I’ve done histories on cheese and eggs, so I thought it might be time for a recipe that combined the two —cheese soufflé. The soufflé is pretty much the pinnacle of egg-dom, the coolest possible thing to do with these versatile little protein parcels. And (here’s the surprise) it’s actually pretty easy to make a soufflé. In fact, this is an almost fool-proof recipe. Soufflés are fun, yummy, and a relatively easy way to impress the heck out of people. (The instructions may look ponderous, but don’t let that put you off—a lot of it is just technique, to help ensure your success.)
For soufflé making, in addition to the usual pots, cups, and measuring spoons, you must have a metal or ceramic bowl (never plastic), a rubber spatula, and a whisk. An electric mixer is pretty much a requirement, as well (I’ve actually beaten egg whites by hand before—so I know it works, but I also know it’s a daunting amount of work). A soufflé dish is nice, but not required; you just need an oven-proof dish of some sort, 1 quart capacity for this recipe, or double the recipe, if all you have is a 2-quart baking dish.
1/4 cup butter
3 Tbs. flour
1 cup milk
3 eggs, separated, plus 1 extra egg white
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
dash cayenne pepper
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
Eggs need to be at room temperature, so take them out of the refrigerator before you start. (Or put them in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes.)
Butter the inside of a 1-quart baking dish with 1 Tbs. of the butter.
In a deep pot over medium heat, melt the rest of the butter, then whisk in the flour. Slowly add milk, whisking continuously to prevent lumps. Continue whisking until the sauce begins to thicken (takes a minute or two—then suddenly, it happens). Remove pot from heat and whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time, blending thoroughly as each is added.
Set the oven to 375 degrees Farenheit. Fold the cheese and seasonings into the sauce, using a rubber spatula to blend gently but thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Set aside.
Now, you’re ready to beat the egg whites. There are a variety of tricks for keeping whipped egg whites from deflating. One is to use a copper mixing bowl—it just works better. Another way is to rub the inside of your bowl with a cut lemon, then wipe off any excess moisture—the tiny amount of residual acid helps keep the beaten egg white from collapsing. (But don’t use the lemon in the copper bowl—the acid/copper combo will give the eggs a green cast.) Even if you don’t want to bother with either of these options, make sure the bowl is very clean—any trace of oil can defeat your purpose. (I usually just use a scrupulously clean stainless steel bowl, but I’ll use the lemon trick if I happen to have a lemon on hand.)
Into your clean or prepared bowl, place the four egg whites. Beat at low speed until the whites are frothy, then at medium-high until they hold stiff peaks. With the rubber spatula, lift out about one fourth of the whites and fold them into the sauce. Use a smooth down, under, up, and over circular motion. Turn the pot at the completion of each stroke, so you combine contents thoroughly. Fold just until mixture is uniformly spongy.
Use the spatula to scrape the rest of the egg whites onto the sauce, and gently but quickly fold them in with the same circular motion, making sure you reach the bottom of the pot with each stroke. This time, do not blend completely, but stop while there are still some bits of white froth showing here and there.
With the spatula, smooth the mixture into the prepared baking dish. It should fill the dish completely. If it doesn’t fill the dish, smooth it into a smaller dish. Run your fingertip an inch down, all the way around, inside the rim of the dish. This creates the “top hat” effect when the soufflé rises, and also keeps it from overflowing.
Place the soufflé on the lowest rack of the hot oven and bake from 25 to 40 minutes, depending on the texture you like. The traditional, runny, fragile soufflé that the French prefer is produced by the shorter time. I prefer a slightly longer cooking time—both because I prefer a less damp texture, and because the soufflé becomes harder to damage when baked a little longer, since the shorter cooking time gives you an exquisite but delicate product that barely makes it to the table without caving in. It also makes better leftovers when it’s a little more “solid.” For the firmer version, I test the soufflé after 35 minutes—a knife blade stuck in from the side should come out clean—then turn off the oven and let it stand for five minutes, while I prepare for the presentation (or just dig out a plate and fork, since I do make this for myself). Serves 4.
If you double the recipe, for a 2-quart dish, bake an extra 5 to 7 minutes. Serves 6-8.
Special bonus: This isn’t simply a cheese soufflé recipe—it’s an “almost anything you have on hand” soufflé recipe. For the cup of cheese, you could substitute cooked, finely chopped, well-drained spinach with a few tablespoons of grated parmesan and appropriate seasonings (rosemary is nice). Or a cup of canned tuna or salmon mashed up with some sautéed onions. Or a cup of puréed broccoli or asparagus seasoned to taste. Or a cup of cooked ground beef and/or mashed potatoes. In fact, a cup of pretty much anything with a little body and not too much liquid can be spun into this recipe. And if you want to stay with cheese, try Monterey Jack with chopped jalapeño peppers, or keep the cheddar but eliminate the Worcestershire sauce and use tarragon, or toss in a handful of diced ham. Once you get the hang of it, no one need ever know that they’re eating leftovers again!
© 2008 Cynthia Clampitt