My first memorable encounter with gougères – joyous, light as air golden globes enrobed in cheese, was during dinner at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester. I was invited to review the new truffle tasting menu at the restaurant, and, before the truffle fest, the meal began in a suitably decadent fashion with a pyramid of gougères. Ducasse is well known for them, and his recipe is considered the Holy Grail, so I decided to bypass Julia this week and give his gougères a go.
Unlike many French classics, the history of the gougère remains shrouded in mystery. Even the origin of the name is unknown. Hailing from Burgundy, early incarnations of the snack were made with just three ingredients: eggs, cheese and breadcrumbs, and were flatter than their modern day cousins. Even earlier versions were more stew than pastry, and featured herbs, bacon, eggs and spices mixed with animal blood and prepared in a sheep’s stomach – yummy.
Ducasse’s recipe requires a piping bag, which I was excited about using. I’ve yet to dot any of my dishes with exotic gels from a squeezy bottle à la MasterChef, but there are certain pieces of kitchen equipment that make you feel like you’re creating something special, and a piping bag is one of them. Unable to find any at Sainsbury’s, in desperation I considered cutting a strategic hole in the blue DHL wrapper of a parcel I’d been sent, which I’d kept in my drawer as a last resort.
Luckily, I struck upon some at Waitrose on Saturday morning. I practically punched the air with joy when I clocked them on the top shelf. Nabbing the last tube, I skipped jubilantly out of the store into the spring sunshine. Vital to a successful gougère is the cheese. Gruyère works a treat, but I decided to mix things up a bit with the addition of nutty Comté for added complexity. After whacking the oven on and lining two baking sheets with parchment, I got to work making the choux.
Savoury choux is made by melting butter in a saucepan with half a cup of water and milk, to which you add a cup of flour and stir until you’re left with a giant ball of dough that soon starts pulling away from the pan. A crucial step is the addition of four eggs, which need to be added one by one to stop the choux getting soggy. The beating of the eggs required serious upper body strength and brought back unpleasant memories of my hollandaise disaster and all the whipping it entailed.
Choux is easy to work with, and soon absorbs all the fatty goodness from the eggs, and even responds well to being loaded with cheese. I used far more than suggested in the recipe to be sure the gruyère tang came through confidently. Along with my mound of cheese I added a generous grating of nutmeg. Next time I’ll add mustard powder, as suggest by Felicity Cloake. Keen to get them in the oven, I over-filled the piping bag and ended up with warm choux spewing out of both ends.
In a classic rookie error, I used the wrong nozzle on my piping bag, opting for the small round one rather than the much larger star shaped one I should have gone for. Thus, my piping work was pitiful and my poor gougères looked like mounds of spaghetti before being blitzed in the oven. I wasn’t hopeful of the outcome. To help them rise, they need ten minutes in a piping-hot oven, then a further 10 at a more moderate heat to finish them off, so they emerge puffed up and gloriously golden.
To my unexpected delight, unlike my soufflés last week, the pastry gods were kind to me, and I opened the oven to be greeted by rows of adorable, perfectly puffy gougères on one of the trays, and slightly more spaghetti-like flatter ones on the other. Considering it a victory, I arranged them on a pastel-coloured cake stand I bought at an antiques fair for the full Great British Bake Off effect, though made sure I tried a few of each shape beforehand. Both were delicious, the flatter ones more intensely cheesy, and the round puffs lighter and more elegant in execution.
Piling a few onto a plate to enjoy on my roof, which I’m treating as my urban garden during the lockdown, while climbing out of the window, I knocked the plate over, sending the gougères flying across the floor like ping pong balls. Within seconds a flock of pigeons had swooped onto the roof and were fighting each other for the cheesy scraps. My new feathered friends devoured them with frenzied glee, which I took as a good sign. Perhaps I’ll try out all my new recipes on them…