They do say a watched pot never boils, I know. But I still like to stand near the oven door in the winter, warming myself in the gentle heat it throws off. And unlike water boiling, lots of recipes require a little more TLC. A check-in, if you will. You have to glance at your bread now and again to see if it’s browning, or lightly touch the surface of your cakes to see if they spring back or not. As precise as baking is, baking times can often be treated as mere guidelines; instead, you learn the visual clues and signposts that indicate proper doneness.
So today found me at the oven as I made dinner (ahead of time, yes, why thank you for noticing and being impressed!). I had just popped a Dutch baby in the oven (using this recipe for Melissa Clark’s herbed Parmesan version) and had 20 minutes to tidy up the kitchen as it baked.
The air slowly warmed, fragrant and heavy with the scent of salty hot cheese. (This recipe is particularly exceptional because it features a lid—yes a lid—of crispy baked Parmesan. Here’s how you do it: You whisk together the batter, which is as simple and fast as mixing together milk, flour, and eggs. I usually do it in the blender, making it even quicker. Then you stir in fresh herbs—chives and thyme in this case. Melt half a stick of butter in a skillet on the stovetop and cook it til it browns. Pour the batter into the skillet over the butter, then generously sprinkle a RIDICULOUS amount of grated Parmesan over the top. You want to cover the surface of the batter entirely with cheese. Add a little flaky sea salt and bake. As it bakes, the cheese melts and crisps into the aforementioned lid, making every bite salty and cheesy and crunchy on the edges.)
My husband walks in the door, sweaty and flushed from a run in the park, and before the door can swing shut behind him he exclaims, “it smells so, so good in here!” And it does. The oven timer dings and I carefully wrap the handle of the skillet in a potholder and pull it from the oven. The Dutch baby has puffed immensely, like a cross between a pancake and a souffle. The edges rise majestically, giving it the look of a rumpled Elizabethan ruff collar. A…deliciously salty buttery Elizabethan ruff collar.
No matter how many times you make a Dutch baby, it feels like you’ve hit on a bit of kitchen magic. I know it will puff up, but it still delights me just the same. And happily, the taste is just as impressive as how it looks.
I kept thinking as I made it today that this should forever be my go-to dinner party dish. It’s impossible to mess up, easy to make ahead (just prep the batter and let it sit), and everyone will ooh and aah over it. Add a green salad and it feels like you’re eating at a cozy French bistro. You could toss in some crisped bacon or pancetta to the batter to make it more substantial.
It reminded me of another recent revelation concerning a similar recipe: gougeres. I’ve baked these delicate little puffs (made from pâte à choux dough) before, but it’s been a minute. Paging through one of my most favorite new cookbooks of the year, Jessica Battilana’s Repertoire, I saw her seeded rye gougeres and thought YES PLEASE YES. I worked with Jessica years ago, and have had the pleasure of staying friends, and I can say that she is one of the coolest and loveliest people, and her book exudes such a down-to-earth, practical, useful energy so I highly recommend it. I’ve loved everything I’ve cooked from it, and my friends who have it keep telling me the same. “I made her candy pork, and it was perfect! My kids loved it!” is a direct quote from my boss this week.
So, I baked the gougeres. And here’s the thing: they aren’t as fast and easy as a Dutch baby, but they’re pretty simple once you get the hang of how pâte à choux should look when it’s cooked. They use just a few basic ingredients though, and they puff in the oven in the same impressive fashion. Cheesy with a crunchy seeded topping, they’re airy and light and frankly if you put them out at a party, people might accidentally call you Ina Garten, and how bad can that be?—to borrow the Contessa’s own words.
I actually skipped the rye flour that Jessica calls for in her original recipe, though I’m sure that would add a nicely nutty depth of flavor to these. I like them with all-purpose flour, and I really like them with lots and lots of cheese.
Now I feel like I’m developing my own repertoire of recipes: Dutch baby for dinner parties. Gougeres for any cocktail-ish gathering. (Oh, do I sound like I’m getting too sophisticated? Don’t worry, my go-to dessert is semisweet chocolate chips, straight from the freezer, eaten one by one out of a ramekin. And sometimes I eat popcorn for dinner. And I put ketchup on my scrambled eggs. Okay enough of that for now, I have to keep some of my mystery alive.)
Adapted from Repertoire; makes 2 dozen
1 cup milk
8 tablespoons (113g) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (120g) all-purpose flour
1 cup (113g) + 2 tablespoons grated Gruyère cheese
1/3 cup mixed seeds (poppy, sunflower, and sesame)
flaky sea salt, for finishing
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Place the milk, butter, and salt in a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed saucepan and set it over medium heat. Bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and add the flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook, stirring as you go, until the mixture comes together in a ball and leaves a film on the spoon.
Immediately transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed for a few minutes to let it cool slightly. Add 4 of the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each. It’ll look a bit wet at first but keep beating and it will smooth out. Add 1 cup of the cheese and beat until combined.
Spoon the dough into a pastry bag with a wide tip (or use a Ziplock bag and snip the corner) and pipe large dollops (about 2 tablespoons each) of the dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet (I used a Silpat).
Beat the remaining egg and brush it onto the tops. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of cheese, the flaky salt, and the seeds evenly over the dough.
Bake for about 24 minutes, until puffy and light golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve hot.