Cheese Cookies

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All this time and I did not know how to make a pâte à choux. All this French and I didn’t even  know what the term means: “pastry of cabbage,” so named because when cooked, these puffs of dough are supposed to represent little cabbages. Mine, however, were flat, like cookies. Reason? Go back to the first sentence.

Julia Child would not have approved. She wrote in 1961’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking that “Pâte à Choux is one of those quick, easy, and useful preparations like béchamel sauce which every cook should know how to make.” Me? I am learning this today. And passing on my poorly-baked knowledge to you.

This all started when I dined at a seafood restaurant in Gary, Indiana. Now those of you who equate Gary with steel production rather than fine dining would have been happily surprised, as I was, to wander into the Captain’s House and discover “Goat Cheese Fritter Loukoumades” on the menu.  First of all, road food usually consists of numbing variations of burgers and bar food. Second, I did not expect that a seafood restaurant in Gary, Indiana, specializing in lobster rolls, would name an item after a Greek specialty. Greek “Loukamades” are fried puffs of dough usually sweetened with honey, cinnamon, and walnuts. These Gary, Indiana versions were savory, stuffed with goat cheese, and topped with honey and pistachios.

I determined to recreate the recipe. I ended up studying gougères, which are simply pâte à choux baked with cheese. Got that? You may see them on an hors d’oeuvres table. There are infinite varieties of these. They are classically made with gruyere, but you can add any cheese, not to mention flavorings like herbs, pancetta, or bits of onion and pepper.

I eventually decided on a mix of goat cheese cheddar and feta that was a mix of sheep and goat milk. I added sheep’s milk yogurt to mix with cow’s milk and butter. (At the last minute, I decided against yak’s milk.)

In order for the gougères to puff up in the oven without a leavening agent such as yeast, the trick is to first heat the flour on the stovetop with simmering water, so that steam will build up inside the gougères and puff them as they bake. The trick is not to add extra water to the dough because you don’t think it looks right – hence, my cookies.

This basic recipe is from famed French chef Alain Ducasse (who presumably can also make a béchamel).

Ingredients

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup milk

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons

Large pinch of coarse salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

3 1/2 ounces shredded Gruyère cheese (1 cup), plus more for sprinkling

Freshly ground pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg

Directions

1.  Preheat the oven to 400°. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium saucepan, combine the water, milk, butter and salt and bring to a boil. Add the flour and stir it in with a wooden spoon until a smooth dough forms; stir over low heat until it dries out and pulls away from the pan, about 2 minutes.

2.  Scrape the dough into a bowl; let cool for 1 minute. Beat the eggs into the dough, 1 at a time, beating thoroughly between each one. Add the cheese and a pinch each of pepper and nutmeg.

3.  Transfer the dough to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip and pipe tablespoon-size mounds onto the baking sheets, 2 inches apart. (You can also use a lightly greased ice cream scoop.) Sprinkle with cheese and bake for 22 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown. Serve hot, or let cool and refrigerate or freeze. Reheat in a 350° oven until piping hot.

Notes

When making the choux pastry, it is important to be sure that each egg is fully incorporated into the batter before adding the next. Don’t worry if the batter separates and looks curdled at first. Keep beating, and it will come together nicely. Also note - gougères freeze well.

Here’s another recipe, purporting to be from Julia Child’s contemporary Dorie Greenspan. The blogger has step by step photos of how the dough is supposed to act: https://bit.ly/2PnhybT

As for mine, well, I loved the flavor, and they were delicious topped with honey and crushed pistachios. Mistakes notwithstanding, this isn’t a time-consuming process; and once you master it, the variations can be as infinite as, say, all the stuff I don’t know.


Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.

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