When it came to entertaining, K was the most stylish woman I knew. And yet this stylishness stopped there; she was otherwise an unremarkable middle-aged woman who spurned makeup, whose short-cropped haircut resembled a grey helmet, whose legs she never bothered shaving, whose footwear was principally a pair of ungainly, sensible sandals.
Feeding other people transformed K. Apart from dinner parties she would stage Sunday lunches in the old Potts Point apartment she shared with her husband. Once she had guided her guests up a ladder through a door in the ceiling they were able to step out into a small paved courtyard shaded by an umbrella – Sydney fell away below and beyond – and shortly a tray of drinks would appear, slightly chilled Spanish sherry in pretty little glasses, perhaps, or a South Australian rosé. There might be fat warmed olives, or one of her coarse terrines, but the time I remember best was when she presented gougères. Still hot from the oven, they were golden balls whose centres exploded in your mouth like lava, a liquid heart of cheese. Like eating a cloud, that’s how light they were, until you hit that molten middle.
I dragged out K’s gougère recipe on New Year’s Eve, deciding that the French champagne we planned to drink all night required a suitably glamorous accompaniment. It was a fiddly sticky thing to make but not at all difficult; I had used proper French gruyère (at a staggeringly high price from a local deli); the platter I passed around fresh from the oven was met with approval. My gougères were lovely, and the recipe will follow.
Gougères – a French word – are the product of a special sort of pastry called choux. Anyone who has eaten an éclair or a cream puff or a profiterole has eaten choux pastry.
The word choux in French means cabbage and derives from an 18th century French pastry- maker who employed this particular type of pastry to make little buns which he decided resembled cabbages.
This is a fun pastry to make! Unlike many pastry recipes that rely on chilled ingredients for success – butter, hands – the dough is composed of a boiled mixture of both butter and water to which flour is added. Similar, in fact, to the base for a béchamel or a roux. The mixture is cooked until it forms a smooth ball to which eggs are then added and it is beaten until it turns into a paste. This in turn is piped or dolloped onto a baking sheet and baked, first at a high temperature then at a lower one.
Bring 250ml water and 60g butter to a fast boil. Remove from heat and stir in 125g sifted plain flour. Stir vigorously to form a smooth paste then return to the heat and cook several minutes until a smooth ball is formed. Turn out into a bowl and cool. Whisk three large eggs and beat gradually into the mixture. (You can do this in a food processor.) Dice 100g gruyère and incorporate most of it into the paste. Drop tablespoons of mixture onto well-greased baking tray and dot with remaining cheese. Bake at 220°C for 20 minutes then at 190°C for another 10 minutes. Serve hot with drinks.