Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The culprit

This is the culprit. This is the fresh chili pepper I bought the other day, being completely unaware of its potency.

I had the audacity to sample it raw, cut into a piece no larger than a lentil, and it took revenge on me by making my mouth flame.

This hot yellow chili pepper made my lips swell and hurt and sting and become redder than lips that have been passionately kissed for hours.

This is the chili pepper that gave me no pleasure at all.

This chili is the scotch bonnet. We hadn't been properly introduced before yesterday and it will be a while before I invite it back in my kitchen.

Lesson learned.

P.S. That doesn't mean I don't love chilies anymore. Just so you know.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The unbearable lightness of the soufflé

Whenever I hear the word soufflé, I'm imagining fat French chefs with white, tall, pleated hats running around in a busy restaurant kitchen, shouting to each other while trying to cautiously carry a soufflé dish that has just been taken out of the oven.

Or other times, I'm imagining an elegant French woman in a Parisian apartment kitchen, waiting patiently right next to her oven for the soufflé to rise while reading French Vogue, with a cigarette dangling from her red colored lips.

Well, that's just me; I like to visualize and make up stories about the people who might cook and eat certain types of food or dishes. Admittedly, some of those images are stereotypical but hey, when I think of souvlaki, I can't imagine anything other than a handsome Greek, virile man standing outside a souvlaki joint, getting all greasy while devouring a couple of them.

Or, when a dish of paella comes to mind, I can't help but visualize a raven-haired Spanish woman with a colorful apron wrapped around her waist, standing over a huge, steaming paella pan, adding to it yet another type of fresh seafood.

I enjoy these images but having said that, they are the ones I want to break down. I don't have to be Italian to make a mean spaghetti Bolognese or Brazilian to make a good feijoada. I don't like to be intimidated by food or dishes. That's not what cooking is about and I'm a firm believer that anyone can cook anything.
And on that notion, my soufflé baking adventure began.

The first time I've ever made a soufflé was about a year and a half ago when I took some classes in Amsterdam on French regional cooking. It was during one of those classes that I was confronted with the task of making a soufflé. A hot vanilla soufflé with lavender and candied violets or as the chef called it "Soufflé chaud vanille et lavande avec violettes confittes". It all sounded very French, very difficult and very complicated but it actually wasn't. With the help of my fellow aspiring soufflé makers and the chef in charge of the class, we accomplished a pretty good dish but I couldn't take the credit for it. I haven't done it all by myself.

So I had to attempt making a soufflé on my own, from start to finish, and the one I've always wanted to try was the classic savory soufflé—the cheese soufflé. I don't know why I've waited this long to attempt it but a few days ago, I thought it was time. I gathered my ingredients, my equipment and my courage and started making the roux, boiling the milk, beating the egg yolks and cheese into my sauce and then whipping the egg whites into a fluffy meringue and incorporating it into the cheesy mixture.

I put my creation in the oven and after thirty minutes I had a soufflé, or did I? My first attempt was somewhat of a failure since it didn't live up to its name, it didn't puff up, but the taste was excellent. Disappointed as I was, I wasn't going to give up that easily. The next day I was going to try again. I did some research on the internet and my cookbooks, figured out what I did wrong the previous day and tried it once more.

This time it was perfect. It puffed up beautifully—even though it took me some time to photograph it so what you see in the photos is a slightly collapsed version of it—and the taste was glorious. Light, fluffy, cheesy, soft, everything a soufflé should be. My very own cheese soufflé!
And then, after I spooned some of it onto a plate, it showed its truly ephemeral nature. Ah, the soufflé...

Three-Cheese Soufflé
Slightly adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking

The secret of a good soufflé is in the whipping of the egg whites. They need to be just right in order to make the soufflé rise. What actually makes the soufflé rise are all the tiny air bubbles that are trapped inside the beaten egg white foam. Those air bubbles expand as the soufflé bakes in the oven, causing it to increase in volume. When you take it out of the oven, the change in temperature causes these bubbles to contract thus making the soufflé collapse. Simple physics.

