Dramatic, but daunting. The ideas we have about souffles, these grand poofs, these amazing gastronomic feats of egg magic, are indeed lofty. Unreachable. With the risk of failure seeming so great (oh no! deflated! defeated!) souffles are the stuff of the Cordon Bleu, the men in towering toques, reserved for the creme-de-la-creme.
But making a souffle is really not as mysterious or difficult or time-consuming as you might believe. Mais non, mes cheres. A French woman assured me of this.
A mother of three, Francoise has lived in many places around the world, due to her husband’s job. During her two years in Nashville, Francoise worked with us in the Culinary Arts Center at Second Harvest. We had fun cooking together, and I would ask her about the kinds of meals that she liked to make for her family. I was stunned when she told me that a favorite dinner was cheese souffle.
“It is so simple, my daughter often makes it,” she said.
Her daughter was fourteen at the time.
Noting my wide eyes and dropped jaw, she smiled. “I’ll give you the recipe.”
Inspired by Francoise (and her daughter!), I made her cheese souffle. It was a dream, and all negative thoughts about the dish vanished.
Today, I had some fresh spinach from the market, and a lone leek snatched from Gigi’s garden. I also had a small piece of Comte’, an artisanal cheese crafted in the Jura Mountains of France. It is similar to Gruyere, but creamier. It was one of Francoise’s favorites; when I saw the cheese at the store yesterday, it made me think of her. And, Souffles!
A souffle recipe is very adaptable, and with a little preparation, you can transform kitchen staples–eggs, butter, milk, cheese–into something savory and cloudlike.
The flavor base of all souffles is a roux, expanded with milk into a thick white sauce, or bechamel. To this, you add whatever vegetable saute or puree you would like. As I write this now, I’m imagining a roasted artichoke souffle or puree of asparagus, come spring. Hmmm.
Once you’ve created your base, it’s time for egg magic! Beating the yolks into the cooled bechamel mix helps form a rich custard. And beating the whites into soft wavy peaks is the trick to expanding that custard into a cloud.
A light hand is needed for folding the whites and custard together, but it does not have to be perfectly mixed. Some traces of white are bound to remain–it’s not a big deal.
Do remember to have the oven preheated. And, you’ll enjoy the crust made from the breadcrumbs and grated parmesan on the sides and bottom of the souffle. When it’s time to serve, be sure to scoop out some of the soft interior with the crusty edges.
Francoise also told me, “You must wait for the souffle, but it will not wait for you.” Patience is a factor, and yes, the souffle is best enjoyed right out the oven. But, no worries gathering everyone to the table. They will be eager to see your triumph, and dig their spoons into the savory ethers.
SPINACH SOUFFLE with LEEKS and COMTE’ CHEESE
4 Eggs, separated
4 Tablespoons Butter, plus 1 Tablespoon Butter
2 T. grated Parmesan
2 T. Breadcrumbs
1 Leek, sliced
1 clove Garlic, minced
4 T. All Purpose Flour
1 cup 2% Milk
2 c. chopped fresh Spinach leaves
1/2 c. shredded Comte or Gruyere cheese
1/4 t. each Salt and Pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a 2 qt. souffle dish or casserole with 1 T. (or so) butter, and dust with grated parmesan and breadcrumbs.
In a saucepan, melt 4 T. butter. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Saute leeks and garlic for two minutes, until soft and translucent. Stir in flour and cook the mixture like a roux.
Slowly pour in the milk, and continue cooking until it becomes a thick, glossy white sauce. Stir in spinach and cook until the it is collapsed throughout the mixture.
Remove from heat and stir in the shredded cheese. Allow to cool somewhat before beating in the egg yolks, one at a time.
In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. The whites should be stiff, but smooth, pliable—not chunky or granular. ( This happens if they are overbeaten.)
Add a couple of dollops of whites to the spinach mixture to lighten it.
Then, using a spatula, fold the spinach mixture back into the remaining whites in a gentle circular motion, until well incorporated.
(It’s okay if a few streaks or tiny lumps of white remain.)
Spoon into prepared souffle dish and bake in the center of the over for about 30 minutes.
Serve immediately! Serves 4.