Across the country, out in the West Coast, the scene somehow is familiar and comforting. Muggy was reading news on the bed, laughing out loud occasionally and sharing random amusing thoughts of the day. Did you know they are building a highway connecting Beijing and Tibet? Driving cross-country is now a thing for Chinese people. Did you know back in the 80s, 43% of female Wall Street analysts came from Ivy league schools? And that now, while that number is down to about 20%, 80% of so-called female "star" Wall Street analysts are still from the Ivies?

From my work station--a big white table in front of a massive window with view of the Bay and the Golden Gate bridge many miles afar, I nodded, surrounded by papers and an open red notebook, scribbled with pens in multicolor. This notebook has been my life for the last semester, and will continue to be for my last 3 months in law school. It contains the case note on my client, Mr. H, a half black half Vietnamese man who suffers from mental disability and whose deportation charges I have been fighting against as part of NYU's Immigration Rights Clinic. In early December, after filing a habeas petition--"the Great Writ"-- in federal district court, we negotiated with an US District Attorney and secured Mr. H's release just in time for the holiday seasons. After almost half a year in jail for doubly jeopardy, Mr. H was finally able to go home, resume working, resume the quiet life that was abruptly interrupted when federal immigration officers raided his home at 6am one morning and took him into custody. Our work is not yet done, as the clinic will continue fighting his deportation charges next semester. But it was quite a feeling for my clinic partner and I as we walked out of the Varick Street Immigration Court--a special adjudication forum for detained cases, heads held high, arms weighted with volumes of briefs, stomachs fluttered with the realization that we had successfully wielded that all-mighty sword that is the law and all of its halo, once stuck in stone, for the benefit of our client and the justice that we believe he deserves. So that, that is how young King Arthur and Le Loi must have felt.

Mr. H was born in Lai Thieu, a town I have never been too, nor could locate on the map. He never knew his dad--an African American soldier who had a brief affair with his mom and disappeared some time in 1968, at the height of the war. Mr. H grew up visibly half black with dark skin, kinky hair, and taller, broader frame than most Vietnamese children his age. He was constantly teased and bullied, and asked to leave school because he reacted to fights. He grew up a solemn boy, earning money by transporting canvas bags of rice and grains to old ladies selling commodities at the village's market. As a result, Mr. H never learned to read or write. Until the clinic got a doctor to diagnose him with mental retardation, his family had no idea that he suffered from a mental disability.

One of the challenges of being a lawyer is that it is difficult to know where to stop. We have filed approximately 1,000 pages of briefs and evidence to get Mr. H out of jail, but our jobs cannot stop at the end step of the courthouse. Mundane questions of life remain: how can he get cheaper housing? Can we help him apply for citizenship? Can we help him file taxes? Get disability benefits? Insurance? Stay out of trouble?

Part of the skill sets that law school teaches you, a smart friend on Law Review once said, is the ability to break down the problem and tackle it once at a time. Life has too many big problems that can overwhelm you at a moment's notice. So that is what we have done. We have broken down the problem and focus on getting Mr. H out of jail first, because liberty is of the highest interest and its deprivation is the gravest violation of due process. SG, my unassuming yet amazing legal advisor from the Legal Aid Society, always tells us we have to believe in our arguments. If you can't convince yourself that you represent truth and justice, you cannot convince anyone else. Talk out loud, wave your hands, bang on the table! -- she will say between the lines -- be outrageous. This is an outrageous case and a great confluence of issues.

On brisk November morning, I rushed out of immigration court, still shaking, and jumped in a taxi to race down to the federal court house to file the habeas. You did amazing in court, you killed it! SG pumped her fist in the air. Sitting in the taxi, I frantically flipped through the hundred-page petitions to make sure the exhibits were in order, my minds in automode. Did I do that well? I only recalled stumbling and forcing out words in inarticulate manner. In this business, it is hard to be non-native speakers when everyone else did debate from high school. But ah, the thrill of the adversarial system, I could see why it is addictive. It is the rush of having someone else watch your every move and keep you on your toes. That someone else reviews all your evidence and is prepared to shoot down your best argument. And the satisfaction of winning, of seeing the happiness in your client's face, and believing that justice--whatever small part of it--has been done. Nothing beat that. Nothing beat that moment of 2012 for me.

