It was lunch on a Tuesday and I was home alone, eating cheese soufflé minutes after pulling it from the oven. I should have invited a friend, but didn't think of it until it was too late, since, as you may know, cheese soufflé doesn't wait for anyone.
Something else that waits for nobody is a baby. They arrive according to their own schedule and immediately start making demands. They want everything NOW, which is why, when my first child was born, her needs took over our lives, and luxuries, such as date night with my husband, went the way of a good night's sleep. Parenthood took precedence and we spent way more time gazing at our newborn daughter than one another.
It took me a little while to figure out that date night should be non-negotiable. Now many years into motherhood, I don't know of a better gift for my children than finding the time to gaze across the table at their dad, preferably with some candles lit and a glass of wine in hand.
It's not easy, staying connected, when you have a small person, or three or four of them, underfoot. Getting out is trickier than it might seem to the uninitiated. Babysitters are pricey, children are rarely thrilled when you leave; some days the effort of changing out of yoga pants for a night on the town feels nothing short of Herculean.
Despite all of the challenges, my husband and I eventually figured out how to have a weekly date. It's usually a simple evening, in our own neighborhood, that lasts a couple of hours, tops. Sometimes, when the complications are just too much, we stay in and have a "date night at home."
We do our best to act like it's a real date: setting a proper table, lighting candles, opening a favorite wine. My husband tinkers with the iPod, I do most of the cooking. It's pretty remarkable that even in the familiarity of our own dining room, the right atmospherics can make an evening feel like more than just another night at home. We have a couple of unspoken ground rules:
• The kids have to be in bed. Children crawling under the table is a real mood killer.
• No showing up at the table in sweats. Bathing is always good, too.
• Cooking gets a little fancier and ingredients a little spendier than usual.
Which brings me back to the subject of soufflé and what possessed me to make one and eat it all alone on a Tuesday afternoon. It was a test run before next Friday when I plan to make it for a particularly special "date night at home": Valentine's Day.
The recipe comes from the Newlywed Cookbook by Sarah Copeland, which hardly matches my stage of marriage, but seems a fitting source for Valentines Day. There's a little bit of magic in cooking out of a newlywed book. It reminds us that even if we've been together for 10 or 20 years, we don't have to act like it. What could be more romantic?
Don't be intimidated by cheese soufflé. This was my first crack at it, too. The end result is an ethereal wonder, worth every decadent bite. Plus, you won't be going it alone. You'll have your beloved right there... to gaze at, and perhaps remember, just for a little while, what it was like before the babies arrived, when every night at home was date night.
TWO-FOR-TWO CHEESE SOUFFLE
There is nothing cozier than a cheese soufflé for two, hot from of the oven. Light a candle, bring the dish to the table with two forks and an herb-y salad for two, and let the world melt away.
1/2 cup finely grated aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus 2 tbsp for topping
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for brushing
2 tablespoons all-purpose/plain flour
Pinch of nutmeg
3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 small garlic clove, minced or pressed
3/4 cup finely grated semi-hard cheese such as Manchego, Gruyère, or Comté, or a blend
3 large eggs, separated
1/2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F with a rack in the middle of the oven. Butter an 8-cup/ 2-liter soufflé mold and sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano to coat completely all the way to the top. Shake any excess cheese out into a bowl. Put the molds in the freezer to chill.
Melt the 1 tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Whisk in the flour, nutmeg, and salt; whisking constantly, cook the flour without browning, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the milk and garlic and continue to cook, whisking, at a low simmer until the mixture is smooth and thick like pudding, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the Manchego and any Parmigiano-Reggiano left over from coating the molds and cook, stirring, until the cheese melts. Remove from the heat and stir in the egg yolks, one at a time. Continue stirring vigorously with a rubber spatula to cool.
Whisk the egg whites and lemon juice in spotless bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high until they just hold a soft peak. The key is to not over-whip the whites, which would give your soufflé a cloudy instead of creamy consistency.
Fold one-fourth of the egg whites into the cheese mixture with a rubber spatula, carefully turning the bowl and mixing gently until the whites are streaked throughout. Add the remaining whites and fold in but don't overmix, which can deflate the whites.
Transfer the batter to the chilled mold and scatter the remaining 2 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top. Place the dish on a baking sheet/tray and set in the oven, decrease the oven temperature to 325 degrees F/ 165 degrees C/gas 3, and bake until the soufflé is golden, puffed, and set but just a touch wobbly inside, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately.
Makes 2 servings.
Recipe from The Newlywed Cookbook by Sarah Copeland. Printed with permission from Sarah Copeland and Chronicle Books.