Prequel: A light in the attic.

“Hey, how about you come to dinner one night, and I’ll bring out some good wine, and you can teach me how to make that chocolate soufflé. I’m dying to know how to make that.”

Here are the things I loved about my first apartment, a first-floor gem in an classic old, brick building, situated across the street from Overton Park: It had a spacious living room with three large windows and a view of the Park. There was a small front porch big enough for a pair of chairs. And it had a kitchen with just enough counter space to prepare a full meal and an old gas range that worked perfectly.

I hosted my first dinner parties in this apartment, developing what would become my own style of preparing and sharing food. A typical meal would include a large green salad, a pasta dish (or risotto, or cheese soufflé), and a dessert that was invariably a small portion of something rich and creamy, garnished with berries and mint for balance.

Linguini with baby clams, lemon, garlic, and parsley was a favorite because it was quick, simple, and inexpensive, and it reminded me of my friend Martha, who had taught me the recipe after having herself been taught by her grandmother in Italy.

When I served pasta, and this citrusy pasta in particular, I would often pair it with a decadent, if ridiculously easy, chocolate soufflé for dessert. The beauty of a dessert soufflé is that it goes in the oven more or less when the main course is served, and it’s ready exactly on time, every time. The beauty of chocolate needs no explanation.

One night my dinner guests were my morning running group, the half-dozen people I met up with every weekday morning at 7 a.m. to make three loops on the paved trail that wound around the golf course and through the forest. In our group was a woman scientist I’d met through tennis and her husband, a hematologist, who’d known my sister years earlier when she babysat for his children. Over the course of fall, winter, and then spring months, friendship grew through a shared love of art, wine, fly fishing, and cooking. I invited them for dinner and served my usual: Salad, linguini with clams, and chocolate soufflé.

A year or so later I hurt my back while training for a marathon, and my running days ended. The company I worked for was acquired by a larger one, and I eventually took a job in Omaha, where I lived for five years.

When I moved back to Memphis in 1999 with Bernard in tow (planning to fix up a rental house I owned and then high-tail back to West in less than six months – ha!), we ran into my old friends one night at a zoo fundraiser where we drank too many martinis and stood grazing at the beef tenderloin station so long that the restaurateur gave us the side-eye and guilted us into moving on.

“Hey,” my friend said as we were wrapping up the festive evening, “how about you come to dinner one night, and I’ll bring out some good wine, and you can teach me how to make that chocolate soufflé. I’m dying to know how to make that.”

Several weeks later we drove to their house, which was nestled in one of my favorite old Memphis neighborhoods, to cook, eat, drink, and sit on their wide front porch, enjoying a lovely fall night until well after midnight.

Across the street, a little way up the block, we could see a light coming from an attic window, noticeable on the otherwise dark, quiet street. Sometimes that light would stay on all night, our friends said. An artist lived in the house with her partner of many years and an untold number of cats. The studio was in the attic, they guessed. “You wouldn’t believe the Christmas parties they used to throw, before they got too old,” our friends said. “Music and booze and a black light on the front porch until 3 or 4 in the morning. Lord only knows what happens in that house.”

A few years passed before we connected again, my friends and I. This time it was on a fall day when I was driving a round-about way to work, looking for a house. I’d forgotten what street my friends lived on and was surprised to see the husband out working in their yard. With their help we found a house on their block, a fixer-upper with, as the saying goes, great bones and lots of potential.

I connected the dots one day, months later, by accident. We were clearing out items left by the former owner, getting ready to start the renovation. It was late, and dark, when we walked out to the car to drive home, where a babysitter was watching our young children. I looked back at the new house and realized we’d left on some lights, including the one in the attic.

“Oh my god,” I said to Bernard. “We bought the wild porch party house.”

And that, you’ll soon see, turned out to be one of the tamer stories.

We’ll start in the kitchen, because every good home story starts (and ends) in the kitchen, right? See you tomorrow for that.

And in case you need it for tonight (or to save for later), below you’ll find my recipe for chocolate soufflé.