So here we are, 2013, for all of the mysteries to come. It will be a year of many big decisions, of graduating law school for me and MFE for Muggy, of moving to Maine and to California, of starting out new careers. And here we are, in our usual routines, ready to dive into the new year, head-first.
Today, as the escalator slowly descended down to the ground floor of the Time Warner Center, the giant wall of glass opposite of me started emerging, revealing views of red bricks, Columbus Circle, and a tower of sky. I have stood on this escalator many times and seen this view many times, but today somehow it made me feel breathless. Perhaps it was a faint and young sun ray of early spring, or a wind that ruffled the leaves, or a feeling of disquietness from within that sped up my heart rates. I know that the moment I leave New York, this will be the scene that I remember and associate with all that this life stands for--youthfulness, ambition, a feeling of liberation.

Second year of law school kicked off to a rough start: classes that failed to inspire, stressful journal edits, a life routine that did not get me out of bed in excitement, and Mug heading out west in the middle of it all. Like a ship out at open sea amidst multi-winds, I felt lost and purposeless. My fear soon materialized: that I would become another one of those lawyers who complain about ruthless billable hours and carry briefs to the courthouse without ever taking the stand and banging on the podium in hopeless advocacy. That I would do good but not outstanding work, be a pleasant colleague but not one that skips down the hallway in delight. I guess it is the ordinary fear of ordinary people: that we'd be lovely but unremarkable.

Two weeks ago, for a random paper idea, I connected with Jerome Cohen, eighty-two years old, a professor at NYU, former clerks for two giant Supreme Court justices, Earl Warren and Felix Frankfurter, the first U.S. legal expert in Chinese law, in particular Chinese Criminal Procedures, and former teacher of the current Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou (who attended NYU as an LLM student in 1976). To my surprise, Cohen was beyond excitement in welcoming me to his office, decked out with photos of him shaking hands with historical men like Zhou Enlai, Ted Kennedy, and Henry Kissinger. In a husk voice, rough from age and experience, he said, Vietnam is a legal gem because despite its fascinating legal heritage from China, France, and the U.S., it remains untouched as the world has rushed to China. You, he pointed at me, can have a long, fulfilling legal career if you choose to. And there, that April afternoon, sitting in his office in Vanderbilt hall, I blinked and felt as if the world had zoomed out like on a Google Earth snapshot, out into the universe. Space was dark and studded with unknown galaxies. I felt special that one of those unknown galaxies could be mine, and yet ashamed that the benefit of the doubt had been voluntarily given solely based on my nationality. Hey, my old lawyering professor shrugged, your nationality could be used against you, might as well use it to your advantage. And yet the moral conflict kept me up at night. Because once you have worked so hard for something, the worst possible thing to happen, worst than rejection, is a judgment that your achievement is not on the merit. And yes, I know that part of what we've accomplished is how far we have traveled, not just where we end up. But regardless, I wonder if those who benefit from affirmative action have suffered from the same self-doubt, that ironically we have to go extra far and satisfy a higher burden.

Later that week, I met Frank Upham, a professor on Asia's rule of law and resident expert on Japan at NYU. To my astonishment he revealed that he had traveled to Vietnam in 1969-1970 to report on the Vietnam War as a journalist for TIME magazine. His daughter now serves in the Peace Corps in Africa. I don't worry much about her, he mused, because I know youth and idealism can rise to the occasion. And I wonder, there and again, if I am young and idealistic enough.

Alina Das, a clinical professor who runs the Immigration Rights Clinic at NYU, certainly is. The IRC, in which I hope to participate next year, represents immigrants at risk of deportation or detention due to past records. We could not possibly lose, she said, bright eyes, because that would be unbearable injustice. You know, it's okay to talk about where you come from and your background, because in this line of work much of the battle is to connect and gain trust from the clients. And just like that, my moral conflict was lifted, because the occasion legitimately called for a personal narrative.

