Smoked haddock is the shining ingredient in this classic recipe but (as I've bitterly complained on this blog before) this is not available in South Africa. The frozen pap we can buy in local supermarkets is ordinary hake, dyed orange and doused in synthetic smoke, and it's quite legally - and cheekily, if you ask me - sold under the name 'smoked haddock'. Consolingly, though, we have access to very good smoked snoek and angelfish, both of them sustainable local species. The best smoked snoek and angelfish fillets are produced by small smokehouses at my local harbour in Hout Bay - lucky me! - but you can order them from a good local fishmonger. If you're not in South Africa, use a firm-textured smoked ocean fish.
invented at London's Savoy Grill during the 1920s, and named after the British novelist Arnold Bennett, consists of an open omelette topped with an enticing mixture of smoked fish, grated Parmesan, and/or Béchamel, and/or Hollandaise sauce.
The 'and/ors' at the end of that last sentence are squatting there like blinking, uncertain toads - uncertain, because I'm not sure which is the classic and correct version. I can't find an original Savoy Grill recipe for Omelette Arnold Bennett anywhere in my cookbooks or online, and in any case I'm baffled as to how these two sauces can be considered equivalents. I like homely white sauces, but they're just not in same league as golden, buttery Hollandaise and Béarnaise, are they?
Nigel Slater claims that his version - made with a white sauce, using the milk in which the haddock is poached, plus a scattering of Parmesan - is the 'classic interpretation'. Delia Smith says in the introduction to her recipe that both
Béchamel and Hollandaise are used by restaurant chefs for the topping, and (after promising to simplify and quicken the recipe) gives us complicated instructions for poaching haddock in crème fraîche, adding egg and cornflour, then folding in stiff-beaten egg whites and Gruyère to make a soufflé topping. Margaret Fulton, the grande fromage of Australian cooking, warms haddock with butter and cream, then uses egg yolks, stiff egg whites and Parmesan to make one big, fluffy omelette, topped with more cream and Parmesan. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall makes a rich custard with Cheddar, folds in the fish and then pours this delectable mixture over his omelette.
All these suggestions appealed to me, but in the end I took what I best liked from the many recipes I consulted, and made my own convenient version. Hollandaise is the love of my life (at least when it comes to sauces), but I couldn't in all good conscience top a whopping six-egg omelette for two people with more egg and butter, so Béchamel it had to be. And souffléed, just like Delia's, because I so fancy the combination of a plain omelette with a billowing topping.
As is the case with all soufflés, this dish depends on perfect timing. Not only do you need to whip it out of the oven when the soufflé is at the peak of its golden puffiness, but you must also make sure that the eggs in the omelette underneath the topping remain creamy, if not lightly trembling.
Omelette Arnold Bennett with Smoked Angelfish
150 g smoked angel fish or snoek (or a similar oily smoked fish)
2 Tbsp (30 ml) butter
2 Tbsp (30 ml) flour
1 cup (250 ml) cold full-cream milk
2 Tbsp (30 ml) cream
½ tsp (2.5 ml) Dijon mustard
7 Tbsp (90 ml) finely grated Parmesan cheese
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice
salt and milled black pepper
7 extra-large free-range eggs
2 tsp (10 ml) butter, for cooking the omelette
a handful of chopped fresh parsley
First prepare the smoked fish. Remove any skin, pull the fish into small flakes and, using your fingers, carefully sift through the flesh to remove any small bones. Set aside on a plate.
Now make the white sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and tip in the flour. Cook over a medium-high heat, stirring constantly, for a minute, without allowing the flour to brown. Pour in the milk, all in one go, and beat energetically with a wire whisk to disperse any lumps. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring constantly. When it is bubbling, thick and smooth, turn down the heat and let it burble very gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the cream, mustard and half the grated Parmesan. Stir until smooth, then mix in the reserved fish flakes and just enough lemon juice to give it a pleasant zing. Season to taste with salt and pepper, cover and set aside to cool for 10 minutes.
In the meantime, heat your oven grill to its highest setting.
Now get ready to turn the white sauce/fish mixture into a soufflé. Take one egg and separate it. Beat the yolk into the saucepan containing the white sauce and fish. Using a metal whisk or electric beater, beat the white to a firm - but not dry - peak. Set aside.
To make the omelette, lightly beat the remaining six eggs in a big bowl, and add half an eggshell of cold water. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Heat a few teaspoons of butter in an ovenproof frying pan, and when it just stops foaming - but is not anywhere near brown - pour in the eggs. Using a fork, pull the cooked eggs towards the centre of the pan, shaking it gently and tilting the pan so any runny egg floods into the gaps. Turn the heat right down now, and cook the omelette until it is just set underneath, but still runny on top. Take it off the heat and set aside. Quickly and very gently fold the beaten egg white into the
Béchamel sauce/fish mixture, then pour this all over the top of the half-cooked omelette. Sprinkle the remaining grated Parmesan all over the top, and place the pan on the middle shelf of the oven, under the grill.
Grill the omelette for 2-4 minutes, or until its topping is puffy and golden. Scatter with chopped parsley and serve immediately, before the cloud on top has a chance to subside.
Serves 2 hungry people.