On chilly winter nights like these, staying in often seems a better idea than going out for dinner. And if you offer to cook, you can convince some friends to brave the cold instead. When we do, we want an appetizer that will wow our guests. Gougères are an easy but impressive first course. Serve them straight from the oven, and upon the first bite an aromatic steam erupts from within. They are essentially the fancy man’s cheesey poofs—adorable hollow balls of cheese-flavored pastry. If your default starter is a bread and cheese platter, try this for an elegant take on the same combination of flavors.

GougèresEveryone will think you spent hours crafting a complicated pastry dough, but in fact, gougères are made from a classic pâte à choux (puff pastry), which requires no rolling and is practically foolproof. We tried this recipe from Artisanal, Terrance Brennan’s great temple of cheese in Murray Hill.

The true French way is to flavor gougères with only Gruyère, a Swiss cheese that melts well and has a sharp nutty flavor. (Don’t be discouraged by the stink when grating it; when cooked, it develops a lovely aroma.) The dough is immensely adaptable. Want to add your own distinctive touch? Throw in some snipped chives along with the cheese. We also had great results with Parmesan instead of Gruyère, and you could even use Cheddar along with a little minced jalapeno for extra zing. You can divide the batter and add different flavorings to each batch, so your guests can choose their favorite. And, perfect for planning ahead, baked gougères freeze well. Reheat them at 350 for about 10 minutes.

Feeling more sweet than savory? Leave out the cheese and pepper, pipe in some whipped cream, and you've got a cream puff for dessert. Top with a basic chocolate icing (confectioner’s sugar and cocoa moistened with water), and you’ve got mini-eclairs.


Makes about 30 pieces

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
6 grinds black pepper
3 eggs
1 cup coarsely grated Gruyère cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Sift the flour and baking powder together and set aside.

2. Put the butter, 1/4 cup of the milk, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, the pepper, and 1/2 cup of water in a 2-quart saucepan. Set over medium heat, bring to a boil, and cook until the butter melts, then remove from the heat. Dump in the flour mixture all at once, stir well with a wooden spoon, and return to the heat. Cook gently for a minute or two, stirring until the mixture starts to pull away from the sides of the saucepan and forms a ball.

3. Transfer the dough to an electric mixer with a paddle attachment and beat at low speed until the mixture is just warm. You can do this by hand, but it’s a tough job. A food processor, however is also effective.
[Gothamist found that the dough cools quickly with just a few strokes of beating by hand.]

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition. Add 1/2 cup of the cheese. Beat until the mixture is smooth and shiny, about 10 minutes.
[We found ten minutes to be unnecessary; a couple minutes will do it.]

5. Using a pastry bag or 2 teaspoons, form 1-inch mounds on a baking sheet, placing them about an inch apart. You should be able to fit 18 gougères on a full-sized baking sheet.
[You want about 1 tablespoon of dough for each mound. If using a bag, fit it with a 3/8-inch tip. Pull back on the pastry bag to form a Hershey’s kiss swoosh at the top of each, and you will have extra-cute gougères.]

6. Gently brush the tops of the gougères with the remaining milk, and sprinkle each with a generous pinch of the remaining cheese and salt. Bake until puffed and deep gold, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and serve while still warm.

[You might want to forego the salt, depending on how salty your cheese is. We found it necessary to bake for considerably longer—closer to 25 minutes. If your gougères start to deflate upon removal from oven, don’t fear; just put them back in and cook until they are firm and hold their shape well.]