A recipe for lemon meringue éclairs where choux pastries are filled with lemon pastry cream rather than vanilla, and for their topping, they get a healthy pile of whipped meringue before being toasted under the broiler and then consumed en masse.
My frustration falls, hot and warm, off my chin after leaving wet streaks down my face. I swallow slowly, pushing the lump in my throat to the dark hollow of my stomach, and stare at the freshly painted door. Its white surface unmarred for the first time in years.
Too often I feel as though I am spinning my wheels. I pick up wet socks discarded at the front door and under the dining room table, only for them to appear again just hours later. I fold load after load of laundry, and then my daughter jumps on clean clothes with mud-caked knees. I pour my heart into words and feel as though I am the only one listening to myself speak in an empty room.
My kitchen is clean.
That is what I think about when I pull ingredients from cupboards and refrigerator and set them on the counter next to my scrawled notes. Blank surfaces liberated of their daily clutter, primed for creating. It’s the pleasure of cracking open a new journal: the smell of paper, the pages rustling beneath your fingers, the unmarked landscape. A clean kitchen does the same.
Separating eggs into two bowls, I stick a whisk into the yolks and listen to the whirring as the metal swirls on the bottom of the glass bowl. I appreciate the light click and burst of air as the gas lights on the stove. I find comfort in the way the milk glugs from the glass bottle and sloshes against the walls of the measuring cup. Slowly, I start to remember why I’m here.
My 7-year-old bounds into the kitchen in a whirl of color still sporting mud-caked knees from the spring melt happening outside the door, light sparking in her silver eyes. Weeks’ old purple nail polish chipped to nothing dots her nails, a manicure from the big sister that left lasting marks across the dining room table.
“What are we making?” she quips while dragging the bench up to the counter across from me.
“Éclairs,” I answer while pulling out my phone. “I made a lemon filling, but now we need to make the pastry. Then we’ll fill them up like doughnuts.” Finding the video I am searching for, I hand her my phone and tuck the pastry cream into the refrigerator to cool.
She looks excitedly at me while gesturing with the now quiet video on the phone, “Can we make these kind, too?!” Soon she is cracking eggs and scooping flour, singing about our project, eagerly showing her brothers the video when they, too, come in from the melting snowscape.
When we sit down to dinner that night, extra éclairs shuttled off to the neighbors and bowls filled with soup, I think not of the frustration, but of the fullness of being.
I’ve had “lemon meringue éclairs” scratched on a post-it note on my desk for months. I even transferred it to an electronic version of recipe ideas and pinned it directly to my desktop. There it sat, crowded out by projects and commitments, waiting for me to remember to pick it up again. I used the last of the lingering Meyer lemons in my fruit basket, the ones that hadn’t rotted while waiting, their skin a deep yellow, nearly orange.
The choux pastry logs are filled with lemon pastry cream rather than vanilla, and for their topping they get a healthy pile of whipped meringue before being toasted under the broiler and then consumed en masse. The lemon pastry cream is smooth and silky, subtly sweet and tart at the same time. The meringue like a white, fluffy cloud sits atop a golden brown pastry. Together it’s a balanced bite of crust and cream. Then they’re gone like the daylight, glowing brilliantly before falling beneath the skyline, and all that’s left are the memories. And the dishes.
If you’re wondering, we did make the courtesan au chocolat from The Grand Budapest Hotel film featured in the video I shared with Lene. You can see her in action on Instagram, as she dipped the pastries, piled them high, and the final product.
Lemon Meringue Éclairs
- For the crème pâtissière:
- 2 cups milk
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 6 egg yolks
- 3 tablespoons arrowroot powder or cornstarch
- ⅓ cup lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon lemon extract, optional
- For the pâte à choux:
- 1 cup water
- 1 stick (1/4 pound) unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted to remove lumps
- 4 large eggs
- 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water for the egg wash
- For the meringue:
- 4 egg whites at room temperature
- 1 pinch cream of tartar
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- To make the crème pâtissière or pastry cream, place the milk, ¼ cup of sugar, lemon zest, 2 tablespoons butter, and the ½ teaspoon salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir to combine, and slowly bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, remaining ¼ cup of sugar, and the arrowroot powder until combined.
- While whisking, slowly add some of the hot milk mixture to the eggs to temper. Continue doing this until about half of the milk mixture has been added and the eggs are warm to the touch.
- Now add the tempered eggs to the saucepan and the remaining milk mixture while whisking.
- Return the saucepan to medium heat and cook, whisking continuously, until the mixture boils. Continue cooking for about 3 minutes until the mixture is thick and glossy.
- Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and the extract. Transfer the pastry cream to a chilled bowl and cover with plastic wrap directly on the cream to avoid a skin forming on the top. Chill.
- To make the pâte à choux, preheat the oven to 425ºF. Combine the water, butter, sugar, and salt and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Remove from the heat and stir in all of the flour using a wooden spoon.
- Return the pan to the heat and cook for 2-3 minutes until the dough forms and pulls away from the sides of the pan to form a ball. Remove from the heat and allow to rest for 5 minutes so that the dough cools slightly.
- Once the dough has cooled slightly, beat the eggs and then add them to the pan. Stir until a thick, even consistency is reached.
- Fill a pastry bag with the choux dough. Cut off to form a ½" opening on the end. On a parchment-lined baking sheet, pipe 3-4" lines of dough, leaving 2 inches between each one. Lightly brush the egg wash over each, and run the tines of a fork very gently just to create a slight line to help them puff evenly.
- Bake for 10 minutes at 425ºF. Then reduce the oven temperature to 375ºF and continue baking for 20-25 minutes, until pastries are golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
- Prepare the meringue by whipping the egg whites and the cream of tartar together until frothy. Slowly add in the sugar and continue to whip until thick and glossy with stiff peaks.
- To fill the éclairs, place the pastry cream in a pastry bag fitted with a filling tip or a thin metal round tip (a #3 or #4 works well). Use a wooden skewer or the tip of a small knife and create two holes on the bottom of both sides of the éclairs.
- Insert the tip into one hole and fill. Repeat on the other side until the pastry is full.
- Top the filled éclairs with the whipped meringue. Broil for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown. (Alternatively, you could use a torch to brown the meringue.) Serve immediately or chill until ready to serve. (The meringue may weep in the refrigerator if it is left more than a few hours.)