The secret to making this most elegant soup is clarifying the stock to ensure all traces of impurities are removed through gentle simmering and careful straining.
A softly scented essence simultaneously bold and shy in flavour, consommé - which literally means to consummate or finish - begins life simply as water and bones or vegetables. It's infused gently and developed into a clear broth or stock, or, as it's referred to in some restaurants, an essence or tea.
The foundation of great consommé is a great stock. A careful choice of ingredients and slow, gentle cooking are key to producing a clear, highly flavoured stock. Cooking time varies, depending on the vegetable or size of bones used. A vegetable stock (tomato or mushroom are best suited to consommés) only requires about 30 minutes to extract the purest flavour from the vegetables. In comparison, a stock made with venison, beef or veal bones needs at least six hours to draw out as much flavour as possible. Fish, chicken and some game with smaller bones fall in between. To add depth of flavour and colour, roast bones (with the exception of fish) prior to simmering. Strain and refrigerate the stock until it is well chilled.
If at this stage you have a perfectly clear and highly flavoured broth, you have what is known as a single consommé. However, it's most likely you'll need a second stage of clarification and flavour boost, which is then called a double consommé.
A mixture consisting of finely minced ingredients and eggwhite is whisked vigorously into the broth and cooked over a low heat so that the protein from the meat and eggwhite coagulates, catches small impurities and rises to the surface to create what is known as the 'raft'. The flavour of your original stock will dictate the flavourings of the raft. So, to clarify a beef stock, you'd use minced beef. Clearly in an extravagant frame of mind, famed French chef August Escoffier suggested using pounded caviar in one of his fish consommés.
Contrary to popular belief, stirring is important when heating to ensure the raft is evenly distributed throughout the stock and doesn't catch on the base of the pan - this is only necessary to begin with, how-ever, so when it comes to a simmer, leave it alone. Make a small hole in the top of the raft for pressure to be released and let it do its own thing over a very low heat (it's important once the eggwhite mixture coagulates it simmers very gently). After 30 minutes to an hour, you should have clarity. Strain through a muslin-lined sieve carefully and slowly from the top, being mindful not to disturb the raft.
Old-school decorations of gold leaf, julienne vegetables, mousselines and concassé were typical garnishes for the consommé, but today you might see more modern executions such as dumplings, fresh seafood and sago pearls. A consommé of beef, when chilled, produces a lip-sticky gelatinous quality that's particularly good with a splash of vodka, a dash of Tabasco and a squeeze of lemon, a drink known as a Bullshot. As for soup etiquette, consommé may be drunk directly from a soup bowl that has handles and no spoon. So, serve your consommé straight-up and enjoy the pure essence of flavour.