Petronella Wyatt

An enduring love affair

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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I have had for a long time a certain obsession. It began in France when I was about 14 or 15. To be exact, it began in Paris, in the restaurant of the George V hotel. It happened when I first saw the brown topping oscillating towards me, giving off the warm scent of chocolate mingled with vanilla.

I am referring, of course, to soufflés. Once you have been bitten by a soufflé, or rather once you have bitten into it, there is simply no going back. For many years, alas, few London restaurants have emulated Paris. Paris has one eaterie simply called Soufflé, where the practised soufflé-eater can indulge in a whole meal of dishes both savoury and sweet.

In England, however, there have been few reasonably priced places that provide a decent one. This was until Marco Pierre White once kindly asked me and my friend Alice Thomson to eat soufflés at the Oak Room. The dinner was like a scene from Ian Fleming. A telephone was brought to our table by waiters. About once every half-hour it would ring, with Marco on the other end inquiring how the soufflés were.

This was the summation of a lifelong love affair — involving me and soufflés, that is. Since then it has been my ambition to cook one. Cowardice and lack of necessity, however, has prevented any such attempts from being made. There is no moment more humiliating in the life of an aspiring cook than when the soufflé is presented to the table and makes that sudden squelching noise indicating that it is about to collapse. On such occasions, I have seen even my ovenproof friends rush out of the room in tears or at the very least gulp down a large glass of alcoholic sustenance.

Nevertheless, as soufflés are pretty scarce in Charlottesville, Virginia, it was down to me to remedy this. I duly bought a cookbook and armed with this and the Danish au pair set about the task. Not wishing to be bashful I decided to start at the very top and make a Grand Marnier soufflé. At its best this is a delightful, scented confection tasting of vanilla and orange.

One of the ingredients of the recipe puzzled me though. It indicated a teaspoonful of cream of tartar. I had never heard of cream of tartar. Neither had the Danish au pair, for that matter. She thought it might have something to do with raw steak. I said I rather surmised not, but couldn’t be 100 per cent sure. It turned out to be a white powder smelling slightly of onion.

Doubtfully, I added the white powder to the rest of the ingredients. The soufflé mixture looked alarmingly low in the baking dish. It would have to rise to triple its height to make any aesthetic impression. From the recesses of my mind suddenly swam the words ‘baking powder’. I recalled someone telling me that the best-guarded secret with regard to soufflés was baking powder. It rose to the occasion, as it were.

Rummaging about in cupboards, I found what I was looking for. The baking powder looked a bit old and congealed but it would have to do. Not knowing how much to put in I decided it would be unwise to skimp. I put in a tablespoonful. That should prompt a generous rise. Unfortunately, however, the soufflé mixture immediately ceased to smell of vanilla and orange and took on the unmistakable whiff of arid baking powder. I had made the world’s first baking-powder soufflé.

As everyone at the table was expecting it — a soufflé, I mean — there was no option but to carry on. The au pair cooked some sausages and I stared dismally through the oven door. After 15 minutes nothing had happened. Even the industrial amount of baking powder seemed to have had no effect. I wondered if I had forgotten to put in the egg whites or indeed to turn on the oven. But, alas, there was no such consolation.

My eyes fell on a packet of birdseed on the other side of the kitchen. There had recently been a story in one of the newspapers claiming that Americans spent more money on birdseed than they did on the poor. Insanely, I wondered it it might be helpful to add birdseed to the soufflé. But before I could ponder the question further a sense of movement suddenly emanated from the oven. It was unmistakably the case. The soufflé was rising. It fact it was rising at an alarming rate. In a few minutes it looked as if it might hit the top of the oven.

The au pair gave a yelp and we pulled the thing out. It was still pretty much sky-high. Within seconds, inevitably, the soufflé collapsed by nearly a third. But it still peeked over the top of the dish. As for the taste, that seemed rather immaterial. I am horribly certain, however, that they won’t be ringing from the George V.