As a cook, I am prone to enthusiasm. I readily admit that. But, please, trust me on this one: Frozen gougères were the best thing I discovered last year. Really.
Doubt me? Think about this: a crisp, crusty savory cream puff, lighter than air but rich with the utterly irresistible fragrance of browned Gruyère cheese. And here's all you have to do to fix them: Remove from freezer; place on cookie sheet; bake for a half-hour. All of the hard work -- making the dough, piping it into puffs -- can be done well in advance. Amazing.
Never heard of gougères? Until relatively recently, they were one of those ultra-regional French specialties, a typical little bite in the bistros of Burgundy.
The first time I remember having them was at the French Laundry, a Napa-Valley restaurant extraordinaire, a decade or so ago, where the waiter brought gougères, swaddled in linen to preserve their fresh-from-the-oven warmth.
Perfect, right? And until now perfectly out of reach. Gougères (pronounced GOO-zhair) are made right before being served. And whereas at the French Laundry Thomas Keller has an army of cooks, at home I'm pretty much on my own.
So while I've always regarded gougères as an ultimate appetizer, in the hour before a dinner party starts, I've got better things to do than beat cream puff paste.
But while testing recipes from Dorie Greenspan's splendid new book, "Around My French Table," I noticed that she claims her recipe for gougères can be frozen before baking.
You pipe out the cream puff dough in advance, freeze it on the cookie sheet, transfer it to a bag or box for long-term storage, and then pop it out whenever you're ready. And she says they take only an extra four or five minutes to bake, straight from the freezer.
This seemed too good to be true. So I tried them, baking half of the puffs right away and then freezing the remainder (a typical recipe for gougères will make three to four dozen). The first batch was great, of course. But the real news was the next day when I put the ones from the freezer straight into a hot oven. Half an hour later, they were done. And they were perfect.
Variation on a theme
As good as Greenspan's recipe for gougères is, I wondered, Would this freezing technique work with others?
A few pounds of flour and a couple of dozen eggs later, I can safely say that freezing does work with all of them (and, by extension, it should work with other cream puff dough recipes, as well).
If you've never made cream puffs at home, you really should give it a try. After you get the hang of a couple of tricky steps, it's really easy.
You start by bringing water, butter and salt to a boil in a saucepan. Dump in a bunch of flour and start beating the mixture with a wooden spoon.
Have all the ingredients measured and ready before you start, because this part goes very quickly.
At first, it'll look like a mess, but within 15 to 20 seconds the mixture will begin to come together to form a smooth, shiny, very resilient dough ball that pulls cleanly away from the sides and bottom of the pan. Keep cooking and stirring for a couple of minutes -- you want to cook out as much of the water as you can to ensure the lightest, crispest puffs.
Transfer the dough to a stand mixer (it'll look like a thick paste, which is what professional bakers call it). Beat on medium speed for 20 to 30 seconds to cool it slightly. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time.
You can also mix all of this by hand, but you'd better have the shoulders of an NFL linebacker. That paste is dense.
A handy pastry bag
When all the eggs have been fully incorporated, add the cheese. The only step left is forming the individual puffs. The easiest way to do this is with a pastry bag fitted with a 3/8- to 1/2-inch round nozzle. Squeeze out roughly 1-tablespoon mounds, about the size of a small walnut. If you don't have a pastry bag, you can form the puffs with a soup spoon (wet it occasionally to keep the dough from sticking).
Form the balls on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone pastry sheet, so they don't stick, and put them in the freezer.
They'll be frozen solid in a couple of hours, at which point you can transfer them to a tightly sealed plastic bag or food container for longer storage. (They'll keep for at least a few weeks.)
When you're almost ready to serve, place as many of them as you want onto a lined cookie sheet and bake -- first at high heat to get the puff and set the structure, then at lower heat to finish the interior.
Cooking through several different recipes shows just how flexible the technique is. The basic ratio is roughly 1 cup of liquid to 1 cup of flour and four eggs. Butter can vary from 3 tablespoons (Judy Rodgers' from "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" are almost supernaturally light and crisp) to 7 tablespoons (from "The French Laundry Cookbook," which compensates with an extra 1/4 cup of flour).
Most recipes call for water, although Greenspan's uses half milk (it improves the browning). Noted teacher and cookbook writer Madeleine Kamman uses chicken stock (for a more rounded savory flavor). And, of course, you can experiment with different cheeses.
In the end, though, my tasters were unanimous and unequivocal in choosing the "French Laundry" puffs as their favorite. More important? All of this tasting took place during a weeknight dinner. With a green salad, it was a terrific light supper that required almost no effort at all: gougères as fast food.