Ruminating on Experiment #9: the Great Soufflé Challenge by Director of Communications Heather Sullivan

My “real” job is communications at Nobles—planning publications, refining website functionality and finding opportunities to tell stories that convey the essence of Nobles. I love my job.

I also love to cook. In a very 1970s-they-will-be-fine kind of way, I was given full access to the kitchen when my age was still in single digits. I was a latchkey kid in the Midwest and began making myself lunch at home in fourth grade. I experimented with spices when the usage didn’t make sense in any traditional way. I remember being crushed that my aunt—when I showed her my fifth-grade “lifestyle” magazine project—laughed at me because I had included a dessert recipe that featured fried bananas. “You can’t cook bananas!” she scoffed. (Clearly, she had never flambéed. I usually don’t hold grudges, but I have been carrying this one around for a while.)

When Erika Guy retired from her post as dean of students at Nobles last year, I was sad to see her go. She had welcomed me to the community and been incredibly supportive. The lemonade from lemons I discovered was when Jen Craft, head of the science department, invited me to co-teach the science elective that she and Erika had developed: Chemistry and Cuisine.

This semester, we have made meringues and pizza and muffins and poached eggs and made sugar experiments and more. Every lab has been an illustration of the chemistry of food, clearly and elegantly presented by Jen, who earned a doctorate in chemistry and has been honing her culinary skills in recent years. She has killer knife skills, FYI, and can dice an onion with the best of them.

This week, our chemistry lab was to make soufflé. Who hasn’t seen the cartoons depicting the #epicfail that often results? A soufflé relies on science. There is no laissez-faire here—onlymise en place, a need to “put in place” your tools and supplies. This lab was about chemical reactions. Charles’ Law. The Maillard Effect. Making soufflé uses skills that the students in our class have acquired throughout the semester: making a roux, measuring, whipping eggs whites to gently stiff peaks.

Maybe it won’t surprise you that in our now-routine Iron Chef class competition, calling a winning team for the soufflé was challenging. The execution was universally gorgeous. What elevated the winners on this one was a final improvisation: The winning team whipped up a lovely cheese sauce—learned in a previous lab—with a bite of cayenne to serve with the soufflé.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we are working with a future Michelin star chef (well, who knows?). In fact, last week we were collectively surprised that the one-ingredient poached egg was so simple that it wasn’t. But what delights me about this class is the students’ willingness to try, to focus, to collaborate, to follow the recipe but diverge sometimes with energy and humor and with confidence predicated on knowledge.

Did you know that an egg white, when whipped, can increase in volume up to eight times? Our students know about the chemical composition of an egg shell, why acids and oils don’t mix easily and how to compute calories in a dish.

One thing I have learned since arriving at Nobles in 2011—which has only been reinforced by Chem and Cuisine—is that the Nobles culture allows for students and adults (like me) to innovate and to extend themselves in creative, sustaining and useful ways.

The results? Occasionally, you get a poached egg, sallow with ragged edges, and some (really glorious) days you get a soufflé with remarkable texture, color and taste.

Bon appétit.


photo credit: Chase Haylon ’15

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