Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"do we need a blow torch for this?"

For our first official "challenge," we decided to make something new and, well, challenging. So why not a cheese soufflé? It’s French, and if Julie and Julia taught us anything, it’s that everything is harder in French. Mark Bittman provided the recipe. Read his recipe and and our interpretations of it below.

cheese s
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: About 1 hour

An easy but impressive and delicious dish. Make one large
soufflé or or make 4 to 6 individual soufflés in 1 1/2- to 2-cup ramekins; the cooking time may be reduced by as much as half with the smaller dishes.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups milk, warmed to the touch (about a minute in an average microwave)

6 eggs, separated

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Dash cayenne or 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup grated or crumbled cheddar, Jack, Roquefort, Emmental, and/or other cheese

Use a bit of the butter to grease a 2-quart soufflé or other deep baking dish. (Hold off on this step if you're going to delay baking the
soufflés until later.)

Put the remaining butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When the foam subsides, stir in the flour and cook, stirring, until the mixture darkens, about 3 minutes. Turn the heat down to low and and whisk in the milk, a bit at a time, until the mixture is thick. Let cool for a few minutes, then beat in the egg yolks, salt, pepper, cayenne and cheeses. (You can prepare this base a few hours in advance of cooking; cover tightly and refrigerate; bring back to room temperature before continuing.)

About an hour before you're ready to cook, preheat the oven to 375°F. Use an electric or hand mixer or a whisk to beat the egg whites until fairly stiff. Stir about a third into the base to lighten it, then gently - and not overthoroughly - fold in the remaining whites, using a rubber spatula or your hand. Transfer to the prepared dish and bake until the top is brown, the sides are firm, and the center is still quite moist, about 30 minutes. Use a thin skewer to check the interior; if it is still quite wet, bake for another 5 minutes. If it is just a bit moist, the
soufflé is done. Serve immediately.

(Above photos l to r: Kate's first soufflé; Kristen's first soufflé)

kate (brooklyn)

"Do you need a blowtorch for that?" Yes, those words were part of the phone conversation I had with Kristen last weekend in regards to this post.

A soufflé. Two things come to my mind when I hear that word: French and puffy. I don’t usually bake things that have anything to do with those words. Cooking French food intimates me and the last puffy thing I made was a microwave s'more in the teachers lounge at the school where I work. I put the chocolate and marshmallow on a graham cracker and watched the marshmallow expand to about ten times its normal size and then become as hard as a rock. I figured that was about as close to a soufflé as I’ve ever been.

So when Kristen suggested that we try a soufflé, I was all for it. It was something new and challenging. As far as the blowtorch comment, I saw one advertised online at Crate and Barrel in my search for a soufflé dish in that little "you might also like..." box at the bottom. Luckily, we didn’t need one – however I do have a little bit of welding experience and would’ve felt comfortable making a puffy cheese sculpture with one.

I had no problem finding a soufflé dish. There are two great kitchen stores in my neighborhood like The Brooklyn Kitchen and Whisk as well as many chain stores in the city like Crate and Barrel and Sur la Table. I ended up meeting my friend, Abby, in SoHo one night after work last week at C & B, where we found the soufflé dish and then, realizing how all this food talk was making us hungry, proceeded to get margaritas and dinner at Spring Street Natural.

Saturday rolled around. I had a few of the ingredients in the fridge, but needed a couple more things. We also did not have much else to eat in our place, so I talked my husband into going to Trader Joe’s in Union Square to do the rest of the shopping for the week. Trader Joe’s seems to have the best prices when it comes down to buying a lot of food at once. Unfortunately, I think most of New York City has also realized this by now, as well.

We arrived at Trader Joe’s around 11 am and already the line was stretched around the store (at least there wasn’t a line to get into the store – I’ve never gone in when that happens). Branden and I usually tag-team our shopping experience there: one of us will wait in line and grab things on the edge of the store while the other will go up and down the aisles. I think we were in line for at least 45 minutes, which is probably the longest I’ve ever waited there.

The store was also missing a lot of items – about 90 percent of the bread was gone. I got into a conversation with the couple behind me who wanted to know if the store was closing, as it looked like a clearance sale had happened on some of the shelves. I remarked that maybe everyone was stocking up for the big blizzard headed our way (which only left a dusting).

Anyway, we made it around the store, past the greens, the empty bread shelves, the meat, and finally the dairy. Even got a snack cup from the sample table filled with TJ’s trail mix about half-way – I thought it was pretty thoughtful of them to help keep our energy up while we waited. We paid and hauled 4 big, heavy bags out of the store, got on the L, and headed home. It takes us about 10-15 minutes to walk home from the train. I don’t mind the walk, except during times like this where I’m carrying (what feels like) close to my body-weight in groceries.

