New Year's Eve Gougères

Gougères – French cheese puffs, served warm just out of the oven – are wonderful anytime. They're particularly good with a glass of light red wine, like a village Beaujolais. And for something really festive, slice them open and dress them up, as the late, great Judy Rodgers did in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, one of my favorite volumes of all time. As its subtitle explains, the 2002 book is "a compendium of recipes and cooking lessons from San Francisco's beloved restaurant." Rodgers wrote in the recipe's headnote,"This was the most successful New Year's Eve hors d'oeuvre of the last decade, outselling foie gras, oysters, caviar, crab salad, and little truffle-laden pizzas." There you go. They are a real treat -- definitely something to consider whipping up on the last day of the year.

I treasure my copy of the book, not just because there are so many great recipes and ideas in it, but also because Rodgers signed it for me when I bought it at the restaurant many years ago. "For Leslie," she wrote, "always cook with heart."

Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

Makes 20 to 24 gougères

For the batter:

1 cup water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, cold
Freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces Gruyère, cut into ¼-inch cubes (about ½ cup)

To stuff the gougères:

10 to 12 slices bacon, cut into 1 ½- to 2-inch segments
About 2 cups baby arugula
About ¾ cup drained pickled onions (see below)

Heat oven to 400 degrees F. and line two baking sheets with parchment. In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter and salt to a simmer over medium heat. When the butter’s completely melted, add the flour all at once and stir briskly with a wooden spoon until the batter detaches itself in a mass from the sides of the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook, beating constantly, until the batter is very stiff and almost shiny, usually a few minutes. Off the heat, add one egg and beat thoroughly with the spoon to completely incorporate the egg. Then repeat with the other three eggs. The mixture will look strange, with pieces of dough sliding off each other, but don’t worry; in about half a minute they’ll come together for a uniform consistency. After the last egg is incorporated, stir in the cheese and black pepper to taste.

Use a spoon to mound a heaping tablespoon per gougère onto the baking sheet, and a second spoon to shape each into nice roundness, leaving ample space between them. Bake them until firm and deep golden-brown, about 25 minutes. To check doneness, remove one gougère and pry it open – the interior should be tender and moist, but not mushy or raw; if it’s not done, close it up, return it to the sheet and continue baking with the rest for another few minutes. If they’re getting too brown, turn off the oven and let the finish cooking in the ambient heat.

While they’re baking, panfry, roast or microwave the bacon to your taste, letting it drain on paper towels.

Serve them warm (or make ahead and reheat about 5 minutes in a 350 degree oven), sliced horizontally through the middle and stuffed with a couple pieces of bacon, a few arugula leaves and a few ringlets of pickled onion.

Pickled onions

1 medium yellow onion
1 ¼ cups Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 ¼ cups water
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes (or to taste) or 1 small dried chile
5-6 whole black peppercorns
½ teaspoon salt

Peel and slice the onions into thin rounds (about 1/8 inch), using a mandoline if you have one. Separate them into rings, discarding any discolored rings and the end cuts. To make a brine, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, bay leaves, chile (if you’re using a whole chile and you like it spicy, break it in half), peppercorns and salt in a smallish saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then add the onion rings, stirring them gently as they return to a simmer. Simmer for 50 seconds. Pour the hot onions and brine into a bowl or large jar; the onions will turn translucent as they cool. Cover and store refrigerated.