When I had an unexplicable urge to make gougères, I wondered if I was channeling something. All of a sudden they seemed the right thing to make. Light as air with tops shellacked by melted cheese, their crackling crust give way to a soft, slightly eggy interior enriched by yeasty ale. Think cream puffs but without the cream, transformed into a savory tidbit. Passed around at gatherings, they quickly disappear at the mention of two words, “cheese” and “beer” — brilliant additions that left us thinking, “Like Cheetos for grown-ups.”
With their French provenance, Gougères can seem intimidating to produce. Never fear, it’s a sturdy dough and thoroughly satisfying to make. Ale, milk and butter are brought just to the point of boiling, and fill the kitchen with the sweet scents of dairy and malted barley mingled together. Quickly, the flour is stirred in and a soft paste forms. Classic instruction guides one to pay attention at this point: keep stirring the dough over heat to dry it out slightly; it will take on a dullish cast, with a thin skin of toasted flour coating the bottom of the pot. Now you are ready to beat in the eggs, one by one with vigorous intent. The mixture will be slippery but then absorbs each addition, taking on a satiny sheen in the process. Grab a handful of grated sharp cheddar, and stir it in at the last.
The next step is a nice excuse to play with a pastry bag, but a dough scoop works just as well for portioning out each bite-sized puff. If neither is on hand, a simple spoon will suffice. This is the moment to take one’s time and enjoy the quiet rhythm of placing dough to parchment, topping each with a few more strands of cheese. Next, a fast start in a hot oven, then the temperature is lowered to a more moderate level. Be sure to rotate the pans around for even browning, though — and here’s a baker’s secret — opening the oven also gives excess steam the chance to escape, ensuring a crisp exterior. Once they’re done — another baker’s secret — sample it straight from the oven and also as it progressively cools. Discover how the flavors develop, round out, become more pronounced as the gougères wind their way down to room temperature.
For the recipe, visit Heidi at 101 Cookbooks, it’s about perfect. I left out the fennel and made mine smaller than she suggests, otherwise I’ve made several batches and each turned out better than the one before. If you’re using unsized eggs, 4 large equals ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon (a hair above the ¾ mark on a glass measuring cup). For a spicy note, I’m thinking some cayenne or smoky pimenton wouldn’t be out of place here.
Local ingredients: Whole wheat pastry flour, cultured butter and raw milk cheddar cheese from Brookford Farm; whole milk from Harris Farm; Bar Harbor Real Ale from Atlantic Brewing Company; eggs from Mona Farm; and salt from Maine Sea Salt.