On soufflé and trepidation
I ate my first soufflé as a preteen, at Oklahoma City’s swank but sedate Coach House Restaurant. It was an apricot soufflé, tall and trembling, served in a small ramekin. The waiter, deathly serious, plunged a silver spoon into its center and poured a thin stream of translucent apricot sauce into the chasm. I scooped up a spoonful: the soufflé was airy, eggy, and sweet, with a thin crust of sugar where it met the ramekin’s edge. Everything went quiet. I didn’t speak until I’d scraped up every bit from the ceramic dish and licked my spoon clean.
But a dozen years would pass before I’d try my hand at making one. After all, everyone knows that soufflés are notoriously difficult. According to the word on the street, your soufflé will be nothing more than a scrambled-egg discus if you: a) open the oven before it’s finished baking; b) over-whip your egg whites, c) under-whip your egg whites; d) turn your back while it’s baking; e) don’t worry enough; or f) worry too much. It’s terrifying. To draw on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by soufflé, starving / hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for a whisk….” If I’m going to sweat and twitch, it shouldn’t be over dinner.
But, dear reader, because there’s nothing more luxurious and magical than a good soufflé, we can’t let ourselves be beaten down by fear. We’ve at least got to try. In this life of uncertainty, we’d be wise to heed the words of another poet, William Stafford:*
It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could you know. That's why we wake
and look out—no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
Yes, some bonuses, like soufflé. Heartened by these words, one night in late 2003, I took my soufflé dish down from the shelf. Little did I know it would be the opening of a new era. Armed with Julia Child’s masterful The Way to Cook, I was ready, and it was a simple matter of following instructions. From the béchamel to the stiff peaks, it was straightforward, even easy(!). In a show of defiance to fear, I even drank a glass of wine while it baked. And when I pulled it from the oven, golden and soaring, I knew it was a sure thing. I brought it to the table and served it proudly, breaking the crust and listening with glee to the crackly hiss of a spoon through delicate webs of pillowy egg. It was both ethereally light and fantastically rich with cheese. A bonus indeed.
There’s not a second to waste. After all, it could happen any time: tornado, earthquake, Armageddon, soufflé.
*From The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 1998).
Adapted from The Way to Cook, by Julia Child
Thank heavens for Julia.
2 Tbs finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or other hard cheese
2 ½ Tbs unsalted butter, plus more for buttering dish
3 Tbs all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk, hot
½ tsp paprika
A pinch of nutmeg
½ tsp salt
3 grinds of freshly ground pepper
4 egg yolks (from large eggs)
5 egg whites (from large eggs)
1 cup (3 ½ ounces) coarsely grated cheese, such as gruyère or sharp cheddar
Generously butter a 7 ½- to 8-inch diameter soufflé dish. Roll the grated Parmigiano Reggiano in the buttered baking dish to cover the bottom and side. Set the oven rack in the lower third of the oven, and preheat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
To make the béchamel:
Over moderate heat, melt 2 ½ Tbs butter in a 2 ½-quart saucepan; then blend in the flour with a wooden spoon to make a smooth but somewhat loose paste. Stir until the butter and flour foam together for two minutes without coloring to more than a buttery yellow. Remove from heat. When the bubbling stops, in a few seconds, pour in the hot milk all at once, whisking vigorously to blend. Place the saucepan over moderately high heat, whisking rather slowly, reaching all over the bottom and sides of the pan, until the sauce comes to the simmer. Simmer two to three minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sauce is very thick and coats a spoon nicely. Whisk in the seasonings, and remove from heat. Whisk the egg yolks into the hot sauce one by one, transfer sauce to a large bowl, and set it aside.
In a clean bowl and with clean beaters, beat the egg whites to stiff shining peaks. Scoop a quarter of the egg whites into the bowl with the sauce, and stir together with a wooden spoon. Turn the rest of the egg whites on top; rapidly and delicately, fold them in with a rubber spatula, alternating scoops of the spatula with sprinkles of the coarsely grated cheese. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish, and use your spatula to trace a circle in the top of the batter, just inside the rim of the dish. This will help the soufflé to rise freely.
Place the soufflé in the oven, and turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake about 25 to 30 minutes (without opening the oven), until the soufflé has puffed one to three inches over the rim of the baking dish and the top has browned nicely. Serve immediately, because yes, it will deflate within a few minutes. To serve without crushing it, use two serving spoons pointed down and back-to-back; plunge them into the crust and tear it apart.