There is a magnificent sunset outside, swathes of pink on a clear, blue sky. From the bridge at the end of my road, it is criss-crossed with black wires hung over the train lines. I like the contrast. Walking back home, along a route I never take, I look up and see a classic silhouette behind a skyscraper, the dome and tower of the Sacré-Coeur. Normally I never go that way, normally I go inwards to the centre of Paris’ clock-face. But Paris extra-muros is being steadily smartened and I had been to visit the new Ciné-Cité on the outskirts, pristine and echoing still. I shouldn’t be surprised that there is more to discover, that a different road will yield such different results. The day before a long run took me past a British telephone box stranded in the Paris suburbs, fully functional with a dial tone and everything. It is a tiny city sometimes, and sometimes even after three and a half years I don’t know it at all.
Talk about leaving my comfort zone in increments. I curl up on the sofa with a pile of cookbooks the afternoon of the dinner party with the will to make something new… And what really leaps out out at me are the soufflés. The way I open a menu and instantly know I must have that or I will be disappointed. But I already wrote about soufflés three posts ago. And I will make them with goat’s cheese, which has been so over-done the Guardian has been panicking about a desperate shortage of the stuff. What’s more, the recipe comes from my mother’s cookbook.
What can I say? Everyone has food phases, cravings, repetitive habits – see also, the Croutons for Breakfast period circa 1998 – and though they may be a la mode, I can’t resist making more soufflés. Their craggy puff, their splendour as they arrive at the table – and above all, their relative ease. Granted, I can only make four at a time because of my little oven, but I only need ingredients lying around the kitchen – cheese, milk, butter, eggs and in this case, an apple – and a good whisk. As simple as an omelette, but more spectacular.
A couple of hours before dinner, I fried an apple in butter, then made a simple béchamel sauce. When it was thick and creamy, I added egg yolks, goat’s cheese and apple. That was it. The egg whites waited on one side for the last minute.
Meanwhile, the oven did all the work for the laziest (best) ratatouille I have ever tried. One large aubergine, one courgette and one red pepper were roasted whole until blackened and collapsing in on themselves. (The aubergine gave up the ghost first, the courgette was made of tougher stuff.) Once baked soft, they need all of ten seconds to chop roughly – can be done with kitchen scissors, even. All I had to do was gently saute a clove or two of garlic in some olive oil, add a tomato and done. Stir them all together, season. Best of all, no squeaky aubergine: too often ratatouille has cubes of polystyrene eggplant swimming in watery sauce because it takes so long to cook each vegetable to the proper consistency. This oven-roasted version was silky, meltingly tender and took less effort than reading this paragraph.
So after half an hour’s actual work, I was done. Wash up, go back to the sofa for more tea. Pretend to be the consummate hostess when my guests arrive. When they do, when they begin to look hungry despite the crisps and crackers, all that needs doing is preheating the oven, whisking the egg whites and gently folding in the rich béchamel. The soufflés were over enthusiastic, bursting from their dishes. Even better. Brown around the edges, fluffy in the middle, with the subtle tang of apple balancing the goat’s cheese: they were comforting and ever-so-slightly out of the ordinary. Just right for a Wednesday.
Apple and cheese soufflés
from Victoria O’Neill’s Seasonal Secrets – she suggests using blue cheese (in which case omit the salt). Her version is also twice baked, which means you bake them, let them cool for 20 minutes then turn them out of the ramekins onto a baking tray and reheat for 10 minutes when needed. This reduces last minute preparation, and leads to a slightly more crisp texture – but I like the pomp of a freshly baked soufflé. Serve with salad and toasted walnuts for a starter, or with ratatouille, some steamed potatoes and bread for a filling main course.
makes 8 starter size or 4 main course size
100g butter, divided into 30/70g
1 large apple (160g)
50g plain flour
100g cheese – mild goat’s cheese or strong blue, according to taste
(3/4 tsp salt – omit if using blue cheese!)
4 eggs, separated into yolks and whites
You will need some ramekins or little straight-sided dishes so that the soufflés rise properly. For the small, starter size they should be about 8cm across, for the larger 11-12cm.
Melt 30g butter in a small saucepan; peel and finely chop the apple. Cook the apple in butter, covered, for 5 minutes or until soft and golden. Tip into a bowl. In the same saucepan, melt the rest of the butter. Using a pastry brush, thoroughly coat the inside of your ramekins with butter. Dust them with a little flour, rolling them around so the flour covers the sides and bottom. Set aside.
Add the flour to the melted butter and stir well to make a roux. Let it cook for a minute or two until it smells slightly nutty, so that the flour loses its raw taste. Off the heat, add the milk a little at a time, whisking in between to remove lumps. Return to the heat and cook until thick and creamy and just starts to bubble. Decant into the bowl with the apples. Crumble in the cheese, add salt (if using) and pepper and finally the egg yolks. Stir. Clingfilm the surface so it doesn’t form a skin. Have the egg whites in a separate, large, clean bowl – also with clingfilm over it to stop any contamination. Whites whisk best at room temperature.
(All of the above can be prepared in advance. If it is more than a couple of hours beforehand, refrigerate the béchamel and whites and bring to room temperature before using. Alternatively, bake the soufflés straightaway as below. Then when they have cooled – 20 minutes or so – ease them out of their ramekins with a palette knife and turn onto a baking tray. Reheat when needed.)
Preheat the oven to 200C and whisk the whites to stiff peaks. Stir a quarter into the béchamel sauce to lighten it, then tip it all into the whites and fold together, careful not to lose the air. Fill ramekins to the brim, smooth the tops. Run a knife around the edge to help them rise up evenly. Turn the oven down to 180C and bake for 25 minutes, until they have puffed up, turned golden-brown and feel reasonably firm to the touch.
serves 4 as a side dish
1 large aubergine
1 large red pepper
1 large or 2 small courgettes
1 large or 2 small tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
Heat oven to 250C. Line a baking tray with foil. Stab the aubergine and pepper several times with a fork. If using a large courgette, slice in half, otherwise leave everything whole. Bake for 20 minutes or so until the vegetables have collapsed and, for the pepper, blackened around the edges. Remove any vegetables that cook quicker – my courgette needed an extra ten minutes to really soften. Meanwhile, peel and smash the garlic cloves with the back of a knife; cook in the olive oil until soft but not brown. Roughly chop the tomato and sauté for a couple of minutes until it breaks down. Chop the roasted vegetables with knife or kitchen scissors (remove stalk and seeds from pepper) and pour away any liquid that seeps out. Add to tomato, garlic, and heat through. Season with plenty of salt and pepper. Serve.