When I was young, Jack London, together with Alexandre Dumas, was a favorite. His major work The Call of the Wild about a husky who found himself in the city and longed for free running in snow fields then captured my budding love for adventures, and unbeknownst to me, associated the wilderness with home. Because the hustle and bustle of New York demand full attention, I have not had a chance to feel homesick for a long time, until I remembered Buck the husky, and suddenly longed to listen to Hanoi Season Without Rain at midnight in New York. And there, as the melody struck, my unknown galaxy became wild and vivid. I felt young and crazy again, as if I were there up on the podium, banging my fist in front the judges, swimming hopelessly. And that, that was the call of the wild. I know then I must at least try to have this long, happy, fulfilling legal career that Cohen himself has lived. That I must never become an unhappy lawyer because Upham looked at me and said, kid, you have lived through some amazing things. That it would be heartbreaking to be ordinary, and I would sooner die from my own moral conflict than to live it.

So much for random thoughts on an April night. And as always, it's time to prep for oral argument tomorrow...
During my first weekend in Geneva, M and I went to pick strawberry at a small farm under the shadow of the Alps. My favorite color is of dominant display here: from dark shade of green grass and strawberry leaves, to the light green of vineyards at a distance, to the greenish gray of mountains far by the horizon. The Alps is what I'd envision Mount Olympus to look like: green and majestic, snow-tipped, perching atop bright halo of clouds. I see it every day, as I bike from M's cottage to the UN, up a giant hill that renders me breathless, down a smooth slope where the wind blows my hair messy, straight to the gate de Nations where a stern but good-humoured guard peers at my UN badge and ID through his sunglasses. From there, I ride under the twin rows of national flags, leading to les Palais des Nations, which houses many important UN alphabet soups such as UNDP, UNEF, OLA. The flagpoles tinker like bells under the wind, and every time I feel a rush of blood to my head, that of youth, dream, idealism, belief, as if nothing in the world has gotten to it, as if I was fresh off the plane to Manila in 1996, bright-eyed and awed, immediately enamored and committed to exploring the world at large.

The International Law Commission, where I intern this summer, is an independent body consisting of 34 legal thinkers (law professors, diplomats, countries' legal advisors) from around the world. Established under the UN Charter Article 13(1), which charges the General Assembly with "encouraging the progressive development of international law and its codifications," ILC commissioners fly to Geneva for 10 weeks each summer to formulate cutting-edge legal issues. Past work includes the groundwork for the International Criminal Court (1997), the highly influential Article of State Responsibilities (2001), and the iconic Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969). Moreover, the ILC has a catalyst relationship with the International Court of Justice, where many ILC commissioners end their careers as judges.

My first week at the ILC feels like summer 1996. Sitting at a long table equipped with multi-language translation headphones, together with 20-some interns from all over the world, I feel small, awed, crazed, and incredibly happy. The debate sometimes get quite technical, but the level of intellectual stimulation is off the roof. The tug of war in international law, as expected, often centers on balancing state rights and individual rights. In some countries, it is illegal for an individual to commit suicide; similarly, in international law, a state does not have the right to "die", for example, to voluntarily allow other states to invade its territory, because it has responsibilities as a sovereign to its people. As a result, states can get away with a lot of questionable conducts in the name of "security and public order," an oft-cited phrase found all over international law, especially Human Rights treaties which purport to protect fundamental rights of individuals against states.

On the last day of 1L, my tort professor, Doug Kysar, a crazy left-wing environmentalist visiting professor from Yale, told us about a study where the subject is put into a room with some other people. As those people started taking off their clothes, the subjects became increasingly anxious and confused. Then, without fail, they ALL started to take off their clothes as well. And soon enough, everyone ended up naked, some without knowing why. "In your life, there will be many times when you have to operate with very little information. Hold on to your values. Don't do things just because your peers have done so, or because your mentor did it. They could very likely be wrong. And commit right now - write on your journal tonight! - to do some self-reflection ever so often. Otherwise, you might end up naked one day, without realizing it."

