Sunday, 6 March 2011

Suleiman and the soufflé

Anyone who has read a bit of Elizabeth David’s writing on food may remember her comments on Suleiman, her one-time cook:
“During the war years in Egypt, when I ran a reference library for the British Ministry of Information, I lived in a ground floor flat located in a car park for the vehicles used by one of the secret service organisations whose offices, in a nearby building, were known to every cab driver in Cairo as The Secret House. My cook, a Sudanese called Suleiman, performed minor miracles with two Primus stoves and an oven which was little more than a tin box perched on top of them. His soufflés were never less than successful, and with the aid of a portable charcoal grill carried across the road to the Nile bank opposite (the kitchen was so small it didn’t even have a window, and if he had used charcoal he’d have been asphyxiated), he produced perfectly good lamb kebabs. The rice pilaff I named after him and the recipe for it which I published in my first book in 1950, became part of quite a few people’s lives at that time”.

This story has stayed with me for decades, as a wonderful example of making do, and the impulse to cook well regardless of prevailing conditions. But soufflés? They’re hard, right? Tricky. Need fine temperature control. Can’t make them without a schmick high-tech stove ...

Well, for some time I have been living in a flat with sub-optimal cooking facilities. I have no conventional stove. I cook on a small two-burner electric hotplate, and a butane canister tabletop stove like you’ll find in a Vietnamese restaurant. Inspired in part by Suleiman’s example, and feeling a challenge had been thrown out, I have been experimenting with a cast iron camp oven on top of the hotplate. Roasting meat was an obvious starting point, and more of that later.

The real challenge, of course, was to match Suleiman’s prowess with a soufflé.
Sitting the camp oven on the hotplate is pretty straightforward.

Temperature control is rudimentary. The small size of the oven means that opening the lid to look lets the very small volume of hot air out immediately — soufflé death. This is not simple. Real seat-of-your-pants cooking.

Here is my second effort at soufflé in this basic oven.

I was really happy with this — it rose beautifully, was slightly creamy inside, with a spongy, cooked texture, and tasted of cheese and eggs. Score! Previous experience has shown that this oven arrangement does not brown food well, and that is the case here. Next time, when cooked, I’ll hit it with a brulee blowtorch to quickly colour up the top.

Suleiman — the inspiration you have provided me with took a while to germinate. But necessity results in experimentation and innovation, with often surprising results!