Many a Sunday morning in the cooler months, you can find me hunkered over my computer writing in one of the best bakeries I’ve ever visited. The Vergennes Laundry (written up in the New York Times here) is a small authentic French bakery with incredible pastries and delicious, dark coffee. If I’m there in the morning, it’s a croissant, and late morning to early afternoon, they start bringing in more goodies for something more substantial. (My latest favorite is gilfeather (turnip) rosemary tarte flambée, which is dough topped with cheese, sweet turnips, rosemary, and sea salt.) Lots of delicious little bits and pieces here and there, and sometimes I’ll bring home a tiny truffle for later. Writing, eating, and reading the Sunday The New York Times, I’m in heaven; it’s a great way to wile away the cold days with a cozy spot at the table and the wood fire ovens warming the room.
One of their treats are gougères, which I would describe as a cross between a cheese puff and a small popover. And like everything, they are delicious. Warm cheese mixed with herbs in a puffy roll. So I decided I wanted to make these at home. And boy, did I find a recipe!
David Lebovitz is the author of the book, The Sweet Life in Paris. A former pastry chef at Alice Water’s famous Oakland restaurant, Chez Panisse, Lebovitz decided following a couple of life changes to pack it up and move to Paris. If you want a food memoir that makes you laugh and drool, this is a great book. He gives stories of being an American living in France and ends each chapter with a recipe. So when I was looking for a gougère recipe online and I found his, I didn’t need to look any farther. His recipe is clear, easy to follow, and the results incredible.
I found myself home alone with a hunk of Vermont cheddar cheese in the fridge on election night. I had time while I was waiting for the polls to close and knew what I was going to make. Don’t be intimidated by the long recipe; it’s just eight ingredients, but read the recipe over carefully, as his instructions are really helpful. These made for a perfect dinner with a salad and a glass of wine. But I also thought they would be great for a cocktail party, pop them in the oven, and pull them out when your guests walk in the door. I would recommend eating soon after they come out of the oven; no, I didn’t eat the whole batch (although I came close!), but they definitely lost something the next day.
I don’t have a pastry bag, so I used a heavy plastic bag and snipped off the end. I found this a bit messy and difficult; I’ve never done this before and lost a lot of batter trying to get it in the bag. (My batch only made 20, not 30.) Next time I think I’ll just use a spoon–or find someone to hold it open!
About thirty bite-sized puffs
Two things to keep in mind when making these. One is that you should have all the ingredients ready to go before you start. Don’t let the water and butter boil away while you grate the cheese. Otherwise you’ll lose too much of the water. Second is to let the batter cool for a few minutes before adding the eggs so you don’t ‘cook’ them. Make sure when you stir in the eggs that you do it vigorously, and without stopping. I’m not a fan of extra dishes to wash, but the intrepid can put the dough in a food processor or use an electric mixer to add and mix the eggs in quickly.
If you don’t have a pastry bag with a plain tip, you can put the dough into a freezer bag, snip off a corner, and use that. Or simply use two spoons to portion and drop the dough onto the baking sheet. This recipe can easily be doubled.
1/2 cup (125ml) water
3 tablespoons (40g) butter, salted or unsalted, cut into cubes
1/4 teaspoon salt
big pinch of chile powder, or a few turns of freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 cup (70g) flour
2 large eggs
12 chives, finely-minced (or 1 to 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme)
3/4 cup (about 3 ounces, 90g) grated cheese (See above for ideas)
1. Preheat the oven to 425F (220C.) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat.
2. Heat the water, butter, salt, and chile or pepper in a saucepan until the butter is melted.
3. Dump in the flour all at once and stir vigorously until the mixture pulls away from the sides into a smooth ball. Remove from heat and let rest two minutes.
4. Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring quickly to make sure the eggs don’t ‘cook.’ The batter will first appear lumpy, but after a minute or so, it will smooth out. (You can transfer the mixture to a bowl before adding to eggs to cool the dough, or do this step in a food processor or electric mixer, if you wish.)
5. Add about 3/4s of the grated cheese and the chives, and stir until well-mixed.
6. Scrape the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a wide plain tip and pipe the dough into mounds, evenly-spaced apart, making each about the size of a small cherry tomato.
7. Top each puff with a bit of the remaining cheese, the pop the baking sheet in the oven.
8. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 375F (190C) and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes, until they’re completely golden brown.
For extra-crispy puffs, five minutes before they’re done, poke the side of each puff with a sharp knife to release the steam, and return to the oven to finish baking.
Serving: The puffs are best served warm, and if making them in advance, you can simply pipe the gougères on baking sheets and cook right before your guests arrive, or reheat the baked cheese puffs in a low oven for 5-10 minutes before serving. Some folks like to fill them, or split them and sandwich a slice or dry-aged ham in there, although I prefer them just as they are.
A bit of troubleshooting: The most common problem folks have with pâte à choux, or cream puff dough, is deflated puffs. The usual causes are too much liquid (eggs), or underbaking. Make sure to use large eggs, not extra-large or jumbo, and use a dry, aged cheese, if possible. And bake the puffs until they’re completely browned up the sides so they don’t sink when cooling. If yours do deflate, that’s fine. I’ve seen plenty of those in France, and I actually think the funky-looking ones have a lot of charm—and you’re welcome to quote me on that.