by: Chef Jim Berman
The rise of contemporary television chef-dom has done little for the classics. Prime time recipes must fit neatly into their allotted time slots, sans commercial interruptions, but allowing for the back-up bands and viewer questions. What could be a forum for intense discussion and demonstration has evolved into a few minutes of splash, bam and shaaaaazam; it is entertainment with some instruction as garnish. Not to say all is lost, as there are some fiercely talented chefs creating some fantastic food. Unfortunately, to keep pace, and ratings, dishes must be full of today's allure, easily prepared and with little sophistication. Gone are the days of Miss Child's Gallentine of Chicken and Jeff Smith's lessons on colonial cooking.
Not all is lost in the likes of Alton Brown and his chemistry lessons come cooking class, nor the ethnic rich teachings of Ming Tsai. There is, however, little in the way of Grande Cuisine. The teachings of Ranhoffer, Larouse and Escoffier are given but a nod in an occasional quip on the past. As such, elaborate terrines, labor-intensive pâtés and the skillful art of preparing the mother sauces do not make the ratings. There is no "Cooking with Brillat-Savarin " or "Careme and Company" inundating us with all the magnificence of masterful meals. Not only because these folks are dead, but there seems to be little interest in this fanciful fare. You have heard their names, learned of their legacy and understood their techniques, perhaps, but for the rest of us, they are ghostly characters from the past that remain in the annals of culinary history. Among the culinary forums of the world wide web, however, there is more than idle exchange of dialog on preparing masterful dishes that have all but disappeared from the culinary radar.
Why bother with the classics when the contemporaries are so interesting? And why give a nod to the technology-laden, information at the speed-of-light web when discussing slowing down and smelling the proverbial roses. You see, by allowing chefs to exchange ideas and converse on a global scale, the discussions are no longer limited to your coworkers or members of the local American Culinary Federation. My interest in classical fare is shared by a constituent that I would have never met, would it have not been for traversing the information super highway. Rather, we talk food from 100 years ago and a thousand miles away. Funny how we have to depend on broadband technology to talk about principals from the technological dark ages, comparatively speaking. We both share the same spot in the abysmal wasteland that leaves us craving classical fare from our television chefs. We linger longer by the late-night menu of 30-minutes time slots waiting for the inevitable. There is little hope that Ferdinand Point or August Escoffier will be coming into prime time soon.
What is the unfulfilled cook to do? How do we feed the hunger of visiting the classics? When do we expect to relinquish to our defeat? We revert. We rehash old menus, talk about the glory days and turn to our own kitchens for our own prime time retro-pioneering. Technology has allowed us to capture old menus from the 'net, cull old recipes from books found on auction sites and given us many forums to discuss our latest tirades. Most recently, we were rehashing classic terrines and quenelles. Then, much to my pleasure, another old-schooler in search of constructive harangue on soufflés encroached upon our exchange of seemingly unrelated postings. Alas, another prime time émigré!
I had to bring out the old tomes to find the story of Escoffier's Soufflé Misadventure to share with this interloper. You see, as I recall, Auguste Escoffier was preparing a meal of some great magnitude. To ensure the ultimate in soufflé experiences, he prepared some ten batches of batter 2 or three minutes apart to make sure one of those prepared would be ready in time. The remainder was destined for the trash heap. We can conclude that soufflé preparation is time sensitive and particular in its handling.
Classical soufflé preparation is as much science as it is art. There are few species of which to dissect these days. We must, in general, analyze lessons from the past and savor their technical sophistication. I offer the following schematic on soufflé making, or Soufflé 101 if you like.
The really, really old soufflé is a cooked amalgam of flour and milk made custard-like by adding egg yolks to the mixture. This French Bouilli can be made well ahead of meal service and in great quantity. When needed for service some of the bouilli would be mixed with whatever garnish (fresh berries, chocolate, etc), folded into whipped egg whites and baked in a butter-sugar lined casserole. Somewhere around the mid 1900s there was a divergence from this old school methodology. The a la minúte process for building masterful soufflés evolved into gastronomic popularity. You see, rather than laboring to make the bouilli in advance of meal service, a cook-friendly version became the mainstay. Egg yolks are mixed with whichever preferred flavoring and folded into whipped egg whites and baked the same way as before. However, there is a noticeable absence of flour and presence of more intensity in flavor and heightened sensation in texture.
