Pâte à choux, the pastry dough essential to éclairs and a litany of other French delights, can seem alien and a little scary to American cooks, whose baking exploits may have been limited to yeast and quick breads. Its process, texture, and momentum are entirely different, in ways that feel uncomfortable the first few times you attempt it. And, as with all homemade baked goods, the threat of abject failure looms, a threat that feels all the more acute because pâte à choux relies on steam for lift rather than yeast or chemical leaveners.
What better time than the arrival of the New Year—which can itself feel a bit threatening—to face your fears and make pâte à choux? None, if you ask me. And as it happens, gougères, a savory offspring of the pâte à choux family, are the ideal New Year’s party finger food: easy to make in large quantities, light in texture and yet rich in flavor, chic but universally beloved. They go great with Champagne, too. And, despite the unfamiliarity of pâte à choux, these cheese puffs are hard to mess up.
Pâte à choux literally translates to “cabbage pastry,” supposedly because cream puffs resemble little cabbage heads. (If you squint and are completely color blind, gougères look roughly like Brussels sprouts.) At its most basic, the pastry contains butter, water, flour, and eggs. The standard operating procedure goes like this: Melt the butter and water together, then stir in the flour and cook until the mixture congeals into a thick dough. Remove from the heat and beat in the eggs gradually; the dough will initially look shaggy and messy but will eventually coalesce into a thick, sticky, shiny batter. The batter is piped or spooned onto baking sheets and transferred to a hot oven, where it puffs up and browns. The resulting pastries can be filled with sweet custard or whipped cream if you’re making éclairs, profiteroles, or some other dessert pastry.
Gougères require no filling, thanks to the copious quantity of grated cheese that’s stirred into the batter before baking. The lack of filling is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it makes the recipe about twice as easy as other pâte à choux variations, a curse because it means the dough itself must be twice as flavorful. Gruyère is the cheese traditionally used in gougères, but its subtle nuttiness is wasted in pâte à choux, whose butteriness and egginess smother all but the most robust flavors. Sharp cheddar—similar to Gruyère in texture, but far more assertive in flavor—is a much better choice, distinctive enough that its flavor remains recognizable after mixing and baking. A dab of sharp mustard and a pinch of cayenne pepper hone the cheddar’s pungency without taking over; no one will realize they’re there, in fact (though, like the zanzithophone and uillean pipes on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, you’d miss them if they weren’t there).
Two final adjustments are required for perfect gougères. The first is to use milk for half of your liquid instead of using all water: Your gougères won’t rise quite as high nor turn out quite as crisp as all-water pâte à choux, but their centers will be moist and custard-like—a worthwhile tradeoff, in my book. The second is to poke a tiny hole in the top or side of each gougère as soon as they’re out of the oven. This step will let steam escape, and if you skip it, your gougères are prone to turn soggy. (To clarify: Soggy gougères are only slightly less addictive than non-soggy gougères. But as long as we’re all resolving to be better people in 2013, why not take the initiative to make the best gougères possible, just this once?)
Yield: 45 to 50 gougères
Time: About 45 minutes, partially unattended
Oil or butter for greasing the pans
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1½ cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 5 ounces)
1. Heat the oven to 450°F. Line two baking sheets with foil or parchment paper, and lightly grease the lining. Combine the butter, milk, mustard, salt, cayenne pepper, and ½ cup water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and whisk in the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture forms a ball and dries out slightly, about 3 minutes.
2. Transfer the flour mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat it with the paddle attachment for 1 minute. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, waiting until each egg is fully incorporated into the dough before adding the next. When all the eggs are incorporated, stir in the cheese.
3. Drop the batter by the scant tablespoonful onto the baking sheets, leaving 1 inch between gougères. Bake at 450°F for 7 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and continue to bake until the gougères are golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Immediately after removing from the oven, poke each gougère once with a toothpick, sharp chopstick, or skewer to allow steam to escape. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.