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15 Aug 2009

Soufflé! – Thursday was Hyunjin’s birthday, and I wanted to make her a birthday dinner. She was coming home late (shortly after eight o’clock), so I would have been making dinner anyway, but I wanted it to be something special. Being the adventurous cook that I am, I figured I would try something I had never tried before: a soufflé. Not a soufflé alone, of course, but the accompaniments (a rice dish, some steamed broccoli, and a simple but carefully crafted salad), while tasty, were far more pedestrian, so I’m just going to talk about the soufflé.

“I have no idea why soufflés have the reputation they do, as they don’t strike me as very difficult to prepare.”

(Before we begin, I just want to say that I do not have photos of the process, as I usually do when I write about food, only the final result. For one, I was trying to do a lot of things at once, and didn’t really have time for photos. But I also didn’t really plan on writing about this, so I never planned for photos in the first place.)

Why a soufflé? Well, primarily because Hyunjin mentioned very recently that she would like to try a soufflé sometime. The school’s cable provider is doing their usual holiday channel shuffle these days, and as a result we now have access to a channel that shows Iron Chef America every evening (of course, we lost the Discovery Channel in the process, and for as awesome as I think Iron Chef is, I think it was a bad trade). I like watching the show for the over-the-topness, for Alton Brown’s unique personality and insane knowledge of food, for the excitement of watching chefs cook daring dishes, and also to gain a little insight into how these chefs think—they come up with some amazing combinations of ingredients that I would never have imagined. If you’re not familiar with the show, each episode pits a challenger against one of four “Iron Chefs.” There is one “secret ingredient” that is revealed at the beginning of the show, and the chefs and their teams have to make a number of dishes using that ingredient. Said dishes are judged by a panel of three experts at the end, with points awarded to determine a winner. It’s the “secret ingredient” theme that really brings the show together, of course. In the three shows we’ve watched so far the secret ingredient has been oysters, pineapple, and chocolate.

It was this last show that featured a soufflé—a chocolate soufflé by Iron Chef Bobby Flay, to be precise. This prompted Hyunjin to say that she would like to try a soufflé, and I got it into my head to make one for her on her birthday, which was only a day or two away at that point. And I could kill two birds with one stone. One of my friends here, a French professor, once brought home a bunch of cheese from France and invited us over for a little cheese party. Some of the cheese that he bought (Comté, for the curious) came with little recipe cards for dishes that looked absolutely delicious, and one of them was for a cheese soufflé (other recipes, again for the curious, included a squash (potimarron) cake with cheese, cheese tempura, cheese amuse-bouches (literally, “mouth pleasers”), and cod cakes with cheese and corn). I had always wanted to try the soufflé, but had never had the opportunity—well, now I had the perfect opportunity.

It might seem a little risky to try a dish that I had never prepared before. After all, what if something went wrong? The thought did cross my mind, believe me. When I was young, I remember that soufflés collapsing in the oven was practically a cliché for difficult-to-prepare fancy foods. In fact, thinking about it now, I wonder if this cliché spoke to a fear of fancy foreign foods and the comfort to be found in good old American cuisi—I mean “cooking.” Good old American cooking. But maybe I read too much into this. I’ll save that discussion for another time.

Anyway, I was well aware of the popular idea that soufflés are difficult to prepare properly. But I looked at the recipe, and even though it was in French (and I did have to refer to a dictionary) I found it to be quite familiar. It started with a béchamel, and then added grated cheese to that to make what I would call a sauce mornay (interestingly enough, the recipe nowhere used the word “mornay” and referred to it only as “béchamel,” even after the cheese was incorporated). Then you separated some eggs, mixed the yolks into the béchamel, and beat the egg whites until stiff. Finally, you folded, or “delicately blended” the whites into the sauce and poured it into the mold. Then all you had to do was bake it.

I did a little bit of extra research online beforehand to see what some American recipes looked like. The only real difference that I found was that very few American recipes added nutmeg to the béchamel (something I always do), and many instead added cayenne pepper, in addition to what seemed to me to be a wide variety of superfluous ingredients. Oh, and there was also the fact that most recipes claimed to serve four, but the American recipes were far larger than the French recipe I had. No comment necessary there, I think.

