Starting a Souffle Revolution at Home
The last time I ordered a souffle in a restaurant, or even saw one on a menu, was at Tour D’Argent in Paris, New Year’s Eve, 1992. It was a simple and elegant vanilla souffle, dotted with crunchy, fragrant vanilla pod seeds, arriving at the table all beautiful and steaming hot; a perfectly crafted crown of Gaul glory. The server gently crushed its top to ladle in a silky, warm creme anglaise. It was heaven. A moment I will never forget. Kind of like 1992, which was a magical year for me, all tucked away at Le Cordon Bleu, cooking and learning French cooking by day, absorbing every inch of Paris and France when I wasn’t cooking.
Since then, I haven’t seen them much in restaurants and have often wondered why. They are not expensive to make, are easily prepped and compiled at the last minute, and when well done (they are easier to make than you may think), are utterly impressive and utterly delicious. Any chefs dream dish. Perhaps it’s time to start a new French Revolution in our own home kitchens? That’s what I’ve been doing and the purpose of this post is to remind you how easy and rewarding it is to do the same in your own.
As a prologue to that, I thought I’d share some thoughts from the heroine in the culinary romance novel (hopefully series) I’m working on. She’s a chef and sees several parallels between souffles and her own life:
A Page from Today’s Journal – Prudence Sass
….”The way a souffle turns out, all depends on how it’s handled. The first step is to separate the yolk from the white, or put another way, separate the baby from its embryo. There are lots of important, pesky little things to do along the way (temperature, clean hands, clean bowls, etc.), but the most important of all is the act of denaturing the egg whites to make them stable, airy, and strong. Indeed, to create a beautiful souffle, the natural qualities of the egg white proteins must be altered or destroyed altogether. And, to do that, you beat the hell out of them and fold them ever so gently back into their other half, the yolks, which have been similarly beaten into a ribbon. Then, you pop it into the oven, cross your fingers, and hope it turns out all right. It is comforting to know that older eggs make the most stable souffles and that souffle, a very pretty French word (pronounced soof-lay) literally means ‘to blow’.”
Prudence is basically right about all that. But, to refresh my own souffle thoughts and skills, I spent some time with Greg Patent’s marvelous The French Cook Souffle’s Cookbook (Gibbs Smith, 2014), which is part of The French Cook series I also contributed to (Sauces, Soups & Stews, and Cream Puffs & Eclairs). Greg is a souffle master and his book is written with tender loving care and magnificently described technique, especially in the front of the book where he discusses all matters souffle (sweet and savory) in detail. Because a friend requested a savory cheese souffle for a cooking class I was planning for her husband, herself and some of their friends, I sharpened up my skills using his cheese souffle recipe. Like Prudence, I was crossing my fingers until the very end, but in following Patent’s directions to the letter (except for making the bechamel base ahead and bringing to room temperature before folding in the egg whites) it turned out perfectly.
Classic Cheese Souffle
(from The French Cook Souffles by Greg Patent, Gibbs Smith Publisher)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for mold
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, for mold
1 cup whole milk, plus 1 tablespoon divided
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
6 large eggs, separated, room temperature
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Gruyere, Comte or P’tit Basque cheese
Adjust an oven rack to lower third position and set a baking sheet on the rack. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter bottom and sides of a 1- 1/2 quart, 4-inch tall charlotte mold and coat with the Parmesan.
Heat 1 cup milk in a small heavy saucepan until bubbling but not boiling; keep warm. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour with a wooden spoon and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove pan from the heat and whisk in the hot milk; sauce should be smooth. Return pan to medium-high heat and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Cook and whisk until very thick, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat and whisk in the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Whisk in the egg yolks one at a time. Film the surface of the bechamel with 1 tablespoon milk.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Increase speed to medium-high and continue beating until moist stiff peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir about one-fourth of the whites into the bechamel to lighten. Gently fold in remaining whites, sprinkling in the shredded cheese as you fold. Fold until no white streaks remain. Transfer the batter into prepared mold, filling it about 3/4 inch from the top. (May be made to this point about 1 hour ahead. Cover mold with a large, upturned bowl.) Set the souffle onto the baking sheet in the oven and bake until well browned on top, puffed about 2 inches above the rim, and a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean but moist, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately.
We served this with a simple salad of tender greens tossed with a simple orange and mustard vinaigrette. It was the bona fide hit of the evening. The revolutionary and unexpected winner on all counts. If you ever want to come cook with me and learn all about cooking delicious food and having a great time while you’re at it, click on this link for more details:
In the meantime, I hope you’ll check out Greg’s book and start making your own souffles. Wishing all a safe and happy Labor Day weekend.