If there is a dish more emblematic of my cooking story than cheese soufflé, I can’t think what it would be. By now you’ve heard this tale, or bits of it, many times: my mother, who trained herself first by watching and later by reading, trained me to cook by virtue of the fact that I was often in the kitchen when she was cooking. So, like my mother, I learned to cook by watching and, later, reading.
(As an aside, I don’t know that I gave my mother enough credit for the real gift in her way of teaching, which I realized recently when reading “What Babies Know about Physics and Foreign Languages.”)
Cheese soufflé was a staple of family dinner in my growing-up home, so I watched and learned and watched and learned to the point of being able to make a soufflé without really thinking about it. In telling this story, however, I think I’ve often left the wrong impression. Cheese soufflé was a staple in my growing-up kitchen because it is inexpensive, nutritious, consistently reliable and easy to make (seriously). It also allows just enough idle cooking time, about 30 minutes, to get something else done – help with homework, a quick kitchen clean, a walk around the block, a pre-dinner drink with a friend – before sitting down to eat.
Despite its continued reputation for being a fancy, fussy dish, a soufflé (whether chocolate or cheese) is really just a simple experiment in two basic parts:
Step one is turning on the oven. A hot oven makes the experiment work, and without it the experiment will always fail. This is non-negotiable.
Step two is more conceptual, and the simple concept is this: wrap air bubbles in a protective coating. Lots of air tiny bubbles, each one carefully encased, make the basic structure.
That is the extent of the science, in short: first create the right environment, then place a well-built structure into that perfect environment. Every end result will be, generally, the same.
And although the classic cheese soufflé requires carefully combining two parts (beaten egg whites and a rich Mornay sauce), as my sister discovered, you can get perfectly fine (and more stable) results by whipping up whole eggs, milk, sour cream and seasoning in one big bowl, pouring this egg mixture into buttered ramekins filled with shredded cheese, and then baking in a hot oven.
Again, for emphasis, whether using the classic method or streamlined approach, the science behind the feat is uncomplicated: the proteins in egg whites get wrapped around air bubbles (whisking). Heat firms up these tiny protein wraps while simultaneously causing both the air inside the bubbles to expand and the water in the egg white to convert to steam (expand). The whole thing rises up, and poof! you have soufflé.
It will happen this same way every time, whether the signature ingredient is Gruyère or Callebaut. It will happen this way whether the oven temperature is 350 or 390, whether the dish is French porcelain or not, whether there is dancing in the living room or not. I promise. You will extract from your oven a magnificent, light, tall, airy prize, probably to great oohhs and aahhs from your dinner guests, who may happen also to be your children.
And then the soufflé will fall. It will happen this way every time, no matter what. True, some soufflés will hold up better over time than others, and technique actually does make a difference to that end. But all soufflés fall, and all taste more or less the same after 20 minutes of cooling down no matter what peak height was reached by the end of cooking time.
I wonder if this last bit is actually the barrier that causes soufflé-making to seem unattainable. When that bit of apparent elfin magic deflates – which it always does – it can seem, well, deflating. There is a great build-up of anticipation, excitement, and elation; then there’s a celebration; and then all those invested hopes start to sink. That is, I suppose, one way of looking at things.
I will tell you from experience that, to me at least, a soufflé – any soufflé – actually tastes better after it loses some of that hot air. It’s richer and more palatable when it comes down a thousand, settles into its room-temperature self.
One night recently we had company for dinner, which we used to do quite often and then did almost never and now are starting to do, a little, again. I planned to make grilled flank steak and a large summer salad – embellished with figs and cheese. I was going to leave work early, go to the market, come home to let the steak marinate while I did a quick kitchen tidy, and that would be that.
Only my day didn’t exactly go as planned. I finished work late, not early. And it was way to damned hot to be grilling anything. And I was wound up and tense, because wound up and tense is often how I am. And I called Bernard at 6:05 to say I was running way-way-way late and that our guests would be there at 6:30 and that I didn’t have anything for dinner because my day hadn’t gone as planned. And he said: What do you want me to do? And I thought: I want you to be the person who can just figure something out on the fly when I’m in a pickle. But what I said was: Turn on the oven; I’ll be home in 15 minutes.
I drove across the street from my office, tore through the market, bought a dozen eggs, a container of shredded Gruyere and a container of pre-washed greens. I raced home, to find a perfectly a pre-heated oven along with a thawing piece of the salmon that Bernard had pulled from the freezer, part of the stash he had carefully prepared and smoked and stored a couple of weeks ago. And I whisked and whirled (with a side bit of sniping and bitching), and I whipped up that cheese soufflé and popped it in the oven.
Thirty minutes later, give or take, we sat down to dinner – later than planned, but having had a nice pre-dinner visit with our friends. We huddled around the table and told stories and laughed and had a lovely time. No one walked away hungry, even if they would have preferred steak to soufflé.
After our friends left, while Bernard finished cleaning the kitchen (which he always does when I’m the chef), I put on my jewelry, having set it aside to start cooking. I have a ring dish, a gift from the same friend who’d just left my house, that lives on the counter by the stove and holds an assortment of trinkets that I sometimes remove and then forget about.
I picked up my rings and noticed two bracelets that a co-worker gave me for Christmas last year, a time when our work was tense and stressful and unpleasant. She’d seen them on etsy and thought, she said, immediately of me.
They are two thin, metal wristbands, each with a word stamped into the metal: INHALE. EXHALE. They were wrapped in a pretty little box, and the card enclosed read: in case some days you forget.
As I placed the dainty bands back on my left wrist it occurred to me: If there is a dish more emblematic of my story than cheese soufflé, I can’t think what it would be.
Food | Week of August 8, 2016
Foolproof & Super Easy Cheese Souffle | Green Salad with Figs & Honey Dressing
Creamy Cucumber Soup | Grilled Shrimp