AH, THE wonders of modern technology. As I write these very words, I am speeding up the country on a train, somewhere between Newark and Doncaster.

Looking around at everyone’s rather sad-looking breakfast pastries, no doubt grabbed on the hoof running past the generic stalls at King’s Cross, my mind wanders to proper patisserie and Viennoiserie (those pastries made with yeast, like croissants and Danish pastries) and just how wonderful good pastry-work can be.

For apprentice chefs, the pastry section of the kitchen very quickly becomes an area of either deep passion or somewhere never to venture again if one can help it.

In modern kitchens the patisserie section responsible for all the desserts, ice-creams, the petits-fours and the pastry used all round the various kitchen stations is pretty much a stand-alone department. Pastry chefs are often given separate billing on menus, as their work is so very different to the more, well, brutal side of the meat and fish sections.

Often, the pastry section is hidden way to the back of the kitchen, sometimes even air-conditioned (Oh, the luxury!) and it is in these hidden cloisters that the patissiers work their magic.

Pastry is unique among recipes in that it will stand for very little in the way of alteration or guesswork. Sometimes even a stray tablespoon of flour will mean the difference between an airy, risen soufflé and a raspberry-flavoured ice-hockey-puck at the bottom of your ramekin.

Cake recipes are worked and worked until the perfect template exists so there is no room for interpretation or variation.

There’s no pastry equivalent of ‘add sugar to taste’ or ‘chuck in a little red wine at this stage if you fancy’!

Watching ‘proper’ puff pastry being made is almost like watching an experiment. It is truly a fine art with its regimented rolls, folds and painstaking observation. But the result?

Oh, the crispiest, butteriest pastry you’ll ever taste. Remind me, we’ll make puff pastry sometime. You’ll feel you’re cheating yourself every time you choose shop-bought from that moment onwards.

Today, though, something a little less taxing. We’re going to be making choux pastry which is one of the nicest and easiest pastries to make.

It’s a good one to let the kids have a crack at because it’s rare among pastries in that it doesn’t require a light, careful touch. In fact, you beat the living daylights out of it at one point which is incredibly satisfying and good for the aerobic exercise.

It cooks easily and is incredibly hard to get wrong. Once you know how to make choux pastry you can use the basic recipe for all manner of things.

Add a little finely-diced Gruyère cheese to the finished mixture and you have the classic Gougère, a delightful Burgundian nibble with a glass of red.

Along the sweet axis you have the profiteroles which you can fill with vanilla-scented whipped Chantilly cream, or even vanilla ice-cream, to serve with a hot sauce made from lovely bitter chocolate.

Choux buns, stuck together into a crunchy caramel cone form the mighty French wedding cake the croquembouche.

Or there’s a true classic, which we are trying today, the classic chocolate éclair. It was reputedly invented by one of the truly great chefs, Antonin Carème, sometime in the early 1800s and has been a café standard ever since, whether filled with a simple vanilla cream, rich chestnut purée, or, as today, in its classic formation, filled with Chantilly cream and dipped in rich chocolate.

Before you start making chocolate éclairs, it’s best to do a quick equipment check. As well as the usual bowls, weighing scales and spoons, you’ll need a piping bag with nozzle (or you can use a double-thickness plastic freezer bag with the corner snipped off), baking parchment and a baking tray.

Have a quick read through the choux process too if you haven’t made it. It might be easy, but timing is of the essence.

Be familiar with the stages before you light the stove. Aprons on!

For the choux pastry:

220ml water

85g butter

105g flour

3 fresh free-range eggs

For the chantilly:

300ml double cream

The seeds of 1 vanilla pod

1 tsp icing sugar

For the chocolate:

200g sugar

200ml water

100g bitter chocolate

50g butter


Baking tray, piping bag & nozzle, whisk, sieve, wire rack

FIRST, let’s make the pastry.

To begin with, you need to sieve the flour three or four times. This aerates it and helps it flow into the pan with ease.

Crack your eggs into a small jug or cup. Dice the butter and put in a pan with the water and heat gently.

Get the flour ready to launch, and use a whisk.

As soon as the water/butter mixture reaches a rolling boil, tip in the flour in one go and whisk like billy-o until the mixture becomes smooth and sticky. You need to let this cool before adding the eggs.

I spread the mixture out thinly on a large plate to let it cool more quickly.

When the mixture is totally cold, pop it back in a bowl and beat in the eggs one by one.

This is where all those years of tennis serves and orchestra conducting come in handy. You must beat the eggs into the mixture until it’s completely smooth and shiny.

Spoon the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle. Lightly grease a baking tray. Heat the oven to 200°C / Gas 6.

Pipe the choux pastry in 3-inch lengths onto the tray.

Use a damp finger to press down any points. The buns should be nicely rounded all over.

Bake for 20 minutes until puffed and golden, then remove from the oven and flip them over.

Make a small hole in the base of each éclair with the point of a knife, and allow them to dry out in the oven for a further five minutes. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

To make the chocolate glaze, melt the sugar in the water over a gentle heat, then bring to the boil and cook for about five minutes until the sugar has just become syrupy.

Add the chocolate and the butter and whisk until smooth. To assemble, whip the cream with the vanilla and sugar until you have nice soft peaks that hold their shape.

Slice each éclair lengthwise, dip the upper portion in the chocolate sauce (or spoon it over the upper halves) and spoon or pipe a good helping of cream into the bottom half.

Sandwich together and serve.