Before Julia Child, there was Evelyn Saint-Ange. Maybe not so famous outside of France, Madame Saint-Ange’s compendium of French cuisine has been a mainstay in Gallic kitchens since 1927, the year it was published.
Madame Saint-Ange was a housewife but also a professional chef by virtue of the studies she pursued and the (male) chefs she collaborated with. Over the course of 30 years, she wrote a manual of French cuisine so extensive and detailed that, in her mind, every woman could learn to cook any French dish if she so chose.
I am not a fan of French cuisine, often too rich and elaborate for my taste, but I am a fan of many French cooking techniques – at least I like to master them to then be able to explore, expand and alter within the confines of the basics. Madame Saint-Ange occupies a proud place in my cookbook library but it hardly gets used. Her recipes are so lengthy as to become daunting but her explanations are so exhaustive that they are a good read in themselves, even if I don’t get to make the food in the end. It’s the fine points I look for.
Madame Saint-Ange was pulled out a few days ago, together with my current obsession, the pastry cookbook by Tartine, the famous bakery in the S. Francisco Mission district. If you are serious about baking, I strongly recommend this book. The basic recipes every pastry chef needs are solid and the extra explanations go a long way in making you a better baker.
What both books have in common is an understanding of the chemistry of cooking and a respect of what needs to be taken into consideration and what can be improvised or changed on a whim. If nothing else, they are both great reads and Tartine has fabulous photographs too. And both books were lying open on my kitchen table when I decided to make Gougeres (cheese puffs) as an appetizer. I have made pate a choux, cream puffs and Gougeres countless times so it’s not the technique I was after but, rather, some of the finer points I could pass along to a more inexperienced cook to guarantee success.
From Madame Saint-Ange’s, Tartine’s and my kitchen, here is the recipe for an easy party food your guests will happily pop into their mouths, cocktail or wine glass in hand.
RECIPE – yields about 30 small puffs
1 1/4 C Non fat or low-fat milk (310 ml)
10 T Butter (140 g), cut in small cubes
1 C Flour (140 g)
1 ts Salt
5 Eggs + 1 for brushing the dough
3/4 C Gruyère, (115 g) grated + a bit more for sprinkling
1 ts Black pepper
1 T Dijon Mustard (optional – I like the kick of it but it’s not traditional)
- Combine the milk, butter and salt in a heavy saucepan and place over medium heat until the butter is melted and the mixture comes to a boil.
- Add the flour all at once and, using a wooden spoon, stir vigorously. The mixture will turn into a homogenous and elastic mass and will start to pull away from the sides. Keep stirring for about 3 minutes.
- Transfer the dough to a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (this step can also be made by hand). Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix until each has been fully incorporated. Once all the eggs have been added you will have a shiny mixture, which will still be warm. Add the cheese, the mustard (if using) and the pepper.
- Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2” plain tip and pipe 1 inch mounds onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. You will need two baking sheets. Alternatively, spoon it with a dessert spoon.
- Whisk the remaining egg and brush the tops and sprinkle some more cheese (I often skip this step when I want my gougeres to be less cheesy).
- Bake in a 350F oven until they are puffed and browned, about 25/30 minutes.
- They are best served out of the oven but you can let them cool and re-heat them in the oven prior to serving. You can also refrigerate or freeze them for a few days and recrisp them in the oven.
What Tartine has to say:
Don’t use whole milk. Because of the amount of butter and cheese, the batter is already very rich and extra fat will cause the puffs to fall. If you don’t have non fat milk, water will work just fine.
What Madame Saint-Ange has to say:
To check the puffs are cooking, do not crack open the oven. Allow 25 minutes before you take a peek. Once the puffs have doubled in volume and taken on a beautiful golden tint, they must not be taken out of the oven until they are perfectly firm to the touch. Take one out of the oven, check that the interior is not mushy and cook more accordingly.