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We are spoiled for choice here in France, especially on market day, when local growers and artisans bring their goods, all nice and fresh and natural, for sale in the square, as has been done for hundreds and hundreds of years (758, to be precise).We are big fans of chevre–goat cheese–in all its forms. And there are many: from soft to hard and everything in between; from small rounds (called crottin–which also is the word for droppings of animals like sheep and goats!) to big rounds to bûches (logs) to squares and rectangles. They can be pure white, yellowish, ashen gray. Pasteurized or not. Something for everybody.
I am partial to the semi-soft rounds that are encrusted with all kinds of yummy stuff: peppercorns, dried cranberries, herbs… Our kid likes bûches for their chewy crust, but anything with strong flavor will do.
Although I have some favorite vendors at the market, sometimes I can’t pick just one. So it is with cheeses. There are several artisans, with slightly different products, so I buy a couple from each. We know some from having visited their farms during the Ferme en Ferme open houses–the 2018 season opens May 1!Of course, good bread is easy to find. And strawberries, grown in the cool, wet hills of Ariège. If you can’t come here, take yourself on vacation with some really good bread, some juicy strawberries and a real goat cheese that isn’t sealed in plastic from some factory. Every bite will be worth it.
Cheese soufflé has been on my list of French dishes to master. Done right, it’s like eating a cloud. A creamy cloud. Of cheese. Are you swooning yet? You should be.
But it seemed so intimidating. All those jokes about the soufflé falling and not turning out. The expression retomber comme un soufflé –to fall like a soufflé–means to suddenly lose interest.
I bought a soufflé dish for €1 at a vide-grenier. It languished, reproaching me every time I passed it by for some other utensil. Finally, I committed to the act and set out to research.
After comparing many recipes, and not feeling any more confident about the mission, I decided to also watch videos. I just watched one: on 750g.com, a cooking Web site created by two brothers, Jean-Baptiste and Damien Duquesne. The recipe is demonstrated by Damien, who is a trained chef and who has a restaurant in Paris called 750g La Table. In typical fashion, I was listening to podcasts while cooking, so I watched the video with the sound off and it was still very clear. So don’t be intimidated if your French is rusty–the actions speak louder than words.
It was a revelation. It didn’t look difficult. And best of all, there were no fancy gadgets. Just a whisk. Of course. Cheese soufflé has been a revered dish for about 400 years, since the chef Vincent de la Chapelle invented it.
The base is béchamel. In my old French cookbook, soufflés are right next to choux pastries and gougères, which also start with a roux paste and then add eggs.
If you want the chemistry of why soufflés puff up, read “Histoire de soufflés.” It’s a battle of water vapor vs. egg whites. Your egg whites need to be very firm–beaten to the point that the whisk can lift the whites as a block. This keeps the vapor–and air–inside like blowing up a balloon.
Cheese Soufflé (serves four)
1 cup (120 g) grated cheese like Comté or Gruyère
salt/pepper (but be careful with the salt–there’s some in the cheese)
1 2/3 cups (40 cl) milk
4 1/4 tablespoons (60g) butter (plus a little to grease the dish)
2/3 cup (60g) flour (plus a little in the greased dish)
Preheat the oven to 360 Fahrenheit/180 Celsius.
Make the béchamel: melt the butter completely, then stir in the flour. Let it cook for 3-4 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Pour in the milk. I did it like Chef Damien, a little at a time at first, to avoid lumps, then the rest. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Raise the heat a notch. Stir!When the béchamel comes to a boil, take it off the heat and stir it vigorously for a minute or two. Then put it back on high heat for one minute, continuing to stir. Remove from the heat. Add the cheese. Do like Chef Damien and add the egg yolks one at a time, dropping the whites into a mixing bowl. Stir well between each yolk. Put the mixture into a (separate) large mixing bowl.
