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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Souffle Confessions: How I lost my kitchen virginity to a French madame

It all started with the sort of daring that borders on hubris: I've never made souffle, I've never even (gasp) had souffle, so probably a smart thing to do is to have a friend over on a Saturday morning and just try to make it, right? So there we were, two souffle virgins, two aprons, and a world of food blogs to fuel the fire. A little poking around lead me, like a lamb to the slaughter, straight to 101cookbooks and a souffle recipe from "the madame." At first "the madame" had a charming sound to it, perhaps like someone's friendly French aunt who is benignly knowledgeable about all things kitchen and whips up souffles in her sleep. Light, fluffy souffles that never fall.

By the end of the experiment "the madame" conjured up fierce leather-clad images of the matron who runs a particularly pernicious masochism parlor.

The madame in question is one Madame E. Saint-Ange, author of La Bonne Cuisine. First published in 1927, this book has become the bible for generations of French housewives eager to master the household culinary repertoire, la cuisine bourgeoise, for which the French are justifiably famous. From Julia Childs to Chez Panisse, this book has a long and hallowed legacy of inspiring some of the world's most inspired chefs.

I find it curious, and symbolically rich, that this instructor of the French kitchen who relieved me of my souffle virginity, Madame E. Saint-Ange, bears so close a resemblance to Madame de Saint-Ange, the character in the Marquis de Sade's 1795 erotic novel Philosophy in the Bedroom. That literary Mademe de Saint-Ange ruthlessly deflowers a virgin with help from her brother and a gay lover, instructing this delicate virgin in all manner of pleasures of the bedroom, and exalting pleasure as the highest good of human existence. As with several of the Marquis de Sade's other literary works, the favored sexual position is sodomy.

Which also is strangely appropriate for Madame Saint-Ange the kitchen maven, because by the end of my souffle adventure she was a distinct pain in the rear end.

After careful consideration of several different souffle recipes, I finally commit to using the recipe from 101cookbooks for The Madame's Souffle. It includes a helpful link to how to whisk egg whites.

Discovering New Ways to Screw Up Egg Whites

Having read through the souffle recipe twice, we prep everything in advance and then begin preparation by turning attention to whipping egg whites. The egg whites advice starts out like this, "Madame demands, in vain, that her oven produce souffles as well risen as those at her favorite restaurant, or Mademoiselle wants to amuse herself making cookies and meringues but they are completely unsuccessful."

Me: Yes yes, I hate when I try to amuse myself by making meringues but they are unsuccessful.

"They would also have understood why, even if they had succeeded in whisking the eggs properly, or nearly, the egg whites would have gone grainy. (That's the professional term.) The egg white that goes grainy divides, like a cream that curdles, into one part liquid, another part millions of little wet lumps, instead of retaining the firmness of a batter."

Me: Grainy? Wait! Is this a whole new way to fail? You mean it isn't enough to fail by making sad little deflated whites?

"To achieve this result [of firm snow peaks], otherwise known as success, three conditions must be fulfilled: The purity of the egg whites, the use of appropriate utensils, and the technique of the endeavor."

Me: Three? Only three things and I'll be rocking success like an old school French lady. Okay. No sweat. I can do that.

But then it started getting a little sticky. To achieve "purity" apparently all I had to do was keep the whites from getting contaminated with any kind of grease or fats, which could be particularly troublesome when separating the white from the yolk. but still, this seemed a surmountable goal.

But then I read, "A copper bowl, which is not lined with tin and which is made uniquely for whisking egg whites, is practically mandatory."

Me: ahh, mandatory? Really? Those things are quite expensive and I'm supposed to buy one exclusively for egg whites? That's sort of the kitchen equivalent of buying a Lexus exclusively for driving around the cousins who come to visit once in a while.

I read on and my mouth keeps sagging with more disbelief. Apparently I am to have a bowl that is a perfect hemisphere, never washed with soap but instead wiped down with vinegar or lemon juice. I am to have a whisk exclusively dedicated to egg whites which should, for reasons unknown, have a wooden handle. If I prove to be so inept and undedicated a wife that I do not have these "mandatory" things, I can perhaps redeem myself by washing my all-purpose whisk "in boiling water and rub it with vinegar or lemon." I look at Natasha and, shamed a bit by my failure to meet such necessary measures, begin rubbing my whisk (and my inferior non-copper bowl) down with vinegar.

This is a lot of angst and I haven't even reached "technique" yet. There I am instructed to first whisk "with an easy and rhythmic effort." Once I have a "gray mass" (Me: gray mass?! what? that sounds disgusting. I don't ever remember making egg whites look anything like that) I am instructed to transition to "a very vigorous and accelerated effort" in order to produce "the conversion of the round, gray mass into a smooth, light, firm, stunningly white batter."

Of course, the first stage of whisking isn't just an "easy and rhythmic effort" which sounds like a fun dancing in socks in the kitchen with my husband. No no no. According to madame, "You must beat with very small strokes, quietly, barely lifting the whisk, which must stay in contact with the whites. Nothing but a little movement in place, without splashing, without noise, in a steady rhythm."

I already view this transformation to stunningly white batter as a sort of mythical process akin to calling a unicorn. But hey, I am still game to try. So I begin, feeling much like a blind child trying to finger-paint Picasso based on detailed descriptions.

