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Chocolate soufflé and personal growth

by Brian Clarey

“But Daddy,” he says from his perch on the counter. He’s been doing this thing where he starts all his sentences with that particular contrastive conjunction.

“But Daddy,” he says, “I hate eggs.”

He doesn’t hate eggs. He ate one for breakfast this morning. But he does like to say that he hates things. It’s a part of this 4-year-old phase he’s going through. According to him, he hates everything. Except for the things he loves.

“But Daddy,” he had said earlier, while we were driving to the grocery store, “I love nachos.”

I promised to make him nachos with nothing on them but cheese, just the way he likes them. Then I told him my plan.

“I’m going to make something I’ve never made before,” I said. “I’m gonna make a soufflé today.”

He considers this.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he says. “But Daddy, I’ve never been to Taco Bell before.”

He has been to Taco Bell before.

My lack of formal culinary training and limited kitchen hardware situation places me firmly in the category of “earnest tinkerer” when it come to cooking – I’ve got the rudiments covered okay and I’ll occasionally try something fancy with a double boiler or maybe some parchment paper. But if recipes were classified like ski runs, I’d be a strictly blue square guy.

A soufflé is a black diamond kind of dish – a mixture of custard and meringue that through technique and chemistry should mushroom as it bakes into a soft, fluffy dome. It comes from the French verb souffler, to whisper, and this chocolate soufflé I’m planning has been breathing its airy mystery into my ear for days now.

“It’s French.” I tell the boy on my kitchen counter.

He shrugs. He wants nachos.

I butter and sugar the soufflé dish and construct a foil collar, wrap it around the dish after smearing it with butter and sugar as well. I separate egg yolk from white, flour the yolks and beat them into a custard base with milk and sugar. I heat the whole thing and move it to a side dish when it thickens.

I finagle three more egg whites and whip them with sugar and salt until they meringue, forming soft peaks that slowly settle into the froth. I fold the two factions together and spoon the mixture lightly into the soufflé dish, which then goes into the refrigerator for half an hour.

I say this all the time: Baking is the most difficult form of culinary expression, relying solely on the sweet end of the palate’s spectrum of tastes and complex chemical reactions to affect texture and form. And I generally don’t mess with desserts – I’m a main course kind of guy. But it’s good to get out of the comfort zone for a bit, good for one’s grasp to exceed one’s reach, good to have a nice chocolate soufflé to eat on a Sunday evening.

Half an hour or so later the mixture is nice and cold. The oven is good and hot. I carefully slide the dish into the glowing compartment.

My wife says that when she was growing up in Colorado, her soufflés would rise impossibly high due to low air pressure. All I’m hoping for out of my modest effort is a couple inches of lift, enough to engage the buttered and sugared foil collar, and that the thunderous antics of the 4-year-old and his siblings don’t cause it to collapse like a carnival tent after the last fried pie has been sold.

Fifteen minutes in there’s no discernible rise in my soufflé. I get panicky. Was the meringue stiff enough? The custard cold enough? The oven hot enough? Did I screw up the foil collar somehow?

No, 30 minutes in the surface is rising unevenly and after 10 more, when the center holds together, I pull it, dust it with powdered sugar and spoon a heap into a bowl for my boy.

“It’s burning hot, Daddy!” he says. “Burning!”

He eats it anyway.

“Is it good?” I want to know. “”Is it better than nachos?”

He nods.

“This soufflé rocks.”

Indeed.

To comment on this story e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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