Virginia Willis Blog

Rise Up: Setting Goals & Peach Soufflés

NYC and Food52

This week I was in NYC and stopped by to see my friend and colleague Amanda Hesser. Amanda and I were at LaVarenne at the same time in the mid-90s. We were both editorial stagiares for Anne Willan. In school speak, Amanda would have been a “sophomore” when I was a “freshman.” It was great to see her. We also taped a segment for her website food52.

During the interview she asked me what all I did — I responded that everyday is completely different. Some days I am writing an article or testing recipes for a magazine or scheduling a cooking class. Other days I am food-styling for a photo shoot, or perhaps like today, puttering around on my blog. I might be consulting for a corporate client, planning a menu for a fundraising dinner, or working on pre-production for a TV shoot. My days are widely varied and I travel all the time, meeting new people, tasting new dishes, seeing new things. I love it.

Amanda then commented that it seemed I had the perfect food job. It struck me as interesting because last week I answered a series of questions for an interview and the journalist said pretty much the same thing.

Hmm….last I checked I thought Amanda had the perfect food job.

But, you know what? I think we just might share the title.

Open to Possibilities

I’ve been very fortunate regarding my experiences and who’s hired me – Nathalie Dupree, Bobby Flay, Anne Willan, Martha Stewart, Epicurious, Turner Broadcasting….

To be very clear, I am extremely thankful and incredibly blessed to get to do what I love and love what I do. I’m also not trying to brag or name-drop – those leads, jobs, and contacts didn’t, and still don’t, fall in my lap.

There’s no preferential treatment. I positively bristle at that suggestion. It’s unfair and rude. I love what I do, but I work hard. I set goals and put myself out there. Frankly, it’s all I know how to do and all I’ve ever done.

My attitude is that if you try, you might fail, but if you don’t try? You are certain to fail. When I was in culinary school my hand shot up first at the call for volunteers when it was time to strain the stock, clean the walk-in, or organize a messy jumble of pastry equipment. I felt that if I volunteered for the grunt work and did a good job that I would eventually be called upon to do something important.

Years later, I still have the same approach.

My first job cooking was as an unpaid apprentice for the taping of Nathalie Dupree’s TV cooking show on PBS. At the end of taping I asked if I could continue to apprentice. I did, and eventually Nathalie offered me a job. I knew I eventually wanted to go to France to learn, study, and eat. I set my goal to work as an stagière (French for unpaid apprentice) for Anne at LaVarenne. I wanted to learn more about the editorial process. After a series of interviews and recommendations, I was accepted and off I went. Amanda and I worked side by side in the LaVarenne kitchen, making jam and cooking dinner for 20 at the same time. I apprenticed for several months and eventually Anne offered me a job. I was meant to be there for 3 months and I was there for 3 years.

Several years later, I started the process of trying to get my foot in the door at Martha Stewart. It took me over a year to get an interview, but eventually I was able to trail for a day, that time-honored tradition of working in a kitchen “trailing” a lead cook. It’s where the rubber hits the road. A paper resume only means so much in a working kitchen. You’ve got to know how to cook.

In 2002, when I knew I was intended to move from NYC, I started the process of trying to get on at Turner Broadcasting. I moved South, but it took me nearly 3 years to get an interview at Turner. I persistently wrote gentle inquiries every 3 months and finally, nearly 3 years later, I was offered a job. In the meanwhile, it took me nearly the same amount of time to get Susan Puckett at the Atlanta Journal Constitution to let me write for her, but I did and it was one of the many steps that lead to writing my first cookbook.

It’s all about setting goals and putting myself out there, and yes, fierce determination and patience are also key.

It’s also important to remember it’s not always about the big name. I try my absolute best to respond just as quickly to the local PTA newsletter interview request as I do to a text message from the reporter at the New York Times. It’s the same principle as volunteering to strain the stock.

Rise Up

When I first went to France, one of my culinary goals was to learn to make soufflé. The first time I cooked a soufflé for Anne Willan, I opened the oven door to discover a lopsided disaster, something more like the tower of Pisa than le Tour Eiffel. I set my goal to learn from the master, I cooked a soufflé once a week for months. It was brutal. We’d huddle at the oven, and she’d cleanly, crisply dissect the soufflé (and my technique) — the whites weren’t beaten enough, or I’d needed more butter to coat the dish, or it needed a pinch of salt.

