Dede Coogan and I were friends for much of grade school, spending long hours in her third-floor bedroom with the cozy slanted ceiling and biking to classes together while I still lived across the street. We nurtured a private language called “obtalk,” which is easy enough to figure out once you get the hang of it: just put “ob” after every consonant, as in “Coban yobou gobive mobe sobome mobonobey?” (“Can you give me some money”?). Kids picked it up easily, but our chatter drove the adults around us batso, and of course that was part of the point.

I was a little in awe of Dede, even though she was a year younger, because she seemed to have incredible aplomb. It is difficult to talk of a third- or fourth-grader possessing style, but somehow when Dede pinned two barrettes in her dirty blonde curls she edged toward a certain pre-pubescent movie-star glamour, a baby Bacall in saddle shoes.

The Coogan clan, early 1970s. Dede is at the far left with a nephew on her lap. “Hottie” Lisa is at far right.

The whole family, in fact, seemed a cut above the usual postwar suburbanites in my parents’ social circle. My mother claimed that the Coogans descended from an old Irish family whose patriarch developed a neighborhood—Coogan’s Bluff—overlooking the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. She told me the story of Harriet Coogan, who married into the family, and when she and her husband bought a house in Newport, RI, they hoped to be accepted by the Vanderbilts and Astors, but because she was Catholic and Irish, hobnobbing with the swells of her day was out of the question. She threw a party in her new mansion, prepared a lavish banquet, dressed to the nines, and no one showed up. There was a movie about Harriet Coogan, said my mom, and I have some dim memory of seeing a story about a beautiful woman shunned by snooty society, but I can’t for the life of me track it down.

If this was a lesson in the dangers of hanging out with Irish Catholics, it was lost on me. One of the things I most loved to do with Dede, at least for a year or so, was attend mass on Sundays. Our usual house of worship was a community church that adhered to no particular Protestant sect, but the Coogans were Catholic and that set them apart from many of my parents’ friends. (My parents had no problems with my checking out Roman rituals because in general they felt religion was bunkum and believed their children would eventually concur.)

Dede at her wedding, ca. 1975

I borrowed one of the Dede’s lacy mass head-scarves and brought a string of my mom’s beads for a fake rosary. Everything in the Catholic church was thrilling and mysterious. The mass was still in Latin in those days, and the priest, in his long embroidered vestments, swung a censer as he walked down the aisle. We were endlessly kneeling and standing and slipping the beads between our fingers, Dede reciting some ritual response, me whispering in obtalk. After a while, though, the magic wore off—I felt like a real fake accepting communion—and I realized I preferred to be with my own family on Sundays.

Holidays were a very big deal at the Coogs, as my mother called them, where we celebrated Easter and Thanksgiving. Why my family didn’t reciprocate is a little fuzzy to me. Perhaps the Coogans simply had more family and, for a time, a bigger house. For sure the entertainment was better, with touch football on the lawn, home movies, Easter parades (we wore beribboned bonnets made from paper plates), and Dave singing at the piano. Both our mothers were Marys and so inevitably he crooned, “For it was Ma-ree, Ma-ree, plain as any name can be….”

The food, though, was terrible. I think I knew this even as a kid. That canned ham with pineapple was gelatinous and icky, as were sweet potatoes with mini-marshmallows, and it seemed to me that asparagus was not supposed to fall apart in shreds, bending its tired head when you picked up a stalk between your fingers. But Mary Coogan did have two recipes that could redeem any meal. Aromatic sage jelly, which slathered on dry turkey disguised the cardboard taste, and a divine chocolate soufflé, served in a long Pyrex dish and oozing with dark rapture. I believe she freely handed out the jelly recipe, which I lost long ago, but the soufflé was a closely guarded family secret, which I have had to reconstruct from various sources so yobou coban mobake itob toboo.

Chocolate Soufflé (adapted from Tasty.com)

1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, for greasing

¾ cup granulated sugar, divided

2 ½ cups whole milk

12 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped; or 12 oz semisweet chocolate bits

6 large eggs, separated

¼ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

powdered sugar, for topping

special equipment: a big soufflé dish or 6 to 8 smaller ramekins (see notes)

  • Preheat oven to 400F and position a rack at the bottom of the oven, removing the other rack (see notes)
  • Grease the souffle dish with softened butter and pour in ¼ cup of sugar. Tilt the ramekin to coat with sugar evenly, then pour out the excess and set the dish aside.
  • In a medium saucepan, scald the milk over medium heat. Just before boiling, remove the milk from the heat and whisk in the chocolate until melted. Set aside.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, ¼ cup of sugar, the flour, salt, and vanilla, until smooth.
  • Add ½ cup of the chocolate milk mixture to the yolks and whisk until combined. This will temper the egg yolks so they don’t curdle when added to the rest of the chocolate mixture.
  • Return the pan with the remaining chocolate milk mixture back to the stove over medium heat and pour in the chocolate egg yolk mixture. Whisk constantly until thick.
  • Remove the chocolate pastry cream from the heat and transfer to a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, making sure the plastic touches the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
  • In a large bowl, combine the egg whites and cream of tartar. With an electric hand mixer, whip the egg whites until they turn opaque and leave trails. Gradually add the remaining ¼ cup (50 g) of sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.
  • Spoon about 1 cup of the whites into the chocolate pastry cream. Fold until no white streaks remain. Gently fold in the rest of the whites in two additions, being careful not to deflate the whites. Once no white streaks are visible, transfer the batter to the prepared souffle dish and smoothe out the top.
  • Run your thumb between the outside edge of the dish and the batter to create a border.
  • Reduce the oven temperature to 375°F, then immediately place the soufflé in the oven and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the soufflé has risen over the edge of the dish. Do not open the oven while baking.
  • Dust the soufflé with powdered sugar.

Notes

  1. The original recipe called for a 1.5-quart soufflé dish, but I had enough left over to fill three little ramekins (see the photo above), so either use a 2-quart dish or a bunch of small ramekins. Be warned that soufflés will fall. That is their nature. So the possibilities of yours looking like the photo I plucked off the ‘net (below)  are probably remote.  If properly baked, though, they are delicious, warm or at room temperature, puffed high or gently cratered.
  2. All the recipes I consulted tell you to preheat the oven before proceeding to the next steps, but I recommend heating the oven while the chocolate pastry cream is cooling,15 minutes before you take it out of the fridge, or however long it takes your oven to fire up.

Top: Pierre Bonnard, The White Tablecloth (1925), oil on canvas, 16.5 by 15.1 inches

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