Until recently, consommes were relegated to sickroom fare, the kind of thing your maiden aunt might sip sitting in her rocker when her liver was acting up.
Then a funny thing happened: Chefs began to rediscover the artistic possibilities of a soothing broth. Now it sometimes seems you can’t sit down to a tasting menu without being presented with a dainty little bowl of something around which a perfumed consomme is gently ladled.
In a way, this is another case of “what’s old is new again.” Look at Escoffier and you’ll see that garnished consommes were all the rage 100 years ago. He lists 89 versions, from Brunoise (garnished with diced vegetables) to Celestine (sprinkled with strips of thin crepes filled with chicken forcemeat and black truffles).
But the home cook certainly doesn’t need to go that far. A well-made consomme is a good thing all by itself, with a rich, well-rounded flavor you’d never expect from a broth so sparkling clear. Garnish it with even a simple tangle of fresh herbs and you’ll be amazed when the shock of the hot broth releases their fragrance.
It does take some attention to get right. But if you can make stock, you can make consomme. In fact, a consomme is nothing more than a rich stock that has been clarified, meaning that all of the tiny bits of meat and scrap have been removed.
This is done not with any expensive special equipment, but by using yet another of the miraculous properties of the ordinary egg. Here’s how it works: Whisk egg whites into the stock and bring them to a simmer. As the egg whites cook, they begin to float upward, trapping any particles from the broth. When you’re done, remove the egg whites, and you’ve got a perfectly clear consomme.
That is just the outline, of course. You will need to pay attention to several details if you don’t want to wind up with mere soup.
A delicate balance
First, you need to make sure the broth is cool when you whisk in the egg whites. If the broth is too warm, the egg whites will cook immediately, and you’ll end up with a pale imitation of egg drop soup.
Along the same lines, the broth must be brought to a simmer gradually with you whisking all the time. This ensures that the egg white fragments stay small and fully dispersed to catch as many of the little bits of flotsam as possible.
Plan on at least half an hour of steady stirring. It is tedious work but necessary; put some music on.
Once the stock begins to simmer, the bits of egg white, now accumulated into snowflake shapes, will begin to stick together on top of the broth, forming a moist mass that cooks call a “cap” or a “raft.”
You must take care not to disturb this or little bits of it will fall back into the consomme. Don’t stir and don’t let the mixture come to a bubbling boil. Instead, poke a hole in the center of the cap to keep the liquid from boiling over and maintain the simmer at a lazy roll -- what the French call a “smile.”
At first, you’ll see lots of little bits of egg white come floating up from the bottom of the stock. But gradually there will be fewer and fewer. Allow at least an hour of simmering after the cap has formed to get the clearest consomme.
Once this is done, you’ll need to remove the cooked egg whites. Do this carefully to avoid re-clouding the broth. A Chinese “spider” skimmer is best for lifting the cap from the liquid but a slotted spoon works fine too.
There will still be a few bits of egg white in the broth. To finish clarifying, ladle the liquid through a strainer. A fine-mesh chinois or china cap strainer is easiest, but it’s hardly standard home kitchen equipment. You can get just as good a result by lining a colander or large strainer with dampened paper coffee filters. Overlap them so there are no gaps.
A final bit of finesse: Rather than dumping the liquid haphazardly, treat it gently. Use a ladle and spoon the broth carefully against the side of the strainer. Empty into a slightly different spot each time so the fresh stock doesn’t push through any of the already trapped egg white.
Along with stray bits of soupy gunk, clarification also strips some of the flavor from the broth. For that reason, it is beneficial to add to the whipped egg whites some of the ground meat on which the stock is based.
Now that you’ve caught your consomme, what do you do with it? You really don’t need to do anything at all: A sparklingly clear, fully flavored broth is a good thing all on its own.
But it’s much more fun to dress it up. Garnishes range from the simple to the baroque. The easiest are bits of cooked pasta or rice. Use restraint in doling these out -- you want only enough to emphasize the clarity and color of the consomme.
Herbs enhance the flavor
Herbs work wonderfully as well. Match them with the flavor of the broth. Chervil is nice with fish and shellfish; tarragon is great with chicken. Float a few rosemary leaves in a lamb or pork broth. Try garlic chives with beef.
And then there are the constructions: Maybe a little stack of meat and herbs (don’t use any dressing; any fat will cloud the consomme). Or try a simple custard.
The ceremony of the serving is half the fun: Make sure everyone is at the table and have the herbs arranged in wide soup bowls (the shallower the dishes are, the better they’ll show off the broth’s clarity).
Slowly pour a little of the boiling consomme into the side of the bowl, being careful not to disturb the arrangement in the center. Watch as your guests catch a whiff of the perfume.
No wonder old Aunt Mildred was always complaining about her liver.