I prepped everything ahead of time and made sure the recipe was posted in a place where I could see. (I don’t have the cookbook we used for this recipe – Kristen was nice to scan it for me). I have to admit, though, I think if I ever write a cookbook I would make the font a lot bigger and have more visuals.

Everything seemed to go well (I did drop the butter on the floor and after trying to cut off the fuzz and gross-ness from the floor I gave up and just put out the other half) up to the part where the egg whites are beaten. I also (like Kristen) was worried about over-beating them and don’t think they were as stiff as they should have been.

I put the souffl
é in the oven, poured myself a glass of wine, and waited for half and hour. It had definitely risen, but the center was still wet. Branden joined me in the kitchen and we waited together. After about 3 more 5-minute intervals, the soufflé was done in the center and had risen a little above the dish. I considered it a success for a first soufflé.

We carried it to the table and I took some photos, as it slowly sank. We cut and served and ate. It was really good and had the right balance of cheese and herbs (chives and thyme). Who knows how high a soufflé is actually supposed to rise; what matters most to me is the way it tastes.

(Kate's photos above l to r: Reading the recipe; Branden and thyme)

kristen (beacon)

The whole idea of the soufflé has forever intimidated me. I’m not exactly sure why: The shi shi French name? The very specific ceramic dish? The oh so important rise? Who knows? What I do know is that I have avoided them like the plague, but if I wanted to broaden my culinary horizons, I knew I had to try making one.

When Kate and I decided to start this blog, I knew immediately that the basic cheese soufflé should be our first challenge. A risky adventure like that was sure to bring some interesting results to compare. And what an adventure it was.

First thing I learned: Soufflé dishes are nearly impossible to find in the Hudson Valley. Considering that we are so close to the Culinary Institute of America, you’d think our kitchen stores would be better stocked. But half a dozen stores later, all I had found were a bunch of blank stares. (More than once I pointed to a ramekin and explained, “It’s like that, but bigger.”) Finally, PJ reminded me of a new gourmet kitchen store in Rhinebeck, Blue Cashew, which is about an hour north of Beacon. Sure enough, they were well stocked and happily claimed to “have a lot of things you can’t find anywhere else in the Valley.” Whew, thank goodness.

Soufflé dish in tow, I shopped for the rest of my ingredients at Adam’s Fairacre Farms in Newburgh. Adam’s is a mini-chain in the Hudson Valley that is chock full of local and hard-to-find ingredients. We still don’t have Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, but thanks to Adams we can almost always find what we need. I stocked up on Ronnybrook Farm Creamline Milk (Ronnybrook is located just north of Beacon in Ancramdale), Gruyere and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses (ok, not exactly local), and thyme (not fresh, but heck, it’s the middle of February). Tim Heuer, the head farmer at our CSA (Common Ground Farm) had given us a dozen fresh eggs from his chickens earlier in the week, and I thought they would also be perfect.

I was so nervous about making the soufflé that I procrastinated as much as possible. I carefully laid out and rearranged my ingredients several times. I watched a video of Julia Child making a soufflé to see if I could pick up any last-minute tricks that Mark Bittman may have left out (like the “foil collar” and lining the buttered dish with leftover cheese for a crispy, savory crust). Finally, I took a deep breath and dove in.

The béchamel base turned out well enough, but I think my first misstep was with the egg whites. I was so terrified of overbeating that I think I may have actually underbeat them. Mark Bittman suggests using one hand to fold the whites into the béchamel, but I may have done this too vigorously. Finally, I think I may have adhered the foil collar too high on the dish.

The result? A soufflé that didn’t even rise over the top of the dish, and wasn’t the least bit pretty.

But then I remembered we still got to eat it! I kept my fingers crossed that it would be delicious. And it was. Gloriously, it was. Light and airy (for the most part), savory, and as PJ remarked, “It’s like eating a warm, cheesy cloud.” Oh la la.

I still don’t know exactly why the soufflé didn’t rise as much as it should have, but I look forward to making many more in the future to improve my technique. Besides, since I clearly own one of the only soufflé dishes in the Hudson Valley, I owe it to my hometown to crank out as many of these as possible. I’m sure that’s what Mark and Julia would have wanted.

(Kristen's photos above l to r: The ingredients; The first bite)

View more of our soufflé photos on Flickr.

Monday, February 8, 2010


kate (brooklyn)

Chocolate is my weakness, my first true love; a powerful force in my life. I always considered myself more of a baker than a cook, as the kitchen would usually end up in chaos and stickiness after I attempted to make something new. My mother or grandmother always saved me a spoon to lick or better yet, the bowl. To this day, it's one part of baking that I secretly look forward to. Whether it was in my little Easy Bake Oven or making a late-night treat in our apartment, I just couldn’t say no.

