If you think you don't know what pâte à choux, or choux paste, is, I bet you have heard of éclairs or cream puffs, right? That's all that fancy name is and when you make them sweet, you get either of those two (which can also be labeled as profiteroles if you want to be real swanky) - however, you can take that same dough and go into the savory realm. Which is what we did to make these Gruyère Gougères tonight.
You don't have to be afraid of making these French cheese puffs as the process is really quite fluid if you take it step by step. Water, butter and salt are brought to a high enough simmer to get those butter pats melted. Flour is rapidly stirred in and you will notice it quickly soak up the liquids, leaving you with a ball of dough in your pan. Cooking out that raw flour-y taste at this point is important, but all you need to do is constantly smash that ball around in the skillet until the dough no longer seems sticky and for the best clue to when it's done, a slight film will form on the bottom of the pan.
Because you need to incorporate eggs into this mass, set the dough aside and leave it be for a couple minutes just to let some of the heat evaporate. If you want to build up your arm muscles, you can beat in those eggs by hand, but a stand mixer takes much of the work out of this dish and works those eggs in a little quicker. Just be sure to add the eggs one at a time and beat them into the dough until they are completely incorporated before you add the next. When the eggs are all in, the dough will be soft, shiny and just tacky to the touch, which is the time we turned these very savory by stirring in fresh ground black pepper and a liberal amount of intense Gruyère cheese.
To get this dough onto the pans, you can use a spoon, a tablespoon cookie scoop or if you have a big enough round tip for a pastry bag (you don't want to get the shreds of cheese stuck!) to make the process fly by. We opted for the cookie scoop to drop the golf ball sized rounds on the pans to keep the mess down to a minimum. If you use a spoon or pipping bag, you may end up with spikes or peaks to the dough - lightly wet your fingers and press them down so the balls stay somewhat even and smooth. Baked until the dough puffs up and takes on an alluring golden hue, if you have any questions to if they are done or not, you can take one out and pry it open with the tip of a sharp knife - the inside should be moist and just slightly egg-y as they will finish cooking through as they cool down.
With no baking powder or soda in the dough, these explode and rise simply from the leavening power of the eggs (be sure to give them plenty of room to grow as they bake!), which made for a crazy light, crisp and airy puff that is crammed with cheesiness. Eat several of them (so easy to do unfortunately) right away as is, or let them cool to room temperature (ha!) and stuff them with your favorite chicken or egg salad as they have an empty pocket inside, making for a creative serving vehicle. They would also make a dainty tea sandwich if you split them and add your favorite sandwich toppings. Best on the same day, they can be made ahead and frozen if need be - just let them thaw and rewarm them in the oven for 5 or so minutes to bring back their crispness.