Monday, April 13, 2009

full of hot air

The soufflé has occupied a vaunted place in haute cuisine since there was such a thing as haute cuisine. Its praises are sung, and its tricky nature both admired and cursed. On dessert menus, the soufflé comes with its own smug fanfare: "Please allow thirty minutes," whispers the menu, in a breathless italic flourish.

Sadly, the soufflé has been pulling the wool over the culinary world's eyes for far too long. By dint of its formidable reputation, it has deceived, mislead, swindled, bamboozled and hoodwinked generations of nervous home cooks. To judge by its lore, you need a dedicated bowl, a dedicated whisk, particular weather conditions, and a preparatory sacrifice to Brillat-Savarin to ensure success.

Of course, that's all a load of bunk. (Or should that be hot air?)

A soufflé is not an ethereal creation of angel wings and fairy dust. Its diva-ish ways are largely unwarranted. As much as it wants to pretend that it belongs in a class of its own, it's a close relative of other egg-leavened desserts like génoise and angel food cake. It's even distantly related to - gasp - the lowly omelette.

A chocolate soufflé, in particular, is nothing more than a flourless cake with a bad attitude.

It all comes down to leavening agents, the ingredients that make baked goods rise. Biological and chemical leavening agents, like yeast and baking powder, work because they generate carbon dioxide. Eggs, however, are a mechanical leavening agent: when you beat eggs, you're introducing lots of tiny little air bubbles which expand during baking.

If you crack an egg into a bowl, and start beating it with a whisk, the egg will go from a thick, viscous liquid to a thinner liquid, to a liquid with lots of bubbles in it, to a thick, pourable foam, like the head on beer. Throw this in a pan over low heat, and you'll get a nice, fluffy omelette. This is also how you leaven a sponge cake, or a flourless chocolate torte.

If you separate the egg, and just beat the white, the foam will be even stiffer, like bubbles from bubble bath. This is how you leaven an angel food cake. (Or, if you, like me, are not a fan of angel food cake, one of these.)

And if you separate several eggs, stir the yolks into melted dark chocolate, beat the whites with a little sugar until stiff and almost Styrofoam-like in solidity, and then gently combine the two, you have soufflé batter. Spoon this into a dish, give it some time in the oven, and you will have a soufflé, in all its rich, fluffy glory.

It is, quite honestly, that straightforward. You do not need a hand-burnished copper bowl. You do not need a whisk blessed by virgins. You do not need sacrifices to the French culinary pantheon. All you need is a little patience to put the haughty soufflé right in its place.

Bitter Chocolate Soufflé

If you're baking this during Passover, double-check that your chocolate is pareve, and use vegetable oil to grease the soufflé dish.

(Recipe not for one. Soufflés don't make for good leftovers. Round up two or three friends.)

First, get your equipment ready. You'll need a soufflé dish, minimum capacity six cups, maximum capacity eight cups. (An eight-cup dish will be on the large side; your souffle is not going to tower over the edge, but it will bake just fine.) You'll need two large bowls, one heatproof, and one metal. (The bigger, the better. It doesn't have to be copper.) And finally, you'll need an electric mixer, or if you're doing this the old-fashioned way, a big balloon whisk.

Wash the dish, the bowls, and the beaters or whisk thoroughly with soap and hot water. Dry them well with a clean tea-towel.

Assemble your ingredients. You'll need six ounces of unsweetened baker's chocolate (chips or chunks), two-thirds of a cup of white sugar, and six eggs. Use fresh eggs; this does make a difference. (Fresh eggs stand up better to beating. Save your older eggs for hard-boiling.)

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Take your souffle dish, grease it well with butter, and sprinkle with sugar. Shake out the excess. Set aside.

(Not my photos. These are Alex's work.)

Next, take your heatproof bowl and dump in your chocolate chips or chunks. Place this bowl over gently simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is melted. Set aside in a warm place.

Grab your eggs, and separate the whites into your big metal bowl.

Put three of the yolks into a small bowl and set them aside. (Put the other three in Tupperware - you can use them to make pasta dough or hollandaise or lemon curd later.)

Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites. Grab your whisk (or electric mixer.) Take a deep breath. Start beating.

The egg whites will slowly turn frothy. Keep beating.

Then foamy. Sprinkle over one-third of a cup of sugar. Keep beating.

The foam will form soft peaks. Sprinkler over another one-third of a cup of sugar. Keep beating; switch hands if your arm is cramping up.

Then it will form stiff, slightly glossy peaks. If you tip the bowl and the whites don't move, they're stiff. (Ideally, you should be able to turn the entire bowl upside down.) You can stop beating.

Stir your yolks into the melted chocolate.

It will sort of seize up; don't worry, this is normal.

Using a rubber spatula, glop a cup or two of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Fold them in until the mixture is even.

Add the rest of the whites, folding very gently. Take your time. It's fine if it looks a little streaky, as long as you don't have patches of pure white and patches of pure chocolate.

Once the egg whites have been folded in, spoon your mixture into the souffle dish.

Put the souffle dish in the oven. Resist the urge to peek. Bake for forty-five minutes, or until it is set around the edges but still wobbles very slightly in the middle when you shake the dish.

Once cooked, remove the souffle from the oven.

Carve out portions with a spoon.

Serve immediately. Berry sauce or whipped cream is a good accompaniment.


Virgin In The Volcano said...

Simple enough, yes, but simpler still when someone else makes it for you! ;) Looks delicious!!

Adrienne said...

Yep, it's official. I can do this. Now to round up those friends...

adele said...

Virgin - As I said, let me know how your schedule looks.

Adrienne - Ah-ha! That's one person convinced...

Joh said...

Man, now I have to buy a souffle dish. You are an enabler.
A tasty, tasty enabler.

adele said...

Joh - Um. Oops? :)

~~louise~~ said...

I have a mental block when it comes to soufflés. I'm not quite sure as to why. Perhaps, that group of friends, a few sips of wine and your blog post will get me over my hurdle.

Thanks for sharing, Adele

adele said...

Louise - Does it help if you tell yourself you're baking a flourless chocolate cake instead? :)

Andrea said...

Mmmmm, this looks totally fabulous. I will have to try making one sometime soon. Nice photos!

adele said...

Andrea - The photos were entirely Alex's work, which is why they look good. :)

~~louise~~ said...

It's hard to resist when you put it that way Adele. Someday, I am going to try again. When I do, I will have your detailed instructions to be thankful for:)

Nathaniel said...

Tried this yesterday; it worked very nicely. (Not owning a souffle dish, I used a pie dish, which seemed to work just fine.) Thanks for the walk-through!

adele said...

Nathaniel - Hooray!