Cheese puffs make the ideal cocktail snack. These are miniature Cheddar versions of a savory French cream puff traditionally enriched with Gruyere cheese. Once you form them into mounds, you can refrigerate or freeze them and bake them just before your guests are ready to devour them.
Makes about 72 cheese puffs
¾ cup water
½ tsp salt
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
¾ cup all-purpose flour (spoon and level; 3.25 oz)
4 lg eggs
1 ½ Tbsp finely chopped fresh English thyme
1 cup grated sharp Cheddar or Gruyere cheese (2 oz)
1. Dough. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Put the water, salt, and butter in a medium (2- to 3-quart) saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Add the flour all at once and beat vigorously with a sturdy wire whisk, still over heat. It will form a very firm mass of dough that should pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat. Crack and egg into a small cup. Pour the egg into the saucepan and immediately beat it into the dough using the whisk or a hand held electric mixer. Repeat with the remaining 3 eggs, incorporating each one thoroughly before adding another. The mixture will be satiny and sticky and have a consistency between soft dough and thick batter. Stir in the thyme and ½ cup of the cheese.
2. Forming and baking. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Using 2 flatware teaspoons, drop balls of dough (each measuring 1 tsp in volume) in rows on the paper, allowing 1 inch of space between them for spreading. Or use a pastry bag with a lare plain tip and pipe the dough out in ½-inch mounds. Place a pinch of the remaining cheese on top of each gougere. (At this point you can cover the pans tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate them for up to 24 hours.) Bake the gougeres until puffed and golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Serve while still warm.
Note: Once the dough is formed, you can put the baking sheets in the freezer until the little mounds are solid, then transfer them to resealable freezer bags. When you want to bake a batch, transfer them to a paper-lined baking sheet and bake at 400°F for 25 to 30 minutes.
Herb substitutions: In place of the thyme, use an equal amount of finely chopped fresh summer savory, 2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh marjoram or oregano, or 3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh dill or chives.