Soufflé au Fromage (From I Know How To Cook, Mathiot 1932… with some help from Gordon Ramsay)
Countless are the times we have witnessed Gregg Wallace pull the “are you out of your tiny little mind?” face when a contestant announces they are attempting a soufflé on Masterchef. A mixture of incredulity and barely-concealed joyful expectation at ruthlessly pulling apart yet another floppy failure. Grown men have cried in front of millions. The bodies of dozens, if not hundreds, of ambitious wannabe-chefs litter the culinary battlefields as a result of this dark art.
So, naturally, you couldn’t blame me for investing time in preparation for such a technical feat of precision. I had my basic French recipe courtesy of Mathiot, but her recipes are written rather to the point; short, authoritative, and with an assumption that you have a single clue what you are doing. I needed a bigger helping hand to ensure I wouldn’t be another casualty statistic.
After a significant web trawl at too-early-o’clock, I can say god bless foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay, because he has soufflé tips until the cows come home. Such as to clean the bowl for the egg whites with lemon juice because they won’t achieve the right consistency if there’s the smallest molecule of grease in the bowl, to butter up the ramekins with upward strokes (it gives the mixture a clue which direction it should be aiming for), and that I need to whisk the egg whites into stiff but not dry peaks. I don’t even know what that means, but I’m convinced he’s telling the truth.
The bechamel needs to be extra thick, which I know I’ve managed when I can pick the whole mixture up on the end of my spatula. However, the key, and thus the terror, lies in whisking and folding. Who can tell if I’m folding too vigorously? Who can tell if I’m falling calamitously headfirst into mixing like a total amateur? Who can tell when a peak is a stiff peak? Clue: when your whisk arm goes dead.
Time comes, my friends, when you just have to fill the ramekins, put them into the oven and wait for the fat lady to sing your requiem.
My oven is utter rubbish. There are no numbers on the dial to indicate whether it’s on at 100 or 240 degrees. There is no light inside as you peer and squint in anticipation and hope of the sign of rise. Technical precision is completely hopeless. But, somewhere in the darkness, I detect it: they’re rising. I’m running around the kitchen squawking like a chicken and Facebooking as though I’ve just won the lottery.
Cooking gives me great pleasure; the sense of achievement in the creation and skill, the warmth in my heart seeing the people I love eating my food and making them happy and satisfied… getting delicious food to eat with joy seems like the cherry on the icing on the cake. I was inordinately proud of setting down my cheese soufflé in front of someone I love, and even prouder when I popped the cheesy bubble to discover that inside was cheesy heaven. You’ve got to hand it to the French; they know cheese and do some bloody wonderful things with it. This is one of them. And having achieved something so notorious as a relatively inexperienced cook has boosted my confidence no end; I feel I can take on anything. I’m looking at you, Saint-Honoré cake.