The fragility of the towering soufflé has astounded chefs for ages. Somehow the dish seems magically suspended like a cloud. Full of intrigue and known as a fickle delicacy, the soufflé is perfection in taste and texture. Delicately light mousse compliments intense flavor creating a delectable paradox. Don your apron and explore basic cooking science to impress your guests with this gourmet delight.
Derived from the French verb souffler, “to puff up,” soufflés are characteristically baked to extreme heights above the lip of the cup. Flavors most often include cheese, lemon, or chocolate, though any thick sauce will suffice. Typically soufflés are baked in ceramic cups called ramekins, traditionally white with straight sides for the soufflé to “climb.” Contemporary ramekins are available in a wide assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors suited for any kitchen preference.
In its basic essence, the soufflé is composed of a flavored sauce mixed with whipped egg whites which are a leavening agent. Flawless viscosity is the art of the soufflé. Firm whites create greater height.
First check the bowl and the beaters for moisture, as this will impede the formation of air bubbles and “puff.” An unlined copper bowl is ideal, if you happen to have one lying around the kitchen. The reaction between the copper and egg whites creates far superior foam stability compared to a standard bowl.
The secret to a successful soufflé is in whipping the egg whites. Separate the yolks and the whites while cold, being careful not to break the yolk. Be forewarned though, if any yolk sneaks into the pure bowl of whites, they will not become buoyant foam. Leave the separated eggs out at room temperature or slowly warm the egg whites, placing the bowl in a basin of warm water. Essentially, the proteins in the whites will expand better when warm; cold egg whites take twice as long to whip. Beat the whites on high with a pinch of salt. As the foam begins to form, the proteins stretch, so add an acid to stabilize this chemical state change. Cream of tartar works well, a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar. When stabilized, the egg whites trap the air bubbles creating the foamy consistency. The egg whites should be combined with the sauce immediately before they deflate.
Endless possibilities of sauces extend to any robust flavor. A personal favorite is the basic chocolate soufflé: simple and straightforward, and perfect comfort food. A single flavor savored in precious morsels; melting in your mouth and numbing your senses.
The thick sauce is a mixture of melted bittersweet chocolate blended with egg yolks and sugar. Countless ingredients for sauces exist, however this is a great opportunity to experiment with seasonal fruit or favorite family recipe. Trust your instincts and follow your taste buds.
Once the flavored sauce is assembled, gently fold the egg whites in with a spatula, a scoop at a time, being careful not to deflate the mixture.
When the flavored cream is prepared, the ramekins should be coated on the inside edges with butter or margarine. Dust the inside with a coordinating trimming; parmesan cheese for a cheese soufflé, sugar, cinnamon, or cookie crumbs for a dessert soufflé. Fill the ramekins about 3/4 full. Wipe the inside lip of any excess or drips so that the soufflé will rise evenly.
If you find your ramekin is too small, a collar can be easily made to keep the soufflé upright. Use parchment paper and coat with same trimmings as the inside of the cup. Wrap the ramekin leaving about 3 inches above the lip for the soufflé to rise and secure with twine or string.
Place the soufflé cups inside a baking pan with a 1/2 inch of water inside. Be careful the water doesn’t breach the lip of the soufflé cups. The water will maintain the moisture in the oven, keeping the soufflé soft and moist. Bake at 350° but resist the urge to open the oven and peek for the first 20 minutes. Though the soufflé is intriguing and mysterious, a cool draft or slammed oven door may cause deflation.
Bake until the soufflé is firm; the center should jiggle slightly when bumped. Although traditionally the French prefer soft runny centers, you decide.
Remove the ramekins and bake pan from oven and gently take off any collars. Dress the soufflés with a coordinating sauce, an orange caramel glaze, or dust with confectioner’s sugar to cover any cracks formed while baking.
Commemorate the age-old mantra: “The guests wait for the soufflé, not the soufflé for the guests.” Serve this dish immediately and watch each guest sigh in rapture. You will be the envy of all your guests and they will be clamoring for your secret recipe. You choose whether or not to disclose it.