Cheese soufflé has been on my list of French dishes to master. Done right, it’s like eating a cloud. A creamy cloud. Of cheese. Are you swooning yet? You should be.
But it seemed so intimidating. All those jokes about the soufflé falling and not turning out. The expression retomber comme un soufflé –to fall like a soufflé–means to suddenly lose interest.
I bought a soufflé dish for €1 at a vide-grenier. It languished, reproaching me every time I passed it by for some other utensil. Finally, I committed to the act and set out to research.
After comparing many recipes, and not feeling any more confident about the mission, I decided to also watch videos. I just watched one: on 750g.com, a cooking Web site created by two brothers, Jean-Baptiste and Damien Duquesne. The recipe is demonstrated by Damien, who is a trained chef and who has a restaurant in Paris called 750g La Table. In typical fashion, I was listening to podcasts while cooking, so I watched the video with the sound off and it was still very clear. So don’t be intimidated if your French is rusty–the actions speak louder than words.
It was a revelation. It didn’t look difficult. And best of all, there were no fancy gadgets. Just a whisk. Of course. Cheese soufflé has been a revered dish for about 400 years, since the chef Vincent de la Chapelle invented it.
The base is béchamel. In my old French cookbook, soufflés are right next to choux pastries and gougères, which also start with a roux paste and then add eggs.
If you want the chemistry of why soufflés puff up, read “Histoire de soufflés.” It’s a battle of water vapor vs. egg whites. Your egg whites need to be very firm–beaten to the point that the whisk can lift the whites as a block. This keeps the vapor–and air–inside like blowing up a balloon.
Cheese Soufflé (serves four)
1 cup (120 g) grated cheese like Comté or Gruyère
salt/pepper (but be careful with the salt–there’s some in the cheese)
1 2/3 cups (40 cl) milk
4 1/4 tablespoons (60g) butter (plus a little to grease the dish)
2/3 cup (60g) flour (plus a little in the greased dish)
Preheat the oven to 360 Fahrenheit/180 Celsius.
Make the béchamel: melt the butter completely, then stir in the flour. Let it cook for 3-4 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Pour in the milk. I did it like Chef Damien, a little at a time at first, to avoid lumps, then the rest. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Raise the heat a notch. Stir!When the béchamel comes to a boil, take it off the heat and stir it vigorously for a minute or two. Then put it back on high heat for one minute, continuing to stir. Remove from the heat. Add the cheese. Do like Chef Damien and add the egg yolks one at a time, dropping the whites into a mixing bowl. Stir well between each yolk. Put the mixture into a (separate) large mixing bowl.
Beat the egg whites. Lazy, I used an electric mixer, but Chef Damien, being a pro, did it by hand. More power to him, especially in his right arm. As noted above, beat those egg whites to stiff peaks. (The French term is so lovely–en neige–in snow.)
Add half the egg whites to the béchamel/cheese mixture. Delicately mix, ALWAYS STIRRING IN THE SAME DIRECTION and gently folding them toward the center. Then do the same with the rest of the egg whites. This is where the video really helped–to see how homogenous the final mixture is.
Pour the mixture into the greased, floured dish. (You can also do this with individual ramekins). Wipe around the edges. Turn the oven to the grill/broil setting and put in the soufflé. Leave it at that temperature for 2-3 minutes. Then turn the oven back to 360F/180C. Cook for 20-25 minutes (much less for little ramekins).
Serve immediately.BTW, in the unlikely event that there are leftovers, they reheat fine in the microwave.