Christmas Eve and I’ve just kissed the city-dwelling boyfriend goodbye after making him coffee and yogurt and packing his a lunch. He makes a joke about what he calls my domestic aggressiveness, but smiles goofily and I dare say happily as he walks out the door for a final day of retail before the holiday. “What’ll it be today? Bon-bons and trashy movies?” He calls, joking, but I’ve things much more satisfying planned.
First, I lay puff pastry dough on the counter to thaw, then move to measuring flour, baking powder, and salt into a chilled stainless steel bowl for scone dough, then toss it with tablespoon-sized chunks of sweet cream butter. Into the freezer goes the bowl to chill again while I melt good Calibaut chocolate from Belgium with just a bit of espresso powder soften in hot water. The chocolate releases into thick glossy swirls in the pan and the heady scent of strong coffee and chocolate rinses my skin as I stir, before assembling the other soufflé ingredients: a quick custard made from heated milk, sugar, cornstarch, which is then combined with the chocolate and egg yolks.
While the custard cools, I cut take the scone dough from the freezer and cut it into pea-sized chunks with a pastry cutter, working quickly to keep the dough as cold as possible, and then add chilled heavy cream to lightly combine the dough and form it into small blackberry studded mounds sprinkled with turbinado sugar. These will chill for the rest of the day to allow the dough to relax and lighten, before I bake them until just lightly golden and wrap them up for an early morning Christmas trip to Denver.
Next, I pull down a copper bowl and whip egg whites for the soufflé, watching the translucent mixture turn frothy, then creamy, then stiff and glossy. A bit of the whites are then used to lighten the chocolate custard before the rest of them are gently folded in. The texture and color is of the lightest loam and the scent is deep and faintly sweet. I dip a finger in and think of the soufflé hot and melting out of the oven. Using a soup spoon, I mound the batter into butter- and sugar-rubbed ramekins and cover them with plastic wrap. These beauties will chill until tomorrow night when they will be the finish to a Christmas feast of rack of lamb, garlic mashed potatoes with sour cream, poached asparagus with shaved parmesan, served with David Bruce Pinot Noir.
Last I cut the pastry sheets into a peek-a-boo tart. This is done by laying one sheet flat and filling it with sliced granny apples, sprinkled turbinado sugar, cinnamon, and dotted butter. The other sheet is cut with horizontal ribbons (within a half inch of all four edges) and laid on top of the apples. I crimp the rectangular sides of the tart with a fork, feeling the pleasing give of dough beneath the pressed tines, and brush the whole thing with butter. This one’s a Christmas gift I’ll pop into an unsuspecting fridge along with baking instructions for friends traveling on Christmas day.
Cooking is a kind of music all its own. I love the rhythm of making many things at once, moving from one set of ingredients to the next, knowing when to come back to one, when to leave another. In these moments, I am at my most focused and my most quiet. Christmas music plays on Pandora, and my mind is happily free of chatter. Instead, there’s just the sticky feel of egg whites on my fingers and the smell of milk warming on the stove, and I am breathing and content.