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
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.
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!
Rise Up: Setting Goals & Peach Soufflés
- 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
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Generously butter six 8-ounce ramekins. Set aside on a rimmed baking sheet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Basic Soufflé Techniques
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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