When a friend walks into my apartment, it takes them approximately 55 nanoseconds to determine that I am in love with France and most anything French (evidence: Toulouse Lautrec prints, a growing Eiffel Tower collection, old French ad prints, books in French and on French art and architecture on my coffee table, a large street and subway map of Paris, and a very French black iron lamp of a naked girl doing a Kelsal stretch with a Statue of Liberty-esque glass light done above her top foot – trust me, it’s classy and awesome all at once). When people who I am comfortable with talk to me for a few minutes, they know pretty quickly that I can speak French and love it (evidence: the random oui that will pop in instead of yes and the use of words like sans, in lieu of, apropos, au naturel, fait accompli, vis-à-vis, and carte blanche). When I have a conversation with someone about travel, it inevitably turns to either the two family trips I took to France in ’05 and ’06 or a future-and-very-hopeful return trip. I just love France and (most) everything about it – it’s that obvious.
I’m extremely partial to things like Rococo furniture, ormolu decoration, the Normandy historical sights, French impressionist artists, charming small country French villages, vibrant yellow mustard fields, wisteria vines crawling across old French farm houses, luxurious chateaux such as Chambord and Chenonceux and Versailles, the lovely lilt a French accent lends to an already sexy Frenchman, manicured window boxes along Haussman Avenue in Paris, an endless plethora of iron grilles on all the exterior doors in Paris, the smell of lavender, and the birthplace of Gothic architecture, just to name a few.
But what’s the best part about France? … The food!!! Mmm … Versailles market, Fauchon chocolates, café crèmes, fresh baguettes that go stale in a few hours, wine without sulfites, leeks and fennel everywhere, pâté de fois gras, tartines, crèpes, French butter, croissants, the best cheeses, and a guaranteed winner of a meal wherever you go. I absolutely loved eating in Paris – it might have been the highlight of my trips, although my patriotic side would probably say the Normandy beaches were (however … Chambord was pretty phenomenal, too … oh, hell – everything in France is number one!). I kept a journal of our trips, and a good 50% of that was just describing where and and what we ate. Pathetic or endearing, I ask?!
Like I said, I love eating French food, but cooking it is a whole other animal. While classic French cooking takes time and technique, there are a lot of easy, “shortcut” dishes that are pretty easy to recreate at home. I’ve made a great Daube de Boeuf, several tartines, and many pans of sautéed leeks – and they’ve all turned out well. In the future I’d like to make coq au vin, bake a real French baguette, and attempt a true soufflé. Simply put, I love the ingredients and flavor profiles of French cooking; it’s not too spicy and not too rich, as long as you streamline the recipes a bit.
So, when two of my friends decided to co-host this month’s Girls’ Cooking Night with a French theme, specifically cooking recipes from a Julia Child cookbook à la “Julie & Julia”, I was thrilled! I knew this would be a great opportunity to try a new French dish – always fun – and finally read through my second-hand copy of Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook which I bought at an antique shop in Franklin, TN, last month. And so, with a rumble of excitement in my hungry tummy and fingers itching to get moving in the kitchen, I sat down to do some research and decide what to bring.
Sadly, I encountered … disappointment. How can this be? I wondered. I adore French food, so why are none of these recipes inspiring me? Why do I not want to cook anything from this cookbook?? And why are these recipes all so long and complicated?! Honestly, I couldn’t believe myself. This was pathetic! But there I was, flipping through the index and finding nothing I really wanted to cook, specifically in the vegetable area I signed up for. I considered creating my own recipe, some sort of savory take on a tarte tatin using leeks and perhaps potatoes or celery root. But that wasn’t a recipe from the cookbook or the movie (not that I ever saw the movie….).
And then a sparkle of an idea flitted into my head – gougères! I remembered seeing Amy Finley, Food Network Star #3, making them on her short-lived (but excellent, I thought) TV show, “The Gourmet Next Door”. That would be great – I’d figure out how to make pâte à choux, which looked easy when she did it, and use half the dough for gougères, half for some sort of pastry cream filled puff. Genius! They would be stars at the party!
Fast forward to this past Wednesday, which I had off from work since it was a federal holiday. Naturally, I used my time wisely by baking a practice batch of the pâte à choux. Indeed, it was easy to make, even though I was nervous at first about actually cooking the dough in a pan on the stove. Essentially, you heat butter and water to a boil, pull this off the heat to add the flour, stir vigorously with a wooden spoon back on the heat for a minute or so until the dough forms a nice smooth ball, cool the dough in a fresh bowl, and beat in a few eggs one at a time. Just form into canelles on a baking sheet, cook at 400F for 12 minutes and 365F for another 15 minutes, and voilà! It really is that easy – I wonder why I’d never attempted these before??
