Without Reservations

Backstreet girl
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paulr@sfbg.com
Like all books, cookbooks must pull their weight. This means, for me, offering at least two and possibly three — or more — recipes I can work into my rotating repertoire. Pretty photographs are nice, as is exoticism or a local angle, but it is one of life's eternal verities that shelf space is limited, and a cookbook that hopes to find a home in the puritan kitchen must be useful. (I have noticed over the years, in my reconnoiterings and snoopings in other kitchens, that spattering tells the tale. Spattering means: this book actually gets used — it isn't just sitting there, beautifully posing.)
Although I have thus far made only one recipe from Cindy Pawlcyn's new cookbook, Big Small Plates (with Pablo and Ernesto Jacinto, Ten Speed, $35), I have already assigned it shelf space in the permanent collection. In part this is because Pawlcyn is a local eminence who has had a hand in such hits as Bix, Fog City Diner, Mustard's Grill, and most recently, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen. In part it's because far more than two or three of the book's recipes look tempting, though I haven't gotten to them yet — and the reason I haven't gotten to them is that the book opens with a splendid recipe for gougères. I have been making these gougères, and when you make gougères, you tend to get caught up in an obliterating bliss.
Gougères are — as anyone who's queued at Tartine Bakery probably knows — sand-dollar-sized cheese puffs. They are close relations of brioche, the bread that thinks it's a cake or the cake that thinks it's bread — I've never been sure which. Like brioche, gougères are substantially fortified by butter and eggs. Unlike brioche, gougères rely exclusively on eggs as the leavening agent; there is no yeast. Pawlcyn's gougères recipe is, in fact, a model of simplicity. It calls for butter, eggs, flour, water, salt, and grated Gruyère cheese, and the equipment list is a saucepan, a mixing bowl, a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and an oven. Best of all, the recipe results in handsome golden puffs that no one can eat just one of.
A word of backstreet wisdom: Pawlcyn's gougères are best served warm, within an hour or so of emerging from the oven. When they cool, they deflate and look like miniature hamburger buns. Tastewise, though, they still pull their weight.

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