Finally, I called her in to see what I’d hoped to be my triumph. I squirmed nervously as she tasted the puffy and golden brown soufflé. She nodded and proclaimed I’d finally done it.

I am often asked, “What advice would I give aspiring food writers?” My answer? Set goals and put yourself out there.

Today I want to share with you some basic soufflé techniques and a couple of recipes to help you set goals, rise up, and make soufflés in your kitchen and in your life. I hope you enjoy.

Before I sign off,  I feel compelled to tell you about a friend and colleague who’s rising up and working tremendously hard on a very personal goal. Sally, who never ran more than a lap 2 months ago, is running a marathon — yes, a marathon, 26 miles and 385 yards, in October, a mere 5 months after she started training.

At 3 1/2 years old Sally was diagnosed with leukemia. Now in her mid-twenties, as a cancer survivor she’s raising money for Team In Training, and organization that helps raise money towards cures for blood cancers like leukemia — the No. #1 disease killer of children. Participants in Team in Training such as Sally, raise money for research and the support of cancer patients and their families. Sally set her goal to raise 10K and she’s already over 3/4 of the way there in less than 2 weeks! Now, that’s setting a goal. I am in awe of her fierce determination, the very same determination that is one of the reasons she is alive today.

Please do what you can to help and click here to read Sally’s story and contribute to her efforts.

Thanks for listening.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

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Rise Up: Setting Goals & Peach Soufflés

This soufflé uses the meringue method to rise, and the flavor is delicate and light.
Author virginiawillis

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature, for the ramekins
  • 2 to 3 peaches about 2 cups, peeled and sliced
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 7 large egg whites at room temperature
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Generously butter six 8-ounce ramekins. Set aside on a rimmed baking sheet.
  2. In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the peaches until coarsely chopped. (The pieces should be no larger than 1/4 inch.) Remove 3/4 cup of the chopped peaches and place 2 tablespoons of them in each of the prepared ramekins. Set aside.
  3. Add the lemon juice, vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt to the remaining chopped peaches in the bowl of the food processor. Process until very smooth and pureed. Transfer 1 cup of the peach puree to a bowl, discarding any remainder or reserve for another use, such as an ice cream topping or base for a smoothie. Set aside.
  4. In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk, beat the egg whites with a pinch of the salt on medium speed until foamy. Add about 1 tablespoon of the granulated sugar and beat on high speed until the whites hold soft peaks, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly add the remaining granulated sugar and beat on high speed until the whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks when the whisk is lifted.
  5. Add about a quarter of the beaten egg whites to the peach puree mixture and stir until well mixed. Pour this mixture over the remaining whites and fold them together as lightly as possible.
  6. Spoon the mixture into the prepared soufflé ramekins (the mixture should come up to the top of each). Smooth the top with a metal spatula. Run your thumb around the inside rim of each dish, making a shallow channel around the edge of the batter. (This will help the soufflés rise up straight and tall.) Set the filled soufflé ramekins on the rimmed baking sheet.
  7. Bake until puffed, golden, and gently set in the center, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, and serve immediately.

Need more instruction? Check out me making Peach Soufflé with Lucinda Scala Quinn of Mad Hungry TV.

Basic Soufflé Techniques

Simplifying Soufflés

There are two basic kinds of baked soufflés: savory, which are served as a first course or a light meal, and sweet, which are served as desserts. The name itself originates from the French souffler, which means “to blow up.” It is controlling the “blowing up” that can be tricky. Simple baked soufflés are best served as a main-course lunch, light supper, or elegant starter, and of course, as the pièce de résistance for dessert.

Savory soufflés are composed of stiffly beaten egg whites and a flavored base made from a very thick, well-seasoned béchamel sauce. The sauce must be highly seasoned with flavorings and aromatics to compensate for the blandness of the egg whites. Baked dessert soufflés are made by one of two methods: preparing a flavored meringue by simply adding fruit purée or melted chocolate to a French or Swiss meringue or by preparing a flavored base of crème pâtissière (pastry cream) that performs similarly to the béchamel sauce. Dessert soufflés are very simple, since the sugar and chocolate help create a very stable foam.

