Dictionary.com defines a gourmet as “a connoisseur of fine food and drink” (in contrast to the French gourmand who only enjoys food and wine in excess). Seems simple enough, but the lifestyle of the gourmet only gets more complicated from there. The gourmet, apparently, must express an affinity for ‘exotic ingredients,’ possess copious amounts of culinary skill, and somehow, miraculously, acquire “an elaborately equipped … kitchen.”
Do I express an affinity for exotic ingredients? I guess, sometimes. I enjoy a dousing of truffle oil as much as anyone, but what about the simpler things? Fresh summer tomatoes or a perfect peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich — do they have no place in the life of the gourmet? Moving on to skill, do I have it? Sometimes, I guess. Other times my poached eggs leak, my melted chocolate burns, and I add salt instead of sugar to the pumpkin pie. And my kitchen? If only the stove in my quaint ’50s off-campus apartment could fit a full-sized cookie sheet, I would consider myself lucky. But do I love fine food and drink? Yes. Do I consider myself a gourmet? Abso-fucking-lutely.
It might seem contrary to my self-proclaimed foodie status to begin a discussion of haute cuisine with something relatively simple: the egg. The funny thing about eggs is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a college-age student who didn’t know how to prepare them. The funnier thing is you’d be hard-pressed to find a culinary student who’d claimed to have mastered their preparation. As Julia Child once said, “Understanding egg yolks will make you a master.”
An old roommate once bemoaned his ability to mess up anything, “even scrambled eggs.” But if you’ve ever had real scrambled eggs, you understand that there is nothing more exacting, and nothing more delicious. Case in point: A fancy all-you-can-eat brunch at Philadelphia’s restaurant du jour. My father sat down to a simple start of a plate of scrambled eggs — and proceeded to consume three more helpings, simply ignoring my pleas of “try the lobster bisque,” and “how about a fois gras lollypop.” “But Alexis,” he said, “these are perfect scrambled eggs.” I was a skeptic. And then I tried them — billowy folds of egg curd, fluffy and light with just a hint of butter. They were the best scrambled eggs I’d ever had, and they were just that. Perfect.
If even the scrambled egg requires skill, then where does that leave an egg dish traditionally regarded as difficult? Three weeks ago, I encountered a perfect egg. It came in cinnamon, vanilla bean or lemon, and at the slightest prodding of my fork, a crispy topping gave way to light filling the consistency of clouds. Ahh, the souffle.
But don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you souffles are hard. The souffle, you see, is in many ways the French equivalent of a TV dinner. Even if you have nothing in your kitchen, you can probably still make a souffle. All that’s really required is eggs, starch, some sort of fat and flavoring. No lemon? Make orange souffle instead. Prefer chocolate? Melt some Hershey’s or Ghirardelli instead. Feeling creative? Zest in some nutmeg or cardamom. No fussy souffle ramekins? Bake them in the cleaned lemon shell. Though cookbooks may regale you with horror stories of dreams lost in diffused souffles, in reality, the souffle just takes a little direction-following, a wee bit of time, and not all that much skill. Just maintain the heat, as in “don’t open the oven,” and you’ll be fine. Even if it does collapse — and I promise it won’t — all it takes is a dollop of whipped cream and a few chocolate shavings to maintain your culinary façade with the presentation of a gourmet parfait. Egg-cellent.
The Perfect Scrambled Eggs
4 large eggs (free-range or good quality)
3 tbsp cold butter, coarsely chopped
1 tsp whole milk or crème fraiche
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Into a large cast-iron skillet, crack all four eggs. Place pan on extremely low heat and add half the butter. Mix briskly with a wooden spoon until yolks and whites combine and begin to set. Add the remaining butter and continue to stir, taking care not to overheat the eggs. As soon as the eggs start to solidify into soft curves, remove from heat (they will continue to cook). Serve immediately, garnished with good salt and fresh pepper.
No Tears Soufflé
Adapted from the Joy of Cooking
3/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (or lime, orange, grapefruit, raspberry, chocolate, etc.)
1 tbsp lemon zest
1/4 cup corn starch
Cream of tartar (if desired)
Preheat oven to 350. Break the eggs and separate them. Beat the yolks until they are a light yellow. Add the sugar gradually, beating throughout until combined. Add the zest, lemon juice and corn starch, and set aside. Beat egg whites until fully stiff (using a pinch of cream of tartar helps), and fold them into the yolk mixture. Place into individual ramekins — or inside the cleaned rind of the lemons you’ve just juiced — and bake for 20 minutes (keep the oven closed! Look through the door and wait until they look solid and cake-like). Remove and serve immediately with crème-based accompaniment of choice.