Second Week: Soufflés and Pâte Brisée
September 16, 2002

The Day the Soufflé Fell

With apologies to, but a great deal of reverence for, James Thurber.

Soufflé Day. Been looking forward to this date with much trepidation. After the usual lecture on the history, kinds, and basic techniques of the pesky puffy things, we were in the kitchen.

A soufflé is just a base of some sort with whipped egg whites folded in. It can be sweet or savory. I worked with Hawaii 5-0 and Red Headed Snippet on a "Harlequin" soufflé, which was to be half chocolate and half vanilla. But not "half" meaning "top half" and "bottom half" -- oh, no. This was to be left and right half. How was this going to be achieved, you might ask? I'm glad you asked. It's a very inelegant and unromantic trick. You get your six-cup soufflé dish and you measure some cardboard to be stuck snugly in the very middle, separating the dish into two halves. Then, because the cardboard is probably teeming with all sorts of parasites and food-borne viruses, you cover it in tinfoil and butter the foil. The buttering is to prevent the eventual separation of the foiled divider and spooned-in soufflé from being too traumatic. You know what, though? We would have been better off choppering in a conjoined twins surgeon. Seriously.

So, first thing you do when you make a soufflé is to prepare the base. With two different halves to be made, we needed two different bases, and later we would be preparing two different serving sauces. Red Headed Snippet started with Hawaii 5-0 on the chocolate base, so they measured out some chocolate, broke it up and set it to melt gently. While they were engrossed in that, I set about making a vanilla base. First thing was to scald the milk with vanilla and sugar. This was going to be good for me, because I had been reading about using "scalded milk" all over Kamman's book, but for the life of me I could not find a definition of just what THE HELL IT WAS. Chef Directrix was on the spot to help me. It's milk heated to just before the boiling point. How are you supposed to know it's going to boil until it does? Teeny, tiny bubbles form around the border of the saucepan before what you would recognize as a boil happens. In another pan, I melted butter, removed it from heat and whisked in flour, and put it back on the heat to cook for another few minutes, creating a roux. Then half the scalded milk is whisked into the roux until smooth. Once that was smooth, the rest of the milk is whisked in, creating what is called a béchamel, which is one of the five "Mother Sauces." If at any point the béchamel becomes clumpy, I would remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk the clumps away. Then the béchamel is brought to a simmer and cooked until thickened and until you can't taste the flour anymore. Finally, you cool it to the point where it doesn't burn your skin anymore, which means it is safe for you to add the two egg yolks, whisking them in, one at a time. This keeps them from scrambling. This base is set aside while you shred your arm whipping up the egg whites to appropriate former la bec status. Now, of course, we were told that we can use all the mechanical accoutrements available to mankind -- meaning the KitchenAid mixer -- but Chef Directrix wanted us to know what it was like to whip whites in copper with a balloon whisk. Whipping whites in copper means you don't need to add an acid stabilizer like lemon juice or cream of tartar. It also means that they will be so strengthened by the chemical reaction between the whites and the copper that they will be less likely to fall. The cream of tartar or lemon juice may stabilize sufficiently, but they will not give as much protection against falling as whipping in a copper bowl will. Now, when you whip whites, you aren't supposed to go gallivanting off for the remainder of the day and let your mass of whites just sit there with its thumb up its nose, because it will fall. You're supposed to whip them just before you use them.

Of course, with our "Let that Be Your Last Battlefield" soufflé, we needed to whip two portions of whites in two separate copper bowls with two separate balloon whisks. First, the copper bowls had to be "seasoned" (a way of cleaning without using soap and water, also used for cast iron) with vinegar and salt and a paper towel and then rinsed off under cool water. Red Headed Snippet took care of that for us -- she ended up doing it four times over. People kept snatching our bowls from our mis en place because they hadn't had enough foresight to grab some for their own damn selves. Once our arms resembled something that got pushed through a meat grinder, we had to fold in the base. Now, because the base is heavier than the whites, the base has to be lightened with one-quarter of the total volume of the egg whites. And folding is a very precise movement, one I totally didn't get just from reading Kamman's description of it. Luckily, Hawaii 5-0 had her head on straight, and she showed me. Very simple now that I know what I am doing, but woe, all these years I've been doing it wrong and deflating my egg whites! No wonder they always seemed to leak! Once the first quarter has been folded into the base, the rest of the whites are gently dumped on top of the lightened base and folded in -- quickly but gently. Both soufflé batters being complete, it became time to get the two races into the soufflé mold. According to Chef Directrix, soufflés are never poured in -- they are spooned in. Okay, so we spooned them into the mold (which had been properly buttered to ensure easy sliding as the soufflé rose and sugared to provide a sweetness the soufflé grabbed onto as it rose), and the proofing time was upon us: we had to remove the foiled separator. I kept thinking, "Quick like a cat! Quick like a cat!" as I swiftly and smoothly pulled the divider out. PHLOOOMMMMSHHH. The chocolate soufflé, which contained one more yolk and one more white than the vanilla soufflé, completely overthrew the vanilla soufflé and rammed it aside. I think if we had beaten the whites for the chocolate soufflé a little stiffer or folded a mite bit quicker, the chocolate would have respected the Neutral Zone and left vanilla alone. Ah, well, nothing to be done but stick it in the oven to bake, undisturbed, for thirty-five to forty minutes.

