Gougères were one of the earliest pastries I attempted to make by myself. I don’t remember exactly when I started trying, probably some time in late high school or early college, but I do know I was at my parents’ house during the early experiments.
Made using pâte à choux dough, the same stuff you use to make cream puffs, once you know their secrets they’re ridiculously easy to make.
It’s also ridiculously easy to mess up.
Pâte à choux is the closest thing I make in pastry that behaves kind of like regular cooking. Most recipes in baking are ridiculously exact, with everything in correct proportions. With pâte à choux, you cook the flour in a hot butter/water mixture until it looks right, which is usually when the mass forms a single ball. However, most recipes don’t mention any kind of specifics, like the heat level needed for the water, which can range from medium to boiling. Also, the number of eggs you mix in after the flour mixture cools can vary from two to six, and it’s often a case of knowing when to stop adding them.
Since I had no clue about any of these tricks, my first attempts ended up as soup. I’d either not boil the flour/water mixture for long enough, or add the full number of eggs listed in the recipe and get the proportions wrong. A lot of eggs and flour died in my kitchen, and I’m pretty sure I got banned from making them at some point.
I gave up on making cream puffs until I bought a copy of Sur La Table’s The Art and Soul of Baking, which has a recipe for chocolate pâte à choux that caught my eye. The instructions discussed heating times, and how not adding all the eggs was not only okay sometimes, but often required to get the dough to behave. Best of all, there were pictures showing off what the finished dough should look like. I felt like I had been handed all the secrets of cream puff lore.
After that, I was making profiteroles left and right. At one point in college I even made beignets by frying up some choux dough at two in the morning, because I could.
Gougères came up recently because I’d been sent an invitation to my high school reunion, which was going to be a potluck. The cheese-filled treats always sound impressive, I can double a batch without also doubling my effort, and are still one of the simplest things in my baking arsenal. And, honestly, I’m not going to ignore a chance to bake glorified cheese puffs.
This time I followed David Lebovitz’s recipe, with gruyère and pecorino romano. You can use whatever strong, aged cheese you can get a hold of; I’m for mixing in some Beecher’s Flagship, just so it tastes a bit more like home.
I also tried pan frying some of the leftover dough out of sheer curiosity. It kind of worked, but the insides had the consistency of scrambled eggs. Maybe I’ll make a savory variation of Gâteau St. Honoré someday, just to laugh at tradition.
If you’re nervous about baking, give them a shot. And if you have soup, just try again – or get that cookbook and learn the lore for yourself.