Friday, February 26, 2010

About de Souffle

For those of you who are (a) familiar with the French cinema of the Nouvelle Vague, and (b) aware that I am a moron who does not know how to put French accents on my blog, the title of this post will strike you as a clever multilingual pun. The rest of you - tough noogies. My many faithful blog-readers (hi, Mom!) will know that I have been dealing with a surfeit of eggs this winter, and seeking out eggy recipes. It occurred to me recently that I had never made a souffle. This is odd, since it's just the type of dish that would have struck me, when I was a child, as just the type of elegant, tricky thing that I should try to cook. I was always a bit of a freak-job about food, especially food that either sounded awesome or seemed emblematic of the elegant, madcap-heiress life I longed to lead. Every so often, my mother would relent and allow/help me cook something. Jambalaya, once. Chocolate crepes filled with ice cream. I once made candied orange peels, because I read about them in a book somewhere. Nothing practical that would have actually, say, helped my mother feed her family of six. Just flights of mostly-idiotic fancy. Once, on our annual Fancy Dinner trip to the Candlewood Inn, where I had my annual lobster, I ordered a bottle of Perrier to drink because I liked the Frenchy sound of it: perry-yay. Hated the taste, as it turned out: bitter.

But souffle is something else. Although it used a parsimonious three eggs, the recipe I used made the most of those eggs. View as exhibit (a) the glorious crown of crusty cheesiness above. That is my first-ever souffle, made with Gruyere cheese (within) and Parmesan (without). The dish was buttered AND cheesed, creating that splendid rich crust all over its exterior, not just on top. Despite the fact that the necessity of utter peace and quiet whilst baking a souffle is a time-worn sitcom gag (at least from my Julia Child-hood in the Seventies), my souffle did not collapse despite the presence of children in the house. They did refrain from Irish step-dancing or playing the timpani during the baking process, but even their sporadic incursions into the kitchen did not pop my masterpiece.

Even after it deflated, the souffle looked tasty. I was expecting it to slump, post-oven, into a puddle of scrambled-egg-looking barf, but the slices maintained some of their structural integrity on the plate, and the interior of the souffle had a light, fluffy mouth-feel that tasted of the richness of butter and the tanginess of cheese. This is yet another dish where my plodding recipe-following ended up looking like kitchen genius. My husband asked me, "Is this something you can... order at restaurants?" and I had to explain to him that a souffle belongs to a sort of hidebound, traditional sort of canonical French cuisine that is the very definition of outmoded nowadays. I can't imagine what type of place you'd go to order one. It's the type of ephemeral dish that I think would be hard to cook on a large scale, but perfect for a fanciful home cook with eggs to burn. Metaphorically speaking.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Valentine's Cookiepocalypse

When I was in college, I took a solo weekend trip to a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland called "La Musee de L'Art Brut," which was full of outsider art made by people in prisons and insane asylums. A lot of the art seemed...pathology-specific. You could almost diagnose the insanity by looking at the artwork: a hand-crocheted lace dress made of loose threads collected from asylum bedsheets; pictures of sporting events in stadiums with each member of the audience carefully, individually drawn by hand; a large, wooden mechanical chicken. I was thinking of this artwork while making the above-pictured Valentine's cookies for my kids' classmates. It is beyond debate that there is something a bit off about me upstairs, and this project is the pure manifestation of my compulsiveness, desire to please, and willingness to engage in self-punishing activities, especially if they result in a tasty dessert.

The cookies are also my personal political stand on what I feel to be the utter assiness, for lack of a better word, of commercially-produced Valentine cards, which no longer even include a separate paper envelope - you just fold them and insert a tab into a slot. These, to me, are anti-Valentines, proclaiming, "I care so little about you that I can't even be bothered to lick an envelope on your behalf." My cookies, on the other hand, boldly state, "I am obsessed with you. A stalker. You may want to take out a restraining order."

This project is WAY more for me than for my children, I freely admit. I have always wanted to try my hand at royal icing, which is made with meringue powder, confectioner's sugar and water and makes the glossy smooth surface you see on the cookies they sell at places like Starbucks for three dollars apiece. It turned out to be easy. No cooking at all. You just mix a pound of powdered sugar, five tablespoons of meringue powder (which they sell in the amazing cake-decorating aisle at the Hellmouth known as Michael's Craft Store) and a "scant" half-cup of water (this instruction always makes me mentally substitute "scanty" and imagine that I am required to prepare the recipe in a pair of granny undies and an apron). I added some Meyer lemon juice to the liquid to give my frosting some flavor and tartness (which is, admittedly very subtle. When your recipe includes a pound of sugar, that's the flavor that dominates). The cookies look wicked awesome, and I now feel confident enough in my royal icing skillz to experiment with more Whole Foods-bakery-esque cookies. Also: I actually dislike Valentine's Day with a force that cannot be overstated, but heart-shaped desserts are its one redeeming feature.

PS the one that says "Sweet Cheeks" is for my husband. That is all.