To begin, procure soufflé dishes of considerable heft, to withstand the rigors of going from refrigerator to oven with little distress. I like my 5-ounce porcelain variety for individual servings and my larger 32-ounce creature of earthenware origin. A wonderfully flexible, large, piano-wire style balloon whip is essential for maximizing the fluff in egg whites. The bowl in which to whip the whites is crucial, as well. In a perfect world, we would all own 2-gallon round bottom, copper bowls. In reality, I use a 7-quart stainless mixing bowl. The copper is nice as the albumen reacts to copper and gives way to optimal egg white rise, but not requisite. That is it for the laundry list of 'specialty' tools to perfect the soufflé. The methodology, conversely, is a bit more involved.
The eggs do best with a little age. Here is one instance where fresh is not always the best. Conventional wisdom goes out the door. And temperature matters, too. Whipped egg whites are best attained at room temperature. One last note on whipping; the large bowl for which the whites are destined must be perfectly dry and free of debris. Not to say there might be lingering dirt in your mixing bowls, but use particular caution that when you go to whip your whites, there is nothing but egg whites in the bowl.
The yolks should be whipped to that ever-elusive ribbon-making state. The condition that when the whip is suspended over the yolks you are supposed to be able to see little wisps of yolk trail forming a ribbon trail. Or something like that.
A note on your impeccably clean bowl. It helps to chill the bowl, and the whip for that matter, to speed along the egg white whipping process. The altitude of the soufflé is much improved if the soufflé casseroles, once butter lined and sprinkled with sugar, are chilled, as well.
You may choose from an abundance of flavor combinations to make your soufflé the hit of the evening. Raspberry soufflés with a dollop of Chambord-spiked whipped cream or vanilla bean soufflé drizzled with hot fudge and a sidecar of chocolate chip ice cream are but two from the laundry list of creations of which we are now equipped. Back in Pittsburgh for a dinner for the newly crowned Stanley Cup champion Penguins, the restaurant I was working at asked me to produce Black and Gold Soufflés for our guests. We spooned half banana studded batter and half dark chocolate batter into individual cups. Black and gold? Close enough. They left before their entrée hit the table.
Here's my take on the classic soufflé. I use whatever is fresh and cheap or turn to the jelly jar to flavor the beast!
4oz of unsalted butter, melted
Sugar for lining the casseroles
Pour all of the melted butter into the first casserole. Twirl the bowl to evenly coat the walls and 'floor' of the cup. Pour into the next cup. Repeat until all of the cups are well coated. The remaining butter can be used later. Duplicate the process with the sugar this time. Use care as to not disrupt the sugar coating once it is applied to the sides of the cup to prevent the soufflé from rising unevenly. Set the treated casseroles on a sheet tray and refrigerate.
4 Egg Yolks
4 Tablespoons of sugar, plus 1 Tablespoon for the whites
4 ounces of fresh blueberries (or substitute a tablespoon or 2 of blueberry preserves)
1 teaspoon of good vanilla extract
6 egg whites
Preheat the oven to 375?. In a medium bowl, whip the egg yolks with the sugar until deep golden and ribbon-ish. Stir in the blueberries and vanilla and set aside. In a large, dry bowl, whip the egg white until the consistency of the foam on top of beer. Whip in the sugar to stabilize the whites and continue whipping until you reach the consistency of shaving cream. They should appear glossy but not dry. Immediately fold the white in to the yolk mixture. Folding, defined as gently lifting the yolk mixture over and around the whites with a rubber spatula until there are no discernable white streaks. Spoon (or pastry bag) the mixture into the prepared dishes to just under the lip, using care not to smear any of the mixture on the top of the casserole, inhibiting the upward direction the soufflé would like to take. Bake for 14 to 15 minutes. The finished product should appear to climbing upward out of the casseroles and gently browned across the surface. It should jiggle when jostled but not topple when shimmied. Carefully remove to awaiting plates and anxious diners. There should be as little time as possible between removing the soufflés from the oven and their consumption. They will begin to loose altitude almost immediately upon their removal from the oven. Feel free to garnish with whichever adornment you feel appropriate. A scoop of ice cream, a dollop of (homemade!) whipped cream or a drizzle of some outlandish fresh fruit puree, all serve well to embellish the soufflé.
This creation merely represents the numerous varieties of soufflés that await your creation. There are the savory varieties as well as the frozen. There are the soufflés baked into other components, like crepes or phyllo dough. There are soufflés created for the multitudes rather than individual servings. Perhaps there is hope, after all, that the soufflé will emerge as the next topic on one of those glitzy prime time cooking shows, complete with "ooohs" and "ahhhhs" and drummed onto the stage with a flurry of back-up percussion and fireworks. My cyber-constituents and classical culinary contemporaries, then again, hope not. We are happy to save this prize from the past in its own, respectable section of the refrigerated time capsule.