One of the simplest yet most rewarding pastry doughs in French cuisine is pâte à choux. Invented by an Italian chef who accompanied Catherine de' Medici to the French court on her marriage to the king, the recipe for pâte à choux has transformed many times over the centuries, but it now consists of milk or water, butter, flour, and eggs. The resulting multipurpose paste-like dough can be turned into many different treats, such as cream-filled profiteroles and eclairs, fried beignets, and gougères among many others. Gougères are the savory version made with cheese, traditionally gruyère. So it's simply a very French cheese puff that's light and airy-hollow on the inside and crisp and cheesy on the outside.
The best part about gougères, and pâte à choux in general, is that the dough can be made in just a few minutes. The key is to have a strong arm to beat the dough into a paste-like consistency. A food processor or mixer fitted with the paddle attachment can be used if preferred. The dough is then piped onto baking sheets using a pastry bag and tip, but if unavailable, a resealable plastic bag with a corner snipped off works just as well. The puffs are perfect for large gatherings and parties. I made them ahead of time for this New Year's Eve and will rewarm them in the oven once the evening festivities begin. The puffs are a very nice hors d'oeuvre before a holiday meal or a New Year's cocktail party. You will want to bake up many batches, because they disappear too quickly.
Note: For a richer puff, I use milk, but water can be substituted. Puffs can be reheated for a few minutes in an oven set to 350 degrees F.
1/2 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1 cup shredded Parmesan
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.
Combine milk, butter, and salt in a saucepan set over medium heat. Bring liquid to a simmer. Once butter has melted, add pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne, to taste. Off from heat, add flour all at once, and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon until it pulls away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball. Add the eggs, one at a time, and stir vigorously until a paste forms. Fold in three-quarters of the cheese.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with a plain 1/2-inch tip with the dough. Pipe 1-inch diameter balls onto the prepared baking sheets no more than an inch apart. Use a finger moistened with water to knock down any peaks. Sprinkle each ball with the remaining cheese. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm. Yield: 30 cheese puffs.