Beat the egg whites. Lazy, I used an electric mixer, but Chef Damien, being a pro, did it by hand. More power to him, especially in his right arm. As noted above, beat those egg whites to stiff peaks. (The French term is so lovely–en neige–in snow.)
Add half the egg whites to the béchamel/cheese mixture. Delicately mix, ALWAYS STIRRING IN THE SAME DIRECTION and gently folding them toward the center. Then do the same with the rest of the egg whites. This is where the video really helped–to see how homogenous the final mixture is.
Pour the mixture into the greased, floured dish. (You can also do this with individual ramekins). Wipe around the edges. Turn the oven to the grill/broil setting and put in the soufflé. Leave it at that temperature for 2-3 minutes. Then turn the oven back to 360F/180C. Cook for 20-25 minutes (much less for little ramekins).
Serve immediately.BTW, in the unlikely event that there are leftovers, they reheat fine in the microwave.
We don’t have a food processor but we do have a special apparatus for melting a giant half-wheel of cheese. This specialty, called a raclette, dates to the Middle Ages, when shepherds set half of their round of cheese on a sone and turned the cut face toward the fire so it would get all bubbly and yummy. They would scrape off the melted part, and melt the next bit. They ate the melted cheese with bread, potatoes and dried meats.
Today, we have a large heating coil, similar to a toaster, that beams down on the cheese. You can lower the heating element as the cheese grows smaller. The cheese itself can be pulled out and tilted, for easier scraping. Raclette comes from racler, to scrape.
More common today are round appliances with little drawers (check this out: 117 choices here!). Supermarkets sell the particular cow’s milk cheese pre-sliced that’s just the right size. The heating element also heats the top, where you can cook little sausages, in what’s known as a pierrade. We also have a pierrade, but it’s a real slab of slate stone that you put a Sterno flame under, like back in the Stone Age. But that’s for another time. For one thing, it takes up most of the table. And so does the half-round of cheese. So chez nous, it’s raclette or pierrade, but not both.
We do the charcuterie.
We do the potatoes, going for little ones called grenailles (named after lead shot because of their size, about like a thumb). Managed to get a photo of a couple of leftovers.
We do the bread. Duh. We also do a big green salad with a simple shallot vinaigrette.
For dessert, we stayed with the cheese theme and had triple-chocolate cheesecake. Inspiration and recipe from French Country Cottage. However, we’d all eaten so much cheese, that the next time I will go for a lighter dessert. This one is perfect for a midafternoon snack, especially if dinner will be late, or a followup to a lighter meal.
A raclette has a nice rhythm to it, because you have pauses while waiting for the cheese to melt. The plates of cheese and all the trimmings are passed around and around, so it’s pretty convivial and relaxed.
The wine also contributes.
Years ago, the Carnivore belonged to a civic group whose winter fundraiser was a raclette. Imagine a banquet hall with a couple of these monster melters on each table of 20 or so. A very elegant, massive cheese-scraping dinner.
Speaking of convivial, the next day was gorgeous and just demanded a Sunday promenade. The entire village seemed to have the same idea. Everybody wanted to see what damage the river had done (not much–see below. Some neatly plowed gardens got a new layer of mud dumped on them. The jogging path through the woods is mostly gone. But honestly, those things belong in a flood plain, because they’re easily righted).
The most striking thing to me was the number of multigenerational groups out walking. Three generations strolling, time and again. There also were kids out alone, because we live in a time warp where kids play unsupervised, and elderly villagers, some alone and a few couples. Some parents with kids. But over and over I saw knots of five to seven people, from kids to grandparents, including aunts and uncles and cousins. And the kids included teens. How many teens do you know who go for a walk with their parents and grandparents?
The various groups would stop and chat as they crossed paths. Discussing how high the water had gotten. How it was nothing compared to ’99. Some reminiscing about the travails of that time. Then they continued on their ways.
I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, the one where my parents moved to later, where my siblings live, where friends live, and I cannot remember seeing as many people out for a walk (not a jog, solo or with a buddy, but a stroll), especially these multi-generational, extended family groups. It was like Halloween, but in broad daylight, without costumes or candy.
