Forget Christmas pudding - this is the ultimate Christmas table centrepiece. It is a great project to get the children involved in too. They can get really creative decorating the tree and when they are finished, they will definitely be both amazed and proud.
Preheat the oven to gas 3, 170˚C, fan 150˚C.
While the oven is heating, make a start on the choux pastry. Add the unsalted butter, water, whole milk, salt and caster sugar to a pan over a high heat and bring to the boil until it combines
Remove the mix from the heat and stir in the plain flour. With a wooden spoon, beat the mixture until you get a smooth paste with no lumps. Return the pan to the stove.
Continue to cook over a medium heat for 1-2 minutes, beating continuously. Remove from the heat once the mixture starts to come away from the edge of the pan.
Thoroughly beat in the eggs a little at a time. The mixture will look split, but keep mixing until it becomes smooth. Be careful not to add all the eggs or the mixture will become too runny. The choux should be able to support its own weight.
Fill a large piping bag fitted with a 1.5cm fluted nozzle with the choux paste and leave the mixture to cool for 5 minutes.
Line a baking tray with nonstick paper and draw the lines or guides for the éclair Christmas tree. At the base of the tray, draw a 30cm long straight line. Now draw another straight line 5cm above, but this one should be 27cm long.
Draw a total of 10 lines, making sure you leave a gap of 5cm between them. Each line should be 3cm shorter than the previous one (24cm, 21cm, 18cm, etc). If you run out of space, line a second baking tray with nonstick baking paper and continue to draw your guides. Carefully, get the children to pipe the pastry down each line, as straight as possible. This might be a little tricky at first, but they will soon get the hang of it!
With the remaining pastry, pipe as many choux balls of 2.5 cm in diameter as you can fit on the baking trays. Make sure you pipe one larger circle (5cm) to make the 'trunk'. The rest of the circles will be used to decorate the tree.
Bake the éclairs in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes, or until golden-brown. Then, place them onto a wire rack and leave them to cool.
Meanwhile, make a crème patissière for the spiced custard filling. Learning how to whisk and beat are important basic kitchen skills, which can be taught at a relatively young age. Give your little helpers a bit of an arm workout by having them beat the eggs and caster sugar until you have a smooth mixture. Then add the plain flour and cornflour and whisk to combine. Set aside.
Heat the whole milk, vanilla, allspice, cinnamon and orange zest in a heavy-based saucepan. Bring to the boil and then take swiftly away from the heat. Leave to infuse for 5 minutes.
Carefully, pour half of the hot milk over the egg mixture in the bowl. Whisk continuously and then pour the contents of the bowl back into the pan with the other half of the hot milk.
Keep whisking until you bring the custard to the boil. Then turn down the heat and simmer for 2 minutes, whisking continuously. The mixture should be smooth, thick and glossy.
Pour the custard into a large bowl and cover with cling film. The cling film should be in contact with the custard to avoid the skin from forming. Place the bowl over another bowl of iced water until completely cool, then store in the fridge.
Once both the éclairs and custard are cool, use a 1cm nozzle to make 4 holes along the base of the 4 largest éclairs. Then 3 holes on the next three largest, 2 in the next largest and 1 hole in the 2 remaining.
Pipe the spiced custard into each hole, including the extra small balls. Do not force the mixture in as it may break the pastry. Set aside while you make the ganache.
To make the ganache, add the double cream to a small saucepan over a medium heat. Once the cream starts simmering, pour in the chocolate chips and leave to stand until the chocolate softens, approximately 5 minutes.
Add the softened butter and stir until smooth and glossy. Spoon into a piping bag with a flat nozzle and allow to cool in the fridge to firm up slightly. Pipe down the length of each eclair to decorate and set aside.
Dust a suitable chopping board with icing sugar. To build the trunk, pipe a little ganache in the centre at the base of the board and place the large circle on top.
Pipe small dots of ganache on the board to use as a "glue" to hold the éclair tree in place. Starting with the largest éclair (30cm), continue to lay down all 10 éclairs until the tree is built.
Decorate the tree with the smaller choux balls and your choice of edible stars, hundreds and thousands or edible glitter. Let your kids get creative here by giving them free reign with the decorating stage so they can really feel the festive cheer!
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A recipe from the Great British Chefs Christmas and desserts and baking collection