In any case, when the girls asked to learn, we signed them up for the after-school program and stepped out of it, proud of ourselves for throwing them into a world that we ourselves avoided. And now they ski.)
The Sun Deck sits at the base of a large wide slope. The ski lift curves up the hill, and we can grab a quick glimpse of them together, backs side by side in their coats (tattered L.L. Bean, Sadie in green, Rosie in blue), holding on to the bar that holds them in, swinging their skis. We see them for a moment before they disappear, and then ten or fifteen minutes pass before we can see their coats reappear way up at the top of the hill, tiny dots amongst the hundred or so others on the slope. The first time they come down, Sadie methodically makes her way while Rosie plows into a padded pole in the center of the slope, where she’s rescued by a friendly grownup so she can continue on. They wave at us and get back on the lift, and again–two backs side by side, skis swinging.
The second go around, it’s clear early on that Rosie is going much faster than her sister. By the time she’s half way down the hill, Joey and I are both on our feet. She speeds past the snowboarders and the little kids in ski school, and I swear I can see her cheeks vibrating like some sort of space movie. She’s definitely about to take off and fly over our heads.
So often, our children tend to do the things we do. It works out this way because it’s convenient, or it’s in their blood, or they learn from being around us. But when the girls decide to pursue activities that I don’t do, or in this case that I’m afraid to do, this brings on a very particular moment of parenting. I am at once so proud to see my children being so much themselves in a way that has nothing to do with me or my dreams or expectations for them AND terrified to see them go into a world where I can’t follow. I don’t know the ins and outs of all this, and I can’t protect them. Here, I’m relying on the rest of the nice people on the hill to keep an eye on them (and they do). But I’m guessing the older they get, the more other they’ll become. Yes, it starts with skiing, but what’s next? Do they like cilantro? Are they Republicans? Scientologists? Stockbrokers?
Rosie did not take off over our heads. But the blur of her did fly by the Sun Deck as we and everyone else around us shouted “Fall down!” and she headed directly towards the parking lot. I was already running before she slammed into the safety net, and when I got there she was on her back, skis entirely entangled in the net.
“I’m here! It’s okay!” (Honestly, I was trying not to puke right there. I was determined to stay strong, and to be her rock.)
I expected tears, blood, injuries to make me realize that skiing was in fact a terrible idea. But when I finally got there, she was trying to get her skis out of the net so she could get up and do it again. Joey and I were both shaking and ready to abandon the day and go home. But then we sat together, and Rosie told us exactly how she would slow down, and Sadie promised that she’d keep an eye on her and yell at her to slow down the whole way down the hill. Against our better judgement we sent them back up the hill, and we watched their backs disappear again, skis swinging. We sat together on the bench, and then they were gone and I knew that I’d have to watch them fly down that hill again. There was no other option, as the only way back to us was down that icy mountain.
I’m not sure if I can take a whole lifetime of this.
We did not have eclairs that night. When we got home (girls red-cheeked and happy, Joey and I thankful that everyone was still alive), I got to work on my dough. The pastry cream was already sitting in the fridge, and the ganache would be quick. I couldn’t remember actually ever having made eclairs, but I wasn’t worried. We had a vat of pizza dough bubbling on the counter, toppings ready and organized, friends arriving in an hour.
Everyone says that pate a choux is remarkably easy. I have learned to be wary of this word, “easy,” not because it’s false, but because when I see it in a headnote, I get cocky, and then if it goes poorly, I feel really bad about myself. (I write about food for a living! I can make popovers in my sleep! I’m not afraid of a candy thermometer!) I’m not sure what happened, but I ended up with a liquid that was far too runny to pipe. I put it in the oven anyway, and when it became clear that I would have flat, tasteless crackers instead of lovely puffed pastry for my pastry cream, I walked away from the oven, and I bought a birthday cake for the first time in my parenting life.
But the next day, I gave it another go. They were, in fact,
easy not overly difficult. (Although they were just hard enough to prevent me from making them every day, which I would like to do, because they were that wonderful. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had an eclair this good.)
