S.F. Celebrity Chef a Century Ago Swore by Prune Souffle

French born and trained Victor Hirtzler drew culinary tourists from around the world to the lavish Hotel St. Francis dining room in San Francisco during his more than two decades as head chef at the landmark restaurant beginning in 1904. His prune souffle is “a nice pudding that everyone likes,” he declared in the recipe published in his 1910 cookbook, L’Arte Culinaire: Hotel St. Francisco Book of Recipes and Model Menus.

Here’s the recipe, which concluded with a note saying the “same process may be followed using other fruit”:

Prune Souffle

Soak a cup of prunes overnight, having first washed them thoroughly. Boil them in the water in which they have been soaked, flavoring with a half stick of vanilla bean and sweetened with a cup of sugar. When done, drain them and save the juice. Strain the pulp through a colander or wire sieve, making a puree of considerable density. It should make a cup of pulp. Now whip up the whites of six eggs until dry. When light, whip in the prune pulp and bake the same as an omelette souffle. It may be baked on a platter, piling it up into a symmetrical mound, or it may be baked in a buttered pudding mold. It may be served hot or cold, with a sauce made of the flavored juice in which the prunes have been soaked. If this is not enough, boil additional prunes. Or it may be served with whipped cream, the latter being preferred by many.

Source: L’Arte Culinaire (1910)

The result of our interpretation of those instructions is getting mixed reviews here at Sara and Michael’s in mid-Wishire, where I am staying for a few days. I’m open to advice, dear readers, about how I might improve on it next time — perhaps, for instance, by baking it at a different temperature in a different pan for a different length of time. Also, I pulped the stewed prunes in a blender, but wished I’d had my food mill with me to hew closer to what seems to be an instruction to press the prunes through a colander or wire sieve.

At 350 degrees for 25 minutes (a guess, since this recipe, as with many of the others in Vintage California Cuisine, gives no guidance on such details), it browned up beautifully, but it hadn’t fully firmed up in the middle. Sara and I thought it was great fresh out of the oven, with a drizzle of the syrup I made by cooking down, with a couple of tablespoons of leftover pulp, the sugary juice in which I stewed the prunes. After the souffle had cooled to room temperature, and had sunk a bit, Sara began to have second thoughts about whether it was so good after all. I was the souffle’s sole defender this morning when I had a slice for breakfast with a thick smear of congealed prune syrup. Michael was dismissive from the get go, declaring that it “tastes like jelly fish.”

About Mark

Mark Thompson, who currently resides in Philadelphia, writes about law, history and food, among other topics. American Character, his biography of Charles Lummis, an Indian rights activist who lived in California and the Southwest from the 1880s through the 1920s, was honored by Western Writers of America in 2002 with a Spur Award for best biography. His second book, Vintage California Cuisine, traces the origins of the state's unique culinary sensibility to the earliest cookbooks published in California. Thompson also publishes a web site called SeasonalChef.com, about farmers markets and seasonal produce. He has written for dozens of publications including the Atlantic, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.
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One Response to S.F. Celebrity Chef a Century Ago Swore by Prune Souffle

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