I said "undisturbed," right?

Didn't I say the soufflé should bake without anyone opening the oven door, therefore creating a disturbance, which should be "un"?

Well, guess what? It didn't. With about ten minutes to go, someone opened the oven. On the VERY day we were told NOT under ANY circumstances to open an oven without asking around if anyone was in there, someone OPENED THE OVEN! Thankfully, it wasn't within the crucial first twenty-five minutes, when it's the worst time to peek if you feel you really have to peek. Oh wait, IT WAS. Lord. So, the "Chocolate War" Harlequin Soufflé fell much sooner than we'd hoped. It didn't fall the instant Johnny opened the oven, so that was something. It just fell fairly fast once we took it out. Our accompanying sauces of crème anglaise and chocolate sauce weren't quite ready by the time our soufflé came out, but "Soufflé waits for nothing," as Chef Directrix told us once our depressed Harlequin was finally served. However, as deflated as it was, and as chocolate-centric as the top came out (with Vanilla much preferring a subservient position below), everyone loved it. Cosmetic appearances aside, it was truly delicious, with the crème anglaise as smooth as vanilla silk on everyone's tongues. I think I can say it actually made that bicep ice-pack application worth it after all that sugar and egg yolk ribboning. The chocolate sauce was spiced up with a bit of rum, which paired exquisitely with the rum and instant coffee added earlier to the chocolate base.

September 18, 2002

In the Spring We'd Make Meat Helmets: Pâte Brisée

Another Day of the Dread for me: pie crusts. I've seen it done on television, I've read about it in books, and heck, I've been known to eat a few, but I never really believed I would make one.

Waiting for all our coffees to kick in, Chef Passion asked who among us had gone home and tried our hands at pastry-making. I volunteered my tale of success and woe. Success being the pâte à choux-based cream puffs, woe being that drat pastry cream. Chef Passion immediately insisted I make a fruit tart that called for that precise pastry cream in the recipe, so I could finally put that demon filling to rest.

Chef Passion gave her usual well-organized lecture and comprehensive demo of the pastry at hand. We learned a lot of good stuff: what kinds of pans we should buy (as of today's date I have ordered soufflé dishes, tart pans with removable bottoms, and porcelain quiche pans in order to practice, practice, practice -- all from Bridge Kitchenware in NY) and how cold all ingredients must be for the crust to work properly. Apparently, Chef Passion had a student whose hands were so hot all the time that he ruined his crust again and again. As fate would have it, the poor guy drew a fruit tart for his exam and had to keep immersing his hands in ice water every few minutes in order for him to be able to handle the dough. Chef Passion said his fruit tart turned out wonderfully well.

To get us in an artistic mind-set, Chef Passion passed around a few books from her never-ending library. I have now put The Pie and Pastry Bible on my wish list at if any of you are generously-inclined. In the demo, Chef showed us how to make roses and leaves from the left-over pastry dough -- she explained that they were to bake separately from the tart, pie, or quiche and be adhered later with a dab of caramelized sugar or dorure (egg wash). All those times I had looked at Victoria, Gourmet, or anything Martha "Next Week, I'll Be Showing You How a Well-Placed Dorure Can Really Make an Otherwise Dowdy Cell Block Shine" Stewart and saw lovely pies with cunning little clumps of berries here or sprays of leaves there and thought how impossible it would be to make such things -- now, I know better.