Rosie could have asked for birthday cake, but she wanted eclairs. And I don’t know how else to say it–with every year, I love that girl more and more with a ferocity that makes my stomach tighten with passion and fear. I’ve never wanted so badly to be as brave and good and patient as she asks me to be.
Happy birthday, sweet Rose.
Most eclair recipes are pretty similar. There is the Pate a Choux (my apologies for the lack of accents), the pastry cream, and the ganache. I ended up using a combination of recipes from Flour (adored here), and my old standard, The King Arthur Baker’s Companion. I’ve also doubled the pastry cream, as I want big clouds of the stuff in each eclair. (And it seems like you could have worse problems than leftover pastry cream.) Feel free to use any Pate a Choux, pastry cream, or ganache recipes you already love. But remember that if you (or someone you love) want eclairs instead of birthday cake, you should absolutely go for it. Expect to spread this out over a day–starting with pastry cream, then the pastry, then the ganache.
makes 12 eclairs
For the Pastry Cream:
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons cake flour
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream
For the Pate a Choux:
1 cup water
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 1/4 cups (5 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
For the Ganache:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
First, make the pastry cream:
1. Put the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and cook until the milk is steaming and there are little bubbles on the surface (don’t let it boil). Remove from heat.
2. Meanwhile, combine the sugar, cake flour, and salt in a small bowl. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and the egg yolks. Slowly add the flour mixture to the eggs, whisking constantly. Then slowly add the hot milk to the bowl, again whisking constantly.
3. Transfer the whole mixture back to the pot and return to medium heat. Whisk constantly and bring the mixture to a low boil as it thickens into a custard, two to three minutes. If it doesn’t thicken, raise the heat a bit, but just keep whisking. Remove the pot from heat and press the custard through a fine-meshed sieve into a medium bowl. Stir in the vanilla and cover the surface of the custard with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours but up to 24 hours. (The heavy cream will come into play later, I promise.)
Now, make the Pate a Choux:
4. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
5. Combine the water, butter, and salt in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring it to a rolling boil. Remove from heat, add the flour all at once, and stir with a firm strokes to combine. Return the pan to the stove over medium heat and stir vigorously until the dough comes together in a thick clump (see photo above), about a minute. Remove the pan from heat and let cool for about five minutes, or until the internal temperature of the dough is about 140 degrees.
6. Transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer fit with the paddle attachment. Beat in the eggs one at a time on medium speed, continuing to beat for about two minutes after you’ve added the last egg. The batter will be both fluffy and glossy.
7. Use a spoon or a piping bag to shape your eclairs. I opted for a spoon due to my lack of skill with the pastry bag, and this produced a more rustic shaped pastry. Either way, shape the dough into rectangles roughly 1 1/2 inches by 5 inches, and about 1 to 1 1/2 inches high. You should be able to fit 6 pastries on each sheet.
8. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the pastries are fully puffed and just starting to brown (look with the oven light while the door is still closed). Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake for another 15 minutes, or until the pastries are golden. Turn off the oven, open the door a crack, and leave the pastries in the oven for 30 minutes. Allow to cool entirely before filling.
Now, make the ganache:
9. Heat the cream in a small pan until hot and steaming. Put the chopped chocolate in a small bowl, and pour the hot cream over it. Whisk to combine as the chocolate dissolves. Allow to cool to room temperature.
Now finish the pastry cream:
10. Whip the heavy cream (with a stand mixer, hand mixer, or whisk) until it holds a gentle peak. Take the custard out of the fridge, remove the plastic wrap, and whisk to loosen it up a bit. Gently fold the whipped cream into the custard until the mixture is uniform throughout.
Now assemble the eclairs:
11. Cut each puffed pastry in half lengthwise and fill the bottom with pastry cream. Then, turn the top upside-down and dip into the ganache before placing on top of the pastry cream. Serve within a few hours.