Okay world, first I have to apologise. I’m really bad at holidays. I forget birthdays. I buy Christmas cards only to discover them in my drawer, untouched, in February. Most of the time I don’t even buy them. I’m okay at Thanksgiving, but that’s mainly because it doesn’t involve quite the same type of advance planning as The Big Winter Holidays. So I’m afraid that I am not going to be your ready source for attractively iced and sprinkled holiday cookies, nor will I be telling you how to make your terrine look like a Christmas tree. (Or a dreidel.)
I do, however, love to throw parties, particularly parties involving lots and lots of food. And alcohol. (See Thanksgiving, supra.) For my best party EVER we rented a Sno-Cone machine and made strawberry daiquiri and margarita and lemon drop sno-cones. I’ve grown up a little since then – or, more likely, in London I (a) can’t find a sno-cone machine to rent and (b) don’t have a garden to put it in. So I’m not going to tell you how to use fairground equipment to turn your Christmas party into a smashing success. (Intriguing thought, no? Although I suppose Fox News might call it a war on Christmas.) Instead I’m going to tell you how to make that unfailing party pleaser, gougères – i.e. savoury cream puffs made with CHEESE. (If you haven’t had them, they are as delicious as they sound.)
If you haven’t ever tried making pate á choux (AKA cream puff pastry), I would like to disabuse you of any fear you may be harbouring that it’s difficult. IT’S NOT. And it’s fun and not fussy in the way that cooking savoury food is fun and not fussy. And you really don’t need fancy equipment to do it, other than a piping bag, and those are cheap. (If you don’t mind getting very sticky and you’re not obsessed by uniformity, you can even make do with a tablespoon.) So here’s the science. You create a strong protein structure by heating and beating the flour/liquid/fat mixture. The heating also removes excess moisture. When the puffs are baked, the strong glutens create a hard crust which balloons upwards as steam is trapped beneath it. The eggs that are added to the dough lighten and leaven it, and they also act as an emulsifier (binding agent).
Gougères are slightly different from normal cream puff pastry because you are adding additional fat to the dough in the form of cheese. It is easy to get carried away – who doesn’t like the idea of hot cheesy cream puffs? But know that the more cheese you add, the more likely you are to sacrifice volume in the puffs themselves. And collapsed gougères might make you think that making pate á choux is difficult. Again, IT’S NOT. I am going to conclude this with my MOST IMPORTANT TIP. (I will repeat this later.) DON’T OPEN THE OVEN TO CHECK YOUR PUFFS WHILE THEY’RE BAKING. The heat is very important to get the build-up of steam and volume you want.
The recipe that follows is quite adaptable. I made a fairly classic gougère – i.e., using Gruyère cheese – although I snazzed it up just a bit with espelette pepper. But you can substitute another cheese – an aged cheddar or gouda would be nice – and add any seasonings you like.
½ cup water
½ cup milk
100 grams butter (about four ounces)
1 cup sifted flour
½ – 1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon espelette pepper
4 eggs, at room temperature.
120 grams, or about 4 and ½ ounces of freshly-grated Gruyère (set aside ¼ ounce for topping the gougères).
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius (or 400 degrees Fahrenheit), and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the water, milk, salt, pepper, and a bit of grated nutmeg, and bring to a boil. Add the flour all at once and mix vigorously over medium heat to incorporate, stirring from the bottom with a wooden spoon to prevent burning. You should soon have a gooey dough that sticks to the sides and bottom of your pan. Keep mixing – there will be a moment of magic transformation when the dough stops sticking to the pan and becomes shiny and supple and ball-like. Mix for another minute or two, or until the steam rising from the pan starts to smell like baking bread. Don’t worry about the little layer of flour that adheres to the pan.
Turn your dough into a bowl and allow to rest for a few minutes. Using a wooden spoon (if you have a stand mixer, you can use that instead), beat the eggs in one by one, waiting until each egg is fully incorporated before adding the next one. Initially, after adding each egg, the dough will turn into little slippery globules. Don’t despair – again, there will be a moment of magic transformation when the dough becomes a cohesive, very sticky mess. At that point it’s time to add the next egg.
When all the eggs have been incorporated, fold in your grated cheese, and then transfer the dough to a piping bag. Pipe onto the parchment-lined baking sheets into tablespoon-sized mounds (if you don’t have a piping bag, use a spoon for this part). With a wet finger, smooth the points on the puffs and then sprinkle the reserved grated cheese over the top.
Makes about 3 dozen gougères, or enough for six very greedy people.