March 10, 2013

A treat for the wayward

This is something different.

First of all, pardon my long silence. There are numerous excuses that I could provide, but that would be tiresome. The most honest thing that I could say is that I’ve been in a period of hibernation; mulling over various things, doing a lot of reading, and something else too—making art again. Maybe I’ve never mentioned it here, but that was something that I used to do a lot of.

And, well, after forsaking it entirely upon finishing my MFA degree, it has come back, full-speed ahead. I woke up one morning and it hit me over the head in the form of a cyclone of new ideas and a renewed urgency that I haven’t felt in years—“go do this now,” it seemed to whisper to me. I abided.

As I try to bring all of these parts of myself together into something called a “life,” certain things have moved to the wayside, at least temporarily. I’m beginning to pull the various, seemingly disparate pieces back together now I think, making room for both new and old as I go.

In the midst of this crisis/artistic revival, however, I did do one notable culinary thing—the only thing, perhaps, worth telling you about (I take it you don’t want to hear about the tuna fish sandwiches I sometimes made for dinner, or the quick pastas and hasty salads that I threw together while I was busy doing other things, right? No, neither do I).

The one event that I could mark my culinary calendar by went something like this: a pâte à choux, flecked with thyme, speckled with black pepper, and oozing with melted gruyère; an intrigued orange cat who kept me company on the chair next to the table as I worked; and a restless roommate, sporting nothing but a towel, saying wistfully, as he hovered over me, are they done yet?!

Gougères. That’s what they were. They weren’t done yet; and this despondent roommate had to wait several hours until he came back home later that evening to try one.

I, on the other hand, picked one up steaming from the oven, tore it open with celebratory glee, and consumed the hot, steaming roll in a rush of hunger and passion—burning the roof of my mouth slightly as I went. Sexy. (Also, stupid.)


Gougères live, in my mind, at a café on the corner of 18th and Guerrero in San Francisco. If you can stomach the line that wraps around the block in the mornings (I usually can’t), you can find yourself in the company of flaky croissants, quivering bread pudding, sticky and fragrant morning buns, and rows of slick, shimmering cakes and cookies. Past the case (if you make it this far) is, in my mind, where the true treasures lie—the savory things: gougères, and cake aux olives, flaky quiche with crème fraîche and swiss chard, and croque monsieurs piled high with baby shiitake mushrooms and creamy béchamel.

I both love and hate this café.

But gougères… I ache a little when I go too long without one. And it turns out that they are easy enough to make at home. So easy, in fact, that you will be surprised that you haven’t attempted it before.

I have tended to feel like any bread-like thing that one could possibly make would be incredibly arduous and time-consuming: all of that rising and punching and kneading that I’ve seen countless bakers do. The careful prodding and feeding of the “starter”—a strange, amorphous little creature that is somehow “alive” and somehow responsible for any good crusty, moderately sour bread.

But gougères are different—they are not really a bread at all in the traditional sense; they require no yeast, no rising, no amorphous “starter” waiting to pass out in your fridge if it is in the least bit neglected by you.

They are very simply composed of an egg-based dough, whisked together on the stovetop, to which grated gruyère, thyme, and an incredible amount of black pepper is added in the last moments.


Also, delicious and warming. The result is, as Elisabeth Prueitt puts it “…the perfect combination of a crusty, caramelized outside and a soft, eggy inside.” Yes, indeed.

These are best taken with a glass of rosé and a small dish of olives; all the better if there is a crackling fire raging just beyond your toes.

Adapted from Tartine

A couple of notes: I do everything by hand (mostly because I lack the proper equipment), but this recipe could also be done using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment; it will make the slow incorporation of the eggs, which must go in one by one, much, much easier. Also, the original recipe adamantly declares that nonfat milk must be used (do not replace with 2% or whole milk)—it’s something to do with all of that fat from the 10 tablespoons of butter that you need to make these delicate little rolls.

For the pâte à choux:
1¼ cups nonfat milk
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
5 eggs
¾ cups grated gruyère cheese
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

For the topping:
1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt
Grated gruyère

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Combine the milk, butter, and salt in a medium-sized saucepan, and place over medium heat. Allow the butter to melt, and bring the mixture to a full boil. Once this occurs, add the flour, all in one shot, and stir quickly until the mixture forms a smooth mass and pulls away from the sides of the pan (1-3 minutes).

This is your simple choux paste.

Transfer it to a medium bowl, and add the eggs, one by one, incorporating each egg completely before cracking in the next. When all the eggs have been incorporated, mix in the gruyère, thyme, and black pepper with a rubber spatula.

Using a large spoon, drop the batter onto the prepared baking sheet into 3-inch mounds, roughly 1½ inches high. They should be spaced approximately 2 inches apart.

Brush the beaten egg onto the tops of each pastry (smoothing out the surfaces of the gougères slightly as you do this) and sprinkle with gruyère cheese.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the gougères have puffed up and are nicely browned.

Remove from the oven and poke a hole in the side of each gougère to release the steam and prevent them from collapsing.

They are delicious consumed warm, and also very good the next day.