It takes a bit of courage, you know.
In the baker’s version of “Never Have I Ever”, there are few things I haven’t done. I’ve bested tiramisu and pulled off a crusty baguette, made platefuls of pound cake and pastry cream, fried beignets and rolled out flaky biscuits. But in my apartment in France, there were two principles I had to observe: never let the American choose the wine, and never let the American make the soufflé.
While bemused by my willingness to eat every regional oddity my roommates dug up (elle aime le bleu ! elle a mangé des escargots! t’as vu? elle ne refuse pas le boudin ! elle boit plus que nous !), certain truths need no interrogation and my inability as an American to create this airy masterpiece was one of them. Not that I begged for a chance to (dis)prove myself; I was more concerned with shocking them, month after month, by demonstrating that my cohorts and I could prepare “American” meals without the aid of McDo’s or Hungry Man. I thus left France, two Thanksgiving turkeys later, having never attempted that lofty, lifted standard of a well-made soufflé.
Which is how I found myself on Monday night, with a bowl full of too many semi-stiff egg whites and not enough ramekins.
I was supposed to be celebrating “Seattle Xmas” with my sister and her boyfriend at the house of his best friend and his best friend’s wife. The idea was to have a retro “Christmas” dinner among friends before we all split off to our respective homes for the real deal, and since I was showing up stag and semi–unannounced, I figured I should bring chocolate soufflés. I prepped the chocolate base at home, brought a tupperware filled with a dozen egg whites and stuck an electric beater in my purse. After dinner and gingerbread house making, I stepped into the kitchen and got to work.
It’s a cheeky sin, preparing a dish you’ve never made before for a dinner party –during said dinner party, no less. And my vanity paid in full. Fifteen minutes of madly beating the whites and I discovered that:
a) the bowl was way too small for a dozen eggs and
b) I was going to need a lot more ramekins
The recipe that professed itself for eight, served, in fact, the eight ramekins I’d dutifully buttered, a dozen muffins cups, and a cake pan. The egg whites never “peaked” in full; the bowl was too small for them to expand and I’d forgotten to take them out of the fridge ahead of time. Moreover, the chocolate base had cooled and stiffened. The resulting soufflés were indisputably edible, in the way chocolate, eggs, sugar and butter can be even when things go woefully awry. Resembling airy muffins with a densely chocolate base, they rose more than a cake but fell deeply short of my expectations. I handled the disappointment the way any mature grown-up would: stuffed my face, cursed my putain cookbook, and ran home to mommy.
Tuesday was supposed to be Christmas baking day with my mom, sister and periodic appearances by my brothers. So in between trays of nut cookies I scoured her copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The Joy of Cooking, hoping to find the golden path to a successful soufflé. My own cookbook, a glossy volume given to me by one of the French roommates, was sedately titled “Le meilleur de la France”, and like the best of the French, was matter-of-fact without being explicit. Under the heading of the soufflé recipe, all it stated was, “Soufflé has the reputation of being difficult, which is not accurate.” Thankfully, Child and Bombauer were more expository, and I learned that soufflé is not difficult, as long as you do all of the following:
Let the whites warm to room temperature
Avoid glass bowls
Avoid the smallest speck of yolk in the whites
Grease and flour the molds to the brim, so the batter can “climb” the walls
Set the oven to 400F, but lower it to 375F as soon as you put them in
Place a cookie sheet in the warm oven several minutes before you put the soufflé in, and set the ramekins on it
Beat the egg whites correctly (start slow, don’t under beat the edges and overbeat the center, let stiff peaks form—they should stand up straight when you turn the whisk upside down)
Mix in about a quarter of the whites into the base to lighten it before folding in the rest
Fold the egg whites in quickly – it should take less than a minute
Run your finger along the inside edge of the baking dish to create a groove in the batter and better allow the top to rise
Once the whites are beaten, get the batter done and in the oven, pronto
Et voilà, quoi !
I am not a religious follower of rules, in recipes least of all. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I find myself often lacking in time, ingredients, or equipment. But I recognized that this was one case where you don’t mess with the decrees of the gastronomic gods. By Wednesday morning I had rallied my spirits and was ready to give “Le meilleur de la France” a second go. There was a recipe for bleu d’Auvergne soufflé and I had just grabbed a wedge of it at Paris Grocery over the weekend…
It was not without trepidation that I announced to my family that I’d be serving soufflé for lunch. I memorized every step of the recipe, wrote in all the conversions, measured and set out all the ingredients, and enlisted my mother’s experienced eye while I gave the egg whites the beating of their life. Following the letter of the law was exhausting, but oh my, it was worth it.
The bleu d’Auvergne soufflés rose to the occasion, golden and puffing proudly. We crowded around the oven door, my dad claiming the one with the highest crown before they were halfway done. Golden and toastily fragrant, they were, as the best soufflés are, perfectly light in texture and immensely rich in flavor. The bleu d’Auvergne is a bleu made for soufflés; buttery, creamy, with a shade of sweetness, it’s warm pungency was balanced by the fresh green leaf lettuce and red onion salad. It’s no wonder those Auvergnats have no less than five AOC cheeses to their name. My only complaint was that the full height of the crown did not hold quite long enough for me to do it photographic justice. But really, that just means I’ll need try it again, which is perfectly ok with me.
Soufflé au Bleu d’Auvergne
modified from Le meilleure de la France
2 tbsp butter, pus butter for greasing
¼ cup flour
1 cup milk
4.5oz bleu d’Auvergne, crumbled
1/4c finely grated gruyère
4 egg yolks, at room temp
1 tsp nutmeg
6 egg whites, at room temp
6 ramekins, 20 oz ea
Preheat the oven to 400. Generously butter the ramekins or your mold of choice, dust with gruyère. Make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan, adding the flour, and stirring it over the med-heat for about two minutes. Take it off the burner, adding the milk slowly and stirring all the while. Put it back on the burner, let it simmer for three more minutes, stirring, until quite thick. Take it off the heat, add the bleu d’Auvergne and stir until the cheese is melted in. Add the yolks one by one, again stirring constantly. Add in the nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
Place a baking sheet on a rack in the bottom third of the oven.
Beat the egg whites into stiff peaks. Lighten the cheese mixture with a generous scoop of the beaten whites, then gently and quickly fold in the rest. Pour the batter into the ramekins until a little over ¾ full. Place the ramekins on the baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the tines of a fork come out clean or barely moist.