Whether you call them hors d'oeuvres or appetizers, those first bites offered to guests are in fact little land mines to be deployed with care. Too heavy, and they blunt everyone's appetite for the main course. Too ordinary, and the party struggles to shift out of first gear. Too fussy, and even hosts-with-the-most may consider slits-to-the-wrist.

Here's a solution: gougères (goo ZHEHR) -- cheesy, two-bite savory cream puffs that are the hottest thing in appetizers this season. Gougères have hit the meal-introducing trifecta: being light, attractive and easy.

OK, the lightness is a little deceptive. The puffs are all hollow and crispy with the heft of an angel's wing. But they are made with butter, eggs and cheese, so despite the temptation to inhale the whole plate, let them perform the role for which they were baked: whetting your appetite for the main course.

The basic pastry dough is the same recipe as for cream puffs or eclairs, which is a lot easier than you might think if you've never attempted this.

The process involves briskly stirring flour into melted butter and water, then gradually adding beaten eggs to the dough until it's golden and glossy. This step is most easily done with a stand mixer, letting each addition of egg be completely absorbed before adding the next. The mixture may look sloppy at first, but will suddenly come together.

You can also beat in the eggs by hand, gaining the sort of aerobic workout that the kitchen rarely offers ... thank goodness.

Classic gougères are flavored with Gruyère cheese, but there's plenty of room for creativity, trading in different cheeses, adding herbs or spices, ground nuts, even finely crumbled bacon. The whole mixing process takes no more than 15 minutes.

While it's perfectly acceptable to drop the dough by tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheet, a pastry bag fitted with an open tip gives you a little more consistency among the puffs, and simply is more fun, a pursuit that should always be encouraged.

Gougères are best served warm, and are terrific with wine or champagne. You can serve them freshly baked, or make them in advance, freeze for up to a month, then reheat them directly from the freezer for about 5 minutes.

Piled in a basket or stacked in a pyramid, gougères provide a warm and welcoming start to a wonderful evening.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185