This is your chance to make your first soufflé. If you screw it up – and you probably won’t – and who’s going to complain? We’re in lockdown. A few months or a year from now you can whip one up for a special night. Then, Jeez, who knew you could make a soufflé? Plus it has tons of Parmesan and cheddar in it.
As a young man I toiled in a fancy French restaurant as a back waiter. This meant that when the waiter – the guy wearing the monkey suit – was ready to serve a particular table their duckling for two, I was the magician’s assistant, wheeling the whole duck, atop the cart known as a gueridon, along with various sharp implements and a surgical regimen of napery into view. I was not allowed to carve the duck, just as I was forbidden to fillet the dover sole, mix the steak tartar, flame the crêpes suzettes or perform any of the other culinary razmataz that let people know they were eating somewhere important.
I could, however, serve a dessert soufflé, which meant that the maitre d’ thought the task sufficiently simple a dog with three legs could do it. I would rush an airy concoction in the shape of Montgolfier’s ballon out of the kitchen onto a gueridon (my gueridon!!!) and up to a table of breathless diners. I plunged a serving spoon into the soufflé’s heart, and portioned it quickly on to plates before it deflated too much.
And then soufflés disappeared. Too formal, too fancy, too too dependent on timing, too special occasion. I’d say that soufflés vanished from the popular dinner party circuit about the same time that every white wine poured by the glass stopped being called chablis. Now we drink chardonnay, which has in turned fractaled into a dozen different white and red varietals all familiar to our sophisticated palates.
Some folks never try to make a soufflé, fearful of disaster. I’ve had a number of soufflé disasters in my life – two of them happened in the course of making this post. Jody made unsuccessful soufflés twice before she figured out that she wasn’t preheating the oven long enough for the pizza stone on which I’ve been baking sourdough loaves of late, to get really hot. Instead of cooking the soufflé the pizza stone was insulating it, insuring that the top would burn before the center and bottom were sufficiently cooked. First tip: If you have a pizza stone on the middle rack of your oven, remove it. Second and Third tip: Don’t put anything in your egg whites before whipping them into semi-firm shiny peaks (they should hold their shape, but not look like you could stab someone with them). If you contaminate them with a drop of egg yolk or oil or, say, Urfa pepper, they won’t reach those shiny peaks. Final tip: Fold the eggs gently into the base mix – you want the soufflé mix to be as poofy as possible. A deflated soufflé mix does not magically transform into an inflated cooked one. You need to give the oven some help.
Dessert soufflés tend to be airier, lighter and with a more dramatic appearance than savory ones. If you prefer that lighter style don’t skip Jody’s notes.
That’s it. You’re good to go. Once you learn to avoid the obvious traps you’re left with one grand thing – and this is why I loved wheeling that gueridon up to the table as people went silent with anticipation – a spectacle! And couldn’t we all use a little more of that. Enjoy
P.S. Take note of Jody’s favorite way to separate eggs. You crack the egg into a small bowl, then just lift the yolk out of the bowl with your fingertips. Empty the whites into a different bowl. Repeat.
Cheddar and Chive Soufflé
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1½ ounces grated Parmesan cheese, on a microplane
- 1¼ cups warm milk
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 tablespoons all purpose unbleached flour
- 1 teaspoon Urfa, Aleppo, or cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- ¼ cup Greek yogurt
- 8 extra-large eggs separated
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
- 5 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese
- ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and be sure there is a rack at the bottom third of the oven.
- Generously butter a 6 – 7 cup soufflé mold with ½ tablespoon butter. Dust with a 2 tablespoons or so of grated Parmesan. Set aside.
- Heat the milk in a small saucepan with the bay leaf until small bubbles appear around the perimeter. Turn off the heat.
- Make a roux by melting the remaining butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and whisk the flour and butter together until they start to foam, about 2 minutes.
- Whisk the milk into the roux in a steady stream. Keep whisking until everything thickens together, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, allow to cool for 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Season with the pepper and salt.
- Transfer the thickened milk to a bowl and whisk in the yogurt.
- Whisk the egg yolks into the milk and yogurt one or two at a time, making sure they’re completely incorporated. Stir in the chives and finally both the cheddar and the remainder of the parmesan. This completes the soufflé base.
- Put the egg whites in a bowl, sprinkle with the cream of tartar and whip until they hold semi-firm shiny peaks. If you’re using a standing mixer, use medium speed.
- Gently stir a fourth of the whites into the egg and cheese base to lighten it. Then carefully fold in the remaining whites. The idea is to add the whites to the base while losing as little of their volume as possible.
- Spoon the mixture into the soufflé dish until it’s three-quarters full. Give it a gentle tap to eliminate any big air pockets.
- Put the dish on the middle rack in the oven.
- Lower the heat to 375 degrees. After 35 minutes it should have risen considerably and still wiggle in the center. Remove now if you want soft barely-set soufflé. If you like a firmer texture, leave the soufflé in the oven for 5 – 10 minutes longer (what we did). Serve immediately.
When I read the word soufflé my brain automatically pronounces it with the voice of Julia Child, and Julia Child pronounces it as though it were spelled with an exclamation point. Soufflé! Who isn’t happy when a soufflé arrives? And when it works, which it usually does (thanks for leaving the pizza stone in the oven, Ken) as a as a cook, you want to pump your fist in the air.
I started researching this post by reviewing a recipe from Madeleine Kamman. She was, by proxy, my first real French culinary instructor. My teacher was Nancy Verde Barr, but the recipes she taught were Madeleine’s. One of my favorites was a recipe for Crêpes Filled with Cheese Soufflé and Tomato Coulis, from Madeleine’s marvelous cookbook WHEN FRENCH WOMEN COOK. It’s as complicated as it sounds—first you make the crêpes. Then you make the tomato sauce. Then you make the cheese soufflé and fill and roll the crepes. At this point they can be frozen. You bake them straight from the freezer. It’s a great recipe for a young cook in training, which I was at the time I learned to make them. I made them often, but I won’t try to make you do them.
I poked and prodded through various recipes to come up with this simple one. I made it in an 8-cup soufflé dish, because that’s all I had, but it would have been more dramatic in a 6-cup one with the top puffing up over the edges like the cap of a giant mushroom.
As Ken mentioned, I had to make this three times! The first time, I accidentally added Urfa pepper to the whites while they were being whipped. This was before I added the cream of tartar to the recipe. The oil in the pepper caused the whites to deflate and break. So I made it again a few days later. This time the whites were perfect but the bottom didn’t cook and I realized the pizza stone was interfering with the rise of the soufflé. We were thinking about letting it go, providing you with a little advice about not leaving pizza stones in the oven, hoping our own failure wasn’t two obvious. But we both woke up woke up the next morning and said, “It’s bothering me that we haven’t made it right yet.”
Once we took the stone out of the oven, the third time was indeed the charm, and I added the insurance of cream of tartar to the whites, just in case. It helps them hold the air.
Speaking from personal experience, if your soufflé doesn’t rise, you can still eat it. It will be ugly, but delicious. Then you can throw the leftovers in the fridge. Who knows, you might suddenly come into a batch of crêpes that need filling and a lonely bowl of tomato coulis.