In the end, I whipped up my own recipe based on the French recipe but scaled down to serve two instead of four. I also decreased the amount of butter used in the roux—the French recipe called for 50 grams of butter and 30 grams of flour, but I’ve always used a 1:1 ratio (by weight) when making a roux, so that’s what I did here as well. My molds were two 180 ml ramekins, and I had no idea how much I would need to fill them. I figured it wouldn’t be much, but I didn’t want to end up short, so I whipped up the following recipe:

2 eggs, separated

15 g butter

15 g flour

150 ml milk

75 g grated Asiago cheese

nutmeg, white pepper to season

And that’s it. The only thing I left out from the French recipe was salt—I figured the cheese would add enough salt that I wouldn’t need more (and I turned out to be right). I’ve already gone over the process above, but in case you’ve never made a béchamel, melt the butter in a saucepan and then add the flour and stir. Different recipes call for different levels of browning in the roux, but I wanted this one to be blond, or fairly light. Not only would the color go better with the cheese, but lighter roux thicken sauces better than darker roux, so you don’t want to cook this one too long. Then the milk goes in, added in a continuous stream, and you just stir until the sauce thickens. Once it is thickened, you remove the pan from the heat, season it with pepper and nutmeg, and then add the cheese and stir until it’s melted.

Once the mornay/béchamel was done, I separated the eggs. I beat the whites stiff, then beat the yolks and incorporated them into the sauce. Then came the folding of the egg whites into the sauce. I knew I had done this before, but I couldn’t remember when—now that I think about it, though, I’ve made puffy omelettes before, which use the same technique. Hyunjin tells me that the technique is also used when baking some cakes, but she’s the cake maker in the family. At any rate, the important thing is to make sure that you are not too harsh with the egg whites. They need to be folded into the sauce a little at a time—cut the whites into the sauce with a spatula or scraper, then fold the sauce over gently. You want the whites to be mixed in well, but not too well. I would say that the two keys here are gentleness and brevity (i.e., mix gently and not for too long).

I poured the mixture into the ramekins (which were greased, by the way) and had a little left over, so I just took out a small oven-safe bowl (a rice bowl, actually) and poured the rest in that. Then I put them into the oven, which had been preheated to 210 degrees Celsius (the American recipes I saw all had temperatures ranging from 180 to 200, but I decided to go with the French recipe on this).

The one unknown variable in all of this for me was baking time. There are the usual caveats about ovens and environments being different, but the recipe I was following was for a single large soufflé, not two individual soufflés (in fact, I didn’t find any recipes for individual soufflés), so I had to consider that as well. The original baking time was 35 minutes, so going on what I know about baking and how things scale, I set the timer for 15 minutes and watched the soufflés very closely. I was pleased to see them rise very nicely, but I dreaded that they would collapse for no reason at some point. They never did, though, and after about 12 minutes I decided it was time for them to come out. This is what they looked like.

Like I said at the beginning, I had not planned on taking photographs, but when this came out of the oven I had to run into my study, grab my camera, and snap a few pictures. This was my soufflé, and to make up for the lack of photos today, here’s Hyunjin’s soufflé as well.

The important question, of course, and one which cannot be answered by looking at photos, is how they tasted. Well, not only had I never made a soufflé before, but I also had no recollection of ever having eaten a soufflé before (my mom said she did make one a very long time ago, but I don’t remember it). Thus I can only use my basic standards for egg dishes to judge my efforts. Eggs shouldn’t be overcooked, and these weren’t—nice and browned on the top and edges, but still soft and silky in the center. The cheese was also a wonderful compliment—very tasty, but not overpowering. Even though I don’t have anything to compare these to, I was very pleased with the way they came out.

In retrospect, they weren’t that difficult to make at all. There are really only two basic components: a sauce of some sort and beaten egg whites, and neither are that difficult to prepare. So I’m trying to figure out what could go wrong, and what might go wrong often enough to give soufflés such a frightful reputation. My first guess would be the incorporation of the sauce and the egg whites. I imagine that if you mixed the two components too much the whites might lose their elasticity. After all, this is what happens if you continue to beat egg whites past the “stiff” stage—they will eventually lose their elasticity and collapse. It would be like trying to bake bread dough that hasn’t had its gluten properly developed. That is, it would still rise, but then it would collapse because the bread wouldn’t be able to support the weight of the structure. I imagine that the same thing might happen with a soufflé—the steam would cause it to rise, but once it rose to a certain point the structure would no longer be able to support itself and it would collapse.

My second guess would have to do with baking time. I don’t know if baking a soufflé too long would cause it to collapse, but it might cause it to begin to shrivel up. And it probably would end up tough and not very tasty. But this is all speculation. I have no idea why soufflés have the reputation they do, as they don’t strike me as very difficult to prepare. If any of my readers have the inside scoop on this, I’d love to hear it.

I think next time I will try a soufflé for desert—more specifically, a chocolate soufflé. I’ve looked at a few recipes, and the principles appear to be the same: beaten egg whites incorporated into a sauce, but this time the sauce is chocolate rather than béchamel. But I think that will have to wait, as I have other things to do before that. For one, I still need to get around to all the photos we took when we were in the States. I’ll try to get to that as soon as possible, but whatever happens I can guarantee that my next post here will not be as delayed as this post was, and that it will have something to do with our trip to the States.

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