My culinary awakening happened fairly late in life.
It was around my second year in college, eating pomegranate-braised chicken legs at a Turkish restaurant that a friend dragged me to. I distinctly remember that first bite, and the bites that followed – of spinach and feta wrapped in filo pastry, of smoky eggplant purée, and of walnuts drowned in honey. Realizing that food was, in fact, not scary at all, sent me straight on to the streets of San Francisco, seeking out every cuisine imaginable over the next 10 years. Pakistani, Peruvian, Burmese, Senegalese – the Bay Area had it all.
As you can imagine, growing up in Alabama was a bit different. Globalization has brought a few more options to my hometown (we have a Korean restaurant now!), but as a young one, there really wasn’t much to eat outside of fast food chains, Applebee’s, and the occasional Southern meat-and-three restaurant. What we DID have access to, however, was Cajun food. So while my early years didn’t see much action in the way of ethnic cuisine, my palate was formed tasting that fantastic combination of spicy and sweet flavors and classic French technique that defines Cajun cooking. So when we realized that after five years of feeding the community, we hadn’t yet hosted a Cajun-inspired dinner, well, we changed that.
Dirty rice arancini with jalapeño pepper jelly
Rabbit rillettes, plum jam, pickled fennel seeds on crostini
Spicy corn fritters with bell pepper relish
Penn Cove mussels
Cranberry beans, peppers, andouille, and crispy cornbread
Shaved celery root and apple
Tasso ham, celery leaves, and creamy Creole mustard dressing
Housemade boudin blanc with sweet potato purée and fried sweet potato skins
Cream-braised chard and pickled grapes with pecan gremolata
Apple soufflé with buttermilk anglaise
If you’re familiar with my desserts, then you know I’m not a huge fan of classic French pastry (the horror!). I mean, yes, they make a delicious... everything. It’s just a touch fussy and rigid for my taste, with all the rules, the precise widths of cake layers, and — let’s just be honest — the attitude. I appreciate good technique as much as the next chef, but I’ve always gravitated towards the more casual (rustic, if that sounds better) and approachable side of baking: pies, trifles, puddings, etc. Back in architecture school I attended a fantastic lecture on classic garden design history, and learned about the English garden vs. the French garden. Oddly enough they make a perfect metaphor for pastry: the classic French garden is rational, ordered, and clean, and the English garden is wild and uninhibited. I'm definitely an English garden. I like my desserts big, messy, and served family style. That being said, there’s one area of pastry where my aesthetic aligns perfectly with the French: the soufflé.
Soufflés are pure culinary magic, and bring with them a giant pile of anxieties and fears. I’ve been making soufflés for years, and I still find myself staring impatiently at the oven door EVERY TIME, terrified they won’t puff. But they always rise, and they always leave me promising to make them more often. If you haven’t already heard this, let me be the first to tell you: their reputation for difficulty is a bit overblown. They’re easy to prepare in advance, and once you get the hang of it, they’re actually a breeze to whip up on a weeknight.
This soufflé is a touch more complex than some – it has a pastry cream base, and really needs the buttermilk custard sauce to feel complete. But you can make the pastry cream and custard sauce in advance, and if you’d like to serve them at a dinner party, you can have them assembled in their ramekins and resting in the fridge before your guests even arrive. If you decide to make them completely in advance, just pull them from the fridge about 30–40 minutes before you’re ready to bake them, as a cold soufflé will not rise as much.
- Apple Souffles
- 1/2 ounce unsalted butter
- 1 medium apple, peeled and finely diced
- 1/4 cup apple cider
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 cup pastry cream (below)
- 2 cups apple cider, reduced to 5-6 tablespoons
- 4 eggs, separated
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Pastry Cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/4 vanilla bean
- 1/2 ounce cornstarch
- 2 ounces sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
- 6 egg yolks
- 2 ounces unsalted butter
- Buttermilk Anglaise
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 vanilla bean
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1 cup buttermilk
Cook the apples:
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the butter until bubbly. Add the chopped apples and cinnamon, tossing to coat them with butter. Sauté for 2-3 minutes, then add the cider and continue cooking over medium-high heat. The apples should be cooked, but still firm to the touch, with all of the cider absorbed. Transfer to a bowl and place in the fridge to cool.
Make the pastry cream:
Combine the milk, sugar, salt and split vanilla bean pod and seeds in a saucepan, and heat on medium until it just comes to a boil. Remove from the heat and let steep for 20-30 minutes.
Place the egg yolks in a medium-sized stainless steel bowl and whisk in the cornstarch. Slowly ladle the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. Place the egg mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium heat until it becomes very thick, whisking constantly. Remove from the heat and pour through a strainer into a clean bowl. Stir continuously for a minute to release the heat, then whisk in the butter until it is melted. Place in the fridge to cool, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming.
Make the soufflé:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare the ramekins by brushing them with melted butter and dusting them with sugar. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup of the pastry cream, egg yolks, and 6 tablespoons reduced apple cider. Whisk in the cooked apples and set aside.
In a medium bowl (or stand mixer), whip the egg whites and salt until they start to foam. Slowly drizzle in the sugar while continuing to whip until stiff peaks form. Do not over whip.
Add a third of the meringue into the soufflé base and fold them together to lighten the mixture. Gently fold in the rest of the meringue just until you no longer see streaks of white. If needed use the tip of your spatula to break down any solid bits of meringue, being careful not to over mix.
Gently spoon the batter into the prepared molds, overfilling slightly. Scrape a knife across the top of the ramekin, completely flattening the batter. Wipe down the rim and sides of the ramekin if needed. Bake for 17-19 minutes (resisting the urge to open the oven), until puffed and no longer liquid in the center. Serve immediately with chilled buttermilk custard sauce.
Make the buttermilk custard sauce:
Heat the cream, sugar, salt and vanilla bean (pod and seeds) in a saucepan. Once heated, cover, remove from the heat, and infuse for 20 minutes.
In a medium bowl, pour in the buttermilk. Place a strainer over the top and set aside.
In a separate bowl, stir together the egg yolks. Remove the vanilla bean pod from the cream, and then slowly ladle the hot cream into the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour. Once you’ve mixed in the cream, return it to the saucepan.
Cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon or heat-resistant spatula, until the custard thickens enough to coat the spoon. If you are nervous about over-cooking, you can use a thermometer and cook the custard to 180 degrees. Pour the custard through the strainer, and into the buttermilk. Stir well to release the heat and place in the fridge to chill, stirring every 5-6 minutes. Once chilled, the custard sauce can hold for up to five days in the fridge.