Sweet and savory eruptions of flavors
Having a large soufflé served at your table in winter is like welcoming a gourmet Vesuvius, almost glowing with heat and ready to erupt into flavors.
While its walls are crisp and high, digging into its center is like cracking into a crater of molten chocolate or creamy goat cheese swirling just beneath the surface. If it’s a savory soufflé, we can puncture the crust and scoop the creamy interior onto our plates with a large serving spoon, or we can create a crevice to pour in a matching sauce if it’s a dessert.
There has always been an air of alchemy, even a sense of foreboding, in preparing soufflés for those who have never done so before. Yet it is a little bit like driving a car—the basic task is rather simple, but getting behind the wheel of an Indy car demands a high degree of competence.
As a home cook, I have for years made basic goat cheese soufflés that are wonderful in flavor and texture yet rather ordinary when it comes to plate-side appeal.
When I talked to Gary Trevisani, chef/owner at the Orchard restaurant in Kennett Square, about making soufflés, he chuckled. “I used to teach that at The Restaurant School,” he said. “Would you like the full two-hour lecture?” I settled for 15 minutes of Q&A.
Usually, putting together a soufflé begins with making a base—for example, a chocolate sauce for a sweet soufflé, or a roux of butter, milk, and flour for a savory one—and then adding egg yolks and whipped egg whites separately.
So let’s start with the basics—eggs. “Traditionally, you have a third more egg whites than yolks,” says Trevisani, “but I’m frugal with my eggs, so I may use more yolks.” Claire Twesten, pastry chef and a co-owner of Talula’s Table, also in Kennett Square, reminds us that we need to bring the eggs to room temperature before starting. “And I don’t over-whip my egg whites,” she adds. “It’s also important that you taste your base, and correct it if needed, before you add your eggs.”
Sweet or savory?
Some people think about soufflés as only being for dessert, but savory soufflés, flavored with herbs or vegetables, are great centerpieces for brunches or as surprise first courses with dinner. Additionally, savory soufflés usually depend on cheeses for flavor and texture. Melted goat cheese, for example, can be as silken and smooth on the palate as melted chocolate can be in a dessert soufflé.
Individual or table size?
Most restaurants only serve individual-size soufflés in small ceramic ramekins. The bases are whipped up in quantity, so you can just as easily put all that “batter” into one large ceramic dish. However, changing the size changes the baking temperatures, Trevisani warns. “With a small soufflé, I use a higher temperature for about 15 minutes. For a large soufflé, you want to start at a higher temperature for the eggs whites to set, but then turn it down to keep the soufflé from being burned.”
Getting the height
There are two thoughts on how high a soufflé should rise during baking. Soufflés that rise above the dish’s rim look elegant, but if you’re just looking for taste, height doesn’t matter. “I never use a collar,” Twesten says of those paper linings that jut out around the rising soufflé. But she does brush butter around the lip of the dish so as not to impede its rise. Trevisani says he likes to use paper linings, but primarily because it makes for easier cleaning. “For the soufflé to rise, you need a dish with straight sides,” he says. “Don’t use ones where the sides flare out. The batter won’t have anything to climb.”
Here, it’s a matter of preference both with sweet and savory. With a savory dish, I like to scoop out a barely set, creamy interior and then top it with shards of crispy crust that has turned a dark brown, giving a contrast of textures and flavors. That means I bake my soufflés at a steady, slightly higher heat. Other soufflé-munchers like their cheese and egg well done, which requires slower, even baking.
“Desserts soufflés actually start with their own sweet sauce,” Trevisani notes. He likes to add to that. “I love to take a sweet soufflé out of the oven and put a flavored sauce in the middle,” he says. Often these sauces can be contrasting in flavor or texture—for example, a vanilla sauce or a rough berry sauce to contrast with a creamy chocolate. “Cook it a little longer if you’re going to add a sauce,” Trevisani adds.
Sauces for savory dishes need a little tartness to contrast with the richness of the cheese and eggs. For example, I often serve a pan sauce of chopped vegetables in a tomato salsa on the side to add some acidity. Then I add chopped Canadian bacon or pancetta for a little protein.
Twesten has a recipe for a cheese soufflé that adds formed balls of citrus and goat cheese dropped into the mixture for an explosion of flavor. Vegetables, such as diced onions or asparagus, can be added to the dish before it goes into the oven, but realize that the texture will become coarser as well.
Always serve a soufflé hot.
Red wines with some astringency— everyday Chiantis, for example—go well with cheese soufflés, while a glass of tawny Port works well with a chocolate one.
Any ideas for an off-the-wall soufflé? “A green tea soufflé might be nice for winter,” Trevisani muses. “Now I’ll have to go try one to see if it fits the menu.”
from The Brandywine Book of the Seasons
by Roger & Ella Morris
4 Tbs. butter
5 egg whites, whipped
4 Tbs. white flour
4 egg yolks
1 cup milk
2 4-oz. sections of chevre or goat cheese, preferably herbed
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 2. Over low heat, melt the butter in a large skillet that can hold all ingredients. 3. Stir in the flour gradually, then the milk gradually until the mixture is smooth. 4. Crumble the cheese into the mixture and stir until it has melted and become incorporated. Set aside. 5. Separate the eggs, and whip the whites until they start to hold peaks. 6. The cheese mixture will have cooled sufficiently so you can first fold in the eggs yolks and then the egg whites. 7. Spray a round ceramic soufflé dish with Pam. Pour in the mixture and bake for about 45 minutes or until the soufflé, which should have risen slightly, is turning a dark brown on top and has started to pull away from the sides of the dish. 8. Serve immediately with a side sauce of tomato salsa with diced vegetables and plenty of crusty bread.