The poor soufflé is saddled with a bad reputation for being difficult to make. I would say that a superb soufflé might be arduous to produce but that an ordinary, jolly good one is easy peasy and should definitely be included in the midweek supper menu, especially when the weather starts sending out signals of nippiness. Alan Davidson in the Oxford Compantion to Food [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 735), gives us the following historical vital statistics on the soufflé:
Souffle – A French word which literally means “puffed up,” is a culinary term in both French and English (and used in many other languages) for a light, frothy dish, just stiff enough to hold its shape, and which may be savory or sweet, hot or cold.The basic hot souffle has as its starting point a roux–a cooked mixture of flour and butter…This type of souffle was a French invention of the late 18th century. Beauvilliers was making souffles possibly as early as 1782 (though he did not publish his L’Art du cusinier until 1814).
Recipes for various kinds appear in Louis Ude’s The French Cook of 1813, a work which promises a “new method of giving good and extremely cheap fashionable suppers at routs and soirees. Later, in 1841, Careme’s Patissier Royal Parisien goes into great detail on the technique of making souffles, from which it is clear that cooks had been having much trouble with souffles that collapsed. The dish acquired a reputation for difficulty and proneness to accidents which it does not really deserve…There are some Ukranian and Russian dishes of the hot souffle type, independently evolved and slightly different in composition.”
I owe my basic soufflé recipe to Delia Smith and have always found it to be very reliable (thank you Delia!). The BEST thing about a soufflé is that you can prepare most of it, if need be, the day before — which is an excellent idea for when you are having people over to dinner. The mixture can be doled out into individual ramekins instead of a single oven dish and that makes it quicker to serve too, as well as making the presentation an engaging one. You can add all sorts of puréed vegetables or other ingredients to the basic soufflé mix and chime in with whatever is in season: squash, courgettes, artichokes and mushrooms for instance.
This is going to be quite a long post, be warned. But once mastered, the steps prove to be very intuitive and easily remembered.
Here are the ingredients: 6 eggs, 200g cheese, 300ml milk, 50g butter, 50g flour, a pinch of cayenne pepper, a pinch of mustard powder, a twist of nutmeg (not shown in the photo) and salt and pepper. This will be enough to feed 6-8 people. If, instead, there are going to be 3-4 to dinner, and there is plenty of other food on the menu, then use half of these recommended doses. Regarding what cheese to use: use a mixture of cheeses if you like, why not, and bear in mind cheddar, emmenthal, gruyère, fontina and parmesan.
The first thing to do is turn the oven on, at 190°C and then grease your ramekins or soufflé dish with butter. Set aside.
Then, start the recipe by cracking the eggs and separating the yolks from the whites in different bowls. Place the bowl containing the egg whites in the fridge — this will make it easier to whisk them later on.
Now add the cheese. Ahem … what you see in the photo is not quite ‘proper’. The proper thing to do is to grate the cheese first — but I was in a hurry that evening. No matter. The cheese did melt eventually, it just took longer that’s all.
Beat the egg yolks well with a fork or whisk and add them a little at a time to the roux. In order for the egg yolks to combine perfectly with the roux, it is a good idea to add them one at a time. That is the ‘proper’ thing to do. Ahem … I wasn’t in a ‘proper’ mood that evening, evidently, and added the beaten egg yolks all together.
Take the bowl containing the egg whites out of the fridge and get hold of your electric beater. You could try whisking them by hand … you could … but I wouldn’t advise it, too much elbow work unless you are an expert at it.
Then mix the whole lot together — but very gently! you don’t want the bubbles of air that make the egg whites stiff to lose their fluffiness. When combining, remember to stir the spatula or wooden spoon (whatever you prefer) in a downward-to-upward movement as opposed to a round-and-round movement. This protects those precious bubbles of air.
The ‘proper’ temperature for cooking the soufflé is, apparently, 180°C — but experience has taught me that on my oven at least, the closer the temperature is to 200°C the better. Every oven is quirky in its own way, so the best advice I can give you is to try it at 190°C (I’m very good at compromise).
Cook until ready. How often have I read that in a recipe and been very irritated with the recipe writer for not being more specific! All I can say is that, again, depending on the temperamental quirkiness of your own oven, this soufflé can take any time between 25 and 35 minutes. Since it is considered the height of tabu to open the oven door while the soufflé is cooking — I would advise that you opt for a sensible 30 minute cooking time.
Here is the soufflé served with spinach.
And that is the end of Soufflé Story for today except for one super time-saving and mood-enhancing tip, and that is that most of the soufflé can be prepared the day before! Yes! And that is very good news if you are having people over to dinner and want to spend more time talking with them than you do preparing food in the kitchen (that’s what I meant by mood enhancing). On day one, follow the instructions all the way to Phase I. Then put everything in the fridge, covering both the egg-white bowl and the roux with clingfilm/saran wrap/plastic food wrapping. On day 2, take the roux out of the fridge at least one hour before cooking time (it has to be at room temperature, in other words). Proceed with Phase II. Don’t I deserve a medal for telling you that? I think I do!
POST SCRIPTUM – SOUFFLE WITH SQUASH
The idea was to add pumpkin to my cheese soufflé. I poached the pumpkin in milk, adding garlic and sage leaves too.
I also added some olive oil and a strange salt I picked up, made with maple syrup. Use ordinary salt by all means! Those little beads scattered on the pumpkin are coriander — about one teaspoon.Once the squash was cooked, I mashed it up with a wooden spoon first …And then passed it through a food mill to get the texture I was after — a very smooth one. I tasted it again and then added a bit more salt and pepper. I was cooking 10 ramekins and so added 10 spoons of this pumpkin puré to the soufflé roux at the end of Phase I.
Previously I had placed fairly thin slices of the pumpkin in the oven, and cooked them for 15 minutes. I also cut up some pancetta and cooked that until crispy. When the ramekins of soufflé came out of the oven, I placed the slices of pumpkin and the pancetta on top of each one. I was going to garnish the ramekins with fresh sage leaves but my friend Diane had the brilliant idea of coating them with flour and cooking them quickly in olive oil for an added dash of both taste and texture, as well as presentation.