Preparing the Soufflé Mold

The dish must also be well coated with softened (not melted), room temperature butter to insure the soufflé will climb the sides of the dish and not stick as the mixture rises and expands. Often when the mixture sticks, it will create a lopsided soufflé. To coat the dish, brush the inside of the soufflé mold with butter and place it in the refrigerator. As the butter chills and firms, you can very clearly see any spots you might have missed.

Properly beaten egg whites are the key to a masterful soufflé. While the soufflé is in the oven, the air trapped inside the egg whites expands, causing the soufflé to rise. Beating egg whites is quite simply incorporating air into the egg white foam. Very fresh eggs will produce a more stable foam. To create a stable foam, it is imperative that the whites must be absolutely free of any yolk or fat. Even a mere drop of yolk or fat will hinder the foam formation. The bowl and beaters must be spotlessly clean; use only glass or stainless steel bowls, as plastic bowls can retain a film of oil.
It is easier to separate eggs when they are cold and straight from the refrigerator; the whites and yolks are firmer and less likely to break. When separating eggs, crack one egg at a time into a cup, transferring each white to the mixing bowl only after it is successfully separated. There is nothing worse that ruining the entire batch on the last egg! Many soufflé recipes will call for 1 to 2 more whites than yolks to enhance the volume. Even though it is best to separate eggs when they are cold, egg whites will whip to greater volume when they have had a chance to warm slightly. To achieve this, let the egg whites stand at room temperature in the mixing bowl while you assemble the remaining ingredients. When ready to beat the whites, start slowly. In the clean metal bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk beat the egg whites on low speed until foamy. Add a bit of cream of tartar or vinegar. Adding acid helps create a stable foam that will hold up until heat cooks the egg proteins and sets the soufflé.

After adding the acid, increase the speed to high and continue beating just until the whites are stiff, but not dry, and no longer slip when the bowl is tilted. (My mentor Nathalie Dupree used to hold the bowl upside down over my head to test whether I had properly whipped the whites!) If the whites are underbeaten, they won’t achieve full volume. If overbeaten, the whites will appear “rocky” and can’t hold air well because all of the bubbles are smashed. Rocky, overbeaten whites will not expand properly when heated. Sometimes beating in an additional egg white might bring back a batch of overbeaten whites.

How to Fold

Once you have gone to the trouble of putting all that air in the whites, it is important not to deflate the whites when mixing them with the soufflé base. Folding is folding, not stirring. Gentle folding is the key to maintaining volume. I sacrifice about a quarter of the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten the yolk mixture before adding the rest of the whites. This helps blend the whites with the base and makes the real folding easier. Then add the remaining whites. Using a large rubber spatula, gradually combine the mixtures with a downward stroke into the bowl, continuing across the bottom, up the side, and over the top of the mixture. Come up through the center every few strokes and rotate the bowl often as you fold. You are bringing a bit of the soufflé mixture at the bottom of the bowl up and over the egg whites. Fold just until there are no streaks remaining. Then, gently pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Lastly, run your thumb around the inside rim of the dish, making a shallow trough around the edge of the batter. This will help the soufflés rise up straight and tall.

The soufflé treatise is reprinted from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking (Ten Speed Press 2008).

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

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34 Responses to “Rise Up: Setting Goals & Peach Soufflés”

  1. virginia — I only know you virtually but if what I see on paper is even half of the woman in the flesh – it will be a true pleasure to get that opportunity some day. I echo what others have said here – your work ethic is so admirable and your patience and drive remarkable.

    Reply
    • Wow, Becky goodness, than took me aback. Thank you, very, very much. Some days we need carrots and that was a delicious one.
      I look forward to meeting you, too. Best VA

      Reply
  2. Carlin asked me if I had read this. So…. now I did.

    As my WW ( wonderful wife ) says work is not spelled e-a-s-y !!

    I am proud to know you and honor your ethic.

