Even in the midst of summer, Scotland feels autumnal, what with all those tartans and sheep. Maybe that’s why my thoughts often go back there once we pass the equinox here in New York’s own version of the Highlands. Scotland makes chill and gloom feel like the best thing going.
I went to northwest Scotland four times in my late 20s and 30s; once alone, twice with just Peter, and once with all three kids in tow. So some of the memories blur. Still, I can pinpoint certain food moments exactly: Where I sat, who I was with, what we ate.
Which is why I found myself recently transported back to the Summer Isles Hotel in Achiltibuie, sitting down to dinner with Peter. Our table overlooked Badentarbat Bay and the namesake Summer Isles, which dotted the inlet from which the award-winning restaurant harvested its daily offerings of scallops, langoustines, oysters and fish.
We must have been offered a prix fixe menu that evening because otherwise there is no way Peter would have ordered salad with Stilton souffle for his cheese course — he disliked blue cheese intensely. I recall eating mine and then polishing off most of his. These weren’t fragile, collapsing souffles; they were more like slightly fluffy, baked omelets: light yet substantial, crisp at the edges, and melt-in-your-mouth (but not gooey) within.
It’s funny how a dish that a restaurant offers as, say, one course in a five-course meal — like, oh la, we’ll just toss in this little bibelot — can devour a whole day when I try to replicate it at home, leaving me slightly wrecked and the kitchen a mess. Usually, I justify such outlays of time and energy by serving something originally designed to be an appetizer or amuse as a main course: Dig in, kids, this is all you’re getting.
However, souffles are one of those dishes that is actually more intimidating than difficult. Howard McGee, the legendary kitchen-science guru, describes them as “reliable and resilient,” as well as convenient. In On Food and Cooking, he writes, “if you manage to get any air into the mix, an inexorable law of nature will raise it in the oven, and opening the door for a few seconds won’t do it any harm.”
Thanks to him, I’ve learned to trust my instincts when making souffles. I turn to a recipe only to get the basic proportions down (the mise en place), then rely on memory to pull the thing together: Prepare ramekins, make a mornay, add beaten egg whites, bake. I find it’s much less stressful than panic-running back and forth to a recipe.
Even so, I have never served a souffle as part of a five- or even three-course meal. Luckily, fall is a time when all I often want for dinner is a salad of bitter greens with some nuts, fruit and cheese on the side, and a little cheese souffle fits into this menu perfectly. But if I ever did want to aim higher, it’s nice to know that these souffles can be made ahead and re-heated at the last minute, with only a slight diminishment in loft.
Like many people, I am aching to travel again. I haven’t been on a plane since 2018. Yet I suspect that my next opportunity will seem much less carefree, thanks to the massive carbon outlay of jet engines, and a growing sense that none of us can be cavalier about our contributions to global warming any more. So, for now, I’ll go on exploring the Highlands at my doorstep, and returning to Scotland in my mind, and my kitchen. Only this time, when I share a Bayley-Hazen souffle with Peter, he’ll say, “Dang it, I always knew you’d find a way to make me like blue cheese.” Because that’s exactly what he did.
Bayley-Hazen is a buttery, well-balanced blue cheese that’s sold at the Cold Spring Cheese Shop. Jasper Hill, the farm that produces it, calls it a “gateway blue” — appealing even to folks who normally shun blue cheeses.
Makes 4 lunch-size or 6 appetizer-size souffles
- 2 ounces parmesan, finely grated, divided
- 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon whole milk
- 3 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing ramekins
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
- Pinch each cayenne and nutmeg
- 3 ounces Bayley Hazen blue cheese, crumbled
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 egg yolks, plus 1 yolk set aside for glaze
- 5 egg whites
- Pinch cream of tartar
- Mixed green salad and fresh Comice or Bartlett pears, for serving
Equipment: 4 medium (6-ounce) or 6 small (4-ounce) ramekins. Roasting pan for water bath.
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter the ramekins, and dust with a bit of the grated parmesan. Set aside about 1/3 of the remaining parmesan for the final glaze.
2. Place 1 cup of the milk in a small saucepan and heat over very low flame just to scalding. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Ladle a splash of the hot milk into the flour mixture and whisk vigorously until combined. Continue adding milk gradually into the flour mixture, whisking all the while, until you have a smooth, thick sauce. Turn off the heat, mix in the remaining parmesan, along with the Dijon, thyme, cayenne and nutmeg.
3. Transfer the sauce mixture to a large bowl and stir in the crumbled blue cheese. Lightly whisk the egg yolks and stir into the mixture in the bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Prepare a water bath: fill a roasting pan about 1 inch deep with very hot water; set aside.
5. In a clean, large bowl, whip the 5 egg whites and cream of tartar to stiff peaks. Stir a generous dollop of the whites into the cheese mixture, then gently fold in the remaining whites. Spoon the mixture into the prepared ramekins, to about a 1/2-inch below the top. Trace a circle around the outer edge of each souffle with the tip of a sharp knife. Transfer ramekins to the water bath and place in the oven. Bake 20 minutes, or until the tops are puffy and deep gold. Remove from oven. Carefully lift the ramekins from the water bath and set aside to cool 10 minutes.
5. Gently run a knife around the edge of each ramekin and turn out each souffle onto your hand, then flip it upright onto a baking sheet. At this point, you can leave the souffles to cool for up to five hours (cover with a clean towel or an upturned bowl once completely cool).
6. To serve, heat the oven to 425 degrees. Mix the remaining egg yolk with the 1 tablespoon milk to make a glaze. Brush this on the souffles, dust with the reserved parmesan (you can roll them around in it if necessary; they’re pretty hardy), and bake for 10 to 11 minutes. Serve with a fall-mix salad and slices of fresh pear.