So tonight, three weeks after that last tort class, quite tipsy from Geneva's lovely dessert wines and so full of strawberry, I finally get around to self-reflect. What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? What world do I want my children to grow up in? My Jacobson mentor, the CEO of a successful hedge fund and the person who pays for my legal education, advised that one only needs to know what one likes today, not tomorrow, because "the system is indefinitely tolerant to those who work hard, and there are indefinite opportunity to reinvent yourself." Perhaps so... perhaps if one is smart enough not to fall through the systematic cracks. Perhaps if one is driven enough to strive for reinvention. Is that what I want? What about a picket fence, full-stocked kitchen, completed with happy, well-fed children and dogs? Will that be enough? Is it ever not enough?

The room I sublet from M is technically the whole attic of her cottage, with slanted ceiling and a lovely skylight that opens out to a blanket of stars. Outside, neighbors are clinking glasses and babbling French. The world is so vast, and amazing, and humbling, with pockets of sunshine everywhere, if one is wide-eyed enough to see them. So in honor of Professor Kysar, young, crazy and so wise, I want to make a commitment tonight. That I shall work on something meaningful and progressive to the world at large, that I shall seek out intellectual stimulation, and resist as much as I can the fragility of desire, as comforting as it may be. That however elusive is "good faith," it must be sought and practiced with persistence, because I really, truly believe that the world is better with it. And yet, however tempting an opportunity is, that I shall remember life is more than that, perhaps meaning can be found by the picket fence with a well-fed and well-raised family, perhaps the lives we can influence and which will influence us need not be continents away, but just right here.

Tonight, Mugg is back to Ithaca to attend the graduation of a good friend, who dreams to be a neurosurgeon. He calculated that assuming he makes it through medical school, it'll take $300K in debt and his 40th birthday until he starts making real money. In the mean time, he's sleeping in his car to save up on rent, and is graduating with a near perfect GPA. What do we do with these dreams and the crazy motivation they generate?!

I guess we keep them. Make them our motivation, disillusion, whatever. And I guess I should enjoy that rush to the head while it lasts, a signal that hopes and dreams are still there, a signal of the young at heart.

Wooohoooo, law school! You know the thrill of bouncing on your tip toes at the start of the racing line? The adrenalin of your heart pumping itself, expanding and breathing for the winding road? The throb in your throat gulping down aching mouthful of hydrolites? And the pulsing muscles, dragging on, screaming "f$%! f%@*" while your brain tuned out in radio-like static? Well, that's kinda like law school.

Third week of law school in West Village, and word, I've never exercised my brain this intensely in life! I LOVE classes. There we witnessed a show of masterminded manipulation - cases, legal rules, common sense, life experience, pulled apart and thrown together, weaved and clashed, balancing and enlightening. Every single day, I walked out of class feeling dazed, wowed, bright-eyed, as if the wisdom of logics has flown down from the nine marble columns of the Supreme Court through a line of black robes, leather brief cases, hornbooks and treatises, through the professors' carefully crafted lectures, dropped into 90 confusing souls that is Section 4 of Class 2013, condensed into intriguing and fascinating legal idiosyncrasies inside my head. Here, emotion is meek, irrelevant, illogical. A good heart that goes out to the honest, hard-working men is hardly enough. Yet cold logic alone does not make a great lawyer.... or does it?

Mile 0.003. I had to stop tonight, closed the casebook, and took a long, purpose-less break (i.e., a whole season of America's Next Top Model). I had to remind myself not to get lost in law school, no matter how exciting the ride is. Because the race is long ahead, past law school, past Mile 26, past lofty amazing beautiful facts and reasoning...
I woke up everyday this week awed and confused, wondering if I were still in New York or already back in Hanoi. It didn't help that the transition was a wash: the McKinsey confirmation didn't arrive till the end of May, giving me just enough time to file a 2-week notice to NERA, pack up as much as many as I could of the apartment, and dash to the airport. Even the goodbye kiss was a rush. Supershuttle, for once, arrived early to our front door and was honking. Mugg squeezed my wrist till it hurt, and pushed me and the lone suitcase onto the van. The laden kiss lasted just a second; the sun was barely rising on Fifth Ave. And before I knew it, New York shrunk itself into a dot, retreating away from the cloud, as if a dream.

