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Soufflés

by Michele Pesula Kuegler | March 20th, 2012 | Ask the Chef
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Soufflés have always looked so intricate to me. However, I recently saw a cooking show, and the host said that they actually are simple to master. Do you think that soufflés are something that a home-cook could do well? If so, is there a recipe you could recommend?

A clue to what’s involved in making a soufflé comes from the word itself. It’s French, of course, the past participle of the verb souffler, which means “to blow up.” A soufflé puffs up as it bakes because air beaten into the egg whites dilates when heated in the oven.

I love teaching soufflés because, despite their reputation, they are simple to master and people are so impressed by them. It was one of the basic formulas we had to memorize in cooking school.

My mom was a plain cook – certainly she didn’t consider herself particularly skilled – but she didn’t hesitate to make soufflés. Chicken, fish, and cheese soufflés are the ones I remember. She made them to stretch a small amount of ingredients, use up leftovers, or just as a change from the usual fare.

Soufflés can be either savory or sweet, and dessert soufflés can be either hot or cold. I’m going to write about the savory kind, because many of the same techniques apply to both.  The techniques include making a white sauce, separating eggs, whipping egg whites, and folding. If you’re comfortable with these techniques, skip down to the recipe below. If not, read on.

The sauce used for the base must be very thick, as the other ingredients will thin it out. A béchamel, or basic white sauce, is the basis of this cheese soufflé recipe.

When separating the eggs, ensure there is no trace whatsoever of egg yolk left in the whites. Fat in the yolks will prevent their whipping properly. Eggs separate easier when cold, and egg whites whip best at room temperature. So separate them right out of the refrigerator, and allow them to warm up a bit covered while you’re assembling the rest of the ingredients.

When whipping the egg whites, be sure to use a sparkling clean, dry bowl, preferably stainless steel or glass, as plastic is harder to clean thoroughly. Any fat in the bowl will cause the same problem as yolks in the whites. Begin slowly and after you’ve created a loose foam, continue more rapidly, whipping the whites until stiff, but no longer. Overbeaten whites will collapse and leak liquid. They are ready when you can place a whole raw egg on the surface, and it doesn’t sink more than about 1/4″ inch into the foam.

The last technique is folding, incorporating the air egg white foam into the heavier base while losing as little volume as possible. Always have the heavier mixture at the bottom; fold the egg whites into the base, not the other way around. First mix one-quarter to one-third of the whites into the base to lighten it. Then put the remainder of the whites on top of that, and using a large rubber or silicone scraper cut through the whites and batter at the center of the bowl and down to its bottom. Lift up the batter and turn your whole wrist, keeping the scraper stationary, to deposit the batter on top of the foam. As you continue doing this, use your other hand to turn the bowl in a circle. Continue folding until all the whites are incorporated into the base. Work swiftly, and use the batter as soon as it’s ready.

So what is the basic formula we learned? It’s ¼ cup base per egg, flavoring, and one additional egg white for lightness. The base can be the béchamel mentioned above; a purée of meat, fish or vegetable; or a combination of vegetable purée or cheese with a sauce.

To serve four, this would be 1 cup of base, flavoring, and 4 eggs plus 1 extra white to compensate for loss of air in the folding.

A few other pointers: Season the base heavily as the other ingredients will dilute the flavor. Use a soufflé dish if you have it; the striated sides help the heat of the oven to penetrate the batter evenly. Otherwise, use a tall dish with sides as straight as possible. Never fill a soufflé dish more than 1/2″ below the top or it will overflow. And the bread crumbs or cheese that coat the dish are there to give the batter a surface to cling to as it’s rising. They also add a nice crunch.

Cheese Soufflé

1-2 Tb. butter
3-4 Tb. fine dry breadcrumbs or finely grated Parmigiano

3 Tb. butter
3 Tb. flour
1 cup milk, warmed
Salt/pepper/nutmeg
¼ lb. Gruyère or Cheddar cheese, shredded
¼ lb. Gruyère or Cheddar cheese, cubed
4 eggs, separated
1 egg white

Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 6 cup soufflé dish, and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs or Parmigiano. Set aside.

In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the butter until it bubbles, and add the flour. Cook the roux 2 to 3 minutes, then add the milk, whisking constantly to avoid forming lumps.  Cook until quite thick, season well with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg; and remove from the heat.  Add the shredded cheese, and allow to cool a little.

Add the egg yolks, stirring them in completely. Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks when the beater is lifted from the bowl. Fold about one-quarter of the whites into the base to lighten it; then fold in the remaining egg whites.

Using a large serving spoon, carefully spoon about one-third of the mixture into the prepared soufflé dish.  Cover with the cubed cheese, and fill the dish with the remaining soufflé mixture.

Place the soufflé on the lowest rack of the oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the center of the soufflé is done. A soufflé should puff 2 to 3 inches over the rim of the pan, and stand firm when you remove it from the oven. If the top sags, bake it a few minutes longer.

[You may also bake the soufflé in a pan of very hot water (a bain marie) if you prefer it less crusty, but most people like the contrast between the soft interior and the crisp exterior. This will add to the baking time.]

Serve immediately!!! Diners wait for the soufflé, not the other way around. The proper way to serve a soufflé is with two large serving spoons. Placing the rounded sides together, break open the soufflé top. Then slide one spoon between the batter and the dish and with the other, lift out each portion.

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