Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Kitchen ambition causes souffle apocalpyse

Home Truths column in The Australian, in which I find a souffle doesn't even rise once. 

“Just as the pangs of hunger struck, he came upon two people – one a sailor, the other a penguin – in the act of eating a pudding. But this was no ordinary pudding. It was a cut-an’-come-again pudding.”

Is there any Australian of a certain age who, upon finding themselves living alone and solely responsible for his own sustenance, hasn’t found themselves fantasising about The Magic Pudding? I must confess recently, after some disastrous attempts to exercise my vestigial culinary muscles, I have found myself lost in reveries of cut-and-come-again puddings; not the warty-looking, glowering bowl-headed character of Norman Lindsay’s much-loved children’s book, but elaborate sticky date affairs, glistening towers of creme brulee, rice puddings shimmering in an ocean of creme fraiche.
    It’s also a comfort food thing. As a teen growing up in Townsville (someone had to) the evening’s highlight was a packet Puffin Pudding for dessert, either a rich blueberry or a piquant lemon or a creamy butterscotch, heaped with vanilla ice cream, best consumed while watching The Kenny Everett Video Show, The Goodies or Doctor Who.

     It was in this narcotic haze of nostalgia and near sugar coma that I convinced myself it would be a worthy weekend project to attempt a souffle. I was filled with the false confidence of a short-lived teenage stint where I became obsessed with baking cakes, after my grandfather, Vincenzo, a fellow of Italian and French provenance with Frank Sinatra eyes, entrusted me with his secret sponge cake recipe that unfailingly won first prize every year at the Brisbane ‘Ekka’.
     Having mastered the humble but tricky sponge, I moved on to more ambitious cakes, vast cantilevered multilevel flans, great creamy fruit-encrusted confections, gaudy pavlovas that could have graced Liberace’s white baby grand.
    But like a misjudged sponge, I rose too fast. One afternoon, putting the finishing touches on my most elaborate creation yet to take to a party, a family argument began and in a hissy fit of teenage angst I smashed my cake to bits with my bare hands, never to bake again.
     Can a souffle rise twice? Not in my kitchen. In the annals of souffle disasters, this was a Challenger, an Exxon-Valdez, Soufflegate. Despite poring over the best advice of the legion of celebrity chefs on a recent Saturday afternoon, and arming myself with eye-wateringly expensive ingredients from Glebe’s finest artisanal organic gourmet deli supermarkets, my souffle collapsed into itself like a star in some distant galaxy going supernova and then turning into a black hole, leaving little but a molten gooey cheese-like compound and a burned crust I still can’t get off my best saucepan.
     In hindsight, it was a tad ambitious. Well, OK, it was hubris with a dash of arrogance, a pinch of blind optimism, a generous squeeze of futility and a light dusting of utter idiocy; Sisyphus trying to roll a thousand dung beetles up the north face of the Eiger.
    I should have started more humbly; a salad, perhaps, or a stir fry. A souffle is a dish known to trouble the best chefs — even the great Jacques Pepin has a souffle disaster story, in his case with a live TV audience of 2,500 people as witnesses. He whipped up his souffle and put it in the oven, which he failed to notice was set to self-cleaning, at a toasty 725 degrees.
      Pudding, incidentally, originally referred to savoury dishes. It comes from the French boudin, meaning “small sausage”, which might explain why the French have spent centuries overcompensating in the kitchen.
     Which brings me to my recent discovery of the ultimate low-maintenance meal for the modern singleton, the manna from heaven that is STAGG Chili. Most canned goods carry an implicit whiff of loneliness and loser-dom. Campbell Soup is dandy if you’re Andy Warhol but for the rest of us, it’s just salt in the psychic wound and a reminder that you’re not Jamie Oliver cheekily whipping up another perfect feast for a posse of braying hipsters with perfect skin, dressed by J Crew.
    Go STAGG and you’re a Rat Pack of one, a swinging single with places to go and people to meet. “Just one taste and you’ll fall in love with STAGG Chili. Made from juicy beef, succulent red tomatoes, jalapeño peppers and onions that will make your mouth water.”
     It might not be cut-an’-come-again but it does what it says on the tin.

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