Jennifer’s Chocolate Soufflé

You know, if you’ve followed along here for a while, that my mother often made cheese soufflé for weeknight family dinner, a tradition I’ve continued for our own family dinners. As I’ve written before, many times now, soufflé only sounds fancy. It’s actually an easy and very forgiving dish to make, particularly if you don’t get all hung up about it.

Cheese was the most frequently-made type of soufflé in our house, but there were plenty of other variations, too, ranging from savory (spinach, asparagus, corn) to sweet (Grand Marnier, lemon, and, of course, chocolate).

This particular recipe for chocolate soufflé, however, is my own and not my mother’s. One day, a long time ago, when I had a small catering business I was playing in the kitchen, making chocolate ganache to fill macarons, and I decided to try using the leftover ganache as a soufflé base instead of doing it the conventional way with an unseasoned béchamel. The result was delicious, and the method was much easier.

This is decidedly not the classic Julia Child version of a chocolate soufflé. But I promise it works, every time, and it’s endlessly adaptable.

Generally speaking, if you’re the sort of cook who doesn’t need much of a recipe, it’s a chocolate ganache base with the standard soufflé treatment (yolks mixed into the base, then base folded with stiffly beaten egg whites). Bake in a hot oven for about 30 minutes, and voilà.

I make ganache the traditional way with heavy cream and bittersweet chocolate (Guittard is my favorite, but any semisweet or bittersweet chocolate will do). If you don’t have cream on hand, you can make the ganache in a double boiler with a stick of butter. You’ll have a richer, denser end result, but that’s not unenjoyable.

Ingredients

  • 8-10 ounces of chocolate (chips or pieces)
  • Heavy cream (about a half cup) OR a stick of butter
  • 3-4 eggs, separated (note: If you happen to have a couple of extra egg whites on hand and want to use them, it will make a lighter, puffier product – but it’s not noticeable enough, in my opinion, to be worth wasting two yolks to get two extra whites)
  • Granulated sugar for coating the soufflé dish(es)
  • Confectioner’s sugar for dusting the top, after baking
  • Optional: Salt; flavoring (liqueur or espresso power or chile powder or whatever seems interesting)

Equipment

  • Small saucepan or double boiler
  • Medium-large tempered glass bowl
  • Stand mixer or electric mixer or wire whisk (to whip the egg whites)
  • Two-quart, straight-sided soufflé dish (or 4-6 smaller ramekins)

Preparation

First and foremost: Turn on the oven (400 degrees). Nothing good happens when a soufflé goes into a cold oven.

Butter a soufflé dish (or 4-6 small ramekins) and dust with granulated sugar.

Put chocolate in a tempered glass bowl. In a small saucepan, bring cream barely to a simmer and then pour hot cream over the chocolate. Whisk until chocolate is melted and smooth.

Alternate: Melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler, stirring until smooth and glossy. Remove from heat.

Add whatever you’d like to add for flavor — a pinch of salt (always a good idea), a tablespoon of espresso power, a teaspoon of chile powder, a slug of Irish whiskey or Grand Marnier, et cetera — and stir well. Set aside.

Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry.
(No, I don’t ever use cream of tarter in my egg whites. But if using cream of tartar in your beaten egg whites is your thing, then by all means go ahead. You do you.)

Add egg yolks to the cooled chocolate and mix well (if chocolate is still warm, stir a little chocolate into the yolks first to warm them up and prevent curdling).

Add half of the beaten egg whites to the chocolate and mix well.

Gently fold in the remaining whites (you should still see some white spots) and pour into prepared dish(es).

Place dish (es) on a rack in the center of the hot oven. If your oven tends to be on the hot side, turn the temperature down 10 or 20 degrees after closing the oven door.

Bake for about 30 minutes (20 minutes if using small, individual dishes). Try not to over-bake or the chocolate will scorch and taste bitter. If this happens, though, you’ll survive.

Feeling decadant? Serve with a little sweetened cream, or sweetened whipped cream, or crème Anglaise (if you just have some on hand) or vanilla ice cream.

Garnish with berries and/or mint if you like. Or maybe a berry sauce. Or maybe not.

In theory, this soufflé will serve 4-6 people.


Note: This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”

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