Piping hot gougeres are perfect nibbles for any party

These French cheese puffs, a humble mix of grated cheese, butter and flour are a thrifty hors d’oeuvres. PHOTO: NYTIMES
These French cheese puffs, a humble mix of grated cheese, butter and flour are a thrifty hors d’oeuvres. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Make the batter ahead of time, pipe and freeze for easy party prep. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Make the batter ahead of time, pipe and freeze for easy party prep. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Vary the cheese, or add ingredients such as pancetta and sage to pep up the pastry. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Vary the cheese, or add ingredients such as pancetta and sage to pep up the pastry. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Caviar and truffles are all well and good, but nothing says "I'm pampering my guests" quite like a tray of hot, crisp gougères straight from the oven.

It is not because these French cheese puffs are expensive to make. They are not. A humble mix of grated cheese, butter and flour, they are among the thriftiest tidbits on the hors d'oeuvres circuit. Nor are they difficult - though if you do not have an electric mixer, some muscle will be required to beat the eggs into the stiff batter.

But there is a certain amount of planning needed both in terms of timing and oven space to serve them while they are still piping hot - or at least still very warm. That is when their buttery, cheesy charm is at its most pronounced. Putting this kind of planning into action amid the swirling chaotic bustle of the average holiday cocktail party (at least, my average holiday cocktail party) is what I mean by pampering, albeit in an understated way.

The upside of serving gougères at a party is that you can make them ahead and freeze them before baking. Then, as your guests are unwrapping themselves from scarves and hats and winter coats, simply pop them, frozen, into the oven. By the time the drinks are poured, you'll be able to pass around a steaming tray for immediate nibbling.

Plain gougères are wonderful, but the cheese puffs also take well to variations. You can change up the cheeses, as long as you always sprinkle some extra on top to bake up into a salty brown crust. Chilies, cracked pepper or spices add verve. Whole-wheat or rye flour reduces the puffiness slightly, but adds a lovely earthy, nutty flavour. Or, you can add intensely flavoured, minced bits like herbs, garlic, capers and olives. Here, I use a combination of crisp pancetta and sage, but basil and olives would be lovely if you are going for something vaguely Provençal. And so on.

If you can work fast or find a helper, you can fill your gougères with all kinds of tasty mixes. Slice them open while they are still hot enough to burn your fingers, and spoon or pipe in the likes of smoked fish mousse, pimento cheese, dollops of chicken, or lobster salad. Or try filling them with a spoonful of crème fraîche topped by an even larger one of caviar - and pamper your guests to the extreme.

Gougères With Pancetta and Sage

Yield: About 51/2 dozen

Total time: 1 hour

INGREDIENTS

170 grams pancetta, cut into cubes, or bacon

A dozen whole sage leaves

57g unsalted butter

1/2 tsp fine sea salt or kosher salt

1/4 tsp cayenne

125 grams bread flour or all-purpose flour (see note)

4 eggs, at room temperature

142g shredded Gruyère, or another firm cheese like Manchego or aged cheddar

50g grated Parmesan cheese

METHOD

1. Put pancetta in a large skillet and place over medium heat. Cook slowly, stirring, until fat is rendered and meat is well browned and crispy all over, 12 to 17 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

2. Sprinkle sage into the hot fat in the skillet and cook until crisp, about 1 minute. Transfer to plate with pancetta. When cool, finely chop pancetta and sage together.

3. Heat oven to 218 degrees Celsius and line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Have ready an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a sturdy mixing spoon).

4. In a saucepan, bring 1 cup water, butter, salt and cayenne to a boil. Stir in flour all at once, and cook, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, until dough forms a mass and pulls away from the sides of the pot, 2 to 3 minutes. The dough will be quite stiff.

5. Scrape into the mixer and beat until cooled slightly, about 30 seconds. Add one egg at a time, letting it fully incorporate before adding the next. (If you do not have a mixer, you can do this by mixing dough vigorously with a sturdy spoon.)

6. When eggs are incorporated, add Gruyère and continue to beat until it is mostly melted into batter, then add pancetta and sage and mix until combined.

7. Transfer batter to a large resealable plastic bag, and snip off 3/4-inch from one corner, or use a pastry bag. Pipe into balls, about 2 teaspoons each, leaving 1 inch of space between them. (Or, use a spoon to form the balls and drop onto baking sheets.)

8. Sprinkle Parmesan on top, and bake 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 175 degrees, and continue to bake until golden and cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes more. Serve immediately, while still warm.

Note: The gougères will still be delicious if you use all-purpose flour, but bread flour makes them rounder and puffier.

Classic Gougères

Yield: 5 1/2 dozen

Total time: 45 minutes

INGREDIENTS

57g unsalted butter

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

136g bread flour

4 large eggs, at room temperature

142g shredded Gruyère

50g grated Parmesan cheese

METHOD

1. Heat oven to 218 degrees Celsius, and line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup water, butter, salt and cayenne to a boil. Stir in flour all at once and cook, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, until dough pulls away from the sides of the pot, 1 to 2 minutes.

3. Scrape dough into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat with a paddle until cooled slightly, about 30 seconds. (Or you can do this with a wooden spoon if you beat vigorously.) Add one egg at a time, letting each one incorporate before adding the next. Mix in Gruyère and continue to beat until it is mostly melted into batter.

4. Transfer batter to a large, sealable plastic bag, and snip off 3/4 inch from one corner. Pipe 2-teaspoon-sized balls, spaced 1-inch apart, onto baking sheets. Or use a spoon to form the balls. Sprinkle Parmesan on top, and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 175 degrees and continue to bake until golden and cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool slightly then serve immediately.