Perhaps a Little Cheesy.
In last week’s mission statement, I said that I was going to write about an important milestone for Kitchen Catastrophes’ history today. And, to commemorate the milestone, I’ve also made a celebratory cheese soufflé. Why cheese soufflé? Well, to understand that, we have to go back in time. So buckle in, kids, and let’s hope this Delorean gets up to speed, because we’re going BACK to THE PAST. (The Future is, sadly, under copyright protection.)
June 22, 2011. A young man sits alone in his apartment. A recent graduate of WSU, he’s not certain what he’s going to do with his life. At the moment, he’s unemployed, but views this as a temporary hitch, certain to be overcome with a week or two’s effort. He does not yet know he will spend most of the coming year unemployed, growing increasingly desperate, frustrated, and remorseful. On the other hand, he’s similarly unaware of how many successes he’ll have, from performing his favorite roles, to directing wildly successful plays. At this moment, he thinks he is adequate. He will not, until later, truly feel that he has value.
He will also be briefly, befuddlingly, popular.
However, he is about to make an impulsive decision that will affect many, and make a lasting impression on his life. For the man has…not quite a hobby. Not yet. A bragging point, more exactly: he knows he is capable of making good food. He has done so several times, and feels that, in order to pass the evening, he’ll try a true culinary challenge: He will make a soufflé.
He will spend the next 2 hours suffering, swearing, and slowly growing to hate the very concept of whisking.
In the end, he will look at the mess he has made, taste the unimpressive results of far-too-much labor, and, in perhaps a crucial decision, start to laugh. “God,” he’ll think “That was a total catastrophe.”
“I should write a Facebook note about it.”
Five years ago today, I wrote my first Kitchen Catastrophe. In some ways, it was the first truly original thing I had done. And it did a lot for me in return. In the following months, it gave me an outlet, when I was at the breaking point, to do something fun and funny, and move past the frustrations I was discovering my adult life would contain. It gave me a safe space to emotionally process the attempted suicide of a friend. It gave me a place to look at, at the end of the day, and see a list of people liking what I had done, and that made it easier to weep on how hard the day had been, or overcome the most recent rejection.
Beyond those things, it created a sense of purpose, of creative ability, and value in me. So, of course, when I realized the day was approaching, I knew I had to remake it. I had to face my most ancient nemesis. The soufflé had to fall. (BUT NOT BEFORE EATING IT. I could not fail again.)
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But have you seen the cost of prevention these days?
You will be delighted to know I approached this solemn undertaking as I have so many important events in my life: in a last-minute rush of flailing and misplaced confidence due to my own poor planning. See, as I said, I knew this day was coming, but, for some reason, I had mis-written the anniversary as July 11th. I caught the error just over a week ago, by which time I had a new problem: in order to get these notes to you guys by Wednesday, I have to write them by Monday night. Which means I have to have MADE the meal at least 2 days before I want to write about it.
And I had scheduled a 4 day trip to Leavenworth, WA this past weekend, to rehearse for a play I’m in, to work at my friend Joe’s comic book shop, and, as I always do in Leavenworth, to over indulge on bratwurst, board games, and beer, because cured meat, competition, and cure-alls are most of my favorite things.
Also, artistic alliteration and assonance appeals.
As such, I ended up having to make it the day I got back. Monday. As I write this, it’s almost one in the morning, as I have to hammer this out to get it to you guys on time.
So, we started with a bit of a sense of urgency, is the point.
Rule 1: Don’t Panic
Now, as a child, I was raised on cartoons, sitcoms, and media of all forms telling me one thing: BUY MORE PRODUCTS. They also told me that soufflés are fickle things, ready to deflate at the slightest sound. This is not true.
Soufflé comes from French, and means “breathed” or “puffed”. But what it SHOULD mean is “Steamed”. Because that’s what makes a soufflé rise: gas bubbles.
At its most basic culinary level, a soufflé is simply a flavored Béchamel (remember our Mother sauce post?) folded with whipped egg whites, and baked. Interestingly, it was made popular in France by one Marie Antoine Careme, also known as the Father of Mother Sauces (actually, he was known as “the King of Chefs and Chef of Kings”, so, slightly better title.)
