Golden brown and puffed up over their collars, souffles emerge from the oven like miniature chefs' hats. At the table, they are guaranteed show-stoppers.
Yet for all the accolades they draw, souffles are somewhat misunderstood. They are admired by diners as the epitome of culinary elegance, but many home cooks are afraid of them, thinking they're too fragile to attempt. That's one reason souffles have been popular on restaurant menus. Once you understand them - that a souffle is nothing more than a sauce mixed with egg whites - then you can try the grandest of recipes at home.
Souffles were created in France in the late 18th century and, writes Alan Davidson in "The Oxford Companion to Food," have "a reputation for difficulty and proneness to accidents, which [they do] not deserve. Conversely, a successful souffle has a certain glamour."
"In restaurants, I think people like souffles because they deliver intense flavor but are not too heavy," says David James, pastry chef at Le Soir in Newton. "And because they are baked to order, they feel more special." James faults 1960s sitcoms for scaring off many home cooks. "I remember, when I was younger, it seemed like the cook [on a TV show] was always making a souffle and everyone had to tiptoe around because they were afraid it would fall."
In fact, it is not so easy to make a souffle fall, provided you've done all the right things to make it rise in the first place.
In "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle demystify the souffle, defining it, simply, as "a sauce containing a flavoring or puree into which stiffly beaten egg whites are incorporated." The trickiest part is beating the whites, then incorporating them into the base gently so they maintain their volume.
Le Soir's James cites three factors essential for success: the oven has to be at the right temperature (375 to 400 degrees); the base should be at room temperature when you fold in the whites; and the whites should be beaten only until they are stiff. "They should look glossy and smooth and hold stiff peaks," he says. "If they are over-beaten, they look broken."
It's as easy to make a savory souffle as a sweet one, so you can start and end a meal with souffles. A luxurious first course is a puffy cheese souffle, which begins with a classic white sauce (called bechamel). For dessert, you can start with pastry cream, which is a cooked custard, and season it with chocolate, or another strong and appealing flavor.
You have another option for sweet souffles: a bouilli, which is a mixture of milk, sugar, and flour or starch, boiled for a few seconds until thickened. After it has cooled slightly, egg yolks, butter, and the flavoring are beaten in.
James likes to make individual souffles and put something in the bottom, such as caramel and bananas in a chocolate mixture. He is currently waiting for a new oven at Le Soir, so he can add souffles to his menu.
The beauty of souffles is that you can make them any time of year with whatever's on hand. Robert Harris, catering manager at Cambridge's East Coast Grill, says his thoughts turn to souffles when the availability of fresh local produce is at its lowest. "It's the middle of winter. There's not much to work with. What are you going to do? This time of year I focus more on techniques than ingredients," says the Culinary Institute of America graduate.
In the Harris household, that might mean a butternut squash souffle. Harris, who is the head chef at home, whips up both sweet and savory souffles for his wife, Maia, an attorney in Boston, and their two daughters, 4-year-old Emma and 1-year-old Stella. He favors a more rustic style that is rich in flavor but not quite as airy as traditional French souffles.
"The whole point of rustic souffles is not to be intimidated," he says. "You don't have to make bechamel."But you do have to whip the egg whites.
He adds a few drops of lemon or lime juice and a pinch of salt (or sugar, for dessert souffles) to help the whites beat to the right consistency, resembling "shaving cream," as he calls it. Harris stirs half into the base, then gently folds in the rest.
Traditionally, souffles were baked in cylindrical metal molds, called charlottes. But today it is most common, especially among home cooks, to bake them in shallow ceramic molds or ramekins. It is very important to butter the bottom and sides of the molds, so the souffles will rise easily. If your oven door has a glass panel, peek in and watch the magic.
After about 20 minutes, a souffle should puff two to three inches higher than the rim of the mold, and turn golden on top. As it cools, it begins to sink. Rush the souffle to the table. You want it to look magnificent when you take a bow.