Friday, February 25, 2011

finally, the story of the mad italian chef

I have never ordered soufflé in a restaurant.

Most restaurants that do soufflés are in the price range that puts them in the “dinner out with family on special occasions” category. Even when I can persuade my mother of the merits of dessert, there's no way that my father would ever agree to wait the required thirty minutes. Soufflés are usually made to serve two, so even when I splurge on dinner out alone, it’s too much dessert to eat by myself. Finally, it does seem a bit silly to pay for something I can whip up pretty easily at home.

But I’ve eaten soufflé in a restaurant – as long as a restaurant kitchen counts.

I spent a summer as a stagiaire in the pastry kitchen and garde-manger of a big hotel in Hong Kong. The summer after that, I had a rotation in the hotel’s Italian restaurant. 

The dessert menu at the Italian restaurant was notable for its white chocolate soufflé, an enormous, airy golden cloud that came with four different sauces. Not a choice of different sauces, but a silver salver with four gleaming silver sauceboats: chocolate, vanilla creme anglaise, raspberry, and orange, presented for the diner to dress the soufflé to taste.

I watched waiters carry soufflés out to the dining room. Sometimes I was tasked with filling the sauceboats. Then I met the Mad Italian Chef.

The Mad Italian Chef had been brought in to make changes to the food after the hotel decided to renovate the Italian restaurant. While the managers and bigwigs met with architects and discussed color schemes, draperies, and furniture, the Mad Italian Chef was on a mission to overhaul the menu. He embarked on a recipe-development spree almost immediately upon his arrival.

Two things became rapidly evident: one, he needed an assistant he could send on scavenger hunts in the other hotel kitchens for ingredients, and two, he needed an editor to proofread his menu proposals. Given that my sole fixed job duty consisted of scraping enough asparagus for each day’s lunch and dinner service, both assignments fell to me.

The Mad Italian Chef was glad enough to have a kitchen minion to send on quests for baking soda or maple syrup, and grateful that he could leave the task of correcting his typos to someone else, but he kept our interactions polite and perfunctory.  This wasn't a surprise. Chefs don’t usually devote much time or attention to stagiaires unless they screw up. 

During the course of one particularly mad ingredient goose chase, however, it came out that I’d spent a semester abroad in Rome. Suddenly, I had the Mad Italian Chef’s attention. His spoken English wasn’t much better than that of his Cantonese sous-chefs, and he was delighted to have a kitchen minion he could yell at in his native tongue.

So, in addition to scraping asparagus, chasing down ingredients, and correcting typos in menu proposals, I spent the summer as a general assistant to the Mad Italian Chef. I lent a hand during recipe testing, took notes during menu planning, and kept track of the toque he had a habit of misplacing. 

The Mad Italian Chef had a temper, but he also had a merry impulsive streak. He took a shine to a dinner guest, and I watched him whip up an off-the-menu concoction with vin santo zabaglione and fresh berries as a complimentary dessert. He put bellinis on the menu for a bigwig's dinner party and roped everyone into peeling white peaches for puree. By the time he decided on the exact proportions of puree to liqueur to prosecco, the multiple rounds of taste-testing had made the entire kitchen crew tipsy. 

During one dinner service on a slow night, he disappeared to the pastry station and when he reappeared some time later, he had the dessert chef in tow. Between them, they carried two white chocolate soufflés and a salver of sauceboats. 

The dessert chef set these soufflés in all their airy, golden glory on the counter. The Mad Italian Chef set down the salver. Producing two spoons from his jacket pocket, he pushed one of the soufflés towards me and told me to dig in before it deflated.

It was delicious, and the sheer unexpected delight of eating a soufflé too big for me to finish – right in the middle of dinner service (!) – carried me all the way through the next day’s wild goose chase.

No surprise, then, that I wanted to come up with a white chocolate soufflé of my own. I know the dessert chef at the Italian restaurant used a roux base for his soufflé, but I like the simplicity of eggs, sugar, and chocolate. My version is a little on the eggy side, but the texture is light and creamy, and the white chocolate flavor really shines through. 

I think it's pretty impressive, even without the sauceboats.

White Chocolate Soufflé

(Recipe not for one. Soufflés don’t keep.)

Prep first. Get out two big bowls and one big balloon whisk or electric mixer. Wash everything in hot soapy water and dry thoroughly.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Butter and sugar a soufflé dish.

Separate eight eggs. Put four of the yolks in one bowl; put all eight whites in the other. (Leftover yolks can be used for pasta or mayonnaise.)

Add two tablespoons of sugar to the bowl of egg yolks. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, or transfer the mixture to a heavy-bottomed saucepan set over very low heat. Whisk steadily until the mixture thickens to custard. Stop when the whisk starts to leave trails in the mixture.

Working quickly, stir in six ounces of finely chopped white chocolate, an ounce or two at a time, until the mixture is thick and almost taffy-like in stickiness.

Add two tablespoons of sugar to the bowl of egg whites and beat until stiff. (You should be able to tilt the bowl without the egg whites sliding.)

Gently fold a little of the egg white into the mixture to lighten it, then fold in half the remaining mixture, and then the rest. Spoon the mixture into the soufflé dish.

Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until the soufflé is light and risen, but still wobbly in the middle. Carve out portions with a big spoon. Serve immediately. Raspberry coulis is a nice accompaniment.


Dolly said...

Holy shit...that's off the hook.

adele said...

Dolly - It's a great dinner party dessert!

Cakelaw said...

What a great story! And a white chocolate souffle sounds devine - it certainly looks it.

~~louise~~ said...

Impressive indeed!

What a great story and experience Adele. I wouldn't even attempt such a feat.

Thanks for sharing...

adele said...

Louise - Souffles aren't that tricky, I swear. A chocolate souffle is just a flourless cake with a bad attitude!