I wasn't a voracious eater as a kid, but I was a voracious reader. I read books and stories, but also read street signs, cereal boxes, magazines, billboards and ketchup labels. And cookbooks, like my mother's Joy of Cooking. I read them like they were storybooks. Each recipe told a tale -- the ingredients were the characters, the preparation was the plot. Each recipe was a total, page-turning thrill.
Take beating egg whites - could the slimy, transparent stuff at the bottom of the bowl really whip up into something huge, white and fluffy? And how could the egg whites lift and rescue the cheese sauce for the soufflé? Would they all live happily ever after? No way! It would all go wrong!
The mysteries of what happened in the kitchen had to be plumbed. I pattered around my mother when she made dinner. I watched. I stuck my finger in things (sorry, mom). I got under foot. For my fifth birthday, she and my dad staged an intervention -- they gave me a Suzy Homemaker Easy Bake Oven. The name alone is so incredibly offensive and off-putting, but I didn't know, and who cared? What a thrill! This was supposed to be a real oven only kid-sized! Ah, the first of many disappointments on the road of life. In fact, it turned out to be little more than a box with an interior light bulb. In terms of cooking, it did nothing. Bake dinner in it? Don't make me laugh (even as a kid, I was a tough sell). I quickly moved on to the real deal.
I couldn't take a cheese soufflé on faith alone. I had to find out first-hand. I made my first one - cheddar-- when I was nine. And wow -- the egg whites really whipped. The soufflé really did rise. Happy ending! And a terrific lunch, too -- fluffy and herby with plenty of cheese appeal. By the time I was ten, I was a soufflé pro and birthday gifts included a souffle dish, an apron and a set of whisks. In other words, my family fed my addiction.
My hunger wasn't for food but for cookbooks and recipes. I was insatiable and nothing was off-limits. No one told me one cuisine was better than another (because they aren't), so I studied them all and came to realize there's truth to that irritating Walt Disney song -- it's a small world, after all. Chinese dim sum dumplings are very close to Russian pierogi. Romanian mamaliga, Italian polenta and Mexican tamales are cornmeal porridge translated into three different languages. Every cuisine has its own interpretation of chicken soup. In eastern Europe, it's scented with dill while in India, it's spiked with chili and ginger and in Mexico, it features chili and lime. I tried them all.
My family graciously tolerated all my kitchen attempts, which were enthusiastic but not tidy. They dutifully ate all my efforts and never had their stomachs pumped. My father did blister his tongue on my flaming crepes Suzette, necessitating a trip to the emergency room, but that's another story and he says it was worth it.
Cooking is indeed worth it. It needn't be four stars, just sustenance. It's about taking control, self-empowerment, or whatever term moves you. I know what you're saying. "I don't have time to cook." "I hate to cook." "I don't know how to cook." Yes, dear. Try it, anyway. Try to come to it as I did, with the pure enthusiasm of a child. Sure you're older now, but I'm telling you, if kid can do this, so can you.
Flaming crepes aside, I still believe cooking is both basic life skill and magic, plus a great read with a happy ending.
Classic You Can Do It Cheese Soufflé
The idea of making a soufflé often strikes panic in kitchenphobes, but it's little more than scrambled eggs, and as a party piece, it rules. With just a few staple ingredients, you feed four and make magic, too. Think a soufflé isn't manly? The word comes from the French verb souffler -- to blow up.
Two tips: Soufflés need a calm environment to rise. Don't blast your stereo or skip rope in front of your oven and you'll be fine.
Egg whites and yolks must be well and truly separated. Should a speck of yolk infiltrate the egg whites, the egg whites won't whip and expand.
3 eggs, whites and yolks separated
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1 cup grated cheese of choice -- cheddar is nice, also Parmesan
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
dash of cayenne pepper
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350.
Lightly butter and flour a 6-cup soufflé dish. If you don't have one, don't panic or feel you need to invest --- any fairy deep ovenproof 6-cup casserole will do. If it has straight sides, that's a bonus.
Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When melted, add flour and stir. Butter and flour will clump together and bubble. You've just made a roux. Congratulations.
Pour in milk and stir gently for 3 to 5 minutes, until milk thickens. Reduce heat to medium. Stir in egg yolks, grated cheese, mustard, cayenne, salt and pepper until mixture forms a lumpless, creamy, smooth sauce. Turn off heat, remove pot from burner and set aside.
Whip egg whites in a separate bowl. Use an electric mixer, either standing or hand-held, or a wire whisk and your own muscle power (a mixer is easier and quicker, trust me). Whip until egg whites expand, turn fluffy white and stand up in stiff peaks.
Gently fold cheese mixture into egg whites until the two mixtures combine but are still light and fluffy.
Pour into prepared souffllé dish or baking dish. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until soufflé has risen to an impressive golden brown puff. Enjoy at once.
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