It’s May. It’s raining. My sister and I traveled to Paris for her daughter’s college graduation. Entranced by the curve of the streets and the weather-stained limestone buildings, we walk and walk murmuring our bonjours as nonchalant as possible, then letting a smile slide between us.
Racing across the Pont Neuf, hardly noticing the padlocks, just making it to La Cuisine, where we’re learning how to make soufflés in a little kitchen off the Seine.
I live in Montana and my sister lives just outside of Boston. By the time I start dinner she’s just getting home. This works out perfectly for us, as I relax at the end of the day while cooking and she unwinds after work. Two thousand miles apart, we pour a glass of wine and open our ipads to Facetime. My husband has four brothers, but it’s nothing like the relationship I have with my sister. We’ve seen the worst and the best of each other. Sisters share the intimacies of life – earnestly, honestly, and with unashamed tears.
Plastic aprons tied around our waists, adorned with our Sharpie-written names, my sister and I, along with six other English-speaking cooks, stand in front of our stations. Chef Emelie passes around whisks and bowls.
“First we will make our savory soufflés,” Chef Emelie says, checking to be sure each team is also equipped with a very sharp knife. “There are tricks when doing the prep to make the soufflé stable.” We place equal parts butter and flour into our warming pans, whisking the roux until the flour smells like butter and the butter smells floury.
“Gently pour the milk into the mixture.” Chef Emelie walks us through the trick of it.
As I stream the boiled milk into the roux, I remember the first time my sister and I baked a cake. It was my mother’s birthday. Even though we used a box mix, there was no way I could leave it at that. I needed to put my special mark on the cake. So we added the most colorful decorations we could find. Delving into our pockets and drawers, the bottom of our school bags and under our beds, we found ruby Jujubees, cotton candy blue Smarties, Lemonheads and a stray straw of purple Pixie Stix. Only the best of the best for our mom.
Oddly enough, it was one of the rare evenings when our mother actually came home. In my mind, her coming home that night validated our efforts and led me to believe, bake the cake, and they will come.
My sister butters the molds and flours them. The grated cheese waits as I stir the roux then season it with salt and cayenne. In the background I hear the disappointment in Chef Emelie’s voice as someone has not whisked well. Another person calls the chef over to check on her roux. Unlike a few of the other “teams” in the kitchen I’m fully confident in us.
Chef Emelie tells us it’s time to whip the egg whites. By hand. We are doing it the French way. I hold the bowl against my chest, like a baby, and whip the whites until they peak. The effort gives me a wild whiff of confidence. I look over at my sister. She cuts the salmon into small pieces and chops the chives. At that moment our eyes catch, snagged on the edge of a wide open world. We are safe when the stove is on and our hands are busy.
My sister and I have been through the wars together. We’ve drifted and come back together. Stabilized like the roux. But we’ve always shared one motto: When going gets tough, the tough get baking.
We’re both older, our kids out of the house. I like to think we’re a lot wiser. Like knowing when to add a little flour or to use milk instead of water, we’ve learned how to stabilize our relationship. Although I’ve been plagued in the past about my lack of skills as an older sister, I’ve put that aside. I’ve forgiven myself the little pinches of baby fat and the mild lies about the cherry taste of red crayons.
But there were bigger issues. I ran when I should have stayed. Not only once I turned sixteen and no longer forced to go on visitations with our father, leaving my sister to blister in his nuclear presence, but later as well. I left New York to go to Europe, to live in London, while my sister convinced our mother to leave an abusive relationship. I only came back once the dust settled.
“Now, carefully fold the egg whites into the béchamel sauce,” Chef Emelie says. Her accented words ground me in the moment.
Both of us suffered through curdled marriages, each feeling the cuts of the other’s wounds. Her divorce sliced deeper, while mine were more numerous. We learned not every recipe turns out. My sister was the first to have children. Two years later I had my daughter. Back then, the phone calls lasted hours as I devoured her advice on nap times and baby foods.
Moving to Montana meant I had to learn to cook all the foods I craved: croissants, pate, black and whites, and matzo ball soup. Once I perfected those dishes, I moved onto rainbow cookies, sweet potato latkes, Tandoori chicken, and seven layer birthday cake (sans Smarties). Soon I was sharing recipes with my sister and sending her our favorite New York cookies at Christmas.
We place the molds, filled with the eggy mixture into the oven and make the salad. Chef Emelie has us set the table. She pours the wine. We raise our glasses. The industrial kitchen blooms with the sharp notes of salmon and earthy tones of chives.
Across the granite counter my sister and I toast each other.
We’ve survived the wars of childhood, of adolescence and parenting. It’s time to celebrate our victories, in the guise of the perfect soufflé.
[Editor’s note: La Cuisine Paris offers an exciting array of cooking classes. Check out their website for details.]