Birthday Pairings, Campground Treats

Early in June, before the camping season was in full swing, some friends and I followed the sun to Pine Lake and set up in the campground. I knew little about this lake, just off the Alaska Highway near Haines Junction, except for the campground beach, always crowded in summer, but a great spot for a quick dip on the road home.

This time, we had kayaks, we had time to explore, and we had the lake pretty much to ourselves. We paddled down to the far end, turned, and discovered Pine Lake’s great gift: the stunning vista of high peaks in the Archibald and Auriol ranges, streaked with rocks and snow, and reflected in the still green water of the lake. We felt as though we could paddle right through a mountain pass.

Smoked Cheddar and Juniper Gougères

We found a sunny hillside and clambered out to lay back and absorb the view. And there we discovered another gift: a huge mat of juniper bushes absolutely teeming with ripe blueberries. My husband and I got down on our knees and filled our pockets.

This is how juniper berry picking happens—you stumble on a patch while you’re doing something else and fill your pockets. Sometimes a friend will fill their pockets for you too, and carry them back to camp, saying, “Oh here, I almost forgot,” as they tumble a handful onto the picnic table, and you all scramble to catch them before they roll off the edge.

Juniper, as you know, is often the dominant flavour in gin, acts as a bright, woodsy addition to fish or game, and provides a sharp counterfoil to rich, cheesy flavours in biscuits or scones. 

Later this June a friend’s birthday was coming up, and at a lunch a few days before Jennifer Tyldesley (of Free Pour Jenny’s fame) offered to create a cocktail for the birthday girl. I jumped in and offered an appetizer to go with the cocktail. 

Jenn sent me her recipe: gin, tart cherry juice and citrus flavours topped with apple ginger cider. (Look for the full recipe on Free Pour Jenny’s Instagram page.) Bright, sharp and tart. Something cheesy immediately suggested itself. 

 I remembered gougères, a popular appetizer in the early days of the Chocolate Claim in Whitehorse; crisp, puffy clouds of cheesy pastry flavoured with thyme or rosemary. (Try them with Labrador tea sometime!) I thought smoked cheddar and juniper (referencing campfires and gin) might work well with each other and with Jenn’s cocktail. 

And, they did. Smoky, with the forest-y hit of juniper pinging brightly off the nuttiness of toasted cheese, the gougères found just the right tone for the tart notes of the cocktail.    

Here’s my suggestion: mix the Birthday Girl cocktail and chill it in a water bottle, bake a batch of gougères and bring them both with you to your favourite campground before summer’s out. Just heat up the gougères in a cast iron pan on the campfire for a few moments, sit back, sip, and savour. 

Smoked Cheddar and Juniper Gougères

Don’t be intimidated by the pâté choux, the same pastry used for éclairs or cream puffs.  It may seem bizarre to “cook” the flour in the butter and milk but it works. The trick is to make sure the dough is dry before adding the eggs.

½ cup (4 oz) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
½ cup 2% milk
½ cup water
½ tsp Kosher salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
2 cups packed grated smoked cheddar (about 6 oz), plus two Tbsp for sprinkling
1 tsp dried juniper berries, 

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. 
  2. Combine butter, milk, water and salt in a medium-sized pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat and add all the flour at once. 
  3. Stir briskly until a smooth dough forms. Continue stirring until the dough pulls away from the side of the pan and a thin film forms on the bottom of the pan, about 2 minutes. Stir for another minute or so to make sure the dough is dry and remove from heat. 
  4. Let dough cool for 2 minutes, stirring once or twice to release steam. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition to thoroughly incorporate. Add cheese and juniper berries and mix thoroughly. 
  5. Using two spoons, drop dough spaced two inches apart onto the baking sheets. (For bite-sized pieces use teaspoons; for bigger pieces use soup spoons. If you’re handy with a pastry bag, spoon the mixture into the bag and pipe onto the baking sheets using a ½-inch tip.) 
  6. Sprinkle reserved cheese over top and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until puffed and golden. The gougères will sound hollow when tapped. 

Makes 30 small or 18 large gougères.

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