December cooking is the best, isn’t it? Christmas, obviously, plus all those extra get togethers with good friends and family … That feeling it’s the end of the year and time to mark and celebrate it in lots of ways, including through the food we eat. Some of the things that may happen in our house:
Chocolate pavlova smothered with cherries
Mussels split open and grilled with salsa
Spanish pickled vegetables (with bread/cheese/pâté)
Peach leaf prosecco or other easy but festive sparkling wine cocktails/spritzes …
Buying deluxe produce and ingredients is one way to enjoy cooking and eating in December, but not the only. You can give a meal extra ceremony just by setting the table nicely (note to self – I’m all about the food, and should try harder in this department!), adding a few extra details to the meal, or cooking the dishes that just feel special to you for whatever reason.
Cheese souffle is up there for me. Funny because it’s actually easy and not expensive, but paired with a beautifully dressed salad and dessert afterwards, this is the makings of an exquisite meal. I served it a few years ago for Christmas Eve supper with my husband’s brother and wife. Okay let’s say it was dinner, but on Christmas Eve I want to lash out with words too and scrap ordinary old ‘dinner’. Cheese souffle has ‘supper’ written all over it.
This souffle recipe is very easy to scale up. It depends on how many people you’re serving, and on what dish you have to bake it in, as you can match the amount of mixture to the size of the dish. This quantity serves 4 and fits a medium dish (6-cup capacity when filled to the brim), but if feeding more people I’d go for a larger oval dish that I have (souffles don’t always have to be round!). Op shops are excellent hunting grounds for ceramic dishes.
To scale up to a bigger souffle to serve 6, add 2 eggs, and times the other ingredients by 1.5 … You get the gist. The souffle mixture should ideally fill to about 3 cm below the rim of the dish, which will allow it to rise high in the oven but not spill over. If you are in any doubt, just put a tray beneath the dish, ensuring no souffle gets lost on the bottom of the oven (any overflow onto the tray is delicious).
50 g butter
40 g plain flour
360 ml milk
100 g parmesan (I use grana padano), grated
2/3 teaspoon ground nutmeg (I use a piece of whole nutmeg, freshly grated or ground in a mortar)
½ teaspoon salt
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and stir in the flour to make a smooth paste. Allow the paste to sizzle for a minute or so, stirring regularly, then start adding the milk half a cup at a time. Stir the mixture well after each addition, allowing it to heat, amalgamate and thicken. Make sure there are no lumps before you add more milk. Once all the milk is stirred in and the mixture has become a smooth sauce, stir in the grated parmesan, nutmeg, salt and generous pepper and turn off the heat. Keep stirring the mixture from time to time – the residual heat will melt the parmesan into the sauce.
Preheat the oven to 180°C, and butter your dish right to the rim. Separate the eggs, tipping the yolks into a small bowl and the whites into a medium mixing bowl. Whip the whites with an additional pinch of salt to glossy peaks.
Stir the egg yolks into the milk mixture. Then pour the milk mixture into the bowl of egg whites and fold together gently until there are no longer any large lumps of egg white. Scrape into your dish and place in the oven. Bake for 30–40 minutes, until well risen, brown on top, and no longer looking wet in the middle.
By the time the souffle is finished, you need to have the table set, people sitting down and everything ready to go. Present the souffle straight from the oven, for maximum oohs and ahhs before it deflates.
If you happen to have leftover souffle – it is unexpectedly delicious cold the next day.
Best-dressed French salad
We need to talk about this dressing. It’s made of shallots (brown-skinned shallots would be the traditional French choice, but I’ve made this many times with Asian red shallots), which are blended up with a little splash of vinegar then tipped into a jar and mixed with oil. Simple! It stores in the fridge for a long time, and makes enough for perhaps five salads.
I can’t tell you how good green salads are dressed with this. You can just use top-quality mixed leaves (maximum French chic), or add slivers of other crisp raw vegetables (i.e. cucumber, carrot), or add tomatoes, which make the salad look kind of common, but looks are deceiving (and there is definitely something about cheese souffle paired with tomato that works). Base your choice on what else you might be serving, i.e. you might go for leaves alone if you are making other delicious morsels …
2 shallots (brown or red)
1½ tablespoons sherry vinegar or red-wine vinegar
1 heaped teaspoon salt
extra-virgin olive oil
leaves, washed and dried (i.e. wrapped in a tea towel)
other ingredients if desired (see headnote)
extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
Peel the shallots and roughly chop them, then place in a blender with the vinegar and salt. Blend until the shallots are chopped to a fine pulp. Scrape into a jar (such as a jam jar – 1 cup capacity or a little more) and fill to close to the top with oil. Stir.
This dressing can be stored in the fridge for months. The oil will crystalise, but melt again when you mix it through a salad. The oil layer will also separate from the shallot layer, but this actually protects the shallots from spoiling. To spoon out some dressing for a salad, push the spoon deep into the jar, making sure you get an even amount of each layer. Then, use your spoon to push the dressing back down in the jar and return it to the fridge.
To make a salad, add a few scoops of dressing (about 3 tablespoons for a salad to serve 4) into a large salad bowl. Add your leaves and any other ingredients, plus another splash of oil and some salt and pepper. Toss well.