Like Parisians, souffles have a reputation for being fussy. “Why bother?” I had always thought until I recently faced a Friday night with time for cooking but an all-but-barren fridge. A trip to the store would have sapped all my creative energy, so I looked again at the lonely egg carton.
I recalled a brief conversation I once had with a chef I worked for. “I love making souffles,” he said. “They seem hard, but they’re so easy.”
But could a chef be trusted in matters of home cooking? When I found half a yellow onion, a semi-dry hunk of Parmesan and a box of frozen spinach, I decided, “Souffle, it’s what’s for dinner.”
I went straight for Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I” and opened a bottle of Chardonnay to drink while studying it. According to the formula on page 163, my meager supplies could be transformed into a six- or eight-cup souffle. And it could be made with just about anything from grated cheese to canned crabmeat to winter greens or mushrooms.
Thus deconstructed, I realized that souffle is just a pantry dish with airs. Forget casseroles--this is a weekend way to use up leftovers.
Baked souffles, whether they’re for dinner or dessert, are made from three basic parts: the base (which is usually a thick cream sauce combined with egg yolks), the main flavor ingredient and whipped egg whites. It’s a three-step procedure, more mechanics than culinary artistry. And it only requires one pan, one bowl and a glass or porcelain baking dish.
I dutifully separated the requisite number of eggs and relaxed into the lock-step progression of cooking the roux: melting the butter, adding the flour and cooking it until it smelled nutty, adding the liquid and simmering it until thick. I stirred in the cooked spinach (I’d improvised a bit, cooking it with garlic, crushed red pepper and a splash of wine) and the egg yolks. I beat the whites and stirred some of them into the base to lighten it, then gently folded in the rest.
For all my trepidation, souffles really are nearly foolproof. I should know: I once accidentally mistook a cookie batter for a dessert souffle base. After I folded in the whipped egg whites, I held my breath as the individual souffles went into the oven. Surprise! They rose beautifully.
The thing my near-disaster proved is that the magic of the souffle is in the egg whites. Whipped to soft, droopy peaks, their air cells expand in the hot oven and raise the souffle like a spring shoot emerging from the ground--no parchment paper collar required.
Many souffles don’t even require a white sauce, just something thick to use as a base. In fact, most dessert souffles are made this way--thick melted chocolate will work just fine; so will something as simple as melted jam.
Once the souffle was safely baking, I turned on the oven light and stood back with my glass of wine to watch the show. Soon, it began a steady rise, climbing the sides of the baking dish on a coating of grated cheese and growing a beautifully caramelized crown.
I ended up undercooking my spinach souffle slightly, so I just sent it straight back into the oven. And once it was done there was no need for panic. Though it started to sink as soon as I served it, the souffle stayed unctuous and light, singing the clean flavor of spinach, even when we went back for seconds.