Today, on a twice-delayed flight from Hochiminh City out to Hanoi, I once again felt such haze. The camera attached to the front of the plane projected the view ahead onto a large screen inside the cabin. Ten minutes from landing, the city of Hanoi suddenly emerged from a veil of fog, scrawling over brown sands and green hills. It looked like a magic fortress from Lord of the Ring, or Alamuth from Prince of Persia... How is that even possible? It struck me for a minute that home has become such a mysterious place. Perhaps cities aged twice as fast as dog years. That five years away has left me backward at least a decade...

Living in Hanoi in summer of 2010 was a surreal experience. The irony is stark: while the internship submerged me entirely into the business culture of client, it at the same time isolated me completely from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. I will have to explain at a later post, but suffices to say that homemade meals and motorbike rides are still rare commodities. Good thing West Lake is just a step away, and a morning after the rain is perfect for an early run.

Till tomorrow, Hanoi!
The weather in New York this year was indeed like a moody woman. Spring was unusually hot, the beginning of summer unusually cold and rainy. Much to my woe, the weather swing and the overkill of VACC have negated any effort to train for an early summer marathon, like I did last year. A fall marathon also seems out of the question, as law school looms in the horizon. I've always wanted to run Miami in January, but the crisp memory of training in the New York winter immediately deterred my faint spark of motivation. On a good note, I found out that the Hash Harriers have chapters in both Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Noi! For those of you who are not familiar, the Hashs proudly call themselves "a drinking group with a running problem." Their runs, often organized as a treasure hunt with cryptic marks on trees and whatnots, always end in clashing beer bottles at a local bar. A coworker has many times lobbied me to join, but I never went in New York, simply because I was not that much into drinking, let along drinking right after a run. The Hashs' operations in Viet Nam however seem very interesting. Since the cities are unsurprisingly too crowded and polluted, they often take runners out to the countryside, about an hour away by bus, where Hashers are free to roam on paddy fields under the flawless blue sky. I know instantly that I will absolutely love to join. For those of you in Ha Noi this summer, check out their website: They meet every Sat at 2PM at the American Club on Hai Ba Trung Street.

And yes, you heard me right, I will be spending summer 2010 in Ha Noi, where I left 9 years ago and last visited 5 years ago. An amazing opportunity somewhat fell into my lap a few weeks ago: I will be one of the first interns with McKinsey & Company in Ha Noi. I'm not quite sure what the project and the team will be like yet, but nonetheless can barely contain my excitement. Next week will be my last time (knock on wood!) analyzing crazy auction rate securities at NERA, and that alone is a reason to celebrate. The great summer internship is only dampened by two inconveniences: first, my family is in Ho Chi Minh City, so I would have to fly back almost every weekend to visit. My grandparents for sure would not be amused by me living and roaming Ha Noi alone, though the fact that I will be staying with a trusted friend's family, working for a trusted firm, and working with a friend whose family they have met, should provide enough security. Second, I sadly will have to leave Muggy alone in New York for 10 weeks, spanning over our move to a new apartment in Columbus Circle. We were both quite bumped about the long distance. Mugg was supportive, and I am extremely grateful for that. Depending on his job, he might be able to make a trip to visit China this summer, when either I will join him and his family, or he will drop by Viet Nam for a tour. Yuko was also interested in coming, so we're trying to work out a Japan - Viet Nam trip, which turns out to be quite tough since tickets all ran out so I couldn't book a stop over, and the internship won't leave much time for travel afterwards. Regardless, it is gonna be a over-the-top full summer. On the way back, I will land in New York on August 24; and law school orientation starts on Aug 25. Now, the books I've read all recommended settling in at least a week before school starts to get a feel of the land. I know that the summer schedule will leave me tired and jetlag for the first days of law school, but orientation goes on for a whole week, so hopefully by the time classes start I will have regained my energy.