The French even have multiple terms for it. Se promener is to take a walk, either for exercise or distraction, while marcher is to walk (kind of the generic brand). Randonner is more hardcore, a hike. The loveliest is flâner, to walk without a goal, just for the pleasure of it.
At one garden, owned by an elderly couple, four cars were parked, taking up most of the road, but it didn’t matter because the river flows over the road there (passage à gue), and crossing wasn’t yet possible. Maybe 20 people were there, all ages, picking out stones deposited by the torrent. Clearly the extended family mobilized to help out. They weren’t grim about it. Everybody seemed to be having great fun.
I felt such affection for these neighbors, who themselves have such affection and respect for each other. J’aime la France.
It’s hot here. Of course, it isn’t the heat but the humidity, and usually we have no humidity. But for a couple of days over the weekend, the wind changed to the east–marin–and left us gasping for air.
The question of “what’s for dinner?” became reduced to “what wouldn’t be too hot to make?”
One of our favorite fallbacks is pizza. But it’s out of the question to crank an oven to the maximum heat when it’s so stifling. So we did it on the grill.
We have been up to these antics since the turn of the century. But we got lulled into complacency with delicious pizzas just down the street in summer. Unfortunately, those aren’t available this year, so we were motivated to try the grill again.
Pizza(s) on the grill (serves 4):
1 cup warm water
1 package yeast
a pinch of sugar
2 3/4 cups flour
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
couple of tablespoons of herbes de provence, or at least oregano
tomato paste (a can about 3 inches tall–142 ml or about 5 fl. oz.)
toppings for your pizza
Dissolve a pinch of sugar into a cup of warm water. Sprinkle the yeast on top, then swirl so it also dissolves. Let it sit until a nice layer of foam forms.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir the flour with the salt and herbs. Then drizzle in the olive oil and stir it into relatively fine bits. Add the foamy warm water/yeast. Knead with your hands for a while (oil your hands with olive oil before to keep the dough from sticking). If it’s too soft, add a little more flour. I start low and add rather than end up with a hard brick of dough.
Hold the dough in one hand and drizzle more olive oil into the bowl with the other. Again with one hand, smear the oil around the bowl and drop the dough back in. Cover with a clean dish towel and leave in a warm spot, preferably in the sun, for about an hour. The longer the better.
Now make some pizza sauce: tomato paste (dilute with about 1/2 can of water), garlic, more herbs. Assemble little bowls of what you want to top your pizza. We did diced red peppers, sliced Serrano ham, sautéed onions and anchovies. Maybe we go overboard, I don’t know.
Also slices of mozzarella cheese, and, because we’re in France, grated emmental. The sous-chef likes thick slices of cheese, but if you slice thinner, it will melt better.
Prepare the grill. Not a big fire, but you want it to last for a few pizzas, unless your grill is big enough to cook more at the same time.
When the dough has about doubled, divide it into two, three or four parts, depending on whether you want to do individual ones or share. We share because then everybody eats at the same time.
Roll out each ball on a floured surface. We have a wooden pizza paddle, which makes the transfer to the grill a lot easier. This is the moment of truth, where you might botch it. If the dough lands in a blog, it’s impossible to pick up from the hot grill. Take your time and slide the dough in the direction of the grill rods rather than perpendicular to them.
Let the crust brown a little–not too much because you’re also going to cook the other side. Another moment of truth–it sometimes browns fast, so watch closely.
Then remove the crust, turn it over, and spread your sauce on the browned side. Garnish and return to the grill. If you have a cover, all the better because your cheese on top will melt. We have an enclosed grill with no door, so it mostly melted.
Watch the bottom more than the top, because that’s what risks burning. Pull it off and serve. While one is cooking, prepare the next. We planned for three smaller pizzas but in the end did two larger ones.