I felt really confident that these would turn out for our get together, since my practice batch was easy and the result was crispy and delicious. They weren’t perfect – I actually prefer a puff that’s less egg-y (a new avenue to test…), something more like a popover, but overall these make an ideal appetizer and dessert. I even used half the dough for the cheesy puffs and stirred in grated Emmental, Dijon, mustard powder, and cayenne pepper – to a tasty result. The only thing I didn’t test was the chocolate custard filling I’d use to stuff the plain batch of puffs, but I bookmarked a recipe from Joy of Cooking, which I highly trust….
Big mistake! While I had no problem with the second, For Real batch of pâte à choux dough nor the baking of the gougères, the custard was an utter disaster. First of all, it was a real pain in the ass to make, since it required a double boiler; of course, my tiny kitchen and I don’t own one, so I just used a glass bowl atop a pot of boiling water – and miraculously avoided getting a steam burn this time. Second, the mixture just didn’t set up. I followed the directions to a T, but it just didn’t thicken! It was more like chocolate soup – and as delicious as chocolate soup, natch – than a thick pastry cream suitable for filling pastry puffs. Boo! So … I had a dozen empty shells and a big ‘ole bowl of chocolate soup that was fast developing a pudding-like skin. Great.
What did I do? Forget the filling, of course! I bundled the gougères in one basket and the plain puffs (which are called what, exactly? Pâte à choux puffs? Pastry shells? Baked blobs of French goodness?!?) in another, and then headed off to my friend’s apartment for the evening. Sure I was frustrated – I hate failure – but at least the majority of my culinary experiment went well. We enjoyed both versions, first the gougères as an appetizer and the pastry puffs during dinner; they ended up being enormously helpful in sopping up the dregs of fantastic French Onion Soup and Beef Carbonade.
All in all, I was thrilled to be able to add another technique and proven recipe to my repertoire. Pâte à choux dough can be used in a few ways, and I’m sure I’ll use this in the future (already I have a recipe in mind: Emeril Lagasse’s blue cheese croquembouche with walnut honey and port syrup … oh, drool!!). What won’t I try again? That stupid, stupid chocolate custard …. But it may be awhile before I attempt another classic French recipe; while this recipe was easy, the others sure weren’t….
Gougères, adapted from Amy Finley and Gale Gand
When I made these, I made a full batch of dough but reserved half for plain puffs and half for the cheesy gougères. If you do that, use half the amount of cheese, mustard, mustard powder, and peppers. You can use the plain puffs for profiteroles, if you like.
- 1 cup water
- 6 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp granulated sugar
- 3/4 plus 2 Tbsp cup all-purpose flour (although I’m sure 1 cup would work just fine), sifted
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup grated Gruyère cheese (Emmental or Parmesan work fine, too)
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1/2 tsp dry mustard powder
- 1/8 tsp cayenne papper
- freshly ground black pepper, about 1/8 tsp
- 1 beaten egg, for brushing
- coarse sea salt, for the tops (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Line two baking sheets with a nonstick baking sheet, such as a Silpat. Set your oven racks to the second-lowest and highest levels.
For the pâte à choux dough, combine the water, butter, salt, and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Make sure the butter is melted, then remove from the heat and add the flour all at once. Using a wooden spoon, stir vigorously to incorporate the flour. Return the pan to the heat (reduced to medium-high) and keep stirring for another minute, until the dough forms a smooth ball that sticks to itself and not the pan.
Spoon the dough into a clean bowl and stir a little bit to help cool it down a little. Using a mixer or handheld beaters, add the eggs one at a time. Beat after each addition; the dough will accept the eggs well and form a smooth, glossy mixture. Add in the mustards and spices, then stir in the cheese. Don’t overmix at this point.
You can use a pastry bag to pipe the dough into blobs about 1″x1.5″, or you can use two soup spoons to form canelles
(which is what I did – it’s quick and easy). Brush the tops of the gougères with the beaten egg; push down any dough spikes while you’re at it so the dough forms are smooth. Sprinkle a few grains of the sea salt on the tops (use a light touch!).
Place the baking sheets in the oven and bake for 12 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 365ºF, without opening the oven door, and cook for 15-20 minutes longer. The gougères should be browned and crispy-looking. You may want to rotate the baking sheets midway through the second baking stint, depending on how your oven bakes.
Remove the baking sheets from the oven. You can cool the gougères on the sheets for a minute or two or remove them immediately to a wire rack. Regardless, you need to take a sharp knife and make a little slit into each puff so the steam inside can escape (like you would do to a popover). Enjoy warm or at room temperature; these are best the day they’re made.