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Souffles? Ooh la la! Three recipes for perfecting a dish people love to eat, hate to make

Daniel Neman St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS) • Jan 29, 2020 at 10:14 AM

Have you ever noticed that when restaurants offer soufflés for dessert, everyone always orders them?

Have you ever noticed that hardly anyone makes soufflés at home?

Obviously, there is a disconnect here. People want to eat soufflés, but they don’t want to make them. And there is one overriding reason why not.

They are afraid.

Soufflés have a fearsome reputation. Even confident home cooks turn weak in the knees when they contemplate making one. They never picture success; they only imagine failure.

But I am here to tell you that soufflés are easier to make than you think. And they taste just as good at home as they do at any restaurant.

The problem is that soufflés sometimes fall. They inevitably deflate after just a few minutes, collapsing in on themselves like an old building or stadium that is being imploded. But this collapse is not as dramatic or devastating as it sounds.

When a soufflé falls, you are not left with a pancake. You are left with a soufflé that is slightly less tall than it once was. That is all. And it’s still just as delicious.

Part of the soufflé image issue comes from the 1954 classic movie “Sabrina,” in which Audrey Hepburn learns how to make one at a French cooking school. A comically snooty French chef walks down the line of his students, sniffing critically at nearly all of their efforts. Hepburn’s version is the worst, because she forgot to turn on the oven.

But many of the minds that were turned against soufflés by that film have forgotten the chef’s entrancing description of the dish at the beginning of the scene: “The soufflé, it must be gay — gay! — like two butterflies dancing the waltz in the summer breeze.”

That is what we are aiming for, and it is surprisingly simple to achieve.

I made a traditional savory soufflé and a traditional sweet one. Both were exquisitely light, with a texture that seems to dissolve on the tongue.

All it takes is air. Air is what makes a soufflé a soufflé, whether it is whipped into egg whites or whipped into cream. In the form of bubbles, the air is gently folded into the other ingredients, usually a béchamel sauce (a mixture of butter, flour and milk). When it is baked, the steam makes the bubbles expand, and the soufflé rises. It works just like bread, only the structure is more fragile.

Even so, an Easy Cheese Soufflé has as much yolk in it as egg whites, which theoretically means it should be stronger than other versions. That’s how it works on paper, but admittedly the Easy Cheese Soufflés I made fell faster than the other examples.

But they were good. No, they were very good — impossibly light in texture, but hearty and satisfying in flavor. Gruyère cheese made the dish, mixed with a bit of Parmesan, along with a small hit of dry mustard and just a pinch of nutmeg. It’s just the thing to serve for brunch or a light dinner.

Every bit as impressive were Bittersweet Chocolate Soufflés, which more than one taste tester described as tasting like a brownie — but light and airy, of course.

The great advantage to serving these as a dessert for a party is that, alone among all other soufflés, they can be prepared up to a full day ahead of time. All you have to do is bake them. According to “The Art & Soul of Baking” by Cindy Mushet, you can prepare a chocolate soufflé in advance because the chocolate batter is so viscous when cold that it holds the bubbles without allowing them to deflate.

All you taste in this dish is the pure, rich enjoyment of chocolate, so be sure to use a good brand when you make it. And although the soufflé is excellent on its own, it is greatly improved when served with a crème anglaise, which the recipe calls vanilla custard sauce.

Best of all, the crème anglaise (or vanilla custard sauce) can also be prepared a day in advance.

EASY CHEESE SOUFFLE

Yield: 4 servings

3 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing the dish

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1 shallot, minced

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

4 ounces (1 cup) Gruyère cheese, shredded, or cheddar, Swiss or Gouda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

Pinch nutmeg

3 large eggs, separated

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch glass loaf pan, a 1 1/2 quart soufflé dish or a 11/2-quart pot. Sprinkle half (2 tablespoons) of the Parmesan into the pan and shake to coat evenly.

2. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the milk. Bring to a simmer and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened and smooth, about 1 minute. Off the heat, whisk in the Gruyère, salt, pepper, mustard and nutmeg. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Whisk in the egg yolks until completely incorporated, and set aside.

3. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar (with an electric mixer at medium-high speed or by hand) until stiff peaks form.

