When I started cooking, I would spend hours during the week thinking about what I wanted to make over the weekend, and then I would spend the weekend making it. Every Saturday I shopped along a stretch of Ninth Avenue around the Port Authority Bus Terminal, in Manhattan. In those years, it wasn’t the best part of town, but to me, an adventurous fledging cook, the small shops were as thrilling as a grand bazaar. There was a spice shop where I could buy saffron by the pinch for paella and risotto. A store where I bought handmade phyllo to make spanakopita and baklava. There was a fishmonger who sold everything that went into a bouillabaisse, including an assortment of heads and bones to make the broth, and a butcher who learned about charcuterie in France after the war. He made pâtés like the ones I saw in Gourmet magazine, and had duck confit and sausages for cassoulet; I bought the classic beans — creamy white ones from Tarbes — at a market opposite the terminal. That’s also where I got the rice for the risotto.
Back then, I wouldn’t cook the same dish twice. If you came for dinner and liked what you had, I’d send you home with the recipe, releasing myself from the obligation to make it for you again. But that was long ago, years before I came to understand that the pleasures of cooking are as much about the comfort of familiarity as they are about the excitement of discovery. There’s joy in giving those you love what they love. And there’s satisfaction in returning to recipes you know so well that the motions are drawn from memory.
After decades of cooking, I have a treasury of dishes I make by special request or just because I know they’re someone’s favorite. There are fruit tarts with sweet crusts, plain butter cakes and spice loaves, quiches and stuffed peppers with charred edges, spicy stew ladled over buttered noodles, countless kinds of cookies, a tall carrot cake, a slim chocolate torte and, the recipe most in demand, the French cheese puffs called gougères.
Based on pâte-à-choux, the dough used for cream puffs and éclairs, gougères are what I welcome guests with as they come through the door. Once when a friend didn’t catch the whiff of warm cheese — the signal that the gougères are almost ready — he looked as disappointed as a kid who’d found the candy store closed. Of course I’d made them, I assured him. I was just a little late getting them into the oven.
Gougères probably originated in Burgundy, and that’s where I first tasted them, at a restaurant that served them the moment we sat down, along with a small Kir, a mix of white wine and crème de cassis, the signature aperitif of the region. There, and throughout most of the country, the puffs — with a lightly crusty outside and custardy inside — are made with either French Comté or Swiss Gruyère. That I use Cheddar when I make gougères in America is a relatively recent innovation, a change born of necessity (it was the only cheese in the house) but folded into tradition by choice: Cheddar makes delicate puffs with a pleasingly sharp edge.
Edge is nice in a morsel meant to whet the appetite and good in a dough that is plain by design. The only dough that I can think of that is both cooked and baked, pâte-à-choux starts in a saucepan, where flour is added all at once to a boiling mixture of milk, water and butter. There are a few moments of energetic stirring to dry the dough so that it will expand later. And then, while everything is still steaming, you add the eggs, beating until the dough is silky and shiny — which comes as a relief, since it can look quite hopeless mid-mix. In the classic version of gougères, the dough is seasoned with a bit of salt and run through with the cheese. But I’ve gradually altered my recipe, adding mustard (some people taste it, others don’t) and toasted nuts (everyone tastes those). The nuts — I use pecans or walnuts — change the gougères’ personality, nudging them from elegant accompaniment to lively partner.
The reason I can have gougères in the oven whenever friends come is that I scoop the dough, freeze the puffs and then bake as many as I need. It’s just a few minutes of planning, a few minutes preparing for the happiness of family and friends. I always have a batch or two in the freezer, because I always know that friends will come.
At least I used to know this. I’m writing when our world is off-kilter, when I can’t be certain when friends will come, when I’ll be able to make them the dishes they love. For now, at home with my small family, I’m making the dishes we love, and so I make gougères. I’ve baked so many of these over the years that sliding them into the oven and waiting for their fragrance to find its way into the kitchen feels like a ritual. Serving them feels like a comfort. And making another batch feels like an act of faith. When my friends return — and they will! — I’ll be ready.