    PS… Love your grits 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you Bartee – I greatly appreciate your kind words. Friends and acquaintances like you and your encouragement are great help to me when I feel discouraged or my goals seem out of reach. Thank you. Best VA

      Reply
  3. What a great post. I discovered a little saying inside the cacoa nibs that I shared with you on the plane back from Austin. I have taped it to my computer screen for inspiration! Perfect for this post,

    “It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.”

    Wishing you much much “overnight success!”

    Reply
  4. Wonderful post Virginia, thanks! My goal is to have my future bio read like your paragraph 2. I’m working on it! I love souffles but have not made peach. I will this weekend. Have you experimented at all with anything but good old white granulated sugar in souffles? I’m playing with a lot of alternative sweeteners right now, curious.

    Reply
  5. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I met you at FoodBlog South and have enjoyed your cookbook. As an aspiring food/travel writer and new blogger, your words definitely help me to feel encouraged. And, I think I might just make a souffle. I’ve always been scared of them, but maybe it’s time to give it a shot!

    Reply
  6. You really are an inspiration, Virigina. Thank you for sharing your story with us. So happy that your friend is a survivor and congratulations to her for training for a marathon! I know she will have an amazing experience. I did a 3-Day walk last year for breast cancer and the amount of support the residents of the town gave us as well as the awesome friends I made, make it an awesome experience. I know your friend will have an amazing time. Thank you for all that you do, Virginia.

    Reply
  7. Your words are inspiring! I’ve recently entered the world of food after a drastic career change. I’m working getting my foot in the door and finding my place in this new world. Its wonderful to see just how far you can go with a heaping helping of heart and determination. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Kristin – thanks so much for commenting — I have a BA in history and actually was a mgr at a high end Italian shoe store. I know career change. If you love what you do, it makes more things possible. Best VA

      Reply
  8. Stopped in via Twitter! Love this post…your writing truly inspires the soul!! You also make a souffle sound possible, and this peach one sounds divine. Thanks SO much for sharing…I’ll be back often 🙂

    Reply
    • Glad you “twittered” by…. I post every Thursday. Thanks so much for your kind words. Glad to hear you think inspirational. Have a great weekend. Best VA

      Reply
  9. Oh Virginia, such a lovely post, as always.
    I admire your work ethic and I’m so glad to read about it.
    All of your success is so well-deserved! 🙂

    Reply
  10. I’m so glad to read that I’m not the only one who is weepy after reading your posts…..you are terrific and an inspiration. Thank you!

    Reply
  11. Virginia. you have always worked hard; & never complain one bit, so proud of you!!! I always tell people that ask about how you are doing, I say she absolutely loves what she does. That has got to feel wonderful. Yes you are hardheaded but that RUNS in the family. I am going to try & make the souffle. Is it still good if it does not turn out perfect?

    Reply
  12. I really needed this today. As with many of your posts, I am weepy and inspired after reading. Thank you so much for sharing yourself with us, Virginia. It means so much to hear, especially as we all tackle our personal souffle missions.

    Reply
    • I can be the maudlin writer, can’t I? Seems like lots of my posts cause folks to cry! Me, too! I write from my heart. Thanks so much for your kind words. I hope you are able to rise up over any of your personal souffle endeavors. Many thanks for reading and posting. Best VA

      Reply
  13. Jim Brams

    VA, you are one of my very favorite jewels in the world of fine cooking and joyous eating.

    You’re truly living the life many of us imagined with our cooking skills and I am so proud of you.

    Love, Jim

    Reply
  14. What a great reminder that most successful people got there by hard work and paying their dues. Fantastic post and timely for me. Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
    • Glad my words were some small inspiration. Thank you for reading and taking the time to post. It’s inspiring to me to see that people read what I write! Thank you! Best VA

      Reply
    • Thank you. I really appreciate your kind words. I’ve been helped so much and feel so fortunate. It was very nice to get to say at least in some part, why. Best VA

      Reply
  15. This is lovely! Thank you for the inspiration – the beautiful photographs and amazing recipe! Perfect!

    Reply
  16. I do loves me a hard headed woman.

    Got it, assignment souffle. Don’t know about the Georgia Peach part but I’ll mosey around and see what I can find.

    Reply

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