I also couldn’t imagine my life without pizza. Yes, I know it might sound silly. But I have so much love for a good pizza. Maybe it's also the memories that involve a good pie. Saturday night had always been our family pizza night growing up. I remember, as a young child, waiting for my dad to come back with a fresh pie from Little Nippers while I sat at my little miniature wooden table in our living room watching Solid Gold. My culinary (well, pizza-making) skills grew in high school after we moved from Pittsburgh to Columbia, South Carolina, and realized that there were no good pizza shops. One night, after a terrible pizza experience from a local place (we found a gigantic roach baked into the cheese), we decided to start making our own. We bought a pizza stone and went to the grocery store every Saturday morning to find fresh ingredients. We each got to make our own pies (as my sister has never liked cheese) and threw the dough high in the air (whether they landed across the room or not).

Over the next couple of years, as I left home and went to college and moved to and from various places, I met people who changed the way I will forever think about food. My cousin, Cindi, showed me the warmth that a good meal brings when it's enjoyed around family and friends and my then-to-be husband, Branden, showed me that healthy eating doesn't have to be boring and actually tastes and makes you feel good. I feel like I carry little bits of these people into the kitchen with me whenever I embark on a new recipe or setting up the table for a dinner with friends.

I know it’s not always easy or practical to sit down to a big meal or to find something healthy or good to eat. The other day I accidentally brought a foil-wrapped package of bacon with me to work (thinking it was a left-over slice of pizza). I had just returned from taking a group of 6 and 7 year olds on a field trip to MoMA and had only 5 minutes before my next class. Starving and annoyed, I microwaved two pieces and ate them so I wouldn’t pass out while I worked on papier-mâché samurai helmets with a group of 8-year-old boys.

However, when I do have time, it’s one of the ways I love to bring the people who are important to me together. Cooking is a way I show love. It’s also something special I do for myself. I love cranking up the music in the kitchen and singing along while I chop or stir. It’s like my own little choreography. I don’t always have the time to cook…it takes a lot of work: you have to plan and take the time to shop and clean up after you’re done. Things usually don't go as planned...but that makes the kitchen exciting and fun.

I hope to have more adventures in the kitchen and beyond while writing this blog with Kristen and dive into the experiences that food brings to me and the people I care about. After all, what is the point of a good meal if you can't share it with anyone?

(Kate's photos l to r: Tearing apart the kitchen with my dad; Getting ready to eat a lobster in Maine last summer)

kristen (beacon)

Mushrooms! I woke up with a start in the middle of the night recently and realized I am head over heels in love with these things I've wanted nothing to do with for as long as I can remember. Nothing about mushrooms was ever appealing to me. Then, I tasted fresh ones. Not from a can. Or a jar. Not slimy or flavorless. But earthy and nutty and rich. And everything changed.

Little breakthroughs like that are happening more and more often and are quickly becoming the theme of my evolution from picky and timid eater, to open-minded and eager culinary adventurer.

Food used to exist in my world solely as a means of sustenance. I didn’t give it much thought, and certainly didn’t think much about where it came from. For a few years in high school, I only ate carrots for lunch. During my first year in New York City when I worked in a restaurant and barely had enough money to even get to work, the dinner rolls I would swipe from the restaurant’s kitchen would often be the only food I would eat all day. I didn’t even know how to brew a pot of coffee, much less make a healthy, satisfying meal for myself.

And then I met PJ. On one of our first dates, he made an onion frittata for me. I had no idea what a frittata was; all I knew was that it tasted like a little bit of heaven. On another date, he made risotto with watercress and green grapes. Swoon! Then, honest-to-goodness biscuits, cut with a Mason jar and baked in a cast iron skillet. They tasted just like South Carolina. Those were just the first of many palate-changing meals PJ cooked for me. Finally, one snowy New York City night, I worked up the nerve to cook for him. I made the only dish I had a recipe for: my mom’s hearty vegetable soup. The simple act of cooking for myself, and him, was extraordinarily satisfying. For the first time, I felt like an adult, because that soup had not come from a can. I was hooked. He, and food, won my heart.

With this blog, I hope to continue that journey I began all those years ago with the vegetable soup. Perhaps Kate and I will finally learn how to use chopsticks and develop a taste for Brussels sprouts. If I can fall in love with mushrooms, anything is possible.

(Kristen's photos l to r: Feeding my baby brother, Ryan; Picking blackberries at Fishkill Farms near Beacon)