Some Helpful Tips
—Egg whites that are at room temperature can incorporate more air thus producing a fluffier and more puffed up soufflé. But, it is easier to separate eggs that are cold. So, before you start making the soufflé, take the eggs out of the fridge, separate them, and let them come to room temperature before handling them.
—The bowl you use to beat the egg whites in must be very clean and dry.
—You must not drop any egg yolk (fat) in with the egg whites because it will prevent them from firming.
—You must beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and are shiny.
—Do not overbeat the egg whites because they will become grainy.
—The sauce (base) you make for the soufflé must not be stodgy and pasty but creamy otherwise, once you incorporate the egg whites, the whole mixture will become too dense, thick and heavy and the soufflé will not rise properly.
—You must incorporate first 1/3 of the egg whites into the sauce in order to lighten the mixture up and then fold in the rest carefully, quickly and just until there are no large, unblended patches of egg whites. Do not overfold, otherwise you are going to deflate the egg whites and your soufflé will not puff up.
—Butter generously the sides of the dish before you add the soufflé mixture and use upward strokes when you apply the butter with the pastry brush.
—Once your soufflé is in the oven, do not open the oven door. Any fluctuation in temperature will cause your soufflé to deflate. You haven't done all this work for nothing, right?
—You need a specific type of mold/dish to bake your soufflé in. This must be a porcelain or pyrex round mold that is high sided. If you use a wide and shallow dish, your soufflé will not cook properly and will not rise.

This soufflé, served with a green salad, makes a wonderful main-course dish but you can also serve it as a side or first dish.

Yield: 4 main-course or 6 first/side-dish servings

55 g unsalted butter plus 10 g (softened) for buttering the dish
35 g all-purpose flour
240 ml milk, full-fat
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of cayenne pepper
A pinch of nutmeg
4 large egg yolks
5 large egg whites
90 g Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
20 g mature Cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
10 g Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Special equipment: 6-cup soufflé dish (18 cm in diameter, 8.5 cm height), hand-held mixer

Butter generously (with the 10 g of butter) the bottom and sides of the soufflé dish using upward strokes. Sprinkle half of the Parmesan cheese inside the dish to lightly cover it and then tap out the excess. Gather the excess cheese and put it with the rest of the Parmesan.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius and position the rack in the middle of the oven.

In a small saucepan, add the milk and bring it to the boil.
In a medium saucepan, add the butter (the 55 g) and melt over medium heat. When it starts to foam, add the flour and stir continuously with a wooden spoon. This mixture is called a "roux". When the roux starts to foam, after about 1 ½ minutes, remove the saucepan from the heat. Be careful not to burn the roux. It should not brown at all.
Let it stand for 1 minute, then add the boiling milk and, using a wire whisk, beat vigorously until blended. There shouldn't be any lumps. Add the salt, the black and cayenne pepper and the nutmeg and beat again.
Return the saucepan to the heat (medium-high heat) and continue to whisk the sauce until it comes to the boil. You will now have a very thick sauce.
Remove from the heat and start adding one egg yolk at a time, whisking continuously after each addition. After you have beaten in all four egg yolks, put saucepan aside. This is now the base of your soufflé.

In a large stainless steel bowl, add all the egg whites with a pinch of salt and start beating them with the hand-held mixer. Start by beating at low speed until the egg whites start to foam and then continue to beat at high speed until you have stiff peaks and the egg whites are shiny.

Empty the sauce (which must be lukewarm by now) in a large bowl and add 1/3 of the whipped egg whites to lighten the soufflé base. Using a wire whisk, blend the egg whites into the sauce. Add the Gruyère and Cheddar cheese to the mixture and whisk gently. Empty the rest of the egg whites into the mixture and, using a rubber spatula, fold them in carefully but quickly so that they don't lose the incorporated air. It's ok if there are small patches of unblended egg whites in there. The point is not to overmix thus deflating the egg whites.

Transfer the batter to the prepared soufflé dish and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese. Place the dish in the middle rack of the oven and turn the temperature of the oven immediately down to 190 degrees Celsius. Let the soufflé bake for 25-30 minutes until it puffs up and becomes golden brown on top. Do not open the oven door before that.

Once ready, take it out of the oven and serve immediately because it will soon collapse.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Say cheese

My mom is responsible for my love of cheese. When I was little, we would go shopping together at the local deli where our first stop would always be in front of the cheese counter. The heady smell of cheese made me dizzy and I'd tug her dress so we could move on to the more interesting counters where chocolate and cakes were displayed.

But no, she wouldn't give in. She'd sample every cheese that struck her fancy, from the Cretan kefalograviera to the Italian provolone and from the Greek mizithra to the French roquefort, making remarks about their acidity and creaminess to the owner of the deli.