Talking about law school, the final decision is NYU School of Law, where I will be entering as a Mitchell Jacobson Law & Business scholar on full-tuition scholarship. That means I turned down the equally generous Darrow from Michigan, and the prospect of an UN externship at Columbia. I never expected to be in love with NYU (I live uptown and run in the park - the unmarked Columbia's territory, after all), but the wonderful professors who administer the Jacobson totally melted my heart. Not to mention the sparkling-eyed students whom I met at the Jacobson reception, whose enthusiasm for the greater good and positive experience at the law school and genuine happiness left me quite speechless. Since I insist on staying near Central Park - the center of calmness, Mugg and I decided to move down 10 blocks to Columbus Circle, where we both can take advantage of the express train that should get us to Washington Square and the World Trade Center in less than 20 minutes and half an hour, respectively. It has not yet dawned on me, but I get visibly more and more excited for law school each day. The only problem is that there is no way I could finish the summer reading load as planned, given the new internship which supposedly runs from 8AM - 7PM each day, excluding weekends. Reading however is a great excuse for lingering forever at Ha Noi's numerous, hole-in-the-wall coffee shops, where black drops of caffein drop at the slowest possible speed down to a glass shiny with condensed milk. Hmm, I can already imagine many hours wasted there, under the shade of a towering tree, consuming unhealthy amount of coffee, dosing in legal doctrines.

The first book on the list is "Getting to Maybe", written by two law professors, who liken reasoning in exams as "forks in the roads." Given its ambiguity, the road to law presents confused and nervous law students with many 'forks', to which a good student should point out yet choose the most likely one to elaborate upon. As such, the law is the opposite of a definite answer. Instead of trying to get to a definite conclusion like yes or no, students should strive to "getting to maybe" - where 'maybe' with its flexibility and gray shade might be the best solution. This summer, to me, was like a fork in the road. I pondered for a long time if I should stay put at NERA, collect my half-year bonus, be happy with Mugg, train for a fall marathon. Or I could attempt to work for the first time at home, in a city that has changed so much that I will most definitely become a stranger both in work culture as well as habit. Ha Noi in my hazy memory was a dusty one, where I paddled my bicycle daily in sweat on a six-laned highway parallel to the train track, packed with trucks and motorbikes. And dust from used bookstores, where I spent many afternoon and entire breakfast budget on classic novels of knights and secret corridors in the Louvre. Ha Noi was a great city for childhood. How that I am grown, I wonder if there is a place for me there. Just in 10 days, I will get an answer.

Today, I made Mugg's favorite sha jia mien, a Chinese noodle dish that I learned from his mom, while he pored over a pile of CFA books. We had dinner together, fed each other sweet black cherries, and watched our favorite sitcom According to Jim. The daily routine seemed such treasure moments, now that my departure date is approaching. We often found ourselves looking at each other, repeating an assuring statement, "It is only 10 weeks, and we will speak everyday." 10 weeks indeed can go be very fast...

The gypsy song returns to my head:

It's time to wake up
It's time to go
Hey little darling, pack your suitcase
I'm gonna find you another world...

Indeed, it's time to wakeup. And to start packing.

Happy 2010! Would you believe it, it's another year already. Given the fact that the Lunar New Year was just last weekend, I had an excuse for not turning the apartment upside down and taking care of all my bills by January 1. The Vietnamese believe that all old business needs to be settled in the old year; else bad luck ensued. Needless to say, on February 14, Mugg and I were furiously doing laundry, folding clothes, casting checks, wiping everything spotless. One thing I could not do was sweeping, since it's believed that I might as well carelessly sweep "luck" out. We then decided to... vacuum instead. I'm not sure what the consensus stands on this one, but technically since no "dirt" left the house, we should be okay lol

2010 promises to be an exciting year - Mugg has just started his new job downtown, I will be stepping a first toe into law school. Nonetheless, I was sad to see 2009 go. It has been somewhat of a watershed year for us. In the summer, Mugg and I moved in together after 16 months dating. It was my first attempt to cohabit with the not-so-neat sex, so I was of course terrified. I'm happy to report that the arrangement has worked really well so far. Being home and cooking for two has in fact become my most loved and peaceful moments.

Last May, Yuko and I ran out first marathon in Ottawa - the start of a running addiction. I haven't planned for a marathon this year yet, but am aiming for a 4-hour finish (9 minute/mile average pace for 26.2 miles). Two weeks ago, I finished my second half-marathon in 1:55'' - a 15-minute improvement from my first attempt. Speed training really does wonder. Only if it's less painful!

