(Ed note: The Inquisitive Eater is one website I visit often. It publishes a brilliant mix of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, visual art, news. This piece recently captured my attention and I contiue to return to it so it seemed worthwhile to share it here. sdh)
Haut-cuisine extravaganzas like Plaza-Athéneé Lobster Soufflé are not usually my thing, either as a diner or as a cook—too rich, too fattening, too much of a production—but when my neighbor Stan and I attempted to make it one New Year’s Day and failed, it haunted me. The soufflé lurked out there, along with the perfect rye bread and a Kosher dill that mimicked the exact taste and texture of a Guss’ Pickles pickle, in the deep pool of unrealized cooking dreams, just beyond reach. Besides, Stan, whose disappointment was much keener than mine, claimed it was one of the best things he’d ever eaten.
Stan was an accomplished home cook and for many years, Plaza-Athéneé Lobster Soufflé had been his specialty. He had promised several times to make it for my husband Stephan and me, but each time we came to dinner with Stan and his wife, Leslie, the dish failed to appear. He baked delicate gougères, a beautiful whole red snapper with herbs, a gorgeous rosemary encrusted leg of lamb, but no soufflé. Finally, during a dinner at our house, he had to admit that he couldn’t do it. Already in his late eighties, he found it increasingly difficult to make any of the elaborate dishes he used to execute with ease. The lobster soufflé required too many steps, beginning with killing, cutting up and cooking the lobsters, and took too many hours—three, at least—for him to contemplate.
Stan looked chagrined after his confession, obviously embarrassed to have to acknowledge that he was too old for the job. That’s when, impulsively, I suggested that we make it together. I had never made a soufflé and would get a lesson in how to do it. Stan would get the aid of my hands. I would be his sous-chef and do all the clean-up, enabling him to concentrate his energy on cooking. Together, surely, we could manage.
Stan emailed me a copy of his recipe, his shopping list of ingredients penciled in a column down one side. I would make sure we had everything we needed on hand: two lobsters, a carrot, an onion, chives, parsley, Cognac, dry white wine, heavy cream, dry sherry, butter, flour, eggs, and parmesan cheese. I read the sheet over once, twice, a third time, trying to fix an outline of the many steps in my mind. It was the sort of recipe that had to be executed quickly, without hesitation: fall behind and the cream would boil over while the butter burned.