Souffles have a bad reputation. Totally undeserved. Few dishes are easier, more versatile or more dramatic to serve. And it’s a myth that they can be finicky and demanding: a souffle base can be prepared hours in advance and refrigerated or even frozen. The only downside is that they need to be eaten right out of the oven and yes, it’s a law of physics that they will fall.
It all comes down to the egg again, the more perfect food on the planet. In the 18th century, some obscure cook at the service of some nobleman noticed that eggs and sugar beaten together would rise in the oven, just like a leavened bread. Omelette souffle, sweet or savory, became very popular but it wasn’t decades after its popularity had spread that a French scientist was able to explain the law of physics that rules our airy dish. “All else equal, the space occupied by a given weight of gas is proportional to its temperature” (Harry McGee – On Food and Cooking). Translated in kitchen lingo, this means that when you put a souffle in the oven, the air bubbles will heat up and make the mixture expand upwards. As soon as the temperature falls though, i.e. when you take it out of the oven, the souffle is doomed to start falling.
The fewer ingredients in a souffle, the more airy and lighter it will be, but savoury souffles with vegetables and cheese, if a bit denser, are nonetheless tasty and a good vegetarian main dish. The only trick to a perfect souffle is the egg whites consistency – they need to be stiff, but not as stiff as for a meringue, and glossy. I like to fold them into the rest of the ingredients with a flat spatula, working from the outside, scooping the spatula under the mixture and up towards the center, in broad strokes. The fewer the strokes, the less the egg whites will deflate. Here is a classic recipe for a basic chocolate souffle – Valrhona Equatorial or any good quality bittersweet chocolate will work best.
2 1/2 T Sugar
1 1/2 T Butter, at room temperature
1/2 C Milk (whole milk is preferable)
2 T All Purpose Flour
3 oz Bittersweet Chocolate, chopped
2 Eggs, separated
1 Egg white
1 T Brandy
- Butter 4 individual souffle dishes and coat them with sugar, tapping out the excess
- Mix together the softened butter and flour until you get a paste. Heat the milk to scalding and add the flour mixture – whisk quickly until smooth and thickened.
- Add the chocolate to the same pan, off the heat, and whisk until smooth. Add the brandy and 2 egg yolks – whisk fast to prevent the egg from cooking.
- Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and let cool (at this point, the souffle base can be refrigerated)
- If refrigerated, bring the mixture to room temperature.
- In a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip 3 egg whites with a pinch of salt until frothy. Add the sugar in a slow stream while whisking at low-speed. Increase the speed and keep on whisking until you reach soft, glossy peaks.
- Fold one-third of the egg whites into the chocolate base until well combined, then add the rest.
- Pour the mixture into the souffle dishes and bake at 400 for about 20/25 minutes or until the souffle has risen. Serve immediately with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or creme anglaise.