How to host apéro: drinks, great chat and a French cheese puff recipe

<span>‘Hot, freshly puffed golden mouthfuls of cheesy sunshine’: Elizabeth Quinn’s recipe for cheese gougères, or cheese puffs.</span><span>Photograph: Elizabeth Quinn</span>
‘Hot, freshly puffed golden mouthfuls of cheesy sunshine’: Elizabeth Quinn’s recipe for cheese gougères, or cheese puffs.Photograph: Elizabeth Quinn

If you ever find yourself at a farmers’ market in France, you will quickly learn two things: that the longest queues denote the highest quality produce and the lengthiest discussions about how best to use it; and that the answer to “What would I make with this ingredient?” is nearly always “Apéro!”

The word itself is a shortening of apéritif, which, according to the Cambridge dictionary, means “an alcoholic drink, especially one that is drunk before a meal”. To the uninitiated, it might sound like pre-dinner drinks with a nibbly or two to soak up the alcohol.

Related: No ‘nibblies’: three rules for surviving Australia’s party-snack culture | Happy Feraren

But the French concept of the apéro differs widely from Australian “nibblies”. It lies somewhere between pre-dinner drinks and all-night grazing. When you commit to apéro, you commit to an evening of drinks, endless platters of food and conversation, with slightly more emphasis on the food and talking than on the liquid refreshments – although there is never a shortage of the latter.

The residents of the small village in Burgundy where I spent two happy post-pandemic months were a welcoming bunch. The drink of choice at my first apéro was the aptly named Aperol, which to me tastes like a cross between Fanta and cough mixture. Luckily there was also plenty of local wine. Like many an apéro rookie, I anticipated a glass or two of red, some olives and an early night. I wandered home five hours later, delighted with my new friends and with how much my French had improved over the course of the evening.

I brought my apéro obsession back to Australia where it has been warmly received. My partner even had a set of apéro dishes made for me. In France I had searched without success for a set similar to the one a French friend had found in a brocante (jumble sale): five pastel-coloured bowls, each shaped like one of the letters that spell apéro. Mine are a highly sophisticated version comprising five pottery bowls, each stamped with one of the five letters, and placed on a wooden board.

Apéro can be a simple or as complicated as you like. For me, the secret to successful apéro is doing the bulk of the preparation before the guests arrive and spending the rest of the evening fraternising.

Some baby carrots or radishes, cherry tomatoes, a bowl of glistening olives, warmed in their oil and piled high, a single wedge of excellent cheese served alongside walnuts, fresh figs and shards of Swedish crispbread – all are easy options that just need the occasional top up throughout the evening. (Don’t forget a tiny bowl for olive stones and include a demonstration sample.)

You could also try fresh button mushrooms marinated in olive oil, red wine vinegar and dijon mustard; or small pots of dukkah and top-shelf extra virgin olive oil served with fresh Turkish bread. Tear off a piece of bread and dip it alternately in oil and seed mix for a delicious no-fuss flavour hit.

Related: Cold flour, warm eggs and instant coffee: Natalie Paull’s essential ingredients for baking

And if you want to cement your place at the top of every return guest list, try the recipe below. Cheese gougères, made from choux pastry and gruyere, are surprisingly easy to make. Like soufflés, the degree of difficulty of choux pastry has been greatly exaggerated over the years.

You can make the mixture hours before the guests arrive, cover the surface with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature till showtime. Don’t bake them until all the guests have arrived. They must be hot, freshly puffed golden mouthfuls of cheesy sunshine. Use up all the mixture then settle back with a glass of something and bask in their reflected glory.

Cheese gougères – recipe

(Also pictured above)

Keen to ingratiate myself with my new French besties, I made cheese gougères for my return apéro appearance: the Gallic equivalent of bringing coals to Newcastle. The gamble paid off. My 25 years in the catering industry turned out to be my entrée into the social life of the village. I was even asked to conduct a gougère cooking class in the home of one of my neighbours. Sometimes I thought it was the gougères and not my alcohol-induced French fluency that won me so many friends.

Makes 40

120g self raising flour, sifted (1 cup), plus extra
One pinch nutmeg
cold water (1 cup)
75g butter
, diced into 6 pieces
4 very fresh eggs plus extra, in case you get a bad egg
75g gruyere, finely grated, plus extra

Preheat the oven to 200C/190C fan.

Sift the flour into a bowl, then stir the nutmeg through.

In a small saucepan, add the water and butter, then place over a medium heat. As soon as the water starts to bubble, stir the mixture until the butter melts.

Add the nutmeg-flour all at once to the pan. Working quickly, stir the mixture well, and remove it from the heat after 10 seconds. Continue to stir the mixture until it starts to come away from the sides and forms a ball. This should take about 30 second. Leave the dough to cool for 20 minutes.

Working with one egg at a time, crack each into a small bowl to test its freshness. (I recommend this because, over decades of making wedding croquembouches, many a batch of choux pastry has been binned by the inadvertent addition of a bad egg. You’ll know an egg is off by the smell, which will hit you like a freight train.)

Stir the egg into the dough until it has been properly absorbed (you’ll know this has happened when the dough has lost some of its eggy gloss). Repeat with the remaining eggs, one at a time. Once all the eggs are in, add the gruyere and stir to combine.

Pipe or spoon walnut-sized blobs on to a lined baking sheet. (The mixture should be firm enough to hold its shape. If it’s a bit sloppy you can add a little more grated gruyere or self-raising flour.)

Bake for 15 minutes or until puffed and golden. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then serve immediately.