Yesterday, many of us greeted the new year with one or more resolutions for improving ourselves: A pledge to lose weight, stop procrastinating, finally finish that hobby project, be a better spouse/parent/neighbor/friend, or master a skill that has up to now eluded us.
In the kitchen, one of the skills that seems to intimidate even accomplished cooks is making a soufflé — a technique that once, I freely admit, intimidated me. Why I, and thousands of other cooks, felt that way is a mystery, because it’s really quite easy.
Which means that it’s one skill that’s easy to resolve on mastering.
When we say “soufflé” here in the South, it can mean just about any baked dish that contains whipped whole eggs or separated egg white. Such dishes include spoon bread, Awendaw (grits-based spoon bread), that holiday staple of pureed sweet potatoes mixed with cream and whipped eggs and topped with marshmallows or pecan streusel, and that ever-popular spinach casserole that’s a perennial best-seller for a leading frozen food manufacturer.
But that’s not the kind of soufflé I’m referring to here. While most of those do puff up when they’re baked, they don’t have the spectacular rise that marks the classic French soufflé — that thing which strikes such fear into so many cooks’ hearts.
Here’s the big secret: If you’ve ever made one of those dishes, you can make a soufflé, because it’s not any more complicated than they are. The only tricky bit is making sure the egg whites are well- but not over-beaten and that they’re lightly but thoroughly folded into the base.
I’d made soufflés before but always with a sense of trepidation, expecting at any moment that it was going to, quite literally, flop. But then one evening I was assisting cookbook author and cooking teacher Virginia Willis in a cooking class and Cheese Soufflé was on the menu.
As she aggressively softened the bechamel base with beaten egg white, she chuckled and said, “It’s sturdier than you think, so don’t worry that you’re going to mess it up.”
When she began to fold the loosened base into the rest of the beaten egg whites, the class actually gasped. She was no longer aggressive, but she was by no means being dainty with it. She then poured it into one big casserole dish and popped it in the oven. And it was perfect.
I’ve never been intimidated by the idea of a soufflé since.
Two basic types are included here, one savory and one sweet. Though their flavors are different, the technique for making them is exactly the same. And once you’ve mastered it, you’ve pretty much mastered all of them, even the slightly more complex chocolate soufflé and those flavored with fish, shellfish, and finely chopped vegetables (such as spinach).
Tips for soufflé success
• Use eggs that are fresh and at room temperature.
• When you separate the eggs, make sure the whites are free of any speck of yolk or other fat, which will keep them from taking on air and holding it in suspension.
• Folding is a simple process, and as Willis pointed out in that class, doesn’t have to be all that dainty, but you don’t want to be too aggressive. The next two tips outline the technique:
First, lighten the egg-thickened bechamel sauce by stirring a large spoonful of the whipped egg white into it: You can be pretty aggressive. You’re sacrificing some of the suspended air in that first bit so you won’t lose the volume in the remaining whites.
Spoon the lightened sauce mixture over the remaining beaten egg whites and then fold it into them as follows: Gently lift the white up from the bottom and turn it over the top of the sauce. Keep repeating that maneuver until the mixture is lightly but well mixed.
• While soufflés can’t be baked ahead, most can be assembled up to half an hour ahead and held in a draft-free spot until you’re ready to bake. Loosely cover with a tent of foil that isn’t touching it.
• Even with the trick of creating a trough around the edge of the soufflé that’s given here, it’s likely to spread over the sides, especially if you over-fill the vessel. To contain it into a neat vertical rise, create a collar around the dish by wrapping a piece of parchment paper to form a tight cylinder rising at least 2 ½ to 3 inches above the rim of the dish and tie it into place with cooking twine. Cut the string and carefully remove the collar as soon as the soufflé is done.
• Be ready to serve the soufflé the moment it comes from the oven: Have a hot pad or trivet waiting on the table and have all the serving dishes and utensils in place. Bring the soufflé straight to the table and serve it immediately.
How to serve and enjoy a soufflé
• If you’ve baked it in one large dish, break it open and serve it at the table. Pierce the center with two serving spoons held back to back or a serving spoon and fork and break it open by spreading the utensils apart. If there’s a sauce, pour a little of it into the well you’ve created and then dish individual servings and pass the rest of the sauce separately.
• If you’ve baked individual soufflés in ramekins, present them to each guest with both a dessert spoon and fork, and pass the sauce (if there is any) separately. If your company are novices to soufflé-eating, show them how to pierce it with those utensils.
