American consumers are seeing a growing array of many fine artisanal cheeses at specialty food stores and supermarkets. People not only are buying more cheese, they are buying more interesting varieties and finding ways to incorporate them into their culinary repertoire.
One of my favorite ways is to make French cheese puffs called gougères. I like to serve them as an appetizer alongside a sparkling wine.
The dough used to make them, pâte à choux (little cabbage — because of its shape) is the same as for cream puffs or profiteroles, but with grated cheese added to the mixture. American extra-sharp Cheddar from Vermont, French Gruyère or Comté, or Spanish Manchego are good choices.
Gougères start as a paste of water, butter, flour and eggs and finish as crisp, airy shells. What is remarkable is how simple and versatile the recipe is to make at home. All you do is bring water, butter, salt to a boil, dump in flour, stir it in and cook it to “dry” the mixture. Let it cool, then beat in eggs one at a time until the dough is smooth and satiny, and mix in the cheese. Spoon the dough out onto a baking sheet and bake at a high temperature — 400 degrees — and watch it puff up spectacularly.
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There are a few tips to keep in mind when making pate a choux.
• When the gougères look done, make a couple of tiny holes in the top of the puffs, and leave them in a turned-off oven for another 10 minutes. This lets the internal steam escape, which makes them crispy and less likely to become soft over time. Cool gougères on a cake rack immediately after removing them from the oven.
• The basic recipe can easily be doubled. Cream puffs can be made a day ahead and packaged in airtight containers. Re-warm in a 250 degree oven for 10 minutes.
• Gougères freeze well. It might be fun to make extra so you can have some in your freezer for the next time you need a quick hors d’oeurve. After baking, allow them to cool completely. Spread the gougères out on a baking sheet, cover the sheet with plastic wrap and freeze until they are firm. Then store them in sturdy plastic bags for several months.
Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-author of “Mmmmiami: Tempting Tropical Tastes for Home Cooks Everywhere.”