Valentine's Day is not typically a big-time holiday here in France. Although change is in the air...for whatever reason.
It was never a big-time holiday in my family as I was growing up either. Oh sure, there were the standard little paper punch-out valentines that were detached from their backing, signed and tucked into individual envelopes, upon which each name had been carefully printed. They were then distributed to classmates, each card being placed in the red construction paper envelopes (an art project from the week before) that were taped to the sides of the desks waiting to be filled. (In second grade, I received a very ornate full-sized, be-sequined card strewn with cupids, hearts and arrows and signed “with love” by one Eddie D., who later accompanied his declaration of Valentine Love with cartwheels and other various acrobatic stunts on the playground at recess. Me, I was mortified. Way too much attention for this introverted soul. But memorable, nonetheless.)
Back at the ranch, my sister and I would make cards for our parents and my father would always bring home little gifts for us. Something along the lines of a small trinket or tchotchke kind of thing along with a heart-shaped box of chocolates. My mother usually received two boxes: one was velvet with something beautiful in it and the other contained chocolate covered cherries – her favorites. Sweet memories.
For beaux of my past and a former husband, I was the kind to make special meals for this mid-February celebration. Something in the meal was usually heart-shaped. If it was soup, it had heart-shaped croutons floating on the top. Stuff like that. Such the romantic soul, I can be. I think I’m past that stage...well, almost.
This dish is a perfect Valentine’s Day special. Simple to put together and yet makes a lovely presentation for a lunch or light dinner.
The recipe comes from my equally lovely conversation partner, Danielle. We meet weekly and share conversations ranging from personal events, current events, various topics through which we can learn about one another’s culture, and films we’ve seen. (Films have become one of our favorite things to talk about.) It’s made a big difference in my confidence with this new language and fun to watch the natural flow of French and English as we navigate our discussions in two languages, foreign to each of us.
As it turns out, she is also quite the cook. It became obvious to me from the French cookbooks that she generously loaned me when she found out about La Fourchette several months ago. (Including the Richard Olney collection, I might add!)
Yes, I believe that she must have logged in a few hours in her own little kitchen in the south of France before taking a retirement along with her husband, a former judge here in Aix en Provence. (My former mother-in-law did the same thing, by the way, after her husband retired. There was a moment when she realized that she was still working. One afternoon she offered to her husband her resignation...along with a can of beans and a can opener - for whenever he felt hungry. A creative way to make the point! They began showing up regularly at the "Early Bird Specials" in their ‘hood outside of Washington D.C. shortly after this declaration of kitchen independence.)
Danielle prepared a Gougère for me the first time she invited me to lunch “chez eux” (their house). Served with sliced ham, fresh from the butcher, and a perfectly dressed mâche salad, it was a very satisfying lunch – as was the conversation between the three of us.
Gougère is from the Burgundy region...as is her husband. While not-quite-a-soufflé, not-quite-a-cake, it falls somewhere in between. Blending the traditional Pâte à Choux (the batter used to make éclairs) with cheese, the result is the Gougère - rich in taste but light enough in texture to keep it from feeling heavy when the meal is over. The salty/nutty flavor of the parmesan has its edges softened in the eggy mix. Tasty and pretty to look at - it's so French! It will become a regular on my recipe “playlist”.
We still have cold temperatures here but are being teased a bit with lovely sunshine-filled days. Is it spring yet?!
Regardless of the temps in your world, perhaps by serving this to your Valentine with a bit of rosé, you can seduce more than just an early spring!
Gougère (Adapted from La Cuisine familiale et pratique by H.P. Pellaprat, the Pâte à Choux recette)
This is a bit of an intuitive process. When I asked how long it should be in the oven, Danielle told me that she always just knows by the smell at which point to pull it out. This was my first one so I was a little less sure of myself. There is definitely a point at which it will send you an olfactory signal that it’s ready! I also ended up not adding the last egg as it looked more than wet enough given what I was after. I turned out to be right. That is an important note in the original recipe. Watch for that. In addition, watch the flour...this could be a bit of a hiccup with my conversions...and translation, but just be ready with additional flour if you need it. It’s good practice for your intuitive cook! Very good served warm, right from the oven, it's also good at room temperature
1 cup of water
1/2 cup of unsalted butter
pinch of sea salt
1 cup of flour (all-purpose), sifted
2/3 cup of grated parmesan cheese
Bring to a boil the water, butter and salt. When it comes to a full boil, take it off the heat and add, all at once, the flour, mixing vigorously with a spoon or spatula. You must have a thick consistency, firm, so if you need to dry it out a bit to get this consistency, put it over a moderate heat for brief amounts of time, but not leaving it on the heat.
When it no longer sticks to the spatula and begins to form a plump ball of dough, add the 4 eggs, one at a time and one right after the other*, while mixing vigorously to combine them with the dough. The dough will become soft and more batter-like.
(*Do not add the last egg without checking the consistency at this point. Add it only bit by bit to avoid risking that the dough will become too sluggish.)
Distribute the batter evenly in a buttered casserole dish (or tube pan...or ramequins) and bake at 400ºF watching it carefully until it is golden brown on top and springs to the touch.
This dough serves as a base for many pastries, such as the eclairs. It can be served as a savory dish when used to make gnocchis or as a soufflé-type dish with the addition of cheese, a bit of pepper and a grind of nutmeg. (Like the gougère.)
Gougère can also be prepared as bite-sized morsels baked on a cookie sheet for an appetizer.