On the law school front, the latest news is that I'm in at Columbia, and have been awarded a full-tuition plus stipend scholarship (the Darrow) worth $150,000 from Michigan. UMich is flying me out to Ann Arbor during the last weekend of March for their Admitted Students' Weekend. I really look forward to the midwest's fresh air - certainly something that runs low in NYC.

On the first day of New Year, I took a long, relaxed run in the Park and entered the apartment with wet and muddy shoes. Just then, it dawned on me that I had just "opened" the apartment for us! This ritual is called "xông nhà" where the first visitor of the year is deemed to influence one's fortune that entire year. For this reason, the first visitor is often picked carefully. She has to be born in a good year, do well for herself, have good character and sometimes even needs a good-sounding name to make the cut. Given that the choice was between me and Mugg, and Mugg was still sleeping, I guess that qualified me :D

To "open" the kitchen for a year of good food and happy meal, and to celebrate Valentine's Day, allow me to introduce to you this amazing recipe for chocolate soufflé. As soufflé means "puff up" in French, you can imagine already that this dessert involves the ariest, prettiest, fluffiest cloud of dark chocolate, sprinkled with powdered sugar or dark cocoa. The rising of the cake is due to whipped egg whites, which incorporated air. When baked, those air bubbles expanded and rose, showcasing the amazing lift of the cake. Having heard many horror stories on deflated souffles, I had a nervous vision of introducing my kitchen to the New Year with a disaster. But no worry, as the trick to success lies with the whipped egg whites (which I have learned the ins and outs of during the macaroon class), I will be sharing with you some tips to make this a fool-proof recipe.

Chocolate Soufflé
Adapted from Eat My Cake Now, in turn adapted from Dori Greenspan's "Baking from My Home to Yours"

80 g (3/4 cup) of a good, dark chocolate, up to 70% cocoa - I used Lindt
90 g (1/2 cup) sugar

70 ml (1/3 cup) milk at room temperature

3 egg whites at room temperature

A pinch of salt

A pinch of cream of tatar
Butter (1 tbsp) + a dash of sugar and cocoa to coat the ramekins
Extra powder sugar or cocoa powder to sprinkle the tops

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Clean and pat dry 4 individual ramekins. Give their insides a thick coating of butter, then sprinkle them with sugar and cocoa.
3. Break the chocolate into small pieces. Put the chocolate and the sugar in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water; heat until the chocolate is melted. I simply put a ceramic bowl in the middle of a wide, slightly deep pan.
4. Transfer the bowl to the counter and add the milk.
5. In a deep, dry bowl, whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt and cream of tatar until soft peaks form.* Make sure that everything is dry, from your bowl to your whisk. Egg whites are super sensitive to moisture, and won't form peaks if exposed to so much as half a drop of water
6. Stir one quarter of the whites into the chocolate to lighten it. Then use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the remaining whites.
7. Bake for 20 minutes. You will see during this time that the souffle rise like crazy in the oven. Do NOT open the oven door to peek! If you must watch them (I know I did), just turn on the oven light and watch from outside. The tops will become crisp and might crack - it's not a bad thing.
8. Remove the soufflé from the oven, sprinkle the top with powdered sugar or cocoa and serve immediately. Warning: these things fall fast, so get your camera ready if you want to snap pictures. At any rate, they still taste heavenly after cooling down and losing some volume, so don't hesitate to save one for breakfast.

Bon Appétit!

*Tips on working with egg whites:

Egg whites are easiest to be separated from the yolks when the eggs are cold. In macaron recipes, the whites are whipped with granulated sugar to make meringue, a fluffy, glossy mixture. All bakers' attention: whipped egg whites absolutely hates moisture and fat. It won't fluff up if there's even a drop of water on your whisks - so towel dry everything before starting! Similarly, it won't fluff if there is oil.

I always have a hard time telling whether my whites is soft, medium or stiff peaking, until an ICE student shared a tip: the meringue is soft-peaked if it draws out a long 'tail', and the tail is pretty bendy when the whisk is tilted right and left. A medium peak means a shorter tail and much less bent. A stiff peak, it follows, means a curt tail if any; when lifting the whisk, the egg whites peaks can stand up on their own without any bent (see picture below, courtesy of Joe's Bake)

Soft peak and medium peak