The girls are hanging at doggie camp for the night. We’re still holding out hope for a trip to New England later this summer. Our wonderful pups have separation issues, so we’re introducing them to the joys of canine sleepovers. Cleo’s been often enough (usually for day care) that she has friends there, but our Libby is more wary; she’s been shuttled off to too many homes in her short life to feel secure with us yet. And I confess that, much as I adore the girls, it is nice to have a break.
Our schedule’s been crazy lately. It’s been days since we’ve all been home for dinner, so I’m pleased to cook for my family tonight. Half an onion, some chopped bell peppers, and a handful of corn kernels went into the skillet for a veggie medley. To accompany these colorful veg, I whipped up a cheese soufflé.
Wait! Come back! I promise, soufflés are easy. Really.
I think the soufflé’s prima donna reputation stems from the fact that that cloudlike texture is easy to attain, but it’s fleeting. Your soufflé will fall, that’s a given; it’s just a matter of serving it before that happens. It is essential that the diners must be seated at the table, forks in hand and napkins in laps, when the soufflé comes out of the oven. In other words, the diners wait for the soufflé; the soufflé does not wait for the diners. (Yes, that phrase does sound familiar; see Risotto.)
My sixteen-year-old son has made individual chocolate soufflés that are mouthfuls of heaven. (I’ll do a post on the chocolate version in the future.) If you can beat egg whites to stiff peaks and then fold them gently into a base, you have the necessary skills. Use whatever cheeses please you, and try adding a bit of minced cooked ham or cooked spinach that’s been squeezed dry.
Technically, you don’t even need a soufflé dish; any deep, straight-sided, oven-safe dish will do. Butter the dish, dump in a handful of grated parm (or fine breadcrumbs). Tip and swirl the dish so that the parm (or breadcrumbs) sticks to the butter and lines the dish. You now have replaced the slippery surface of the ceramic with a nubbly texture for the batter to cling to as it rises.
Set your eggs out to warm up a little while you prep the remaining ingredients and heat the oven, since room-temperature egg whites will be easier to whip. Make sure your other dishes will be ready before the soufflé is. Grate the cheeses, prep the baking dish, and make your white sauce, since it needs to cool a bit before you add the eggs.
I’m all for keeping the number of dishes to a minimum, but I strongly recommend setting up two small bowls and one large bowl just for the eggs. Crack an egg over one of the small bowls, and let the white slide in. Put the yolk into the other small bowl, and check the white to make sure that it’s pristine. Whites will not whip if there’s even the tiniest speck of fat, and yolks are nothing but sunny globes of fat (okay, and protein). If the white is completely yolk-free, pour it into the spotlessly clean big bowl and grab the next egg. Continue the process, adding whites to the bowl one by one, checking each time. This way, if a yolk breaks while you’re separating an egg, you only have to toss one egg, and not the whole batch.
One last caveat: Don’t open that oven! This is the time to use the window in the oven door to watch the miracle of culinary science as the soufflé soars. Which it will.
Serves 4 as a main course
5 large eggs
3 tbs. butter, plus more for greasing dish
½ cup grated parmesan, plus more for prepping dish
1 ¼ cups whole milk
3 tbs. flour
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup grated sharp cheddar
Heat the oven to 350°F. Separate the eggs (see the suggestions above) and set aside. Butter your soufflé dish, then coat with parmesan.
Melt the 3 tbs. butter in a medium saucepan. While the butter melts, pop the milk in the microwave and heat for 1 minute, just until it’s warm. (Warm milk plus roux equals a smooth sauce.) Whisk the flour into the melted butter (this is your roux) and cook for a minute or so over medium heat. You’re not looking for browning here; you just want to eliminate the raw flour taste. Whisk in the warm milk and cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat until the sauce bubbles and thickens. Take it off the heat and whisk in the cheddar and parmesan. Set it aside for a moment.
Beat the egg whites until they reach stiff peaks. This means that when you stop beating and pull out your beater, the whites hold their shape and maybe just the tip of the peaked white bends over a bit.
Leave the whites for a moment and go back to the cheese sauce. Stir a few tablespoons of sauce into the egg yolks to warm them, then whisk the yolks into the sauce. Feel the pan the sauce is in — the sauce can be quite warm, but should not be hot. Let it cool for a few minutes if it is. Add a good, solid scoop of whites to the sauce and stir it in to lighten the sauce. Then very gently fold the whites into the sauce until just barely combined. Pile it into the prepared soufflé dish and put it into the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Leave the oven closed during that time. If you have to peek, do so through the oven window. After 30 minutes, open the oven and gently, gently shake the dish just a little. It should jiggle but not slosh. Scream “dinner time!” and serve immediately.