"There are about 18 types of cheese, and these branch out to hundreds and thousands of different cheese varieties," explains a 51-year-old Melbourne-born chef Christopher Millar, who is based in Singapore and helms the progressive Australian restaurant, Stellar at 1-Altitude. "Most cheeses are made in Europe, with countries like Germany, Netherlands, France and Italy leading in global cheese exports. Outside of Europe, the United States also produce a significant amount of cheese. Australia also has a growing distinguished cheese-making industry."
Amongst them, Millar's favourites hail from the French premium cheesemaker, Hervé Mons. The gruyere, for one, is a cheese made from cow milk that borders between sweet and salty, and it originated from the medieval Swiss town of Gruyères. "Gruyere is a traditional, creamy, unpasteurised and semi-soft cheese," says chef Millar. "It has a natural rusty brown rind that is hard and dry. Slightly grainy, the cheese has a wonderful complexity of flavours — at first fruity, later it becomes more earthy and nutty. The cheese is darker yellow than Emmental cheese but its texture is more dense and compact." Millar recommends the gruyere when it comes to baking savoury dishes.
The gruyere has been commonly used in traditional savoury dishes across the board in Western cuisine repertoires — Swiss cheese fondues, French onion soups, brioche sandwiches, the Croque Monsieur, pizzas, and casseroles. "The European countries often have cheese dishes as part of their savoury selection," Millar observes. It's quite the opposite when it comes to Asian culinary cultures. "Except for mozzarella and burrata, you don't often find cheese dishes as such in Asia. It's more served as a cheese course after dessert or as a melting cheese on pasta. Australia and the United Kingdom is also similar in this regard," Millar continues.
The aversion to cheese may have stemmed from two factors — the public's perception and accessibility to quality cheese. "Too often in Singapore, we consume cheese that is mass-produced and [they are] rarely served in their prime conditions, which [means they] can be under or overripe," says Millar. The lack of access to a healthy variety of cheese may have contributed to the unfavourable perception that cheeses are dense, unappetising and jelak — as the locals would say in Malay to signal that they are sickened by the food's intense flavours and textures. "They may have in mind that an all-cheese dish may be too heavy," says Millar.
"However, a dish like the twice-baked gruyere soufflé is surprisingly light and can be served with a salad," Millar quips. While Millar first attempted this dish over two decades ago, the souffle dates back to the 1700s. "This dish is actually a French classic."
It seems like the souffle is a perfect dish to change any long-standing negative perceptions about dense cheese dishes. "There is the light, fluffy texture of the soufflé itself, which is then balanced with the delicious melted gruyere and creamy gruyere sauce," Millar continues.
However, Millar notes that the gruyere has to be of good quality. For him and the dishes that he serves up at Stellar, Millar works with the esteemed cheesemaker, Hervé Mons. "This is very important for gruyere as this dish requires the cheese to be smooth and not overly strong in taste."
That aside, "timing and method is crucial as you need to make sure the mixture has the correct texture before baking. You also need to ensure that the oven door is not being opened and closed during the cooking process." Baking is often likened to a mathematical and technical feat, but to Millar, so long a home cook follows the recipe closely, "it should be easy and not pose a huge challenge."
Here, chef Christopher Millar's recipe for the French classic, twice-baked gruyere soufflé:
Ingredients for Soufflé
220 grams Gruyere Cheese
500 millimetres Milk
Pinch Of Nutmeg
3 Bay Leaves
6 White Peppercorns
80 grams Butter
80 grams Flour
8 Egg Yolks
8 Egg Whites
Butter And Flour To Coat The Molds
Ingredients for Salad
50 grams Mesclun
1. Scald the milk over a moderate flame with the nutmeg, bay leaves and peppercorns.
2. Melt the butter and stir in the flour. Allow mixture to bubble.
3. Whisk in the milk and gently simmer until thickens. Allow to cool slightly.
4. Whisk in the egg yolks one by one until fully incorporated.
5. Add the gruyere cheese and stir through until melted.
6. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks.
7. Add couple of pinches of salt to stabilise the whites.
8. First fold in half of the peaked egg white to the base before folding in the remaining half of egg whites.
9. Smear the 12 souffle moulds with butter then dust with flour.
10. Transfer the souffle mix to the moulds.
11. Place the molds in a baking tray and half fill the tray with boiling water.
12. Pre-heat the oven to 155°C.
13. Place the tray of soufflés into the oven and bake for five minutes.
14. Turn the oven up to 165°C and bake for another five minutes.
15. Turn the oven up to 175°C and bake for a final 10 minutes.
16. Allow the soufflés to cool on a cooling rack.
17. Gently take the soufflés out of the moulds using a dinner knife.
1. A la minute before serving, transfer the individual soufflés to a gratin dish.
2. Pour cream around the edges and scatter with more gruyere cheese.
3. Bake for another 10 mins at 180°C. The souffle should be nicely risen and golden.
4. Serve with salad.
This was a recipe that took chef Millar years of development before he nailed it. "It took a while to refine it to become a dish which is light and fluffy, accompanied by a luxurious creaminess," says Millar. He wanted to revive this classic French dish in a different time. "I felt that savoury cheese dishes were somehow being forgotten. I liked the idea of bringing back a dish which is a classic but presented in a modern way."
Although many things have changed — the gruyere is now made in France instead of Switzerland, the diners are of numerous nationalities and culinary backgrounds, and the soufflé is prepared by the hands of an Australian-born chef in Singapore — the diners' takeaways from this soufflé remain unchanged. At the end of every meal, diners should feel a sense of comfort and instant happiness. "When a dish hits the spot and you see the pleasure on the diners' face, it makes all prior disasters worthwhile," says Millar.
Visit chef Christopher Millar at the Dom Pérignon Pléntitude Suite in Stellar at 1-Altitude.
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