"It feels more like magic than cooking." Nigel Slater
I'm attempting a bit of a tidy up of my desktop pile of books of potential interest for the blog, and have gone to a First Recipe book which has been sitting there for some time. I've been putting it off for a while, because it's the next of Robert Carrier's Cookery Course volumes - no. 3 and the first recipe is Cheese soufflé, which is very appropriate to the reluctance to deal with it - because I don't think I've ever made a proper soufflé, having always been put off by the generally pages, and pages of instructions and the overall mystique that surrounds them.
I'm not sure whether I shall overcome this anxiety or not, so it's good to know that this is a common thing:
"Soufflé anxiety, or "soufflanxiety," as it's clinically known, is very much a real thing, suffered by millions of cooks all over the world. Daniel Gritzer - Serious Eats
Anyway I am obviously overcoming my resistance to the book and the recipe and, as usual, whilst doing my preliminary 'research' I have been led down at least one unexpected path. So it's all good. Food leads you here there and everywhere.
As I said, I don't think I have ever made a classic soufflé, definitely not a savoury one, and only remotely possibly a sweet one. Although I have made a few of the twice cooked kind.
However, I have eaten a few. The one I remember most was a strawberry soufflé that I ate at the long defunct Fanny's restaurant in Melbourne. It was a fine dining establishment and David took me there for lunch just before I was to go into hospital to have my first baby induced. My last day of freedom, of youth, as it were. By the end of the next day my life had changed completely and forever. But I still remember the taste of that soufflé - so beautifully strawberry and so light and ethereal. And not at all eggy.
A few times I checked out the recipes for soufflé during my executive wife years. I remember looking in Mastering the Art of French Cookery and being confronted by pages of instructions. (As a sort of aside and out of curiosity you might like to have a peek at Julia Child showing you how to make Cheese soufflé in that amazingly peculiar voice of hers. It's a long video, so you don't need to watch it all, but for a bit of nostalgia have a look.)
Robert Carrier's Cookery Course, is similar in that the instructions cover a few pages, although he does try to make it sound like something anyone could have a go at.
"The soufflè, a half-forgotten and much neglected culinary classic, is ready to come to your rescue. The marvellous versatility of this airy dish will make you wonder how you managed so long without it.
For the appetising use of left-overs, there is nothing to equal it. For economy in extending small bits of luxury - lobster, fresh crab, finely chopped fresh herbs, caviar, pheasant - it cannot be bettered."
All of which sounds astoundingly modern in its reference to left-overs, and to the fact that it is a forgotten classic. Very similar sentiments in fact to the very modern Felicity Cloake.
"Soufflés are God's gift to the dinner party cook. Somehow, this classic egg dish has acquired a fiendish reputation for failure that quite belies its simplicity, which means that anyone who manages to serve anything more voluminous than a water biscuit will be feted as the greatest chef since – well, that one who won the latest series of MasterChef." Felicity Cloake
It's not just the lengthy instructions that are the problem, it's the whole mystique about it. Don't open the oven door whilst it's cooking or it will sink is one of the strictures you read about - apparently not true as debunked by Robert Carrier himself:
"I have even dug a spoon into a soufflé, discovered that it was still raw, and returned to to the oven - whereupon, having recovered from the initial shock, it has proceeded to puff up to even more majestic heights than before."
And this is confirmed by Daniel Gritzer, who, on the Serious Eats website gives a lengthy treatise on the soufflé, specifically a Savoury cheese soufflé. It's simultaneously, detailed, rigorous, technical but reassuring as well. I think I would recommend this as the place to start - or with Felicity Cloake of course.
"So... what's all this about soufflés being hard? They're not. The universe can conspire against you in many ways. It can stall your train, cut off your mode of communication, and throw literal roadblocks in your path. But it won't make your soufflé fall" Daniel Gritzer - Serious Eats
So maybe it's like risotto, which I also avoided for years, and years, because this also had vast amounts of mystique and pages of instructions, which put me off attempting one for years and years. Plus the thing about not taking your eyes off it and stirring all the time. Eventually I tried and today it would be one of my quick fridge raid kind of dinners. Maybe soufflé could be as well.
The other thing that has always been so off-putting is the thing about it collapsing as soon as you take it out of the oven. Although first of all, will it puff up at all? Well apparently if you whip your egg whites enough then it cannot fail:
"if you manage to get any air into the mix, an inexorable law of nature will raise it in the oven". Harold McGee
And this is because the heat of the oven will inevitably cause the little air bubbles in the egg whites to puff up. Mind you even the reassuring recipes were a bit precious about how you beat the egg whites. By hand of course, although they don't all say that, and when you fold them in to your base they all seem to have different bits of advice.
