Monday, February 16, 2009

Dinner with Norpois (VI): Cheese Soufflé

“The ambassador insisted,” my mother said, “that one can’t get cold beef or soufflés like yours anywhere!” Françoise agreed with this, as though accepting in all modesty a simple statement of fact, and without being in the slightest impressed by the title of ambassador. She said of M. de Norpois, with the fellow-feeling due to somebody who had thought she was a chef, “He’s a good old bloke, just like me.”

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 57

Both the boeuf mode en gelée and the cheese soufflé are impressive dishes. So, too, is the pineapple-and-truffle salad, I can say from experience—even though I used a relatively inexpensive, bottled truffle from China ($9) instead of the fresh black truffle flown in from France to Dean and DeLuca NYC at $1,200 per ounce. Narrator’s mother, however, was hoping to impress Norpois with the salad. He somewhat indelicately agreed to another serving, instead heaping accolades upon the cooking expertise of Françoise. Narrator’s mother repeated the compliment to the cook, about how the ambassador said Françoise’s cold beef and soufflés could not be matched, and also managed to add a sarcastic comment that the dishes were unparalleled on the rare occasion when Françoise would deign to make them. Françoise, though, was unfeigned by the jab. Indeed, the soufflé’s fluffy texture—its cloud of egg and hint of cheese—is almost like nothing at all, which is exactly how Françoise proceeded to treat Norpois in absentia. She airily dismissed his compliment as nothing and, in avoiding use of this title ambassador, she dismissed him, yet again, as nothingness. One can imagine her dismissive hand waves, not unlike the whisking of egg whites for a soufflé. Of course, though, the soufflé is not all air; there is a wonderful flavor; and Françoise enjoys the full flavor of the compliment, savoring it in her banter over restaurants with narrator’s father. That exchange is notable not only for the way in which Françoise maintains her upper hand in claiming to have the correct knowledge of the few places where good food is served but also for the way in which her position on fast-cooked dishes in places the cater to the young and fashionable reads like a contemporary food critic today.

Similar to the boeuf mode en gelée, the cheese soufflé is also a showy dish, calculated for the presentation. The presentations, however, are markedly different. The cold braised beef in aspic is solid with a dense, concentrated flavor, while the soufflé is light and airy with tastes as ethereal as its cloudy structure. But more—the soufflé, even before it is presented at table, involves a technique which, though unseen by the diner, is legend to all who would eat it. Each step of the delicate technique, if enough attention is not paid by the cook, could be the doom of the dish. Thus, the attention lavished on the soufflé signals to the guest a heightened significance to their status at the table. That is, one cannot make a big pot of soufflé. Rather, it is made specifically for you, the honored guest. Furthermore, whereas boeuf mode en gelée can be a leftover, a soufflé’s time at table is short-lived. It cannot be stored for another meal, for it nearly vanishes even as it is being broken into for the serving. So much could go wrong for the cook quite easily.

I am reminded of a soufflé tale in a recently published cook book, Urban Italian by Andrew Carmellini and Gwen Hyman. In the introduction to his cookbook, Carmellini recounts his grandmother’s story about Auguste Escoffier who, according to his grandmother, is the real chef who always focuses on precision, integrity and ingredients. In this story, Escoffier was making a banquet for three hundred people and, for the dessert, he and his cooks were going to make three hundred soufflés. However, the original timing for serving the soufflés was totally messed up by the bride’s father whose prolonged and windy speech went beyond its twenty minute limit, threatening to deflate the soufflés. Given his principles of precision and integrity, Escoffier commanded his cooks to throw away the already baked soufflés. Not once but twice was his command heeded, supplying six hundred servings to beggars in the Paris streets. The third round of freshly baked desserts finally coincided with the speech’s conclusion and could be served: “the kitchen door swung open, right on time, and the waiters in their spotless jackets emerged, military, precise, bearing three hundred steaming, high-domed, light-as-air soufflés” (3). The story not only sketches Escoffier’s personality in which his persistence on precise timing in food serving but also outlines the demanding nature of soufflés—they wait for no one.

Thus, the inner life of the soufflé is closely connected to the human. The one who prepares and cooks it certainly must work with care and timing. Yet, even the ones who will eat it must appreciate a relationship and be ready when it is and not keep the soufflé waiting.

Françoise, however, manages to manipulate all these circumstances of food and people—be they family or guests—to keep them waiting: waiting on her.

Voila! We are given a little character sketch of Françoise as sensed and experienced through these two dishes and people’s responses to them. Like a good cook, she wastes nothing, managing even to cook the comments she receives.

Blue Cheese Soufflé
(Adapted from Barefoot in Paris by Ina Garten)

Serves 2 to 3

This really has the WOW! factor. I was a little afraid to attempt a soufflé (think Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina) but after you’ve made this once, you’ll agree that it’s really easy and so delicious. I generally hate recipes that say “serve immediately,” but this is worth it.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup scalded milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
4 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
3 ounces good Roquefort cheese, chopped
5 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter the inside of an 8-cup soufflé dish (7 ½ inches in diameter 3 ¼ inches deep) and sprinkle evenly with Parmesan.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. With a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the hot milk, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, the cayenne, and nutmeg. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, for 1 minute, until smooth and thick.

Off the heat, while still hot, whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time. Stir in the Roquefort and the ¼ cup of Parmesan and transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Put the egg whites, cream of tartar, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on low speed of 1 minute, on medium speed for 1 minute, then finally on high speed until they form firm, glossy peaks.

Whisk one quarter of the egg whites into the cheese sauce to lighten and then fold in the rest. Pour into the soufflé dish, then smooth the top. Draw a large circle on top with the spatula to help the soufflé rise evenly, and place in the middle of the oven. Turn the temperature down to 375 degrees. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes (don’t peek!) until puffed and brown. Serve immediately.

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