I am rolling up my sleeves as Natasha reads out to me, "Under no circumstances should you stop once you have begun to whisk." This point is emphasized several different times in slightly different language, and accompanied by proclamations of dire consequences. Natasha and I confer and agree to trade off the whisking in a sort of orchestrated process without stopping, much like highly trained Olympic relay teams pass the baton at top speed.

Natasha and I dutifully whisk until arms are falling off and despite all the best precautions taken to slavishly yield to all the Madame's maxims, I see that our egg whites have gone "grainy." There it is, evidence in front of me, that I have somehow failed already. And I'm still just trying to whisk eggs.

Falling Souffle with a Side of Inferiority

Egg whites whisked, having followed the directions to salvage our failed, grainy egg whites, we move on to the souffle creation itself. Here the madame warns of four ways in which the home souffle can fail to produce the professional results of a restaurant souffle. At each stage we are ominously warned that regardless of how well you have accomplished to that point, all can be moot with a new error.

"First, most home kitchens do not have the right utensils to whisk the egg whites to the degree of firmness and resistance necessary...Second, the egg whites were not mixed properly. Now, however well whisked egg whites are, maladroit mixing destroys all their effects. Third, the souffle was not cooked correctly...The souffle may have been well prepared up to that point, but if the cooking is faulty, all the trouble taken will have no effect. Fourth, the cooking time is not closely controlled. This means that the souffle is insufficiently cooked in the center, or collapses with the first touch of the cutting spoon, allowing a liquid mass to escape; or that it is overcooked and dried and flat."

Me: Eek! Even more ways to fail. I thought somehow the egg whites part might be where all the difficulty was, but now I've emerged only semi-scathed from that gauntlet only to find a whole new set of obstacles.

We follow each of the steps and guides of the recipe as precisely as humanly possible.

We make the Madame's vanilla souffle recipe. We remove it from the oven, having meticulously followed instructions on how to test for doneness.

I stop to photograph the results, and the darn thing starts falling visibly beneath my lens. (Just compare the photo at left--fresh from the oven--with the one above).

"Quick! Grab a spoon!"

Reflecting on the Loss of my [Souffle] Virginity

So we tuck in, trying to enjoy it as it stinks under our spoons. It is rich, perhaps more sweet and rich than I would really prefer. The nutritional content wouldn't be too bad if you were just eating a tiny bit, but we are eating these things in lieu of lunch, so each of us consume a massive quarter of the recipe.

We stop only with bellies full, on a vaguely disorienting sugar-high, with the beginnings of a tummy ache that rivals the post-Halloween gluttony of youth.

In the aftermath of the consumption orgy, I reflected on the experience of losing my souffle virginity to such an experienced, demanding, vaguely condescending instructor. I realized that, for me, all that meticulous detail left me feeling more intimidated than empowered. 101cookbooks claims that she craved the Madame's approval. I found myself sucked down a vortex of trying ever harder to please someone who would never actually really approve in a way that was eerily reminiscent of my high school romances.

That thought put a little smirk on my face, and the taste of rebellion staved off the lurking inferiority complex that had been stalking me throughout this experience. I realized that I don't want to be the wife who owns a copper bowl, perfectly hemispheric, dedicated only to egg whites. It just isn't me. My life is more flexible and deliciously chaotic than that. And that is okay with me.


Sarah said...

I popped my souffle cherry with a recipe from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen. Imagine a gentle, bare-foot, long-haired hippie teaching you to make souffles. I quote Katzen, "The average puff span of a souffle is approximately 1 1/2 minutes, after which it will partially collapse. It will still taste great." So my souffle deflated just like yours, but was still oh so delicious. Do we really have to stress out about perfection? I think not.

Jescel said...

i am a souffle virgin too! LOL.. after reading your account, i dont know if i should try.. hahahaa...

Philip said...

There is something about the idea of a souffle that wants to leave it in the realm of stuffy french restaurants with snobby Maitres D. Now reading your account I am going in search of Madame Saint-Ange. Which one will I discover? The charming french Aunt? or the Leather clad Matron... Either one might lead to a memorable adventure.

Mike of Mike's Table said...

lol, that whole write up was something else. I especially enjoyed the parallels with "Philosophy in the Bedroom." Sounds like this endeavor was a success though--definitely one of those things I still have on my to-do list...somehow, it always gets pushed off until "next week." ;-)

therealchiffonade said...

You are SOO lucky. I lost MY virginity to a 437-pound florida guy when I was 48 years old down in Clearwater.

But we had to move to atlanta a few weeks ago because my new bofriend Big Bear had some legal problems -- lol.

As soon as the food coupons start arriving I am going to try your recipe.


Staff member, SeriousEats

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

Thank you all for your funny and warm comments!

Sarah, I love the idea of losing it to a loving souffle hippie. And I didnt even know such things existed!

Jescel and Mike: Even after going through it all, I still somehow think it is worth attempting at least once. A sort of culinary rite of passage.

Philip: I am curious about your search for the madame. Best of luck to you as you work through her recipes. I am eager to hear the results.

Real Chiffonade: that was a fine piece of comedy writing right there. I got a great chuckle while eating my breakfast and reading through comments. Best of luck with Big Bear ;)

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