Since Sandra Boynton has pointed out it is National Cheese Soufflé day, I thought it would be fitting to provide some words of inspiration on one of my favorite dishes to cook. Inspiration is the proper word, since souffler is French for to blow or to breathe, and one definition of it is a “low murmuring sound heard through a stethoscope.” Inspired, meaning to inhale and breathe in; creating, we exhale, breathe out, and offer our culinary creations to the world. The execution of a soufflé is to blow air into a pancake; to take the familiar –eggs, milk, butter, and flour – and transform them into a light puffy honeycombed framework on which to hang flavors of tangy cheddar, mysterious dark chocolate, or exotic Grand Marnier or Meyer Lemon.
The first soufflé I ever made was with my dad’s second wife, Mary. She was experimenting with the cookbook and wanted a challenge. She was very nervous because making a soufflé has always had a reputation for being complicated and easy to ruin. I remember us checking the cookbook every five minutes or so, hesitating at choosing which pans to use, peering over the mixture we stirred in the skillet, and later chewing our fingernails watching it in the oven.
Mary was one of the most beautiful women I had ever personally met (it’s still true, and I apologize if this will embarrass her, since she sometimes reads my stuff). If my memory is correct, she was the homecoming queen at Broad Ripple High School in the year where David Letterman was a freshman (I saw the yearbook). She was much younger than both my parents and unlike the academic intellectuals that they usually hung out with, so she was an exotic creature to me. And yet she was extremely kind and very intelligent. She studied accounting to improve her career prospects eventually having a successful career at Coopers & Lybrand. It is no accident that I took up Accounting in my senior year at high school and eventually left my English major behind to get an MBA and work in finance for thirty years. We are often inspired by people and events that enter our lives unplanned.
Many of my fondest memories are related to food. I recall my dad and I cooking a turkey for the first time flying solo, no knowledgeable cook there to guide us. To our chagrin, we roasted it upside down (breast side down); I later learned experts say that is the best way. I also remember getting double scoop cones from Richardson’s ice cream parlor with my mom on the drive to our Michigan summer cabin. I went through a phase where I chose licorice and blue moon (pineapple flavored) because it would turn my tongue black and blue. And even memories of bad cooking are fond, like attempting a lowfat sugarless blueberry cheesecake during one of my early foolish diet phases. It took three hours of fussing over a cookbook, measuring, examining – “is that really what is says?” – and after all the preparation, Karin and I took one bite, looked at each other, and tossed it in the trash. Tasted horrible; still provides hours of amusement thirty years later.
If you are old enough, you may also still remember the infamous Mary Tyler Moore episode where “TV’s happy homemaker,” Sue Ann Nivens, has an affair with the husband of another character, Phyllis Lindstrom. In the climactic scene, when Sue Ann refuses to give up the affair, Phyllis slams the oven door closed on Sue Ann’s creation for that week’s show – a chocolate soufflé.
Sue Ann sobs, “There was no need for violence. Why you should deliberately destroy an innocent soufflé that never did you any harm is beyond me…”
This helped establish the ethos that soufflés are temperamental and easy to kill. It did not help when other TV cooks who demonstrated making them – Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Jacques Pepin – insisted on unusual processes. (What’s a ramekin? Where I am supposed to find Gruyere cheese? Do I have to whisk the egg whites by hand in a copper bowl?) In recent pop culture, making a soufflé has often been used as one of the tough challenges on food competitions, such as Master Chef. There’s nothing like Gordon Ramsay, foaming at the mouth about how easy is to get it WRONG, and how the slightest error in timing or combination can RUIN the dish forever to make you vow never to attempt it. Hogwash!
The Right Way, the Wrong Way, the French Way
The concept is not so difficult. You separate egg whites from yolks. You create a simple béchamel, a white sauce, a roux. You mix yolks and your flavoring into the sauce, ensuring that your flavoring is well incorporated – melted in, if cheese or chocolate. You whip the egg whites, and fold them into the mixture, then put it into a dish that allows sufficient space to rise. You cook until the middle is done. You serve it quickly, so everyone can see it puffed up. That’s it.
Karin included the recipe in her ninth novel, Making up for Lost Time, although infamously forgot to include the oven temperature. 350-375° will work, meaning an average oven, neither too cold nor too hot. Here are a few key pointers.
- Separate the egg whites. You can separate the whites using the eggshell or your hands if you want to be fancy, but I use an egg separator tool which works just fine. Very important: this means putting the yolks and whites into separate dishes. My fifteen year old brother attempted a meringue, and I’ll never forget him coming into the TV room with a bowl full of eight eggs — yolks and whites — and asking how he was now supposed to separate them. [Fond memories!] If that happens, use a large spoon to lift the yolks out. It is more important for the whites to be yolkless than for the yolks to be whiteless. But use different bowls. You need a tall bowl for the whites because they will expand when you whip them.
