Sometimes, I just can’t believe the moments that arrive, the ones I slowly savor, followed by unexpected sweetness. You could never have told me that being diagnosed with celiac disease would bring such richness to my life.
On Sunday, a puffed-high, light-brown perfection came out of my oven. Guided by the hands and expertise of a lovely new friend, this souffle made us both exclaim with delight. Gluten-free, flavored by gruyere and butternut squash, this was the first souffle I’ve ever made.
Well, really, Molly made it. I watched, fetched ingredients, and took pictures. And thanked the internet for bringing me more people.
Molly writes one of the best food websites in the world: Orangette. For months, I had been slurping up her words, revelling in her stories, and wanting to meet her. She’s the wonderful woman who recommended those oven-roasted tomatoes I made in ample batches all summer long. She urged me to make a gluten-free version of her salt cod tart, after I left a comment on her site, drooling on the keyboard. And every time I read her site, ideas bloomed in my mind, ideas for exquisite dishes I could create to feed my friends. Afterwards, we’d all raise our forks to the sky, in her honor. In the way that only urgent, personal writing can, her site made me feel like I knew her. I wanted to know more.
Luckily, she had seen my site as well. She wrote me, and I wrote back. For days, we wrote feasting emails to each other, chatty and filled with food descriptions. We both adore writing and food, twin passions that feed each other. It wasn’t long before we met, for cups of spicy chai, then a langorous walk through late-summer sunlight at the Ballard Market. She sampled from the bruschetta stand I’ve been wanting to try for months, the one that compiles all the freshest foods from the local stands surrounding it, then creates tiny piles of gorgeous bites on crisp French bread. Obviously, it’s off my list, but I look at it longingly as I walk by it each week. Molly tried a sampler of three, including the octopus offering. As we sat on a little bench, bustling life walking by, the weakening light falling at our feet, she bit into one bruschetta and made a little moan. I knew in that moment that we’d be friends.
We’ve been writing ever since. You can imagine the emails: voluminous, full of tastes we’ve been trying, stories galore. I’m moved, all the time, by the people who have come into my life through this website. All of you who write—-to thank me, to ask me questions, to tell me your stories—-have become part of my life. My mind feels stuffed full of people these days. And my kitchen too. This time last year, when the car accident injuries rose up against me again, the trauma of the winter ahead of me, I felt carved out by pain, and fairly alone. This year, I’m surrounded by people I never imagined existed, and I’m continually meeting more. This world of food and words consistently amazes me.
For weeks, Molly and I wanted to cook together. On Sunday, we finally did. We sent emails back and forth, considering choices, and deciding on a theme: butternut squash and pistachios. Why? Well, why not? It’s autumn, definitively, and roasted butternut squash fills the kitchen with a haunting golden smell. And pistachios assert themselves, clearly, in a space where strong tastes can dominate. Besides, we both liked them both. Between the two of us, we could have come up with three hundred and twenty three recipes to cook. We needed a focus.
So here was our menu:
roasted figs with pistachio torta goat cheese
butternut squash souffle
sauteed cod with ground pistachio meal
And yes, if you’re starting to salivate a bit now, you should be. It was just that damned good.
I’ll write about the other parts of the meal another time, because they deserve their own recipes. But for now, the souffle.
Souffles always intimidated me. Deserving of patience, tasting of far-off places, and ready to deflate with the lightest knock on the door, souffles seemed like a show-stopping dish, the kind I could only make when I had gone to culinary school. Souffles felt like Paris: alluring and always calling, but tantalizing, on the other side of the world.
Luckily, Molly has lived in the tantalizing city twice, and she is no longer intimidated. “I make a mean souffle,” she told me in an email, and I knew we had to do it. Because, on top of it all, souffles require flour. And if a confident souffle artist could create one with gluten-free flour, everyone else could follow.