As her culinary travel ended, she'd get three-four different kinds of cheese and we'd move over to the cold cuts counter and then on to the sweets. That's where I would go crazy; I'd glue my little face and hands to the glass, marveling at the view of candy and I'd ask her to buy me every single chocolate I laid my eyes on. Again, she wouldn't give in. She'd buy me a milk chocolate bar, my favorite kind, and that was it.

We would then stop by our greengrocer's for fresh fruit and vegetables and by the neighborhood bakery to get a couple of big loaves of crusty bread that I had the task of carrying all the way to our house. The bag always seemed so heavy to me but I was rewarded by the smell of fresh bread creeping out of the bag, enveloping my nostrils.

When we'd get home, a treat was in store for me. My mom would hastily put most of the stuff we had bought away in the cupboards and fridge and would ask me to go sit at the kitchen table. She'd bring the butter along with one or two different types of cheese and she'd break open the still warm bread loaf with her hands. She'd slather some butter on a piece of bread and then... then it was time for the cheese.

Sometimes she'd choose a hard cheese, which would be neatly placed on top of the buttered chunks of bread and other times she'd fancy a soft cheese, like Roquefort, and she'd spread it thickly on top of the bread, creating a perfect amalgam of creamy cheese and rich butter. She would then urge me to have a taste; a taste which I don't remember ever resisting.

The taste of Roquefort; I loved its saltiness and the tanginess I felt at the top of my mouth after a single bite. I loved its green and blue-colored wrinkled holes appearing inside the creamy off white of the rest of the cheese. I loved the smell that would hit me the moment I'd bring the Roquefort-smeared piece of bread near my mouth and the longing for a cold glass of milk afterward. I loved Roquefort almost as much as my mom loved it and you know what? I still do; as does she.

I sneak it anywhere I can, anywhere I can afford it won't be traced by S who, is not a great fan of blue cheese. I sneak it into tarts (like this one), pies, pizzas, grilled stuffed chicken breasts and steak sauces, and even though I can't say I'm artful enough to sneak it into a salad, still, I take my chances. And guess what? In this particular salad, it actually worked. S, despite noticing its obvious presence, loved it.

It's not a complicated salad but rather a simple, straightforward one, as all good salads should be. Slightly bitter Belgian and red endive, crisp apple, earthy walnuts, the almighty Roquefort and a vinaigrette that's made in heaven with raspberry vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard and honey.

Paired just with fresh, crusty bread, you have lunch. Paired with a big juicy steak, you have dinner. Serve it as part of a large festive meal or a casual dinner with friends along with a bottle of Cabernet-Sauvignon. Take it to the office with you for a light lunch. The possibilities for a salad of this kind are endless and you can definitely change it up by using pears instead of apples or hazelnuts instead of walnuts.

Speaking of changing things up, I got an uncontrollable urge the other day to change the banner of my blog. I played around with some ideas and some photographs I had taken and I came up with this. I really like it. It brightens up the place, don't you think?

Endive Salad with Apples, Walnuts and Roquefort Cheese with Raspberry Vinaigrette

I used Gala apples, which I love, because of their sweet and mild taste but also because they are crisp and firm and have a thin skin. You can certainly use any other type of apple you enjoy eating in salads, as long as it's slightly sweet rather than tart.

Choose Belgian endives with yellow colored tips rather than green because they taste less bitter.

In case you can't find raspberry vinegar, you can use red wine vinegar to make the vinaigrette. It won't be called raspberry vinaigrette anymore but it will taste fantastic.

Yield: 6 salad course servings or 4 main course servings


for salad
2 heads Belgian endive, around 170 g each
2 heads red endive, around 120 g each
2 Gala apples, around 160 g each
60 g walnuts, roughly chopped
100 g Roquefort cheese

for raspberry vinaigrette
35 ml raspberry vinegar
130 ml extra virgin olive oil
1 heaped tsp honey
2 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


for salad
Cut the stems off of the Belgian and red endives, separate the leaves and rinse them under running water. Cut each leaf in half lengthwise.

Rinse and cut each apple into 16 wedges without removing the skin.

for raspberry vinaigrette
In a medium-sized bowl, add the vinegar, olive oil, honey and mustard and whisk well until the ingredients emulsify.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

assemble the salad
Arrange the endive leaves on a big platter and top with the apple wedges. Sprinkle with the chopped walnuts and crumble the Roquefort cheese on top. Using a spoon, dress the salad with the vinaigrette.
Serve immediately. Place the rest of the vinaigrette in a small bowl in case anyone wants to add more on their salad.

You can make the vinaigrette one day ahead and store it in the fridge, covered with cling film.