over easy

My Attempt to Earn the Respect of a French Soufflé

Le soufflé. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler/Madeleine Aggeler

Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.

About a year ago, my parents moved to France for work. On the one hand, I was sad, because this meant I would see them less, and that I could no longer make impromptu weekend trips down to D.C. to gorge myself on the suspicious sugar-free caramels my dad buys but I have never seen in stores, or load up on my mom’s discarded beauty products that only sometimes give me a rash. But on the other main, it meant that I would get to visit them periodically in the City of Love — home of the Eiffel Tower, the set of that Beyoncé and Jay-Z video, and rat chefs. Ooh la la.

As I got ready to go see them over Labor Day weekend, I tried to think of something quintessentially French I could cook while I was there. I enjoy most French food: I love raw hamburger topped with raw egg yolks, and naked little snails curled up in bubbling, herb-filled butter baths, and cheese that smells like old gym socks filled with vomit but tastes creamy and nutty and barely like vomit at all. But one dish loomed large and puffy in my mind — a fluffy, vertiginous tower of egg and cheese so fragile and fussy that one wrong breath could cause it to implode. A dish that demands respect. A soufflé.

My mother makes a cheese soufflé every Christmas Eve, because her mother had made a cheese soufflé every Christmas Eve before her. Despite her extensive yuletide soufflé experience however, she says it’s an art she’s still trying to master, and while I was in France, my parents spoke of a recent soufflé mishap of theirs in the same hushed, disappointed tone one might use to say their child dropped out of architecture school to pursue DJ-ing.

So, we decided to tackle the challenge together. A few hours after my plane landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, and armed with this recipe for a classic cheese soufflé by Molly Wizenberg at Epicurious, my parents and I went shopping. We got Parmesan and Gruyère from the cheese shop up the block from their house, and went to a small, tucked-away grocery store for eggs, flour, and milk. There, I discovered that in France, Sour Patch Kids are called “Very Bad Kids” (a better name in my opinion).

Back at home, my mom and I got started. First, I buttered a large soufflé dish and, tilting it around, coated it with finely grated Parmesan. The recipe calls for a six-cup soufflé dish, and my parents’ seemed like a much bigger boy, maybe an eight-cupper. Alas, you must accept the soufflé dish the Universe gives you.

Next, we warmed a cup of whole milk in a small saucepan, and in a larger saucepan, melted 2 ½ tablespoons of butter. When the butter was all melted, my mom poured in 3 tablespoons of flour that I was supposed to whisk together until it lost its “raw taste.” I didn’t fully understand that directive, but my mom seemed to, and after about 3 minutes, she stuck her finger in the mixture, tasted, and declared it done. I removed the butter flour from the heat for about a minute, poured in the warmed whole milk, “whisking until smooth,” which took about 30 seconds. Putting it back on the heat, I whisked until it turned into a dense, beige goo that clung angrily to the wires of the whisk. Taking the goo off the heat, I whisked in ½ teaspoon of nutmeg, ½ teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of nutmeg. Preparing a soufflé, I was discovering, is 90 percent whisking and requires a lot of forearm strength.

Then it was time to separate the eggs.

“The most important thing is to NOT use a plastic bowl when whipping your egg whites,” my dad had cautioned when we got home, a lesson he said he learned combing through online soufflé forums after my parents’ last soufflé failure. Plastic bowls, it turns out, retain more grease than glass or metal bowls, and letting grease into your egg whites is a soufflé kiss of death. That’s also why all bowls and utensils used have to be immaculately clean — and not even a speck of yolk can get in the whites.

“You can do this, right?” my mother asked skeptically as I pulled out the eggs from the fridge.

“Yes,” I said. “But go ahead, you can do the first one.”

Grabbing an egg, my mother expertly cracked an egg on the edge of a freshly clean metal bowl, pulled the shell apart, and with a couple of quick flicks of her wrist, tossed the yolk back and forth in the shells, then dumped the egg whites in one bowl, and the yolk in another. She then handed me an egg. Afraid of shattering it, I first tapped the egg tentatively on the edge of the bowl, and then I tapped it too hard, and it sort of crumbled, and then it all kind of gooped into my hands while I mumbled, “Shitshitshitshitshit.” Still, I eventually managed to separate it.

“Jesus Christ, Maddie,” my mother sighed.

Peaky. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

When we had 4 egg yolks and 5 egg whites, we whisked the yolks into the flour and milk mixture, one yolk at a time, and then, with an electric mixer, started whisking the egg whites. And whisking. And whisking.

Instead of transforming into stiff, firm peaks, our egg whites whirled around in a creamy-looking puddle. After a few minutes, we admitted defeat. My mother swiftly separated 5 more egg whites, and then we switched off whisking them until they became beautiful, stiff peaks.

(Was it my sloppy egg separating or our crappy old electric mixer that ruined the first batch? We may never know, but my mother said I should make it clear in my column that it was probably my fault and not hers.)

While my mother poured the egg whites into the flour mixture, I folded them in gently with a spatula, and then we added in the Gruyère cheese. I poured the mixture into the pre-Parmesan’d dish, and placed it into the oven, which had been preheated to 400 degrees, and which, as the recipe called for, we immediately lowered to 375 degrees. While it cooked, I spoke very quietly. Cartoons and playground wisdom from my childhood had led me to believe that soufflés would collapse if there was a loud noise. But then my parents told me that was a myth, so I said “What the hell?!” very loudly.

Then, 25 minutes later, the soufflé was ready. And miraculously it looked … kind of good! It didn’t have the poufy, delicate crown I dreamt of, but because it was in a bigger bowl that would have been almost impossible. Still, it rose, and when we cut into it, the texture was light and fluffy. The taste was subtle, but not without a pleasant funk from the Gruyère.

Mine wasn’t a perfect soufflé, but it was decent. If it could have spoken to me, I think it probably would have chosen not to. Instead, it would have taken a long drag from its cigarette and shrugged like, “What are you gonna do?” Did it respect me? Who cares. It tasted very good.

My report card
Preparation: B
Taste: A
Sense of ennui: B

My Overall Performance: B+

My Attempt to Earn the Respect of a French Soufflé