“I don’t know why everyone is intimidated by bechamel sauce,” Molly said, as she stirred with focused attention. Butter, three tablespoons of Pamela’s baking mix flour, and hot milk—-all of it whirling in my black saucepan. The flecks of almond meal in the gluten-free flour turned the bechamel brown, but other than that, it came into existence easily. “Maybe it’s the name,” I quipped back. “It’s French. If we called it butter-flour-milk sauce, everyone would try.” Whatever we call it, the sauce enticed us both into leaning our noses over the saucepan and whiffing in. Ahhh.
Within mere minutes, and several dollops of pureed butternut squash, Molly had built a souffle. My souffle dish is pint-sized, and I’m sorely lacking ramekins. So we baked it in a deep-dish pie pan. No matter. We munched on the figs as we talked. (The pistachio torta cheese comes from Rollingstone Creamery in Idaho. A fortuitous, last-minute shopping trip at Metro Market revealed it to me, as they are doing a month-long celebration of American artisanal cheese.) The food processor stopped us for just a minute, with its rattling clatter as I ground the pistachios. But just for a minute. With food, blogs, writing, and boys for conversation, we could have gone on for hours.
And then it emerged, gorgeous and ah-inspiring. Even Molly was impressed with its air-high shape, the golden brown top, the heavenly smell. It fell, almost immediately. That’s the way of souffles. We didn’t care. We loaded our plates with spoonfuls of souffle, slivers of zucchini and leeks, and steaming slices of pistachio-encrusted fish. The weak sunlight streamed through the skylights as we lifted the forks to our mouths, bit into the souffle, and made little moans. Friends in food, we both smiled. Sunday lunch has rarely tasted this good.
I’d tell you about the chocolate gelato, but I should let Molly do it. After all, her boy bought her a gelato maker as a present, which is one of only many reasons she loves him. And thus, she should share that story. But that picture speaks for itself. It was too good for words to do it justice. What a lingering-in-the-mouth, love-in-the-making, dense-with-sweetness gift it was.
What a gift it is to know Molly now. To linger over Sunday lunch and cook together. And know that we’ll make something else spectacular together, soon.
I can’t imagine the people who are going to arrive in my life and fill my kitchen with their presence. I’ve stopped trying. It all unfolds, in its own way. Here.
Molly’s gluten-free adaptation of the cheese souffle recipe from The Way to Cook, by our dearly departed Julia Child.
2 Tbs finely grated Parmesan cheese (I used Parmigiano Reggiano, but it need not be fancy)
2 1/2 Tbs unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the baking dish
3 Tbs gluten-free flour
1 cup hot milk
1/2 tsp paprika
A pinch of nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
A few grinds of pepper
3/4 cup cooked and pureed butternut squash (I peeled, cubed, and boiled it in salted water; I think this is a better bet than roasting it, which might remove too much moisture?)
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
1/2 cup coarsely grated gruyere cheese
Butter a 2-quart souffle dish or large, deep-dish pie plate. Roll the grated Parmesan in the dish to cover the bottom and sides, shaking out any excess. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and set the rack in the lower third of the oven.
Place the butter and flour in a medium, heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Stir with a wooden spoon, and as the butter melts, the mixture will form a loose paste. Stir and cook until bubbling slightly, but do not allow it to color. Remove from the heat, let cool a few seconds, and then add the hot milk all at once, whisking vigorously to blend. Return the pan to the heat, stirring constantly with the whisk or a wooden spoon, and bring to a low simmer, about 3 minutes. The mixture should thicken to the consistency of a homemade mayonnaise–i.e. fairly thick. Whisk in the paprika, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and squash, and remove the pan from the heat. One by one, whisk in the egg yolks. Set the pan aside.
In a clean separate bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.
Scoop a quarter of the whites on top of the cooked mixture, and stir them in with a spatula. Turn the rest of the egg whites into the top of the mixture, and fold it all together delicately but rapidly, alternating scoops of the spatula with sprinkles of the gruyere. Spoon and pour the finished batter into the prepared baking dish.
Set the baking dish in the preheated oven, and turn the heat down to 375 degrees. Bake 25–30 minutes, until the souffle has puffed and its top has browned nicely. Serve immediately.