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Delicate and delicious

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    A perfect souffle as pictured in Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson.

    HO

  • Delicate-and-delicious

    Potato, Bacon, and Blue Cheese Souffle.

    ho

Delicate-and-delicious

Potato, Bacon, and Blue Cheese Souffle.

ho Enlarge

Whether a souffle is sweet or savory, it's always puffed up.

The dish is made with beaten egg whites so that it is light and airy when baked in a straight-sided dish or ramekins. The proud chef or host serves the dish directly from the oven; the aim is to deliver it to the table before the air escapes and the souffle falls.

The delicate dish is rarely served in restaurants because of the time needed for preparation.

Thus, if you want a good souffle, consider making it yourself.

“Souffles are daunting psychologically, more than technique-wise,” says Marie Simmons, author of The Good Egg (Houghton Mifflin, $27) and The Amazing World of Rice (William Morrow, $19.95). We spoke last week as she was driving from New York City to Washington, where she was scheduled to demonstrate how to make a souffle for a Sunday Brunches cooking class at Sur La Table in Arlington, Va.

In The Good Egg, she lists the anatomy of a souffle as:

1. A base consisting of a thick white sauce and egg yolks.

2. A primary flavoring component such as vegetable puree, cheese, or seafood, along with seasonings.

3. Egg whites beaten to many times their original volume.

She says that savory souffle mixtures are even sturdy enough to make ahead and keep refrigerated for up to two hours before baking. “Individual souffles work even better - there's not as far for it to rise,” says the California resident.

The secret is “how you beat the egg whites; you don't want them overbeaten. The protein structure of the beaten egg whites forms a kind of web. If they are overbeaten, you don't have that nice protein structure to hold the steam. It will taste good, but it won't rise as high.”

The right equipment is important. An electric mixer works best. “A whisk is hard unless you are extremely strong,” she says.

Delicate-and-delicious-2

A perfect souffle as pictured in Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson.

HO Enlarge

The right souffle dish should be straight-sided. I admitted to her that for years I've been using a straight-sided high casserole dish for my spinach souffles and broccoli souffles. “That's all right,” she said.

A four-egg souffle needs a six to eight-cup dish; a five or six-egg souffle needs an eight to 10-cup dish. When using ramekins or custard cups for individual souffles, fill the baking dish to within 1/2-inch of the top so that it doesn't run over when baked and puffed.

Also, make sure the equipment - beaters and bowls - “are very, very clean because if not, that will interfere with protein structure,” she says.

In addition, cream of tartar adds acid to stabilize the egg whites.

She advises to start beating slowly so that the egg white goes from liquid to foamy until the egg whites are dense. “Then increase the speed and beat a little bit harder,” she says. “Don't take your eyes off it. If [the egg whites] are overbeaten, they get clumpy. You want them to look satiny.”

James Peterson, author of Essentials of Cooking (Artisan, $24.95), which focuses on techniques and is intended to be used with other cookbooks, has step-by-step photo directions on making a souffle.

He recommends a copper bowl or cream of tartar to stabilize the beaten egg whites. “In stainless steel or glass, the egg whites rise when beaten, but when baking, it doesn't rise as much,” says the cooking teacher. (He taught cooking classes at Peter Kump's Cooking School and the French Culinary Institute in New York City prior to becoming a visiting chef in the early 1990s.) “I even have a copper insert for my Kitchen Aid mixer.”

“Savory souffles are made with bechamel [white sauce],” he says. “Sweet souffles are made with pastry cream and then you fold in the egg whites. Some dessert souffles are made with a sabayon where you beat the egg yolks with liquid and lemon juice until they are fluffy. The pastry cream is heavier, but more stable.”

“A smaller souffle requires a higher temperature,” he notes.

Ms. Simmons also advises buttering the souffle dish, although not all experts say to do this. “For traction, I use fine dry bread crumbs,” she says. She thinks it gives a nice outer crust and adds a little extra flavor.

Mr. Peterson's book shows the use of a foil collar to contain the mixture, which can expand to one and a half times its original volume. The part of the collar that rises above the rim of the souffle dish is brushed with softened or melted butter.

Classic Cheddar Cheese Souffle from Ms. Simmons is flavored with Dijon mustard.

Potato, Bacon, and Blue Cheese Souffle incorporates frozen mashed potatoes into a souffle recipe flavored with blue cheese, Parmesan, and thyme.

Hidden Treasure Chocolate Souffle is made in individual six-ounce ramekins or custard cups; a chocolate caramel candy is the hidden treasure.

Above all, resist the temptation to peek at your souffle while it is baking, lest it falls.

The result: A souffle of the highest quality is as close as your kitchen.

Both of these souffle experts will be within driving distance of Toledo in the coming weeks.

Marie Simmons will sign copies of “The Amazing World of Rice” and conduct a tasting of exotic rice from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Friday at Zingerman's Deli, 422 Detroit St., Ann Arbor, Mich.

James Peterson will sign copies of “Essentials of Cooking” and give a food lecture from 7 to 8 p.m. May 7 at Books & Co., 350 East Stroop Rd., Dayton.

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