From the late 1950s until March 7, 2004, the world was divided between those people who dined at La Côte Basque, and those who did not.
Regular diners at the storied eatery lived to discuss among themselves the extravagance of the restaurant’s flowers, and what they may or may not have heard Mrs. Onassis discussing at the next table, but what they loved most was the Grand Marnier soufflé, a fabled dessert that seemed to be on offer nowhere else in the world.
And what that moneyed elite loved most about La Côte Basque was singing the praises of their most recent Grand Marnier soufflé in front of someone who would never in their lifetime be able to afford the same experience.
But La Côte Basque is long gone, and the magic of the internet has brought recipes of the world’s most elusive dessert to the masses. Some of those recipes claim to be the actual recipe of long-time owner/chef Jean-Jacques Rachou. Others are slightly modified and modernized to make them easier and more predictable. But it is now possible for anyone with even a small amount of cooking skill and a whole lot of confidence to surprise your Valentine with the most romantic dessert of them all.
Forget chocolate. Forget red cake. You’re ready for the big time. You are going to make a soufflé.
Nothing says true love like the best-tasting thing you ever put in your mouth, something you thought you’d never experience, and yet something that could collapse into a puddle of ruined, useless splendor at the slightest provocation, leaving you with nothing but a broken heart and failed expectations.
So you see, Grand Marnier soufflé is the very personification of love, the quintessential Valentine dessert. And if you want it, you’re going to have to make it yourself. It’s not going to be on the menu of your friendly, neighborhood eatery. Not even on the Valentine’s Day prix fixe menu. You’re on your own.
Many good cooks have never attempted a soufflé because of their reputation for being difficult. Which they are not. Every step is a simple skill that any cook who’s ever baked a cake from scratch can handle.
What a soufflé is is dangerous. It’s cooking without a net. It’s dangerous and demands confidence. Just like romance itself. The metaphor couldn’t be more apt and will not be lost on your love.
A soufflé depends on the mercurial abilities of egg whites to expand tremendously in size, and when subjected to heat, to expand some more. The metaphor for love continues.
But the whole thing could collapse at any moment into a rubbery ruin. A mere shell of its former glory. The metaphor is almost too obvious. And the reason soufflés require supreme confidence is that they are served hot out of the oven. Every second after a soufflé is removed from the oven brings it one second closer to its inevitable demise.
So you can’t bake it ahead of time. And try it again in case of disaster. You have to get it right the first time. You can do some advance prep, and whip the egg whites and pop it into the oven when you serve the main course. But watch the timer. And take exactly 12-16 minutes to eat, depending on your recipe.
Then pull your soufflés out of the oven at the peak of perfection, and why not dust them with powdered sugar in the shape of a heart, a sweet Valentine’s touch denied the one percenters at La Côte Basque. Fold a sheet of paper in half, cut half a heart shape out, open it up, hold the paper over your fresh-out-of-the-oven soufflés and sift some powdered sugar over it.
Carry your piping hot soufflés to the table where you have already placed a dish of cold créme Anglaise. You will now perform the part of a headwaiter in the fanciest French restaurant of its time and indulge in a little tableside theater.
Pick up the spoon from the bowl of créme Anglaise with a nice spoonful in it. Plunge it deep into the heart of the hot soufflé right through the sugar heart on top. Your spoon of créme Anglaise is Cupid’s arrow. It has found its target. Now pick up the bottle of Grand Marnier and pour a glug of it down the back of that arrow, uh, spoon. Now sit down, and enjoy.
Ironically enough, for a dessert so firmly associated with the cream of society, it’s not very expensive to make. Butter, flour, milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, mostly stuff that anyone who cooks regularly is probably going to have on hand. You will need an orange, and of course, the namesake ingredient, Grand Marnier, which can be a budget buster. The Mount Airy ABC store doesn’t sell the budget-friendly pints (375 ml bottles) as other liquor stores in Surry County do, but if you ask at the counter, they’ve got the little miniature airline bottles for $3.95, and one of those babies will make a batch of créme Anglaise and soufflés for two, with enough left over to drizzle down a spoon. World Market in Winston-Salem sells very reasonably priced ramekins. The middle-sized ones that hold slightly more than a cup are perfect. Asters and Vanderbilts would be shocked at how inexpensive their favorite dessert can be.
But just in case, spring for some strawberries. That way, if your soufflés crash and/or burn, you can serve strawberries with créme Anglaise, possibly the second most romantic dessert in the world.
Grand Marnier Soufflé
This is the recipe attributed to Jean-Jacques Rachou, long-time owner and chef of La Côte Basque. It makes four individual soufflés.
1 tbsp. soft butter
½ cup plus 3 tbsp. granulated sugar
5 eggs, separated
⅓ cup grated orange rind
2 tbsp. Grand Marnier
Preheat oven to 450°F. Rub the butter on the bottom and sides of four 1-cup souffle dishes. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar over the insides of the souffle dishes. Place the egg yolks in a bowl and add 1/2 cup sugar, the orange rind and the Grand Marnier. Beat briskly until well blended. In a large, deep bowl, preferably copper, beat the egg whites until stiff. Toward the end, beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. (You can use an electric stand mixer, but keep an eye on the egg whites. They should not be too stiff.) Spoon the egg-yolk mixture into the whites, folding in rapidly. Place equal portions of the mixture in the prepared souffle dishes. Put the dishes on a baking sheet, and place on the bottom of the oven. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, and serve immediately.
Grand Marnier Souffle
This version is not as Grande Cuisine and starts with a blonde roux which makes it sturdier and less subject to disaster. It serves two, perfect for a romantic Valentine’s dinner.
1 tbsp. butter, melted
1 tbsp. white sugar
5 tsp. butter, melted
5 tsp. all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cold milk
2 egg yolks
1 tsp. freshly grated orange zest
1 tbsp. Grand Marnier
1/8 tsp. vanilla extract
2 egg whites
1/4 cup white sugar, divided
Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush the insides of 2 (8-ounce) ramekins with 1 tablespoon melted butter and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar. Place on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Melt 1 tablespoon butter and 2 teaspoons butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat; cook and stir flour in the melted butter until golden brown and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Pour in milk and cook, stirring continuously, until smooth and thick, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a mixing bowl. Stir orange zest and 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier into butter mixture until combined. Add egg yolks and 1/8 teaspoon vanilla; mix until smooth. Whisk egg whites in a large bowl until frothy. Slowly add half the 1/4 cup sugar and whisk until combined; add remaining sugar and continue to whisk until meringue is thick and holds it shape, but is not stiff. Fold half the meringue into egg yolk mixture until combined. Gently fold in second half until well mixed. Transfer to the prepared ramekins, allowing 1/4-inch of space at the top. Bake in the preheated oven until risen and browned, 16 minutes.
Make the Créme Anglaise Sauce ahead of time. Serve it with the souffles, and pour the custard in the center of each souffle.
There are plenty of recipes for créme Anglaise out there. This one is among the simplest. No pouring egg yolks back and forth, just strain out any lumps at the end.
2 large egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup white sugar
1 tbsp. Grand Marnier
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
Whisk egg yolks, cream, sugar, Grand Marnier and vanilla extract in a small saucepan until smooth. Place saucepan over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula scraping the bottom, until the mixture is hot and thickens slightly, and a thermometer reaches 180°F, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, strain to remove any over-cooked particles of egg, and allow cool.
For added orange flavor, add some freshly grated orange zest to the cooled creme Anglaise. Do this for your Grand Marnier soufflés. For other uses, leave out the zest or perhaps use lemon zest and substitute cognac for Grand Marnier for a sauce that’s more versatile.