He also looked like Beethoven’s sassy cousin, so the dude had life on lock, basically.
So what makes a soufflé rise is the heat agitating the gas bubbles in its structure. So, if you don’t want your soufflé to fall, just don’t open the oven door until it’s done. The sudden loss of heat will cause it to deflate. Also, I guess, don’t SHAKE the oven, since that would compromise the structural integrity of the soufflé. And probably your kitchen floor. Jesus, Incredible Hulk, simmer down.
A good soufflé is all about patience. And that becomes clear from the first step. See, to get the best whipping in the egg whites, and the easiest emulsifying of the yolks, you gotta let them come to room temperature. So, you can either leave your eggs out for an hour, or separate them and leave them out for 30 minutes. So your first act is to wait.
After that, things go rather directly and quickly. You make a white roux with mustard and cayenne added, then mix the roux with milk, until you get something that looks like roofing paste.
Sticky, delicious roofing paste. What? If you don’t stop eating glue, you gotta upgrade eventually from Elmer’s.
Then you take your paste mixture and start adding cheese to it. And here’s a place I erred the first time: use a strong-flavored cheese. This is no time for medium chedder. This is EXTRA SHARP TIME. The number one flavor you’re going to get when this is done is the cheese, so make it something that puts in the work.
Paste now fortified with your mightiest cheese, you mix it with egg yolks. Why? Complex food science crap. (Basically, think of it like Velcro: egg whites LOVE to cling to egg yolks. So using egg yolks makes it easier to incorporate the egg whites) SPEAKING OF EGG WHITES, whip those suckers like King James did the Warriors last weekend. (My brother tells me that sentence approximates sounding like I understand basketball, and I would hate for my sport-loving fans to feel un-pandered to.)
Haha, those eggs look like…Steph Curry’s Calves? Sorry, I’m being told the Cavs are LeBron’s team. Look, I didn’t say I could pander well.
Once whipped, mix a little bit of the whites with the cheese sauce, then mix It all together, and pour into a baking dish that you’ve greased, and sprinkled with parmesan. Don’t let the filling get more than an 1” to the rim, because this sucker’s gonna rise. Then bake said sucker. What comes out of the oven looks almost exactly like you’ve been trained to expect a soufflé to look like.
A loaf of bread with a magical popped collar?
Though I warn you, the inside may freak you out. See, texture wise, soufflé is like the lightest scrambled eggs you’ve ever had. So it looks super weird cutting open what looks like golden brown bread loaf top to find moist, glistening egg-meat inside. Which might be the most upsetting series of syllables I’ve ever written. Ugh.
Anyway, I had mine with a light salad. And you know what? It was pretty damn great. It tastes like cheese, it’s soft and warm and moist, and it’s pretty much an unqualified success.
It may not be pretty, but it’s fancy. Like the Habsburgs. BOOM, 15th-18th century political humor. I knew I could do it.
NEXT TIME: A FAR MORE QUALIFIED SUCCESS. ONE COULD SAY, “AN ADEQUATE FAILURE”.
4 eggs, yolk and white separated
¼ c butter
¼ c flour
¼ tsp dry mustard
Dash ground red pepper (cayenne)
1 c milk
2 c grated strong-flavored cheese (sharp cheddar, swiss, gruyere, etc)
2 tbsp grated parmesan
Salt and pepper
- Let yolks and whites come to room temperature over 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350. Take 1.5 quart casserole dish or soufflé dish, and grease with butter. Sprinkle parmesan onto greased dish bottom and walls.
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Stir in the flour, mustard, and red pepper, and heat 1-2 minutes to remove raw flour taste. Add milk all at once, and stir.
- Continue stirring over medium heat, until sauce is thickened and bubbling. Remove from heat. Add cheese, bit by bit, stirring until melted in between. Mix egg yolks with a fork, then add cheese sauce to yolks, stirring constantly. Let cool slightly.
- Whip egg whites until stiff peaks form. Add 1 c whipped egg whites to cheese sauce, and gently fold to combine. Then, add all of sauce to the remaining whites, folding to combine. Pour resulting mixture into prepared dish.
- Bake 40 minutes, or until knife inserted in middle comes out clean.