Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Great Souffle

I recently played host to the grand-dame of the French kitchen, the chocolate souffle. One description that's often given to poached eggs may actually be better suited to this classic French dessert: an egg dish that impresses guests, looks difficult, and is secretly simple to prepare. While my countless attempts at poaching have resulted in unintentioned and unappetizing pots of egg-drop-soup, my souffles are always perfectly-erected towers of success.

A few weeks ago, I set out to isolate the best and clearest recipe for a chocolate souffle. I had lots of material to work with since several contemporary authors and chefs have brought on a souffle renaissance by concentrating on the dish's simple elegance. I gathered copies of recipes from Australian supermarket rag Good Taste, trusted foodie-blog 101 Cookbooks, reliably upscale magazine Bon Appetit, and the textbook from a course I took at New York's Institute for Culinary Education. I made two attempts, went through two dozen eggs, and finally came up with my own adaptation of a Nick Malgieri recipe that appeared in my Institute for Culinary Education course materials. (The unusual Earl Grey custard sauce, which adds an extra note to the dessert, is lifted directly from Bon Appetit.)

Chocolate Souffle
7 ounces semisweet or bittersweet couverture chocolate, chopped
4 tablespoons water, or flavored liquid
4 egg yolks

4 tablespoons sugar
8 egg whites, at room temperature
Butter, at room temperature, for preparing the souffle dish
Additional sugar for preparing the souffle dish

Preheat oven to 400F (205C). Remove all racks except one, placed on the bottom-most shelf. Place a baking sheet or tray on the rack to heat.

Generously butter a round-souffle dish. Pour in about 1/2 cup sugar. Shake the dish to coat the bottom. Then carefully swirl it (ideally over the sink or waste basket) until the sides are completely coated with sugar as well. Tap out any remaining sugar.

Combine the chocolate and water (or other liquid) in a metal bowl (or the top portion of a double boiler), set above a pan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until combined and completely melted. Once the chocolate mixture is smooth, remove the bowl from the heat and allow the mixture to come to room temperature (about 1/2 hour).

In a medium bowl, combine the egg yolks and two tablespoons of sugar. Beat the mixture until thoroughly combined and thickened, then add to the cooled melted chocolate and whisk to combine.

In a medium-to-large bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer, gradually adding the remaining two tablespoons of sugar. Continue beating until the egg whites are stiff but not dry. Add the whisked egg whites to the chocolate-and-yolk mixture in three additions, folding with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon after each one. This step should be gentle but thorough enough to break up any large clumps of egg white.

Pour the mixture into the prepared souffle dish and place the dish on top of the heated baking sheet in the oven. Do not leave the oven door open for any more time than is absolutely necessary, since this will cause the temperature to drop.

Bake the souffle for 25 minutes, leaving the oven door shut the entire time. Remove the souffle, which should have risen with a characteristic puff, and serve immediately.

Earl Grey Custard Sauce*
6 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon Earl Grey tea leaves (from 3 bags)

Whisk egg yolks and 2 tablespoons sugar in medium bowl to blend well. Combine milk, cream, tea leaves, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in heavy medium saucepan. Bring to simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Gradually whisk hot milk mixture into egg yolk mixture; return to same saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until custard thickens enough to leave path on spoon when finger is drawn across, about 8 minutes (do not boil). Immediately strain sauce into small bowl. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, at least 4 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated.)

Active Ingredients:
This was the recipe that sent me around the entire city of Melbourne to source out Valrhona chocolate, in order to match the French dish with French ingredients. (The most reliable Australian supplier is Simon Johnson, the retail outlet that's also responsible for importing the product into the country.) My boyfriend Chris, a converted connoisseur, surprisingly told me that he detected the flavor of dirt when he bit into a square of Valrhona's 70-percent-cacao Guanaja bar. On the other hand, I found it to have an inspiring fruity flavor without a trace of bitterness (making it a dark chocolate that all skeptics should try). However, I didn't need to spend so much money on this francophone import. A comparable couverture is available from the forward-thinking local Australian producer Kennedy & Wilson.

The first recipe I tried in this souffle-perfecting experiment called for milk. However, when the result (pictured below) was not as puffed as I would have liked, I tentatively concluded that the milk had the counterintuitive effect of weighing the souffle down instead of lightening it (milk has this effect in omelets and scrambled eggs). In contrast, the original Malgieri/Institute of Culinary Education recipe had no milk and called for "4 tablespoons rum, Framboise, orange juice, Grand Marnier or water." I used Cointreau, which was on hand, and that version rose delightfully high. But the liqueur taste (which had so little substance to cut through except for the airy egg whites) was quite strong and overpowered the light flavor of the tea in the custard sauce. Since the sauce was such a hit as a souffle-pairing (one of my guests described the subtle tastes of the chocolate in the souffle and the tea in the custard as "crossing over"), I didn't want to interfere with the tea. I settled on water, to make the base souffle recipe as clean as possible. However, a bit of Earl Grey tea in place of water might lift the combined taste of the dessert and the sauce to an even higher level. In the future, I'd like to experiment with using different traditional and herbal teas in both the souffle and the sauce.


This recipe is a great success with guests--and it's amazingly fool-proof provided you understand and follow a few basic scientific principles. First, it is the air whipped into the egg whites that causes the souffle to rise; the higher you beat the whites, the more cloud-like the souffle will be. A lot of people panic that some molecule-sized speck of egg yolk or another impurity, undetectable even by magnifying glass or microscope, will infiltrate the whites and render them flat and incapable of rising; this has not happened to me in at least a year, maybe several years. Simply be careful when breaking your eggs to ensure that you don't puncture the yolks and you'll be fine. Second, the combination of butter and sugar on the side of the dish provides a "ladder" that helps the souffle mixture climb, allowing for the striking puff--don't skimp on the butter and sugar when preparing the dish. Third, the volatile souffle mixture needs a constant temperature in order to bake and rise properly. The baking sheet in the oven helps to provide a uniform heat to the bottom of the souffle instead of the inconsistent heat that the metal bars of the rack would give off--you can skip this step, but it's painless and ensures a quality result. And, of course, don't ever open in the oven! A drop in temperature will cause a drop in your beautiful puffy-topped souffle. You have to trust yourself and your oven, and if you're unsure about the cooking time, leave your souffle in for an extra five minutes because a souffle that's a bit dry is better than a souffle that's runny.

Souffles carry with them a certain mystique. A bit of fanfare when it comes out of the oven is probably in order, but the event needn't be an overly formal affair at which guests sit cross-legged wearing fancy-dress costumes. We invited friends over, ordered a pizza, and then finished the casual evening off with our great souffle. Just make sure that everyone is ready and waiting when you take the creation from the oven--it will start to fall as soon as it comes out. (However, home cooks will be relieved to know that they don't need to throw the souffle in the oven the moment all the ingredients are combined since the melted chocolate will help the whipped egg whites keep their shape for up to several hours. Also, a bit of fallen souffle--topped with a dab of cream and reheated in the microwave--is just as tasty the following day.)

At the very end of this section in my cooking-school text book, I once wrote the words, "we wait for the souffle." As well we should.

* "Bittersweet Chocolate Souffle with Earl Grey Custard Sauce." Bon Appetit Feb. 2003: 106.


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