Not long ago my mother-in-law showed me a book of recipes published in 1924. It had been printed to benefit the Richmond Day Nursery, a school in Richmond, Indiana, where both sides of my husband’s family have lived for generations. The book belonged to his great-grandmother Muriel Bartel Rohe, and the yellowing pages are filled with favourite dishes of the local gentry, including several submitted by great-grand-aunts and distant cousins. The organizers of the cookery book also reached out to First Lady Grace Coolidge. Mrs. Coolidge—famously painted that same year by Howard Chandler Christy in peerless red velvet, her favourite colour, with the family’s white collie Rob Roy at her feet—graciously complied with a dessert called Coffee Soufflé. Its origin is unknown, though it may have come courtesy of Elizabeth Jaffray, the Coolidges’ housekeeper. Grace Coolidge was a witty, stylish woman who loved dancing, was a big baseball fan, and taught deaf children in her youth, but the First Lady considered herself hopeless in the kitchen.
Of course I was intrigued. Coffee and soufflé are two words that quicken my heart, and I’ve always had a fascination with Mrs. Coolidge, largely because of the glamour of the Christy painting, arguably the most elegant First Lady portrait to hang on the walls of the White House. So I tried the dessert out on friends with whom we dine nearly every week-end, and though we all agreed Mrs. Coolidge’s dessert is more a mousse than a soufflé, they pronounced it delicious. I, however, was somewhat disappointed in the result. It just seemed a bit too spongy for me, due to the gelatin required. The coffee flavour was subtle, though, and pleasing, and we provided some contrast to the coffee and whipped cream by sprinkling it with shavings of dark chocolate.
COFFEE SOUFFLÉ (MRS. CALVIN COOLIDGE)
SOURCE: Cook Book (Richmond, Indiana: The Richmond Day Nursery Assocation, 1924)
1-1/2 cups coffee
1 tablespoon gelatin
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup milk
Yolks of 3 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
Whites of 3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
A bar of dark chocolate
Heat the coffee, milk, gelatin, and 1/3 cup of the sugar in a double boiler.
Add the egg yolks, which have been slightly beaten, the salt, and the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar. Cook until the mixture thickens, stirring frequently; this will take some time, and it will eventually have the consistency of motor oil (it’s the only way I can describe the texture).
Remove the coffee mixture from the heat. Beat the egg whites and the vanilla until stiff. Gently fold the whites into the coffee mixture. When thoroughly combined, pour into a mold, chill until firm, serve with whipped cream, and garnish with dark-chocolate shavings (see below).