Monday, February 16, 2009

Dining Out with Saint-Loup (II): Chocolate Soufflé and Port

An amount of beer, let alone of champagne, that I would not have wanted to drink in a week at Balbec, even though my mind, when unclouded and sober, was capable of having a clear appreciation of the taste of these drinks as a pleasure, albeit one that could easily be forgone, now passed my lips in the space of an hour, interspersed with a little port, which I was too preoccupied even to taste.

Some of the waiters rushed along the aisles between the rows of table, on outstretched hand bearing a dish that it was the seeming purpose of this type of race not to drop. Sure enough, the chocolate soufflés reached their destination without spilling.

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 391

The dessert soufflé emerges from the oven as a billowy crown, striking in its contrast of chocolate dark and egg white. With some over-ripe apricots left from the tart I made for Proust’s picnic scene with Albertine and other girls, I decided to meander a bit away from the Proust text and test a fruit sauce as accompaniment to the soufflé. At first, the combination was complimentary but it soon developed into a competition with the chocolate winning out over the delightful but too feint hint of apricot.

This led me to wonder if the narrator would have been too drunk to appreciate or even try the chocolate soufflé. In his inebriation, from all that port, might he have burned his tongue on this creation which is served immediately out of the oven? Port? How does the soufflé taste with port? Wonderful! The port travels across the tongue, as if knowing where the chocolate had been, even bringing back its taste, seemingly, for a moment—though different than the taste of the soufflé itself. In the back of the mouth, on the back of the tongue, the port and the chocolate each do the same thing: The sweet becomes bitter, slightly piercing the throat as you swallow.

Before the taste, though, there is the visual experience. The cloudy crown is supported by outer walls crisped by the caramelized sugar, the sides of the bowl having been sweetly dusted before baking. Cracking the chewy-promise of a shell unlocks the rich, warm, creamy soufflé which one can almost inhale or drink in. Yet, would the narrator have been able to remember? His eyes and mind were certainly on other things that night.

Julia Child’s classic approach to the chocolate soufflé calls for the addition of sprinkled sugar, into the cracks, after baking for 35-40 minutes. However, Dorie Greenspan, in her Baking From My Home to Yours, prohibits the opening of the oven at all. Why even risk cracking the soufflé, she rhetorically remonstrates. Instead, she instructs that the cooked soufflé be dusted with confectioners’ sugar at the very end—white specks against the dark chocolate soufflé that will be beautiful to the eye. Perhaps Julia’s version would be tastier to the tongue because of the crunchy caramelized sugar on top. Either way, soufflés are tricky business (as I already wrote about it in the savory cheese variety). Greenspan adds to the lore, recalling challenges faced by Marie Antoine Carême, arguably the inventor of pastry and also someone who took notes on how hard it was in the 1800s to make soufflé. Greenspan writes: “It’s my guess that soufflés earned their reputation for fragility at a time when ovens were unreliable, electric mixers were not even a dream and the distance between the kitchen and the dining room was long, cold and drafty. Hardly ideal conditions for allowing soufflé to live up to its name, which, translated from the French, means puffed up” (406). I don’t know if the chocolate soufflé that the narrator has is as good as the one I was having. My kitchen adjoins the dining room. However, I can imagine the long, drafty distance between kitchen and dining table that would have had to be navigated by those astral, orbiting bodies of Rivebelle waiters, about whom the narrator seems to remember more than he does about his chocolate soufflé.

Chocolate Soufflé
(Adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup whole milk, at room temperature
4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Give the inside of a 6- to 7-cup soufflé mold a thick coating of butter, sprinkle it with sugar and tap out the excess. Refrigerate until needed. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.

Put the chocolate and ½ cup of the sugar in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and heat, stirring often, until the chocolate is melted. Transfer the bowl to the counter and whisk in the milk. Let the chocolate cool for about 5 minutes, then, one by one, whisk in the yolks.

Working in the clean, dry bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, whip the 6 egg whites until they just turn opaque and start to hold peaks. Still beating, add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in a slowish, steady stream and continue to beat until the peaks are glossy and almost firm. Stir one quarter of the whites into the chocolate to lighten it, then use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the remaining whites.

Delicately turn the batter into the prepared mold and lightly sprinkle the top with confectioners’ sugar. Put the mold on the baking sheet.

Bake—it’s better not to open the door and peek until you think the soufflé is almost done—for 40 minutes, or until the soufflé is beautifully puffed and a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean (find a non-crusty part of the soufflé and gently insert an angle). Remove the soufflé from the oven and serve immediately, dusting the top with more confectioners’ sugar if you’d like.

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