One thing I learned during the last few days of the past year could be summed up in four words: Don’t ever turn fifty.
Do whatever you can do to avoid it. I’m still reeling from the trifecta, the one-two-three punch of Christmas, my Birthday, then New Year’s Eve, the last of which put me way over the top. And now that I’m in my declining years, recovery is much harder than it was just a mere week ago. I’m going downhill, fast, my friends.
The first thing I thought when I woke up this morning, my head clouded by a combination of Krug champagne, Château Lafite Rothchild 1964 and 1969 (not that I know the difference, but since the ’69 was in a 4-bottle, a gigantic double magnum with a funky-looking label…I knew we were drinking something special) was right from the “What on earth was I thinking?” file.
I was wondering why I invited five people over for dinner and drinks tonight.
I had a great New Year’s Eve at a friend’s home in the Marais, whose family is pretty renowned for making exceptional French wines. I don’t know a lot about wine, but I know that when combined with certain things, the effect is transcendental. That’s one of the things I like about wine (or chocolate)—you don’t need to know all the fancy nomenclature, like vintages, crus, or cepages, to enjoy it; you just need to know what you like. But I was especially attached to those thin-necked bottles of Krug champagne, which I stayed pretty close to all night…although the Riussec sauternes was swapped in my glass when the hostess brought out three gorgeous fat-topped terrines of foie gras that was so smooth, creamy, and wildly-silky, it put French butter to shame.
With a clouded head, when I woke up today, aside from making my first resolution of the year, namely not to mix Champagne, sauternes, and red wine ever again, I decided that I wanted to make Gougères, or cheese puffs, and had the idea of mixing in some psychedelic-colored Mimolette cheese and chives to jolt everyone into the new year.
Unfortunately, being New Year’s Day, there was not a single fromager at the market and the only Mimolette was the bland, industrially-produced stuff at the local Arabe (the French equivalent of the corner store, open at odd hours), which isn’t worth using.
Mimolette is a bright orange cheese, and I never understood those wild-orange cheddars I remember sold in blocks in supermarkets back in America. I mean, what is the purpose of dying cheese? Isn’t it good enough on its own? Still, the public seems to be divided between those who like orange cheddar, and those who prefer theirs uncolored. I suspect the people who like the orange stuff also are in the icky Miracle Whip camp, versus those of us who are cultured, sophisticated, and who have superior taste, that prefer regular mayo.
In spite of an aversion to day-glo cheeses, Mimolette has a certain charm and the aged versions (vieille) have a sharp tang and a good dryness to obtain nice, crusty puffs. But you can use any kind of hard, sharp cheese in gougères. For this batch, I used some leftover Comté and another crumbly mountain cheese that I had a bit of, too. Gruyère is reliably a good choice, and I like to add about one-third Parmesan or Pecorino, which makes the tops especially nice and crackly-brown.
The best thing about this recipe, aside from being easy to make from ingredients one normally has on hand, or that are easily found (except aged, extra-vieille Mimolette, on New Year’s Day, if you live in Paris), is that they can be made earlier in the day, which is a good thing for those of us who like to take a break before our guests arrive, and relax for a moment.
Which I something I plan to do…the split-second after my guests leave tonight.
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 delated 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.
Aged Mimolette (Amazon)
Gougères-a-piment de cayenne et au parmesan (Food Beam)
Chutney Cheese Puffs (Cooking with Amy)
Broccoli Mimolette Soup (Chocolate & Zucchini)
Gruyère Gougères (Culinary Fool)
Paris Brest (la Cerise)
Choux with Grand Marnier Mousseline (Tartlette)