Have you ever wandered through a lavender field in Provence? Awoken with the sunrise on a warm Parisian morning and made your way through the great market, sampling the local fromage before toting still-warm baguettes home? Eaten in an off-the-beaten-path bistro where the cuisine is humble, rustic, but by far the most delectable meal you’ve had in your life?
Neither have I. But, oh!… to dream.
I’ve been dreaming of returning to France ever since I left a 2-day vacation in the French Riviera during my studies abroad in college. At the time I wasn’t the foodie I am today and did not sample the local food and wine like all good foodies should do so I have pledged to return and make things right between me and France. Every year is “the year” that I’m going to do it but, alas, the years come and go with no stamp in my passport. So what do I do in the meantime? I cook.
This weekend I made my very first souffle, a traditional cheese souffle complete with a salad, bread and white wine, served in tiny tumblers rather than wine glasses. It was the closest I could come to a genuine French bistro. People are generally intimidated by the souffle. “Don’t open that oven!” screams one cookbook. “You must serve it right away!” wails another. I certainly was afraid of them until I read an article about souffles in which the author convinced me that there was nothing to be afraid of. A souffle really only requires a few ingredients and a little patience.
The first step is to make a bechamel sauce which is butter and flour cooked together until foamy and whisked together with warm milk. Seasoning is then added. In my case, it was salt, paprika and nutmeg. Off the heat, egg yolks are added, one at a time. While this is cooling, it’s time to work on the egg whites. With an electric mixer (or in my case, a hand, a whisk and a bowl), the egg whites are beaten until stiff peaks form. In stages, the egg whites are folded into the cooled souffle base. Lastly, your flavoring is added, i.e. cheese or whatever kind of souffle you are making. I used gruyere cheese. The mixture is poured into a souffle dish that has been coated with butter and parmesan cheese. The dish then goes into a 375 degree oven for about 25 to 30 minutes. And, yes, you do need to keep that oven door closed. In the meantime, do like I did and make the salad, slice the bread, open the wine (Pinot Grigio in my case) and set the table. With the 10 minutes that remain before the souffle is done, again, do like I did and plant a chair in front of the oven and stare at the souffle that is puff, puff, puffing up higher and higher. After it’s removed from the oven, you can take pictures of it, like I did, or serve it up.
The moment you take your first bite of the fluffy, cloud-like wonderfood, you instantly know it’s a dish you will make over and over again. The eggs melt in your mouth and the cheese is so uniform, it’s almost like it’s been vaporized into the souffle. And the Pinot Grigio was such a wonderful accompaniment; light, fruity and not overwhelming at all. It enhanced the simple, delicate flavors of the souffle beautifully. So, if you can’t make it to France this year, trust in your cooking skills and make a souffle. It’s not an equal substitute but it sure tastes good.