The Burgundians have it all figured out. Wine is meant to be drunk with food. And so when glasses of Burgundy are poured, even for a tasting, the hors d’oeuvres are never far behind.
That’s why they invented the gougere.
It looks like a tiny, golden dinner roll. Its delicate crust offers a little resistance to the tooth, and the inside is soft and melty -- as the French say, moelleux. Served warm, it’s light and rich at the same time, with the soft flavor of cheese and butter and eggs. There’s nothing better with a glass of Pinot. Or Beaujolais. Or, well, any wine, really. Then you want another. And another.
Burgundy’s perfect savory tidbits are actually light-handed cheese puffs, made from pate a choux (cream-puff paste) enriched with Gruyere cheese that’s piped or spooned onto a baking sheet and baked until golden. Though they’re terribly sophisticated, they’re easy to make.
In Paris, gougeres have been served at Taillevent, the renowned Michelin three-star restaurant, for as long as anyone can remember. Lightly flavored with nutmeg these days, they appear at the start of the meal, to accompany the aperitif. Stateside, at Artisanal, chef Terrance Brennan’s cheese-lovers’ restaurant in New York, they appear as an appetizer, sprinkled with rock salt. Thomas Keller has been known to offer them as an amuse bouche at the French Laundry in Napa.
A friend just back from Paris reports that the gougere is the “amuse of the moment.” Chefs are riffing on the classic, he says, flavoring it with anything from leeks to celery root to ham to foie gras.
Here’s the good news: gougeres are not only easy to make, they’re also foolproof. You just boil water, add butter and flour, stir it up, beat in eggs one at a time, and stir in some grated cheese. Drop them by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet and pop them into the oven. You can even make them ahead and freeze them. Three minutes in the oven and they’re as good as new.
At least once, make classic gougeres. You’ll be amazed at how they please a crowd. They’re great finger food at wine or cocktail parties, or to serve in baskets as guests are sitting down at a dinner party.
Then you’ll want to riff. You can flavor them with almost anything that sounds good: chopped fresh herbs such as thyme or rosemary, chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes or sun-dried tomato paste, wild mushrooms, finely chopped vegetables, prosciutto, cheeses other than Gruyere -- or combinations. Just stir the flavoring into the paste as you add the grated cheese.
But we didn’t stop there. Thinking about cream puffs (gougeres’ cheeseless cousins), we decided to try filling them. We whipped up a simple chicken liver mousse, flavored it with a touch of Cognac, filled a pastry bag and piped it right into the middle of each puff.
We poured a glass of Pinot. We tasted the gougeres. We’ve never been happier.