Gougères are an elegant, cheesy comfort food.

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PROUST HAD madeleines; I have gougères. Made from choux paste, the same batter used to make éclairs, gougères are cheesy puffs, delicate but satisfying, crisp on the outside, moist and practically hollow on the inside, and light as air. They are the most elegant of comfort foods.

I was 21 the first time I tasted one. I was backpacking through Europe with a friend, surviving on fast-and-cheap food for weeks. That is, until we found ourselves wandering the streets of Dijon in France, salivating over the menus posted outside the cafes and bistros that lined the cobbled streets.

Overwhelmed by options, we chose one at random. After we ordered, our waiter brought us a carafe of wine and a small plate of gougères. Neither of us knew what they were. To be honest, they looked tasteless and boring, and we ignored them, not wanting to ruin our appetites. After a few minutes, the waiter returned and insisted we try them. I will be forever grateful.

But I didn’t speak French, and I had no idea what they were, so years went by and I thought I’d never have another. Until serendipity and my very funny father sent me to cooking school in Paris, and one weekend some classmates and I took a train to Dijon. We had a reservation made by one of our chefs, and I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t try to find the restaurant where I remembered eating those heavenly morsels. We ordered lunch, and lo and behold, our waiter brought us a plate of gougères. What I had imagined to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience turned out to be ubiquitous in Burgundy, where they are commonly served with local wine.

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Here in Washington, also home to hundreds of stellar wineries, I’ve embraced the tradition, but I make mine with our own Cougar Gold rather than the Gruyère most commonly used in France. I love this marriage of my most brave and adventurous younger self with the happily domesticated homebody I’ve become.

 

Gougères

1 cup water

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 cup all-purpose flour

5 eggs, divided

5 ounces Cougar Gold cheese, grated

 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Put the water, butter, salt and nutmeg in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon to completely blend the ingredients. The mixture will start off as a lumpy paste before smoothing out and forming a ball of dough that won’t stick to the sides of the pan. Continue breaking up the ball of dough and stirring it together for one full minute.

4. Turn the dough out into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed for about two minutes to let it cool a bit.

5. Add four eggs, one at a time. Be sure each egg is completely incorporated before scraping the bowl and paddle and then adding the next one.

6. When the eggs have been added, add the cheese to the batter and mix on low until incorporated.

7. Use two spoons to drop the batter by the teaspoon or tablespoon onto parchment-lined baking sheets. When deciding how generously to drop the batter, note that the gougères will expand to three times their size when baked.

8. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg, and then use a pastry brush to paint the tops of each gougère.

9. Bake until golden, and until they feel very light when lifted, about 40 minutes for large ones, about 25 minutes for small. Do not underbake, or they will collapse as they cool.

10. Gougères can be served warm or at room temperature, and they freeze beautifully — just reheat at 350 degrees until crisp and hot.

Makes about 30 large or 90 small gougères.