For me, the humble gougère, or cheese puff, perfectly expresses the genius of French cooking. It’s simple. The choux pastry is made of water, butter, eggs, flour, salt and cheese. Yet even in this minimalist form, a good cheese puff will blow your knickers off. And nothing goes better with wine.
I judge French restaurants by the quality of their gougères–only the most traditional places still serve them. They are old-fashioned, courtly, charming, and when made by expert hands, ravishing (witness the beauties served at the grande dame of French restaurants in America, La Grenouille). The last great French restaurant we visited, L’Espalier in Boston, did not serve gougères before the meal, although they made up for it with a delightful array of savory tidbits including a smoked gouda éclair, which was made with choux pastry.
So enamored am I that gougères appear more than once in my stories. London Broil finds Laura sampling the coriander-scented puffs at an Afghan restaurant run by a Francophile chef. And Laura’s lover James affectionately calls her mon choux, which means either “my pastry” or “my cabbage.”
Yet I have never before tried to make them. Yes, that’s right. I was The Forty-Eight (soon to be Forty-Nine) Year Old Choux Pastry Virgin. Time for deflowering (de-flouring?). The only problem is that I’m not much of a baker. Baking requires precision, which is not my forte in the kitchen. Still, the lure was great. The thought of having a theoretically unlimited supply of luscious gougères made me dizzy with desire. When I looked at some recipes, I thought that choux pastry might be manageable. It is much simpler than puff pastry, which calls for repeated folding and rolling (all of which must happen while it is kept well-chilled). And choux pastry can be used to make other decadent things, like cream puffs…
My first choux experience involved a recipe by venerable chef Alain Ducasse. Désastre! (Feverish flashbacks of losing my virginity to an older man who was far less attractive than the charming Ducasse…) Choux is supposed to be made by melting the butter with water or milk, then mixing in flour and cooking it briefly on the stove. Eggs are added to this warm mixture, one at a time. The resulting pastry dough is then piped or spooned onto the baking sheet. But my dough had the flaccid consistency of pancake batter. Obviously, something had gone terribly wrong.
I salvaged it by baking it in a muffin tin, since the dough could not hold its shape. The resulting “choux muffins” were delicious, redolent of cheddar, Bellavitano and blue cheese. The Long-Suffering Husband found them irresistibly tasty and polished off the batch with some soup I made. But they looked a fright.
Looking online, I saw that this is not an unusual problem for newbies, yet nobody seemed to have the solution. In fact, the making of choux is fraught with perils. If the proportion of butter to flour to eggs isn’t right, they won’t hold their shape and puff up. Some instructions suggest opening the oven door partway through, in order to keep them from falling. Others warn not to open the door. Some (Ducasse!) say to cook the dough 1 minute in the pan before adding the eggs. Others advise 10 or even 20 minutes on the stove, to ensure that the flour is fully cooked and develops its flavor. (With the wisdom of hindsight, I vote for the lengthy and assiduous attentions required to bring the dough to its pleasurable peak.) Some mix in the cheese; others put it on top, because cheese in the dough can make it less delicate. And then there’s the question of the egg wash…
In other words, there are as many recipes for choux as there are bakers of choux. Believe me. By now I have watched numerous B-rated videos (warning: explicit Butterfat Content). The one constant is that you have to use gobs of buttah. For my next attempt, I decided to make a half batch. I found an unassuming recipe by Chef John that called for 1/4 cup butter, 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup water, a pinch of salt and 2 eggs. Chef John seasons the puffs with 1/2 cup cheddar, a teaspoon of black pepper and a teaspoon of thyme. I decided to use sage instead of thyme because the sage in my garden is going great guns, and because I am a sage-lover.
I measured the butter with extra care this time, using a measuring cup (I also vowed to get a kitchen scale and stop messing about with cups!) After adding the flour, I cooked it well over ten minutes to make sure that it was dry and that the flour was nice and toasty. Now for the real test: the eggs!
The dough is always resistant to accepting the first egg. You have to keep working it in. At first the dough seemed thin and I almost despaired. Then, quite suddenly, it stiffened up under my spoon. That’s right, ladies. If you can coax that dough into a stiffy, you’re golden.
I didn’t bother piping it, but used a melon-baller to form the dough. I skipped the egg wash, and added cheese to the tops of the adorable little fellas, along with more pepper. I had to bake them a good 15-20 minutes at 400 degrees F, which is longer than most recipes recommend. But they say it’s better to overbake than to take them out too soon.
They say that your second time is likely to be much better than the first. I’ll drink to that. They also say that gougères will keep up to three days in an airtight container and that they freeze well. I notice that only a few hours after baking, the wee puffs lose their initial crispness, although the flavor continues to develop. So take your pick…
The perfect accompaniment for any pleasurable activity you have in mind.