Food & Drink

3 recipes for perfecting a souffle

A Bittersweet Chocolate Souffle with Vanilla Custard Sauce on January 8, 2020. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
A Bittersweet Chocolate Souffle with Vanilla Custard Sauce on January 8, 2020. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

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

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

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

They are afraid.

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

Part of the souffle 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.

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But many of the minds that were turned against souffles by that film have forgotten the chef’s entrancing description of the dish at the beginning of the scene: “The souffle, 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 three: a traditional savory souffle, a traditional sweet one and a nontraditional frozen one.

All three were exquisitely light, with a texture that seems to dissolve on the tongue.

All it takes is air. Air is what makes a souffle a souffle, 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 bechamel sauce (a mixture of butter, flour and milk). When it is baked, the steam makes the bubbles expand, and the souffle rises. It works just like bread, only the structure is more fragile.

Even so, an Easy Cheese Souffle 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 Souffles 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. Gruyere 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 Souffles, 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 souffles, 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 souffle 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 souffle is excellent on its own, it is greatly improved when served with a creme anglaise, which the recipe calls vanilla custard sauce.

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

Frozen souffles use a different technique — and because they are frozen, they must, out of necessity, be made ahead of time, at least three hours and up to a day.

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With frozen souffles, you make a heavy syrup of sugar and water that you whisk while very hot into egg yolks. This mixture takes the place of the bechamel sauce, and instead of folding in whipped egg whites you add whipped cream to make it shimmeringly light.

The version I made, which I learned to make in France, adds just enough Grand Marnier; neither too much to overpower the dish nor too little to be overly subtle. Chopped pralines on top are a blissful and crunchy addition, though not, strictly speaking, necessary.

With the pralines or without them, the souffle is effervescent, like two butterflies dancing the waltz.

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