As to it getting to the table - well - you have to make sure your guests are there well before you are ready to serve I guess. No last minute rounding them up. Nigel Slater recommends just cooking it for yourself:
"If you make a soufflé for yourself it will work. It will puff up over the rim of the dish, be crisp on the outside and melting, almost oozing in the centre. You will probably want to take a photograph. And you will have to, as there will be no one else around to see it. Soufflés only tend to fail when other people are involved." Nigel Slater
He has a couple of soufflé recipes the simplest of which is a Cheese and tarragon soufflé. Although - I have to say that it doesn't look as if it has risen all that much and in some versions it is referred to as a pudding rather than a soufflé. The method is undeniably soufflé though. Maybe it depends what size dish you put it in. If your dish is relatively wide, then it's not going to be forced to puff up above the edge of the dish is it?
I was very interested to see Robert Carrier saying that soufflés were half-forgotten. He was writing in 1974, which according to various American writers was the heyday of the soufflé. Which would definitely tie in with my strawberry soufflé - July 30 1973. So what is the history of the soufflé? Credit for its invention goes to a French master cook of the early 18th century Vincent la Chapelle, but credit is also given to Carême who in the early 19th century popularised it. Largely possible, it seems by radical improvements in ovens. It remained popular for decades until, so they say, the 70s. And then it died.
"Light, sweet, eggy, and ethereal, the soufflé has become a dinosaur in current era of fast casual, a time when diners want their entire meals served in 10 minutes or less, much less dessert. The soufflé, by contrast, demands the investment of time from both chef and diner: it requires oven space, it requires a watchful eye, and, most damningly, it cannot be made in advance." Melissa McCart - Eater
Or did it? For today, at least in America, it is coming back into fashion because of another Instagram sensation, and a Japanese riff on the pancake - the Japanese souffle pancake.
"Fans might want to give partial credit for the resurgence [of the classic soufflé] to the cult of Japanese pancakes. Last fall the Japanese chain Flippers opened an outpost in Soho in New York, and the lines were endless. The delightfully fluffy snacks look like silver dollar pancakes pumped full of air. Their height helps them look good on social media, and the melt-in-your mouth texture makes them more like a snack than their weightier American counterparts." Kate Krader - Quint/Bloomberg
"As of publishing (Feb 22 2019) there are over 43,000 Instagram photos with the hashtag #soufflepancake; and it’s easy to see why. They’re tall, they have texture, they’re overtly decadent. They are frequently sold in limited quantities and take time to prepare, which means they often come with a line. In short, they’re perfect for a social media form dedicated to getting people to double tap photos of food they’ve never eaten posted by people they’ve never met." Kate Krader - Quint/Bloomberg
I clicked on that Instagram hashtag and today that number has risen to 135,171!
The Japanese are supposed to have invented them, having imported the American kind of pancake after the war I'm guessing. But being Japanese, they tinkered and elaborated and came up with something new. Except that this is hotly contested by a restaurant in Hawaii apparently. Always the way with Instagram things.
I believe Sydney now has one of these places. There are chains of Japanese pancake places - like MacDonald's. Here is a picture of them being prepared by steaming under a special copper dome, on a specially designed hotplate. I must say I do find it interesting that some of the more Instagrammable trends do seem to be coming out of Japan. I'm not sure that Melbourne has one as yet. So wonderful though that cooks continue to find new and very different things with basic foodstuffs. After all you can't get much more basic than an egg.
There are recipes online if you have a look - this one for Japanese soufflé pancakes is from Australian Eggs, and even Aldi has one, so I assume you don't quite need the special equipment, although it sounds even more daunting than an ordinary soufflé to attempt. Maybe because, being an Instagram thing, the emphasis is on how they look.
I even found this vegan version - 'Fat-arse' soufflé pancakes with maple syrup from Shannon Martinez. Which is curious is it not that the vegans should be trying to reproduce a dish that is fundamentally almost pure egg and therefore almost poison - certainly not an approved food.
As i was trawling the net at this point I also came across these Soufflé crêpes with apricot jam from Maggie Beer, which seemed to be to be a little like a further development - or is it a midway one?
Or are they more closely related to soufflé omelettes of which Delia's Soufflé omelette with three cheeses and chives is an example.
All a long way from a soufflé though. Although then again, perhaps not. I suppose when you think about it some cakes are rather like a soufflé. The kind in which you fold some egg whites into your cake mixture before baking. It's the air in the whites isn't it? Nigel Slater's magic.
So maybe I should give it a go some time, although it's actually difficult to imagine an occasion when a soufflé might be just the right thing. Maybe that's the other reason I've never attempted it. Although I guess it could be a good meal for two people.
"a savory soufflé should feel like a meal, not a magic trick that puffs itself up before your eyes only to fade away and never make it to your stomach." Daniel Gritzer - Serious Eats
I actually now see that technically Cheese soufflé is not the first recipe in this particular volume. that honour goes to Scrambled eggs, in his first chapter of Scrambled eggs and omelettes, so perhaps it's appropriate that I ended with Delia's soufflé omelette of which he gives a couple of examples. But I've definitely done scrambled eggs before, which is why I ignored them. His volume 3 also deals with casseroles; pasta, rice and polenta and making perfect pastry. Volume four coming up in a few weeks time, when I am next uninspired.