Cream of Tartar

Cream of Tartar
What is the first memory you have of cooking with your mother? When I think of mine, I always think of the endless stirring involved in helping her make her wonderful, fool-proof cheese soufflé. In fact, she wouldn’t make it without my help, because of the arthritis in her fingers, or so she said.  It became difficult for her to stir. I always thought it an excuse to have me around helping, and to have help with the most tedious part of the recipe. But it was time spent together and I remember it well–and always with a glass of white wine or a vodka lift at her side: the tails of her sheer, black apron fluttering as she raced around the kitchen fetching ingredients. It wasn’t until years later, after her death, when my own fingers started to go, becoming painful and crooked from the very arthritis she had, that I realized how much she actually needed me.  Here is the poem, and the recipe, and the memory. What’s yours?

Cheese Soufflé

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 ½ cups shredded cheddar cheese
About 1 ½ cups milk
5 eggs, separated
½ teaspoon cream of tartar

In a double boiler, melt the butter. Then add the flour and stir until well blended. Add the milk, a little at a time, and stir until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the cheese, stir, and remove from the heat. Beat the egg yolks until light and sunny. Add to cheese sauce which has been allowed to cool slightly. Beat whites until stiff but not dry. Fold in cream of tartar and then blend cheese mixture into it. Pour mixture into a greased ceramic deep dish and place that dish into an oven-proof pie pan that has about ½ inch of boiling water added to it. Place dish and pie pan in middle rack of oven. Cook at 350 degrees for about 1 hour or until soufflé has risen and crust has browned and a knife inserted in center comes out clean. DO NOT open the oven door while cooking. Only check for doneness at the end of the hour. If the pie pan runs out of water within the cycle of cooking, open the oven door ONCE to add a little more boiling water. Around my house, we always served the soufflé with baked potatoes, peas, and a “Seizure Salad”—but that’s your call.

Cream of Tartar

Pot-holdering a cloud
of toasted soufflé,
its voluptuous body
billowing over the dish,
we kept its infallible, flawless secret,

referencing the butter-
stained recipe card
by memory only.
Teamwork, we’d wink to each other—
and lots of stirring—never revealing

what separated mother and daughter
from our guests’ amazement
at this seeming perfection—
fleeting, and only as good
as our shortcut:

a bitter white powder lodged
in a glass spice jar
that doubles in volume without fail
what it starts with, transforming
impossible into easy.

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