I don’t know if this is true or not, but I lay claim to being the only adolescent girl in my hometown of 1,200 people who subscribed to Gourmet magazine. I used to flip through the pages slowly, envisioning me creating each dish, usually while eating Nutter Butters by the bagful. My imaginary dinner parties were filled with fabulous people (given that I was 12, it was probably Bono, Charlotte Bronte and River Phoenix), and they applauded as I plated perfectly roasted birds, a towering cake or a homemade loaf of bread.
Actually, it was the bread that I fixated on. My earlier experimentation with Gourmet magazine tortured my family, I’m sure. I tried to start simple, but things just didn’t go right. There was a stringy, lumpy cheddar cheese soup better left forgotten. A garlic soup that essentially tasted like hot tap water. Sticky pasta, days when I replaced tomato paste with ketchup. Even a gourmet nacho disaster.
But baking — I had been so thrilled to discover I could make glorious things just by following the instructions. Cooking was harder — things shifted more quickly, and sometimes improvisation rewards you more than obedience. But not baking. Do exactly what it tells you, be precise, and you will be amazed at what can come out of your oven. From the pages of Gourmet, I discovered how to make a cream puff. It was so easy, and so elegant looking — so French!, which meant a lot for this rural Kansas girl — it was all I made for a good long while.
Gougères are basically cheesy cream puffs. They are rich and gorgeous to look at and light and easy. And when the rest of the food didn’t quite go right, the gougères saved my dinner. (Here’s a secret to a successful dinner: if you serve something fatty and cheesy as a starter, your guests will forgive just about anything that follows.)
Dorie Greenspan’s “Around My French Table” reminded me so much of those early days, praying to the gods of Gourmet magazine to bestow the wisdom of perfectly plated meals upon me. The cover photograph — of a chicken in a pot, sealed in with a ring of dough around the crockery — has that rustic, effortless look of “oh yes, I just threw this in the oven” that I have yet to achieve, no matter how many years I subscribed to that damn magazine. The cookbook also reminded me of the disappointment of stringy soup. Because while the first items to go down on the table (or the desk in my office, to be exact) were perfect — the aforementioned gougères and a truly wonderful and surprising chunky beets and icy red onions salad — the main course, beef on a string, did not go as planned.
It wasn’t that anything went horribly wrong. The broth it took all day to make, while following the instructions devotedly, was actually kind of bland. And when I poached the vegetables in the broth, some were overcooked, some undercooked, and really nothing very flavorful happened. The beef itself was perfect, rare and beautiful. It just had some sad accompaniment.
The dessert didn’t really help. The long and slow apples — apples that had been sliced thinly and baked at a low temperature for 10 hours — was beautiful to look at, but the texture bothered me a bit. They were a bit slimy. Others went back for a second helping, though, so this was obviously just a matter of taste. I simply passed around more gougères and refilled glasses to distract everyone.
I have faith in “Around My French Table,” despite my own screw-ups. It’s the blend of fantasy and day-to-day eating that has me enchanted now. Give me something fatty and cheesy — and the feeling of creating something magical with my bare hands in only 20 minutes — and you’ll have my devotion forever.
Makes about 36
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
Bring the milk, water, butter and salt to a rapid boil in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan over high heat. Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low, and immediately start stirring energetically with a wooden spoon or heavy whisk. The dough will come together and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan. Keep stirring — with vigor — for another minute or two to dry the dough. The dough should now be very smooth.
Turn the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or into a bowl that you can use for mixing with a hand mixer or a wooden spoon and elbow grease. Let the dough sit for a minute, then add the eggs one by one and beat, beat, beat until the dough is thick and shiny. Make sure that each egg is completely incorporated before you add the next, and don’t be concerned if the dough separates — by the time the last egg goes in, the dough will come together again. Beat in the grated cheese. Once the dough is made, it should be spooned out immediately.
Using about 1 tablespoon of dough for each gougère, drop the dough from a spoon onto the lined baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches of puff space between the mounds.
Slide the baking sheets into the oven and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees F. Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom. Continue baking until the gougère are golden, firm, and yes, puffed, another 12 to 15 minutes or so. Serve warm, or transfer the pans to racks to cool.
Good gougères are good straight from the oven and at room temperature. I like them both ways, but I think you can appreciate them best when they’re still warm. Serve with kir, white wine, or Champagne.
Reprinted with permission from “Around My French Table” by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).