4. Working with a quarter of the whipped egg whites at a time, gently fold them into the yolk mixture until almost no white streaks remain. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of Parmesan. Bake until the top is nicely browned and the center jiggles slightly, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 448 calories; 35 g fat; 19 g saturated fat; 231 mg cholesterol; 24 g protein; 10 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; no fiber; 845 mg sodium; 648 mg calcium

Recipe from “The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook”

BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE SOUFFLÉ

Yield: 8 servings

1 tablespoon butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, plus more for buttering ramekins

1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus more for sugaring ramekins

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, up to 70% cacao, chopped

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder dissolved in 1/2 teaspoon water, optional

Pinch of salt

3 large eggs, separated, plus 1 additional egg white

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Vanilla custard sauce (recipe follows) or softly whipped cream, optional

Note: You will need 8 small soufflé dishes (ramekins), preferably 5 1/2 to 6 ounces each, or you can use a 6-cup soufflé dish; the larger dish will take 32 to 38 minutes to cook until the soufflé is set and firm to the touch in the center.

1. Generously butter each soufflé dish, including the rims, dust them with granulated sugar and tap out the excess.

3. Pour 2 inches of water in the bottom of a double boiler and bring to a rolling boil. Off the heat, place the chocolate in the top of the double boiler. Turn the heat off and set the chocolate over the steaming water. Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Leave over the warm water until needed.

4. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat, add the flour and whisk well to remove any lumps. Return to the heat and cook 1 minute, whisking constantly. Remove the pan from the heat again and add the milk slowly, whisking constantly to remove any lumps.

5. Return the pan to the heat again and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until thickened to the consistency of thin pudding. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vanilla. Whisk in the espresso powder, if using, and a pinch of salt. With a clean spatula, scrape the melted chocolate into a large bowl. Add the béchamel sauce (milk-flour mixture) and whisk to blend. Whisk in the egg yolks. Cover and keep warm while you whip the egg whites.

6. In the very clean bowl of a stand mixer, whip the 4 egg whites on medium speed until they form soft peaks. With the mixer running, rain in the 1/4 cup granulated sugar and beat until stiff peaks form (you can also use a hand mixer and a medium bowl). With a spatula, gently stir 1/4 of the egg whites into the chocolate béchamel sauce to lighten the mixture. Fold in the remaining whites just until there are no more white streaks.

7. Transfer the soufflé batter to a pastry bag. Pipe the batter into each soufflé dish, filling it to 1/4 inch below the rim (you can also gently spoon the batter into each dish). Place the dishes on a baking sheet. At this point, the dishes can be covered in plastic wrap and refrigerated up to 24 hours before baking.

8. Bake for 14 to 18 minutes — soufflés made with higher percentage chocolate will bake more quickly — until the soufflés are set and firm to the touch in the center. Serve immediately, dusted with powdered sugar and accompanied by custard sauce or whipped cream, if desired.

Per serving: 450 calories; 24 g fat; 14 g saturated fat; 76 mg cholesterol; 8 g protein; 54 g carbohydrate; 44 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 339 mg sodium; 58 mg calcium

Nutritional analysis does not include vanilla custard. Recipe from “The Art & Soul of Baking,” by Cindy Mushet

VANILLA CUSTARD SAUCE (CRÈME ANGLAISE)

Yield: 2 1/2 cups

1 cup whole milk

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup granulated sugar

5 large egg yolks

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Fill a large bowl halfway with ice and water; set aside. Combine the milk, cream and sugar in a medium saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.

2. Heat the milk mixture to just below the boiling point. Remove the pan from the heat. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks together. Slowly pour about 1 cup of the hot milk into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly, to temper the yolks. Slowly pour the yolk mixture back into the hot milk in the saucepan, whisking all the while. Return to medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens and registers 178 to 180 degrees on a thermometer.

3. Immediately strain the custard sauce through a strainer over a medium bowl to remove any bits of scrambled egg. Add the vanilla extract and whisk to blend. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the sauce and then set the bowl into the bowl of ice water. Once the custard sauce has completely cooled, use or store in the refrigerator until needed.

Per serving (2 tablespoons): 96 calories; 7 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 190 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 4 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; no fiber; 31 mg sodium; 41 mg calcium

Recipe from “The Art & Soul of Baking,” by Cindy Mushet