What I remember most about my Great Aunt Sue is her jaw. Tight. It moved in a calculated fashion. Sharp. It was a phaser set to stun. Her eyes sparkled. She had a particular perfumey smell like most women of a certain age. She had a hairstyle, not a haircut. She had matching sets of jewelry. She had wit and deep history I learned of mostly through my amateur genealogical pursuits. I only spent a handful of moments with her, but the recollections from my mom and her siblings indicated that my minimal assessment of Aunt Sue’s demeanor was, for the most part, fitting. She was a unique woman. Not always friendly, but staunchly loving. She had an affinity for my mother that I think transferred to me because of the obsession The Greatest Generation seems to have with ‘bloodlines’. I remember her finding me fascinating. I remember that wasn’t how she was with every kid. I remember she sent me my first pair of Birkenstocks. A few 2 dollar bills here and there.
What has lasted in her absence is what often seems to last: Food. Her perfect, perfect Salmon Soufflé. Now, because both my Great Aunt Sue and My Mamaw are beyond us, I can say what I’m about to say, without fear of an uprising. Aunt Sue’s Salmon Soufflé wins. It is the winner of a life-long feud: Mamaw’s Salmon Loaf or Aunt Sue’s Salmon Soufflé? Even my mom, whose devotion to her own mother knows no bounds, had to admit it. In the quiet whispers of our kitchen, as mom whisked the béchamel, she made apologetic pontifications to the universe. It was never to be discussed. The pain would be too great for Mamaw (arguably the best damn cook this side of the Atlantic in the century). But, on this matter of salmon puffed and baked in a dish, despite her efforts, her tweaking, her tinkering…she was, I’m afraid to say, second fiddle.
I’ve had both. More than once. I think mom continued to make Mamaw’s Salmon Loaf out of pure guilt. Mom, Dad, my brother, all my maternal aunts and uncles, have had both the Soufflé and the Loaf. And, no matter how guilty, no matter how deep the feeling of betrayal bubbles inside us all, there isn’t a single one of us who chooses differently. And so, Aunt Sue’s Salmon Soufflé joined the Rolodex of recipes that fill my childhood dinner table memories. And now I pass that on to my children. And my husband. Who can’t get enough. They don’t know the war that raged for decades. They only know the outcome.
I don’t have anything else that belonged to Aunt Sue. But every time I make Salmon Soufflé, I think of her. I think of her mixing up my cousins Daniel and Anthony. I think of her offering those small strawberry candies to us as we ran around Mamaw’s Museum of Unimaginable Knick-Knacks. I think of her, the struggles of her life, what her kitchen looked liked, the things I’ll never know about her and am desperate to know now.
And in that way, she remains.
To be reduced to a recipe might seem small to some.
But if I live on at my great niece’s dinner table, I’d consider that a success.
Canned Fish Vs. Fresh Fish
Listen. I know. I know. Canned meat. It’s not the best. It’s not the best quality. It’s nowhere near fresh. It doesn’t have the structure that meat should have. There’s no comparison. But, there are some rare instances when I insist on tradition. Could you make this dish with fresh or even frozen salmon? Sure. But, it won’t taste the same. I doubt it would taste bad. And if you insist on fresh, I understand. But in Nebraska, fresh fish (unless you catch it in a lake yourself) is a fallacy anyway. So, I’ll keep doing it Aunt Sue’s way. Don’t be freaked out by the way canned salmon looks – and don’t be freaked out when you see bone. This is normal and you have done way stranger things if you’ve ever buttered up the carcase of a dead turkey. This is a piece o’ cake.
Aunt Sue’s Salmon Soufflé
- 2 T Unsalted butter, melted
- 2 T Flour (Wondra is my go-to)
- 1 C Milk (Fat content doesn’t really matter, but I’d go with at least 2%)
- 1/2 tsp Kosher salt
- Dash Black pepper
- 1/4 tsp Nutmeg, rounded
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1 lb Canned salmon, flaked (you’ll find little bones in the can, remove what you can but they don’t hurt you or taste bad so a few in there won’t ruin it)
- Stand-mixer with whisk attachment, hand-mixer with whisk attachment, or a steel bowl, whisk, and well-trained forearms.
- Small bowl
- Regular dinner fork
- 1 quart casserole dish
- Medium saucepan
- Wooden spoon
- Liquid measuring cup
- Various standard measuring cups and spoons
- Preheat your oven to 325 F/165 C/Gas Mark 3. In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks well with a fork. With a stand-mixer, hand-mixer, or strong forearms, whisk the egg whites until they are still glossy but form stiff peaks. Grease a 1 quart casserole dish however you prefer. (The Aunt Sue way is butter, obviously)
- In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and mix with a wooden spoon. Cook until kinda bubbly and there isn’t any sort of dry floury smell lingering. You’re not looking for any color here, keep it a light roux. Slowly whisk the milk into the mixture. Continue to cook, stirring fairly consistently and keeping a watchful eye, until you have a thickened white sauce.
- Very slowly and in very small increments, add some of the sauce to the egg yolks. I eyeball so I’d guess you’d add about a 1/4 C of sauce in total to the eggs. I usually use a Tablespoon to make the addition and incorporate each time. You’re looking to very slowly raise the temperature of the egg yolks without getting scrambled eggs. Once you’ve incorporated, add the egg mixture back to the white sauce.
- Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg and flaked salmon. Mix well. Don’t be concerned with maintain the flakes of salmon, you’re making a sort of salmon fluff and you’re gonna be happy you did, so it’s alright for the salmon to break down a bit.
- Remove the salmon mixture from the heat and fold into the egg whites gently. Take your time on this step and you’ll be rewarded, but don’t overmix. Stop as soon as you don’t see chunks of egg white anymore.
- Gently pour into your greased casserole dish and bake for 45 minutes. Tell your kids and your cats not to stomp around while it’s cooking – you really are making a soufflé so if you want it nice and tall, try and keep stomps and bumps to a minimum.
- This meal has always, since the dawn of time, been served with peas and brown butter egg noodles. You do whatever you want but, like, I’m telling you, as a person who hates peas, those are the sides to go with.