Virginia Willis’s Cheese Soufflé
Willis reminds us that it’s important to use a low-moisture cheese for this that’s not overly fatty. While a soufflé can be made with moisture rich, fatty cheeses such as blue or Brie, their fat and moisture content will inhibit the rise and it won’t be nearly as showy and spectacular. It will also not be as fluffy and light. This is adapted from her first book, "Bon Appetit, Y’all" (10-Speed Press). Serves 4 to 6.
• 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
• ¼ cup (about 1 ounce) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for the dish
• 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1½ cups whole milk, warmed
• Pinch of cayenne pepper
• Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
• Coarse salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• 4 large egg yolks
• ¾ cup grated Gruyère cheese (about 2½ ounces)
• 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh herbs (such as chervil, chives, or parsley, optional)
• 6 large egg whites
1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400 F. Using 2 tablespoons of the butter, grease a 1-quart soufflé dish or four 8-ounce soufflé ramekins and sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to coat. Place prepared dish(es) on a baking sheet.
2. Make béchamel sauce: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour, and cook until foaming but not browned, about 1 minute. Whisk in milk. Add cayenne and nutmeg, and season with salt and pepper; bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly, and cook until thickened, about 2 minutes.
3. Whisk together yolks in small bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add a little hot sauce to yolks and whisk to combine. Add yolk mixture a little at a time to béchamel and whisk to blend. Fold in Gruyère, the remaining ¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the herbs. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Set aside.
4. Put egg whites in bowl of mixer fitted with whisk, add pinch of salt, and beat at medium speed until foamy. Increase speed to high and whip to stiff peaks, 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Add about ¼ of beaten egg whites to sauce mixture and stir until well mixed. Pour this lightened mixture over the remaining whites and fold together as gently as possible (see technique above).
6. Fill prepared dish(es) with mixture, smoothing top with metal spatula. Run your thumb around inside edge of rim, making a shallow channel around batter. Put in oven, reduce heat to 375 F, and bake until puffed, golden, and just set in center, about 25 minutes for one large soufflé or 12 to 15 minutes for individual soufflés. Serve immediately.
Classic Soufflé Grand Marnier
Of all the dessert soufflés, this orange-flavored one is possibly the most famous. It’s easy to make and when served with a rich chocolate sauce, never fails to impress. It does require some last-minute attention, but it’s worth it. Serves 4.
• 4-5 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 10-12 tablespoons granulated sugar
• Grated zest from 1 large orange
• 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1¼ cups milk
• 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
• 4 large egg yolks
• 5 large egg whites
• Confectioners’ sugar in a shaker with fine holes or a wire mesh sieve, for dusting
• Dark Chocolate Ganache (optional, recipe follows)
1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400 F. Rub a 1-quart soufflé dish or four 8-ounce soufflé ramekins with butter and sprinkle them with sugar, rolling the dish to evenly coat butter with sugar. Place prepared dish(es) on a rimmed baking sheet. Blend together 6 tablespoons sugar with orange zest.
2. Make béchamel sauce: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour, and cook until foaming but not browned, about 1 minute. Whisk in milk and flavored sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and cook until thickened, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in liqueur.
3. Whisk together yolks in small bowl. Add yolk mixture a little at a time to béchamel and whisk to blend. Set aside.
4. Put egg whites in bowl of mixer fitted with whisk, add pinch of salt, and beat at medium speed until foamy. Add 2 tablespoons sugar, increase speed to high and whip to stiff peaks, about 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Add about ¼ of beaten egg whites to sauce mixture and stir until well mixed. Pour this lightened mixture over the remaining whites and gently fold together (see technique above).
6. Fill prepared dish(es) with mixture. Smooth top with metal spatula. Run your thumb around inside edge of rim, making a shallow channel around batter. Put in oven, reduce heat to 375 F, and bake until puffed, golden, and just set in center, about 22-25 minutes for one large soufflé or 12 to 15 minutes for individual ones. Dust with powdered sugar and serve at once, plain or with warm Dark Chocolate Ganache passed separately.
Dark Chocolate Ganache
Makes about 2 cups.
1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped, or bittersweet chips
1 tablespoon bourbon or cognac
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Bring the cream to a simmer over medium-low heat. Add the chocolate and let stand 15-20 seconds. Turn off heat and let stand until chocolate is melted.
2. Whisk until smooth, then stir in bourbon and vanilla. Keep warm until serving. Can be made ahead; gently reheat over medium low heat or in microwave.