Ah, we near the end of the road. When we began this experiment just 51 meals ago, we had several goals. The first goal here was to offer a simple, easy-to-follow guided tour through my favorite meals. The second goal was to take a spectacularly inexperienced cook -- say, a typical husband -- and move him in slow sure steps from spaghetti to chicken Kiev (next week). A third goal, most ambitious of all, was to transform the kitchen into an equal opportunity establishment.
Today's meal may not be the final exam, but it can be a test for any cook. I've tried most of the different souffle recipes and have managed to demolish a fair share of them; in fact, you're reading the man who put the lie to Julia Child's "Never-Fail Souffle." Incidentally, be forewarned -- nothing fails quite so dramatically as a souffle. I would as soon serve quicksand as a squashed souffle to dinner guests.
I've found this particular souffle to be practically indestructible. All you have to do is take it one step at a time and observe all the little (Danger!) signs along the way. Time will be all-important. A perfect souffle is like a perfect sunset; it has a life expectancy of less than 10 minutes. So let's get on with it.
The Staples: Make sure these are all on hand: salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne pepper, milk, butter, wine vinegar, olive oil, cognac, sugar, flour.
The Shopping List: Large eggs; sharp cheddar cheese (3/4 of a pound); grated parmesan cheese (4 ounces); fresh green beans (1 pound); ripe tomatoes (1 pound); scallions (1 bunch); dried apricots (1 box); ice cream (optional).
Prepare at least two days in advance: The apricots. Nothing could be simpler than this. Mix the box of dried apricots with 1/3 cup of sugar and enough cognac to give all the apricots a bath. Refrigerate for at least 2 days and then serve cold; either with or without a scoop of ice cream.
Prepare earlier in the day: The salad. Chop off the tips of the green beans, slice them and then cook them in boiling water for just a few minutes; they should not be soggy. Rinse the tomatoes and cut them into small chunks. Chop up the scallions (the whites and about an inch of the green). Add salt, pepper, half the parmesan cheese, 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar and about 4 times that much olive oil. Stir ingredients until all the green beans are coated with the salad dressing and refrigerate until ready to serve.
5 p.m.: And now there is nothing to do but the souffle. The first thing we'll do is get the equipment in order. You'll want an electric beater, a wire whisk, a variety of bowls and pans. Also souffle pans -- straight-sided, oven-proof, casserole dishes. You'll be making enough for 2 medium sized souffles.
We'll begin by making the cheese filling. Grate the cheddar cheese and set it to one side. Using either a saucepan over low heat or the top half of a double boiler, melt 1 stick of butter. (Caution! Heat should be low enough so that butter melts without browning.) Just as butter melts, add 1/2 cup of flour and stir with a wire whisk until it forms a smooth paste.
As the butter is melting, you'll heat up 2 1/2 cups of milk in a separate saucepan over high heat. (Danger! Don't start any other major projects at this moment. When the milk starts to boil, it bubbles out over the stove in a matter of seconds.)
Just as the milk starts to boil -- you'll see the bubbles forming on its surface -- take it away from the heat and pour it into the butter sauce. Stir with a whisk until it forms a thick white sauce. Remove from the heat and add a teaspoon of salt, another of paprika and a healthy dash of cayenne pepper.
Wait a minute or two, then stir in the grated cheddar cheese until it melts. Give it another couple of minutes to cool, then start adding egg yolks, one at a time, 8 in all. Using an electric mixer, beat after adding each yolk. Save the whites in a separate bowl.
Set the cheese filling to one side and allow it to cool off until it's lukewarm.
5:40 p.m.: Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Now, the egg whites. (Danger! First, rinse the electric mixer blades and bowl and dry them thoroughly.) In beating the egg whites, you'll be doing a small tightrope act. They should be stiff enough to stand up in peaks, but not too dry or frothy.When you've got them just so, fold them into the cheese sauce. (Danger! Do not mix or stir, just fold and turn.) The idea is a simple one: You do not want to lose the airy quality of the egg whites because that's what makes a souffle what it is.
Butter the bottoms and sides of the souffle pans -- the easiest way to do this is with a piece of paper napkin smeared in soft butter. Dust each pan with half the parmesan cheese. Now add the souffle mixture. (Danger! Not all the way up, just about three-quarters of the way up.)
Check it in 35 minutes. It should be lightly browned on the outside and still moist on the inside, a piece of transient culinary sculptured guaranteed to generate more than the usual number of oohs and ahhs. (Danger! Allow only two oohs and ahhs per guest before serving -- otherwise they'll be staring at a plate of scrambled eggs.)