Never schedule a photo shoot with your wife for the day after she disassembles and packs her Seven road bike for a trip. Not unless you want dessert sharing the frame with epidermal roadkill. A Photoshop alchemist might be able to redeem the damage, but my skills are more 4th-grade pick-a-card-any-card than digital wizard. If you catch a gouged finger–and there are ten of them in this post–or a bashed nail, you know why. But no matter–spring is here. Somewhere people are riding bicycles. Tufted titmice are peter-peter-peter-ing. And if this morning you woke up to a dusting of snow, as we did in Boston, you can still make yourself a sweet-tart dessert with a concentrated essence of Spring in it, Lemon-Rhubarb Custard Soufflé. And a great dessert it is, with two kinds of tartness, and 3 different textures, even if the hands that made it look a bit worse for the wear.
I spend a fair amount of time photographing the hands of restaurant cooks, and thinking about just how much to pull back the curtain. Cuts and burns and calluses compete for space on the hands of every line cook I know. I play with focus and depth of field. A lot. Most cooks look as if they’ve gone five rounds on the sidewalk with a mugger before clocking in. Of course they clean up, but their skin is often so abraded with cuts and burns, or chafed from washing a dozen times a day, that their skin stains faster and more easily and than the rest of us. Nails and cuticles seem particularly vulnerable. A few minutes of handling vegetables that oxidize or bleed when peeled or chopped is all it takes to render them muddy. The quotidien gore of portioning meat or fish renders them even worse. If Jody and I cook artichokes, potatoes or celery root together her hands take on the tint of Lapsang Souchong; mine are unaffected. Bakers aren’t immune, as any pastry chef with a chevron of forearm scars or pink singe dots across the knuckles can tell you. Cooks keep their nails short because they’re more sanitary, offer less space for evil to congregate and are easier to clean. If you see a nail that looks darker than it might in one of my photos, bet on it–it’s stained, not unclean. If the focus on a digit is a little soft, it may be because of the shallow depth of field, or it may be because I don’t want yesterday’s evidence of a duel with a boning knife to distract you from the chicken stock being poured into the pot. I appreciate the esthetics of women whose circumstances and inclination allow them to cultivate a manicured sexy sleekness in their hands–what planet are they from?–but hands inscribed with the night when twenty-seven chicken orders came in at once, or the afternoon a prep cook sliced himself deeply enough to go to the hospital, leaving bushels of Red Russets behind for somebody else to peel, those are the hands I find compelling. Call me romantic, but I like getting a plate of duck confit and fried potatoes from hands that look as if they actually prepared it. Besides, when the weather report forecasts a typhoon, who do you want on your island, someone with great nails, or a woman who can strip down a bike and turn out a Lemon-Rhubarb Custard Soufflé? Enjoy. Ken
Lemon-Rhubarb Custard Soufflé
Ingredients: Be sure all the ingredients are at room temperature.
- 2 cups rhubarb, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 1 cup white sugar
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons lemon zest
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 3 tablespoons all purpose unbleached flour
- ½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¾ cup whole milk
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- In a small saucepan, toss the rhubarb with 2 tablespoons sugar and let sit 15 minutes. Put the saucepan on the stove over medium heat and cook until the rhubarb is soft and fairly dry, about 3 minutes. The goal is to reduce the juices and soften the fruit. Spoon into 8 6-ounce custard cups. Let cool.
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Take 2 tablespoons of sugar and set it aside for the egg whites. Put the butter and the remaining sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer. With the speed on high, beat the butter until smooth. Add the salt, lemon zest and and egg yolks, one at a time, and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy and the sugar dissolves. Turn the mixer to low, add the flour and beat to just combine. Add the lemon juice, milk and cream and beat to just combine.
- Put the egg whites into a clean bowl of the standing mixture with the whisk attachment. Using a moderate speed, beat the egg whites until they begin to foam. Add the remaining sugar in a slow steady stream and then increase the speed to high and beat until the whites hold soft peaks.
- Using a rubber spatula, stir the lemon custard mixture to ensure nothing has settled on the bottom of the bowl. Then stir a third of the whites into the lemon custard to lighten it. Gently fold in the remaining whites.
- Spoon custard over the rhubarb, being sure to scoop from the bottom of the bowl as the top will be lighter. Set the cups into a roasting pan. Pour warm water to half way up the sides of the cups. Bake 30-35 minutes, turning halfway through. The tops should should be puffed and golden brown.
- The most dramatic way of serving these is to present them warm, allowing everyone to enjoy the soufflés as they deflate, but speaking from personal experience, they still taste good after cooling to room temperature. Ken and Roxanne have no qualms about eating them after a night out on the counter or in the refrigerator, but tops of the soufflés shrink from the edges of the cup.
My mom used to make a version of this, sans rhubarb, from the Joy of Cooking, the source of many of our family recipes. I never pass a second-hand bookstore without checking for an edition older than my last find–the old editions are the best.
In 1986, Gordon and Fiona Hamersley asked me to join them as sous chef at their new restaurant, Hamersley’s Bistro, which they envisioned as a neighborhood spot where a menu of simple delicious food would encourage people to return week after week. When asked to come up with a few ideas I turned to what I knew, especially with desserts. This was one of my childhood favorites. Gordon liked it and adapted it. His version is still on the menu at Hamersley’s Bistro.
The custard cups shown in the photos are too small (we had leftover soufflé mix), so be sure to use ones that really will hold 3/4 cup of mix with a bit of room for expansion.