A good souffle is a transcendent bit of cooking, delivering a wallop of flavor on a breathy whisper. It is intense yet ethereal, profound but insubstantial -- like one of Ferran Adria’s foams, or a Krispy Kreme doughnut.
Can you think of a better way to warm up a holiday dinner crowd?
When opening presents on Christmas morning, you don’t just go straight for the best gift of all. Instead, you build up to it by opening a few smaller things first. These aren’t meant to replace the big bang, but to tantalize and whet your appetite for it.
Why should dinner be any different? Why not start with a surprise, and even better, one that won’t stuff your stocking and spoil the meal to come.
“Right,” you say, “on top of everything else, I’m going to worry about a souffle on Christmas day?”
Well, how about a souffle that can be put together in less than 20 minutes? That you can make today and freeze until just before dinner?
Now we’ve got your attention. Picture it: family and friends gathered around the table, a little antsy, not really thinking about food. Then out you come, bearing a platter full of souffles, all puffed and browned and fragrant. You can’t get more Martha than that.
The souffle has a reputation for being the diva of the food world -- risky and temperamental and French. But in reality, it’s a surprisingly tough little rascal, given a few sensible precautions.
The magic of the souffle is the way what looks like a fairly normal batter puffs and fills with air while baking. Like so many other bits of kitchen wizardry, it comes about thanks to the egg.
Specifically, the egg white, which is a combination of water and protein and not much else. When the whites are beaten with a whisk, the proteins, which are naturally curled up in little balls, relax and unfold. As they do, they connect with other proteins and form bonds. These connected strands leave small gaps -- tiny bubbles, really -- filled with air. When heated, the air expands inside the bubbles and the souffle puffs. The water evaporates, leaving nothing behind but the inflated thin framework of protein strands.
Protein strands and whatever else you add to them, of course. Traditionally, the addition of flavor begins with some kind of flour-based paste, such as a thick white sauce.
But white sauce has no magical properties. You can get the same effect by using other kinds of pastes -- a puree of roasted sweet potatoes, for example, or a soft cheese such as ricotta or fresh goat cheese.
One thing you’ll notice with souffles is that although the flavors are intense, they are not sharply focused. Rather, what you get is a melding of all of the elements. The taste of the sweet potato in one recipe is subtle and elegant rather than out-front (no one will wonder where the marshmallows went). The goat cheese in another comes through mainly as a slightly sweet tang behind the roasted walnuts.
Though the base carries the flavor, by far the trickiest part of making a souffle is the egg whites. They need to be beaten, but just enough. They need to be handled gently, but you can’t go soft on them.
Most cooks have some kind of an electric mixer for beating egg whites, either a hand-held one or a big stand thing that sits on the counter. But everyone ought to whip egg whites by hand, at least once. That’s not out of some puritanical belief in doing things the hard way, but because that is the best method for learning about the different stages egg whites go through and what, exactly, is meant by “stiff peaks.”
To do this, you should use a balloon whisk. This makes it easier to incorporate air. Remember this when you’re beating the egg whites: Use a kind of circular motion, picking up the mass of whites at the bottom of the bowl and flipping them into the air.
At first, you’ll see nothing more than a clear mass that gradually becomes cloudy and white (fun science fact: This is caused by light reflecting off the bubbles that are forming, rather than passing straight through the clear liquid).
After only a couple of minutes, you’ll notice that the egg whites are beginning to hold a shape: soft, billowing mounds.
Keep going. Within a minute or two, you’ll notice the whites are forming something that actually looks like peaks as opposed to a small hills. Lift the whisk from them. Probably, the whites will form a point at first, but then almost immediately collapse back into the bowl. These are called “soft peaks” and they are not stable enough for souffles.
Keep going. When the peaks are stiff enough that they hold sharp points, you’re done. The beaten whites should be shiny and glossy. Roll the bowl around; there should be no loose whites in the bottom.
Don’t overdo the beating, though. Whip the egg whites too much and you’ll quickly destroy them. You’ll have weakened the protein bonds and beaten in so much air that the structure can no longer contain the bubbles. They’ll pop, the peaks will collapse, and you’ll be left with a clumpy, grainy mess that looks kind of like Styrofoam. If this happens, you have no choice but to start over.
It’s important to work with a very clean metal bowl and whisk. There should be no fat present at all -- it will interrupt the linking of the protein chains and the bubbles won’t inflate (plastic and wooden mixing bowls are so porous you can never be sure they are completely free from fat; don’t use them).
Though these stiff-peaked egg whites are a bit of bother to create, they are incredibly stable. So stable, in fact, that you can spoon the fully prepared souffle into a ramekin, cover it tightly with plastic wrap and set it aside in the refrigerator for a couple of hours with no ill effects.
Even more amazing for those who have embraced the myth of the souffle’s fragility, you can even stick them in the freezer for up to a month. There is so much water in egg whites (better than 85%), that they freeze solid very quickly.
Just pull them out about half an hour before baking to give the ramekins a chance to warm up slightly so they won’t shatter in the heat of the oven (if you use CorningWare or Pyrex cups, you don’t need to do this).
One warning: Be sure to remove the plastic wrap as soon as the souffles come out of the freezer. Do it later, when the egg whites have defrosted and are more delicate, and you risk an embarrassing deflation.
Like all the best divas, souffles are tough but they can still be pretty darned temperamental.