By Emily Paster
As longtime readers of West of the Loop know, I am a confirmed Francophile. There was a time in my life when I thought I might become an ex-pat and live in France when I grew up. A year of actual living in France cured me of that notion, but I still love all things Gallic, the food perhaps most of all.
If you go a French person's house for dinner, the evening with start with l'heure de l'apéro, the cocktail hour. You will be offered un apéritif, a drink made with a spirit designed to whet the appetite, like Lillet, Ricard or Dubonnet, and a small, savory bite. You will never see cheese and crackers during the cocktail hour — cheese is for after the meal. But that doesn't mean that the hors d'oeuvres won't incorporate cheese. Indeed, one of the most classic French hors d'oeuvres is a small cheese puff called un gougère.
Originally from Burgundy, gougères are made with pâté à choux, which is the same dough that is used to make profiteroles and éclairs. In those cases, the dough is slightly sweetened, whereas here it is savory. But in both instances, you get that airy, puff-like texture. Gougères are so popular in France that you can buy boxes of frozen ones to have on hand whenever company drops in.
It might be harder to find frozen gougères stateside, but they are still the perfect hors d'oeuvres because you can make them ahead of time, freeze them and then bake them off — straight from the freezer — a half-hour before your company comes. Imagine serving your guests hot, airy puffs of cheesy goodness without any stress or dirty dishes. They will be so impressed and only you will know that you did the actual work of it days, or even weeks ago.
I assure you that gougères will have this effect on your guests because they had it on mine. I served gougères during the cocktail hour at my recent dinner party to celebrate my husband's birthday. I made the dough and froze the puffs several weeks in advance. I didn't have to think about them again until about 40 minutes before our guests were due to arrive. At that point, I preheated the oven, arranged the frozen puffs on Silpat-lined baking sheets and popped the trays in the oven. Minutes before the start of the party, I pulled out the warm gougères, arranged them in a basket and placed them in my living room. The aroma of cheese and baking bread was still in the air when everyone arrived.
All of my guests raved about the gougères and were stunned when I told them how I had made and frozen the dough in advance. Clearly, these magical little puffs are an entertaining secret that must be shared. The last thing you need when planning a dinner party is to stress out about the hors d'oeuvres. But at the same time, you want to start off the evening with something special. Well my friends, the answer is here.
This recipe for gougères is adapted slightly from the one in Dorie Greenspan's wonderful cookbook Around My French Table. Dorie — and I feel like we are on a first-name basis — recommends using Gruyère or Comté cheese, which would certainly be very French. I like to use Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar for the wonderful sharp taste and to make this classic French dish more American. (Even Dorie confesses to using extra-sharp cheddar when she is back in the States.) I also add a pinch of cayenne pepper to my gougères for a subtle hint of spice.
Once you make the dough, you need to form the puffs right away, but the puffs can then be frozen on a tray until hard and stored in a plastic freezer bag until needed. Don't bother to thaw the gougères before baking — they can go right from the freezer to the oven. Just add a few extra minutes to the baking time.
So for a convenient, make-ahead appetizer that will add a bit of European flair to your next dinner party, give this classic gougères recipe a try. Just try not let your guests fill up before dinner!
(Makes 2 dozen)
- 4 oz. (8 TB) unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- Pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 5 eggs at room temperature
- 6 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- If baking right away, preheat oven to 425.
- Place the water, milk and butter in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring mixture to a boil and turn heat down to low.
- Add flour and stir mixture with a wooden spoon until it comes together.
- Continue to stir for two more minutes to get rid of the raw flour taste.
- Remove pan from heat and pour dough into the bowl of a standing mixer or a large bowl.
- Using a standing mixer, handheld electric mixer, or a lot of elbow grease, beat the eggs into the dough one at a time. Make sure the egg is fully incorporated before adding the next one.
- By the time you add the last egg, the mixture should be smooth and shiny.
- Add the grated cheese to the mixture and stir to combine.
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat baking mats.
- Using two soup spoons, place golf ball-sized mounds of dough on the baking sheets. (It is okay if they are not perfectly round.)
- If making ahead, freeze the mounds of dough on the trays until hardened. Then remove to a plastic freezer bag for storage.
- If using right away, place the trays in the oven and immediately turn down the heat to 375.
- Bake the gougeres for 26 minutes, rotating the trays 180 degrees halfway through. Make sure the gougeres are puffed and golden brown before removing from the oven.
- Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or room temperature.