Nestled away in a gorgeous residential neighborhood, a delightfully rustic French restaurant has been catering to nearby residents for the past 25 years. We were greeted with a handshake and said our farewells with the typical kiss on each cheek. Presenting us with perfectly typed out recipes and instructions, Alain was quick to jump right into the good part: eating. He orchestrated our kitchen experience like no chef has done before, alternating a little cooking with a lot of eating.
We started off making his Grand Marnier Soufflé. The presentation of the huge Grand Marnier bottle was enough to make me want to “Ooo” and “Ahh,” but then I asked if I could taste the bucket of pastry cream hanging around on the table, and oh boy, I could have stolen that whole container and taken it for myself and been set for the afternoon – or the week, really, because he said that’s how long it could last for. But there was work to be done, and as it turns out, many, many more pastries and delicious things to be eaten.
Before we made our first soufflé, we paused to drink our perfect French coffee. And while our soufflé was rising in the oven, we were treated to hot pain au chocolat straight from the kitchen of the French patisserie, Lenôtre. Crusty, brown, warm and with the perfectly crunchy essence of butter, the pain au chocolat would be just one, of the many, reasons to return to La Ferme. I can even respect Chef Alain for not attempting to make his own pain au chocolat or croissants, because really, why mess with something so perfect?
We hardly had a moment to lower our blood sugar back to normal levels before the Grand Marnier Soufflé had made its debut. As Chef Alain pointed out so importantly, “Guests wait for a soufflé; soufflé does not wait for guests.” So alas, we were at the mercy of the dessert. Poor, poor us.
The soufflé returned from its trip to the oven as a completely different species. The mousy, airy, raw soufflé that had gone in to the oven had doubled in size, darkened in color, and resembled more of a cinnamon-swirl-popover than any sort of mousse. I half expected a chicken pot pie filling to come flowing out.
The outside of the soufflé was my favorite. All the sugar we coated on the outsides of the ramekins made the crust crispy and sweet. And it was an adventure just to dive your spoon into the middle of the soufflé, allowing the air pressure to escape.
Then we got back to work. This time, Chef Alain wanted to show us how we could mix it up a little bit. Instead of using Grand Marnier, he made it much simpler on our budgets – and our pantries. Utilizing some cocoa powder and chocolate chips, he whipped up what would be my favorite dessert of the morning: chocolate soufflé.
Thinking we should maybe excuse ourselves from his kitchen (before passing out from all of the wonderful, delicious treats), Alain insisted that we stay and sample the pommes daphinois (incredible French hashbrowns, dripping so delicately with butter, and just perfect).
When the chocolate soufflé came out of the oven, the chocolate chips still had their crunch and added a wonderful textural element to the soufflé. The flavor was outstanding, and it was at this point, that I asked if I could please have some water, because the sugar had completely taken over my blood stream, and I was going to start bouncing off the walls – or something. And I really couldn’t put my spoon down either. I ate almost half of my second huge soufflé! It’s surprisingly rich, for seeming almost savory.
Our chocolate soufflés were quickly consumed, and while we continued to wait for some crêpes to crisp in the oven, delicately flavored with sugar, butter and orange zest, we were tested on our baking origami skills.
“What’s that?” you say? It’s the folding of piping cones from parchment paper. We were pretty bad, despite some intense lessons, and we stand by our technique of cutting a hole in the corner of the plastic zip lock bag. But it was beautiful to watch Chef Alain pipe out white-chocolate script on to a decadent strawberry and pastry cream Napoleon of a cake. We didn’t even attempt that part – just watched in awe.
We had certainly made a new friend – and not just because he fed us, a lot. I promise. His generosity, incredible passion for food and flavor, butter and sugar, and his ability to show us how one simple pastry cream can also turn into many other simple desserts, is yet unparalleled.
Grand Marnier Soufflé
Soufflé Base Ingredients:
- 1/2 quart of milk
- 6 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup of sugar plus 1/3 cup sugar
- 8 oz of pasteurized egg whites (least expensive to buy these frozen)
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup corn starch
- 1.5 oz Grand Marnier
- Non-stick cooking spray
- 1 mixer (either table top or hand held)
- 2 quart sauce pan
- 1 working oven with thermostat
- 3 medium to large mixing bowls
- 1 whisk and 1 spatula
- 6 soufflé molds (10 oz)
Note: The base can be prepared one day ahead.
- In a 2 quart sauce pan on medium heat, bring the milk to a boil.
- In a medium sized mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks with 1/2 c sugar until the sugar is dissolved (the color will be lighter and the mixture lightly foamy).
- Then add the corn starch and mix well to incorporate (there should be no lumps).
- Pour half of the boiling milk over the sugar and egg mixture and stir well.
- Over low heat, pour incorporated sugar and egg mixture back into the sauce pan (which has the reamineder of the milk) and whisk consistently on medium heat until you see some thick bubbles (this indicates that the mixture has reached a boiling point).
- Remove from heat and pour in a medium to large sized mixing bowl. Stir in the vanilla.
- Reserve the base and let it cool.
- Using a non-stick spray, coat the mold generously.
- Add 1/2 cup of sugar to the mold, coating it and shaking off the excess while pouring into the next mold.
- Repeat until all molds are covered with sugar. Reserve.
- The soufflé will cook for 16 minutes. They need to go in a hot oven and need to be prepared at the last minute. Plan accordingly.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk 10 large tbsp of soufflé base with the Grand Marnier liquor.
- Separately whip the egg whites with 1/3 cup of granulated sugar until stiff.
- “Pour” egg white over the souffle base and gently incorporate by folding with a rubber spatula. DO NOT OVER MIX. You should have a fluffy mix which is not runny.
- Split the mix into the 6 molds, filled up almost to the top.
- Tap each mold gently on the table to avoid air bubbles and bake for 16 minutes at 400 degrees (375 if you are using a convection oven).
- Serve immediately! As Alain acutely points out: “Guests wait for soufflé; soufflé does not wait for guests!”
While I wish I could share with you all of the flavors and butter-dripping textures from Chef Alain’s kitchen, there’s just no time or space for that here. While I’d highly encourage you to join him for a meal or two at his restaurant, here are a few dessert variations he’s suggested for this pastry cream concoction that serves as the base of the chocolate soufflé:
- There’s of course the simple Napoleon: pastry cream and fresh fruits delicately sandwiched between puff pastry sheets.
- The coffee soufflé, which just sounds divine, replacing the chocolate in the above recipe with coffee extract.
- And most notably a crêpe soufflé, where you spoon the same soufflé base into a folded crêpe (folded like a taco on its side, not like a burrito rolled up), and bake it using the crêpe as the soufflé dish. Use half of the recipe, and buy or make 2 crêpes per person. Cook for 10 minutes at 375 degrees.
I decided to make the chocolate soufflé for you, dear reader. Substitute the liquor with 2 tbsp cocoa powder and 1 tsp of dark chocolate chips (but do not mix the chocolate into the hot soufflé base). I also experimented with baking the soufflé in a crêpe, which is an interesting solution if you do not have a soufflé mold.
How I missed this restaurant for all these years, I will never know. But I do know that I cannot wait to be welcomed back into the “home” of Chef Alain Roussel and his country-French ways.