As is probably true for most people, that final push in a written exam has always been a struggle. Luckily, by my final exams at university I had finally found a way to motivate myself.
Whereas others probably had some bottle of alcohol waiting so they could celebrate, I realised that all I required for added drive to get me through that last question, was the knowledge that there was a chicken in my fridge when I got home. I would come back from an exam, roast a whole chicken, then eat as much of it as I wanted right out of the roasting tray. In hindsight, this is perhaps unnecessarily self indulgent, although I would point out that my aim was never to eat the whole chicken, merely to be able to eat what I wanted of a roasted chicken all to myself.
A brief aside here – I have searched high and low for a photo I am certain exists, of me eating a chicken out of a roasting tray, sitting on the floor next to a bed (I'm hardly going to eat a chicken out of a roasting tray on a bed, am I. I'm not an animal). Despite a week of searching, the picture is nowhere to be found. Luckily for me, having informed Ewan, my youngest sibling, of my dilemma, he has created 4 're-imaginings' of the photo so you can get the gist. They get weirder as they go on....
Moving swiftly on....I would like to be able to say that this was my only strange chicken related adventure whilst at university, but alas, no.
I spent a long time trying to 'soufflé' chicken. To go into why I would try to do such a thing would lead us down a road that could only lead to a place of deep confusion, so you will just have to accept that at the time it seemed like a reasonable thing to be doing instead of working.
At the time, my cooking knowledge was fairly limited and the little I did know about french cooking was self taught. I just had this idea that a soufflé that tasted of chicken would be interesting (perhaps later in life, a psychiatrist will point to that statement as the moment when things started to go wrong). And so a Baconian - the philosopher, not the food product - approach to soufflé making began.
I found a recipe for a soufflé which used a bechamel/white sauce as a base, and then flavoured it with mushrooms before the addition of the whipped egg whites. So using the same principle I started experimenting. I tried having pieces of chicken in a white sauce – but all that really made was a plain soufflé with floating pieces of chicken. So I tried blitzing chicken breast into a paste and beating it into a white sauce - this may sound bizarre, but as it turns out, this was as close as I ever came to stumbling on the 'correct' method. And in a moment of what I thought was inspired genius, I even spent a whole day on lowly student hob making 2 litres of brown chicken stock, then reducing it right down and mixed the resulting 50ml of chicken jus into the white sauce so that a chicken flavour would be distributed throughout. As it happens, none of these was especially effective. Largely because I didn't understand some fundamental things about making soufflés.
When making a soufflé, you normally have 2 elements. Your flavoured base, e.g. bechamel sauce with mushrooms, and your whipped egg whites. You combine the two, spoon into ramekins and bake. Although taste wise, none of my methods would have been great, I would have at least had relatively more success if I had realised that the consistency of these two elements should be relatively similar or they will not combine and bake properly.
The classically 'correct' way of doing it only revealed itself some time later, when I learnt about making protein based mousses. This involves blitzing the protein, in this case chicken (as I said, I was close), and then, over ice slowly beating in double cream until a light mousse is achieved. This can then have egg whites folded into it and baked. And there you go. A dish no one either wants or has asked for.
Thinking back over this series of events this week has made me think about the idea of learning and creativity in cooking though.
Had I been aware of protein mousses earlier, I probably would have accepted the available methodology and never bothered to try my alternative methods. Onerous though it may have been, without my trial and error based approach, I would now have a far poorer understanding of what it takes to achieve a soufflé of the desired taste, texture and rise. And so although I may now accept the classical methodology, I can justify why that is, and also have the knowledge to adapt it should I need to.
There is nothing wrong with obtaining the knowledge you need early on as long as that doesn't stop you from trying to understand why that has become the preferred methodology rather than merely accepting it. Perhaps this is not true of soufflés any more, but it is certainly something I see amongst young chefs in modern kitchens with all manner of other preparations. More on this next week when I discuss the joys of baby food a.k.a. purées.
I think it's also worth mentioning at this point, as I can sense that people are about to rush out and start blitzing chickens, that it turns out that a chicken soufflé is not as nice as I had hoped. I would stick with chocolate.