- Mise en place. More French, this means “putting in place” or getting all your tools and ingredients ready in advance. You want to separate the eggs, grate the cheese, shave the chocolate, and butter/prep your baking dish – all ahead of time. Once you start the white sauce, you don’t want to stop long enough to let the sauce harden while you are doing these other things. There is a rhythm to the creation that works best if down in one flowing process. But don’t whip the whites ahead, as they will fall by the time you are ready to fold them in.
- Stir, stir, stir. You’re combining butter (which you melt), flour, and milk while you are heating them, so you don’t want any lumps and you don’t want the milk to scald. My process is melt butter, warm milk, then add flour slowly while stirring. Martha says to melt the butter and stir in flour, then add milk; that will make the lumps harder to control, though it is a more proper roux and probably tastes better for some inexplicable French reason. Either way will work. But don’t stop stirring until the lumps are gone. THEN you add what you need to melt, such as cheese, and then you turn the heat off.
- Use a whisk. We didn’t have whisks in the drawer in 1976, we had egg beaters and forks and pans that were not Teflon. (How did we ever cook?) A lumpless white sauce begs for a whisk.
- Grate the cheese while it’s cold. I tend to use a really strong cheddar, like an aged New York or Wisconsin. You can use Gruyere or Swiss or Gouda; just use a strong flavor. A soufflé – like a pancake – doesn’t have a natural flavor, but is an excellent platform for taking one on. I prefer using “plenty,” meaning more than the scant one cup usually called for, but keep in mind that cheese has fat/oil so too much cheese will change the chemistry of how the dish holds together.
- Butter your baking dish; line with Parmesan cheese for a cheese soufflé. A ramekin style dish will allow it rise better; but you just need a baking dish that has tallish sides. If the casserole-style dish is too flat, it won’t rise. Line the bottom with Parmesan because extra delicious.
- Lower fat is possible, just less impressive. For the last decade, I have made these with skim milk, lower fat cheese, and less butter. You have to use real eggs; you need the yolks and the whites. You have to use butter and not a substitute. You can spray the ramekin with nonfat spray and lightly dust with flour instead of butter and cheese. It will not taste as rich but it will still be delicious for 30% fewer calories. You can also try inviting more people to dinner so your portion is just smaller.
- Don’t overwhip the egg whites. Whip the egg whites while your sauce/cheese/yolks mixture is cooling. That means you that you only need 3-5 minutes with a decent high speed mixer. You need to form peaks in the whites without them hardening; if you overmix, the foam will collapse.
- Fold not stir. As you fold in the egg whites you are infusing your sauce with air, and that air will be retained as it bakes. It is okay to gently whisk a little, because you want the air bubbles to flow throughout the dish. If you overmix, the air bubbles will break down. The Julia Childs of the world will carefully whisk about a third of the whites into the mixture, thoroughly incorporating whites, and then fold the other two thirds in. If you under-fold it, you will have stripes of pancake next to stripes of tasteless airy egg white.
- The soufflé will fall as you serve it. You must impress your table mates quickly by showing it to them as it comes out of the oven puffed up. The soufflé will start to collapse as the hot air the holding up the honeycombs cools and naturally descends. This is not a failure; this is science. When fancy restaurants serve them, even as desserts, you’ll notice that they immediately pierce them and start pouring in melted chocolate and sauces. The cooks know they will fall. It still tastes good even as it starts to lower.
Le Voila Enfin – Here it is at last.
I wrote today’s post in response to a DailyPost challenge suggested by the word “flourish.” Originally, the only thing that came to mind was the magician’s flourish – the ta-da! at the end of an effect (how magicians refer to their tricks). I had outlined an entire post on magic, how and who and why, but since I’d not seen any magicians recently besides this research, it felt like I was going through the motions. Then I noticed the post on my timeline about National Cheese Souffle Day, and hey presto—the memory of Mary and I standing next to the stove, with the cookbook in hand, popped into my mind.
I have made over fifty soufflés and I enjoy the challenge of the process. I experiment with lowering the fat content; I pride myself on using as few dishes as possible. I make one for Christmas morning (mise en place completed before everyone is awake to fiddle through their stockings.)
The more I thought about it, the connection between soufflé and magic for me became stronger and stronger. French cooking is very like magic. It is the creation of a strong effect/trick that derives from hours of preparation and practice. Soufflés are not temperamental, but you do need to practice and follow a recipe; you cannot slap together a soufflé . You also cannot put a soufflé on the table without some kind of expressive gesture – it begs for a ta-da! a “voila” when you set it down. Look — the very word flourish –has “flour” at the heart of it!
Ultimately, the magic of the flourish, the magic of the soufflé, seems as closely intertwined as beaten egg whites incorporated into a bechamel. This must be true, for when I googled soufflé in the dictionary I found this example in French:
Il n’y a qu’à souffler dessus. C’est une chose très facile, qui se fait ou s’obtient comme par enchantement. Which means in English: One has only to blow it. It’s a very easy thing, which is done or obtained as if by magic.