Where’s the History?

I confess I’ve been avoiding that, since gougère history is extremely difficult to trace. The thing we know as the gougère, a small blob of choux paste flavored with cheese, isn’t very old. Invented in France, it’s been a staple of wine tastings for something on the order of 100 years. However its primary component, choux paste, is very old, perhaps as old as 500 years. The most enduring myth about choux was that is was invented in 1533 by a fellow by the name of Panterelli, a chef to the court of Catherine de Medici. But the odds are excellent that this particular story was made up by a French cookbook author or even a novelist sometime in the mid-1800’s.

But even if the story isn’t made up, there’s no telling if the choux that Panterelli was supposed to have invented was anything like the choux we know today. For indeed there were several different sorts of preparations that were popular in Europe around the time of the Enlightenment that were known as “choux.” One of the most common in 17th Century France, as documented by cookbook authors like La Varenne and Massiot was a paste made primarily of soft cheese with a little flour, salt and egg added to bind it. The mixture was baked, then spread with butter, sugar and rose water, and another layer of the “choux” paste was applied to the top before the whole works was decorated with more sugar and candied lemon. What resemblance this dish bore to cabbage (for as you’ll recall, that’s what “choux” means) escapes me. Though La Varenne’s book does mention that this mixture was sometimes formed into rounded buns, which may have resembled small cabbages. Indeed it’s possible that many doughs or batters that produced small bun-like (cabbage-like) foodstuffs were known as “choux.”

All that said, to trace the history of choux it’s probably better to follow the technique instead of the word. Food historians who’ve attempted that have been led to a French preparation remarkably similar to today’s choux, once known as pâté a chaud (“warm” or “hot” dough), a probable reference to the fact that it was cooked twice. Several recipes matching that description have also turned up in old German texts dating to the 16th century. So it seems that the technique of choux-making has indeed been around for a very long time, though exactly where, when and how it came into being is a mystery. Very likely, it will remain so.

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