Tuesday, March 9, 2010

the souffle challenge

squash souffle, taleggio and mushroom crostini and lemon buttered green beans

I am often disappointed with the lighting when I take my food photos, but am always too hungry to do much to fix it. This picture, however, I'm perfectly happy with. I love the way the bright green beans pop against the darker green plate, and I find the contrast between the orange souffle and the deep blue ceramic bowl quite striking. My dad would be proud of the plate's well balanced color palate, and for once I've taken a photo that looks as delicious as the meal actually was.

This particular meal was comprised of three things: squash souffle, lemon buttered green beans, and Taleggio porcini and cremini mushroom crostini. I made the souffle back in late December in a bout of culinary ambition. I filled four ramekins, but since I was cooking for myself that night, three of them wound up in the freezer and were woefully ignored until President's Day. Grace invited Marc and me to the New York Historical Society, which was free for the week, and afterward they came by the new apartment for dinner. With almost nothing in the house, it was souffle to the rescue!

Before going out, I had the foresight to take the souffles out of the freezer, but I didn't know what else I was going to serve. On our way back from the museum, we stopped at Fairway, where some beautiful fresh green beans cried out to me. I also picked up some cremini mushrooms, remembering I had Taleggio cheese and dried porcinis at home and could easily recreate the mushroom pizza that was such a hit at my earlier party. Grace rounded things out with some AMAZING espresso cookie ice cream from the SoCo Creamery.

When it came to preparing the green beans, I cooked them quickly in the frying pan with some melted butter, garlic, salt, pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice. I also sprinkled on a little Romano cheese. So fresh and light and tasty. How vegetables are meant to be eaten.

As for the mushroom dish, I came up with this Mario Batali gem while looking for some good ingredients to pair with my porcinis. This time, I would take the same basic idea and use it as a topping for the fresh Italian bread Marc's grandma had given him. Either way you go, preparing this topping is super easy and the end result is divinely delicious!

Simply saute garlic and shallots or onions in hot olive oil, and then add the sliced mushrooms. You also throw in and cook off the mushroom soaking water leftover from rehydrating the dried porcinis, some fresh thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Put your mushroom mix on pizza or Italian bread slices, sprinkle with Taleggio cheese, and pop those suckers into the oven or toaster oven until everything becomes melty delicious. Top off with a little grated Romano and some fresh ground pepper and you're in for a treat. This makes for a great pizza, but the crostini is even easier!

I do have a few notes to add: Mario cooks the porcinis before the fresh creminis, but I think I reversed the steps with no ill effects. He adds a pinch of chili flakes, but I skipped those and didn't miss them. He also recommends boiling water and 30 minutes of soaking for rehydrating dried mushrooms, not to mentions straining everything with a cheesecloth to get rid of the grit and dirt... In my opinion that's a lot more work than necessary. I've found that hot tap water and ten minutes work just fine. If you just pour the soaking liquid super slowly, any grit will stay at the bottom of the bowl and you'll be fine!

As delicious and tasty as the green beans and crostini were, the most dominant component of the meal was certainly the aforementioned souffle. Despite having a reputation for being extremely difficult to prepare, this souffle recipe seemed fairly straightforward, and I was really excited to make it. I had read all about how great organic eggs were for souffles, and I had just gotten some from my food co-op. With organic milk and squash, this seemed to be the perfect recipe for me— I even had Swiss cheese in the fridge! Unfortunately, I did have two major difficulties with the dish, which took me many hours to complete. I wish I could tell you that you'll learn from my mistakes, but I'm still not entirely sure how to work out this souffle thing.

That being said, the whole thing starts off relatively easily. I cut the squash in half, (it looked like acorn squash, but you can't always tell exact variety when it comes to food co-op offerings), scraped out the seeds, and salt peppered it, spreading on a little butter. Normally, I'd bake it, but I took a short cut and microwaved it face down, which worked perfectly. I scraped out the shells and pureed the flesh with my handy dandy immersion blender.

Then I started a roux by melting butter and cooking it with a few spoonfuls of flour. When you're making a roux, you want to keep stirring it to make sure it doesn't get burned. As I've mentioned before, this recipe could easily be gluten free if you used some gluten free flour in this step. After a few minutes, I added some whole milk and cooked that until it thickened, continuing to stir. Then I mixed in the squash, grated Swiss, brown sugar, salt, cayenne, and nutmeg. After I took it off the heat, I added the three egg yolks. At this point, I thought I was good to go.

Then came the egg whites. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, attempt to whip eggs whites with an immersion blender. As all around useful and handy as this machine is, this is one area where it straight up fails to perform. At this point, I was reduced to whisking the little shits by hand, which was quite possibly the most frustrating thing I've ever done. After at least a half hour, I abandoned my original batch of egg whites, and started afresh with grocery store eggs that had been sitting the fridge for weeks. These whipped right up, forming stiff peaks even with me doing it by hand. Organic eggs would have been nice, but they were just too fresh for me to whip by hand. If possible, use old eggs, an electric mixer, and definitely don't let any water or yolk contaminate your egg whites, and you should avoid the frustration I experienced.

With that battle won, I folded in my egg whites into the batter in two separate batches. Apparently this makes a difference when it comes to lightness and airiness. I just do what I'm told. At this point, you're ready to put your souffle in a nice ramekin and bake the sucker. I followed the online wisdom for souffles and cheesecakes and cooked it in a water bath, which is supposed to cook it more evenly and keep it from cracking. All that entails is filling a larger pan with an inch of water, and then placing your souffle dishes in the bath to bake. I don't know if it works, but I do know that my souffles all took FOREVER to cook, which brings me to my second problem, which I am still stumped by.

If you have any tips on how to ensure that a souffle is cooked all the way through, I'd love to hear them. The temperature on my old oven was always a wild card, and while the souffle I baked there rose beautifully, it was still quite wet inside when I impatiently bit in. The souffles I defrosted must have been a bit waterlogged, because they barely rose at all. In the future I'd probably add the whipped egg whites after defrosting the batter to avoid this problem. Aside from that I managed to get them cook almost all the way through, but the blue ramekin pictured is deeper than the other ones I used, so it was still a touch underdone. This wasn't terrible, but it certainly was frustrating. How do you test for doneness without deflating the thing? Tricky tricky.

Anyway, these problems aside, the squash and cheese and brown sugar made for a delicious combo. This is a damn tasty recipe, but I think that a really well cooked souffle calls for a little bit of practice! However, I still think Grace and Marc enjoyed their dinner, and it probably didn't hurt that I ate the most underdone of the three souffles. It was just so great to have them over and to cook for them without worrying about tiptoeing around crazy people. We just relaxed and watched the Olympics with Laura and Taylor and had SO MUCH FUN. In conclusion, I love living in a reasonably accessible part of the city.

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