Few words strike as much fear into the hearts of neophyte cooks as “soufflé.” But I’m here to tell you that the fear is unfounded—as long as you don’t open the oven door while it’s cooking, because cold air may cause it to fall. Avoid that faux pas and you can create a magnificent soufflé that will impress friends and family. The recipe that follows is gorgeous and delicious and can be ready in an hour, including the 30-minute baking time.
Soufflé means “puffed up” in French, and if you’ve ever seen a soufflé, it’s not hard to figure out where the name came from. This puffed-up quality is due to the whipped egg whites that are the key to a successful soufflé (as well as to merengue—a topic for another post). If you’ve never whipped egg whites, it’s quite a magical experience to see them transform from viscous opaque liquid to frothy white peaks that could easily be mistaken for whipped cream. Here’s why: the protein molecules in egg whites are made up of amino acids, some of which are water-loving (hydrophilic) and others of which are water-fearing (hydrophobic). Egg whites are 90 percent liquid, and normally, the protein molecule’s chain takes on a shape that keeps its hydrophobic amino acids away from that liquid. But whipping the whites causes the protein chains to unfold. Rather than being exposed to liquid, the hydrophobic amino acids seek shelter in the air bubbles that are being introduced by the whipping action, while the hydrophilic areas remain along the outside of the bubbles. At least, that’s the explanation I found on-line, on a site called decodingdelicious.com
A few tips from that website: Whip the egg whites in a stainless steel, glass, or, if you have it—although I don’t think anyone I know does- copper bowl, rather than a plastic one. Plastic is porous and even after it’s been washed may have fat residue, which will interfere with your effort to whip the egg whites. Also, using a pinch of cream of tartar is useful to avoid over-beating. To be honest, I’ve whipped many egg whites without cream of tartar, and never had a problem. (I’ve also whipped cold rather than room temperature egg whites, which are often recommended, and had no problem there either.) But according to decodingdelicious.com, cream of tartar, which is acidic, decreases the pH of the egg foam and floods the egg with excess hydrogen. That discourages sulfur to sulfur bonding between proteins, which you don’t want because it causes overbeaten foams to have a crumbly, leaky texture. And no one wants that! The author also says that salt should not be substituted for cream of tartar, even though many recipes say that you can. If you want to geek out on that chemistry stuff, click here: http://www.decodingdelicious.com/egg-foams/
Soufflés, of course, can be sweet or savory. And once you get over the intimidation factor, you may (I hope) find yourself experimenting with various types. The recipe that follows, taken and ever so slightly modified from Deborah Madison’s superb Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (my go-to cookbook; I refer to it as my cooking “Bible”) is so good it’s bound to get you hooked. My husband says it’s like eating a flavored cloud.
Butter and 2 tbsp finely grated parmesan for the baking dish
1-1/2 C milk or cream (I used whole milk)
Aromatics for the milk: 1 bay leaf, several thyme sprigs, 2 thin onion slices
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
4 egg yolks
1 C crumbled goat cheese, or finely shredded Gruyere, Fontina or Cheddar
Salt and pepper
8 oz fresh spinach, cooked til just tender (I used the microwave), roughly chopped and seasoned with a little salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.
6 egg whites*
*Save the extra two egg yolks to make hollandaise sauce for a separate dish; hollandaise is another item that seems to scare people, but I use a blender recipe that’s virtually foolproof, and I’ll cover that in another blog post
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a shallow gratin dish, or if you prefer, a deep soufflé dish; I like using the shallow dish: it bakes a little faster and there’s more of that yummy crust. Then dust the buttered dish with the Parmesan. (You could skip the Parmesan, but if at all possible, don’t: it really bumps up the taste and texture.)
In a saucepan, heat the milk and aromatics until boiling, being careful not to let it boil over, then set aside and let it steep while you take the next steps. Be sure to strain out the aromatics before proceeding. I’ve also made this without the aromatics and didn’t really miss them, so if you don’t have them or don’t want to bother, you’ll still be fine.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan (remember, you’re going to be adding whipped egg whites, which take up a lot of room) until it foams. Then stir in the flour and cook over low heat for several minutes, allowing it to form a thick roux. Whisk in the strained milk and stir as it thickens, a minute or two, then remove from heat and add ¾ tsp salt, a pinch of pepper and the cayenne. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time until well blended, then stir in the cheese (it’s okay if it’s a little lumpy). Add the cooked spinach and stir until just blended.
With an electric mixer, beat the egg whites on high speed with a pinch of cream of tartar (if you have it; I find it works fine without, although beware of over-beating) until they form smooth, firm peaks—it’ll look like whipped cream. Stir a quarter of the egg whites into the spinach-goat-cheese-egg yolk-milk mixture, then gently fold in the rest with a spatula. Pour into the prepared baking dish and set in the center of the oven, then immediately lower the heat to 375 degrees. Bake for about 25 minutes if you’re using the shallower gratin dish, 30 minutes if you’re using a more traditional deeper soufflé dish, until the top is golden brown and the center is almost but not quite firm.
Serve immediately, but be sure to let your dining companions admire the soufflé before you cut into it, and definitely don’t tell anyone how easy it was.