As promised, Chef gave me an open fruit tart to make, which needed a pastry cream base. Essentially, I would be baking my crust blind (à blanc), which means the dough would be baked with no filling. The dough-making is a complicated process with many stages. My crust was further complicated by the fact that it was supposed to include nuts. I went to the Mushroom Men and got six ounces of almonds and hazelnuts, which I then toasted in the oven and gave some time in the food processor. My, they smelled heavenly! Once those were ready, I could proceed with the actual crust-making -- the sablage, papillon and fraisage techniques of handling the egg, flour, salt, very cold butter, and ice water to get it ready for the first stage of refrigeration. Overworking the dough with any of the above processes means the gluten will be activated to a point where the dough could be tough. Giving the dough a time-out in a cold place wrapped in two pieces of plastic wrap will relax that overactive gluten. Once the dough comes out, it is smacked a few times with the rolling pin and gently rolled into a disk about one-eighth of an inch thick. This all happens while the dough is still in its plastic wrap. The dough goes to the freezer for a little more time, because the colder your dough, the more control you will have over it. Now, because I had nuts in my recipe, my dough was going to be a bit more crumbly and not come together as easily as a nutless piecrust, so it definitely needed that extra time in the freezer. Even after that cold time, it still crumbled a bit when I peeled off one side of plastic (kept the other side on for handling purposes), laid it over the tart pan, and worked it into the fluting. Chef Assistant told me that reaction was perfectly normal for that kind of crust and that I could just use the excess dough to "patch" after I was done pressing the dough into the mold. Because the dough will shrink in the oven if it's been stretched, you have to give yourself a lot of slack to work with as you're pressing it in. Once that is complete, you roll your pin over the top of the plastic, effectively allowing the edges of the tart pan to sever the excess crust. After that, you carefully pull back the plastic and start patching and pressing in excess dough to fix any additional cracks.

Before going into the oven to be baked blind, the crust needs weights to prevent the bottom from bubbling up. Another way to keep the crust from bubbling is "docking" the pastry. This is achieved by poking the bottom a few times with fork tines -- or shelling out money for a special docking roller. However, since I would be putting a custard on the bottom of my tart, I could not use the docking method. The weights (or beans, as I use at home) are placed in crumpled, Pam-sprayed tinfoil, shiny side down. Once the edges of the crust have gotten a nice golden tan, the tin foil and weights are removed, and baking continues so the bottom can also finish baking. However, since the edges have already reached their peak, they are covered with a foil collar to prevent burning. You can now get these tin things through chefs' catalogs to do the trick, but we didn't use them, nor do I know anything about them other than that they exist. While my crust was doing its thing in the fridge, I prepared the pastry cream with Chef watching over me. The "special" technique that had been eluding me for so long, causing me restless nights in which I called out, "It's breaking! The cream is breaking!" was very simple: clumping happens. As soon as it does, you have to remove the pan from the heat and whisk a lot and often. Then put it back on the heat, cook the cream a bit more, remove from heat if more clumping occurs, and whisk again. This continues until the cream has thickened enough -- and I now know what "enough" is -- and the middle bubbles like molten lava. Then the pan is set in an ice bath to cool and kept in the fridge until use. Ideally, Chef pointed out, pastry cream should be given twenty-four hours to reach the preferred firmness, but obviously that wasn't going to be the case today.

Finally, I set about gathering my fruit to plot out my design. I used raspberries, strawberries, kiwi and blueberries and made a nice geometric pattern. Chef came by and made a few discreet suggestions, which I took because she was so obviously correct, before I could consider my fruit blueprint finalized. The pastry cream was laid like a foundation on the crust (which even after patching and baking still sustained a small crack on the base, probably from my over-stretching of it), and then I arranged my fruit and brushed an apricot glaze on them to make them sparkle like sapphires, rubies, and emeralds. It really came out beautifully. I can't wait for my shipment to arrive so I can practice. Perhaps this time, without the nuts.

Some of the other things that were made that day were two other fruit tarts, like mine but in different tart pans; a lemon tart, so lovely and delicious, my favorite of all the sweet; a tart tatin, which turned out badly; a cranberry tart with a savory herb crust; two eggplant and tomato quiches with gorgonzola, which were delectable; and my favorite, the meat helmet. It wasn't really called a meat helmet -- it's actually called Lihamurekepitras, which is Finnish Meat Loaf with Sour Cream -- but the student who made it called it a meat helmet, and we went into gales of laughter when we realized we were the only ones who caught the reference. This thing was so fabulous, I really had to restrain myself not to eat it by the plateful. The meatloaf was made up of ground lamb, veal, pork, and beef and sautéed with fresh porcini and lobster mushrooms. If you've never had the occasion to sample lobster mushrooms in their sumptuous orange vulgarity, I advise you to keep your eye out and try them whenever you can. They cost forty dollars a pound, so they are getting up there with chanterelles, truffles, and morels, but they are worth tasting in a restaurant if prepared right. They get their name from the singular flavor they exude when cooked. After the meat and mushrooms were cooked, they were put into a bowl with an egg, chopped onion and some grated cheddar and mixed up a bit. Then the loaf was fashioned and placed on a square of the sour cream pastry, another square of the pastry was draped over the top, and the whole thing was baked until golden. I tell you, I cannot remember when I had something that exploded with such amazing flavor in my mouth. The crust, the meat, the mushrooms -- it is a recipe I hope to duplicate at home, though I don't know if I can quite swing the lobster mushrooms. Poor Mathra.

Hungry? Get a menu pushed
under your door when I update:
Powered by
Copyright © 2002-2006 Stephanie Vander Weide