Few dishes imprint the same amount of fear on the home cook, as the puffed up, baked egg foam that is called Soufflé. For many have tried – only to end up with egg on their face –figuratively, off course. You see the problem with soufflé is not that they explode, quite the contrary. They collapse or worse even, fail to rise. Stuck quite sadly to the bottom of a ramekin, crumpled along the sides like a cheap dogs’ blanket and clumpy like partially melted lava on the tongue. A failed soufflé is a truly sad affair, not only for their creator but, for the entire congregation assembled in anticipation of something simple like an egg transformed into something truly glorious.
Even on the best of days, I have been considered obsessive about what others consider odd or even trivial. Mind you, I would disagree, but over the course of the past few days I have been thinking quite a bit. But not about anything serious like the work of the Holy Ghost or the eschatological thinking of St Augustine.
No, my thoughts were consumed by something much less ontological and metaphysical – eggs.
Shocking, but I could not banish them from my mind, not even for a nano-second, during Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and part of Sunday.
During this time, I kept good, nerdy company. Peter Barham, Simon Quellen Field, Herve This and Gordon M. Shephard. All esteemed scholars and writers in fields such as chemistry and neurobiology.
“Why?” you may ask.
Because they know more about eggs than I do. Well, they know a lot more than me about a great many other things too, but for now, all that matters are eggs.
Scientists such as these are invading our kitchens with their foams, emulsions, gels, suspensions, denatured proteins and crystallized compounds, and they are changing the way we understand food, use and transform ingredients, and perhaps most radical of all, they have given us a plethora of new tools to use in the kitchen. Centrifuges, dehydrators, homogenizers and vacuum pumps were once found only in science laboratories. Now, they form the basis of the modernist kitchen.
But, I am digressing. Back to eggs and more specifically, soufflés.
To make a perfect soufflé, we need to understand the following basic principles:
- Fat, any fat, is the enemy of the perfect soufflé. Therefore, avoid all fats – be it in chocolate, egg yolks or cheese. Once fat comes into contact with the aerated egg white, it will collapse. Thus, if a fatty component is part of your flavour base, you’d have to prevent the fat from seeping into the egg foam before the foam had time to rise.
- Second, the oven should be preheated to the right temperature and the soufflé should be put into the oven as soon as possible to prevent a loss of air. If the temperature is not right, the soufflé will not rise, or will be burned on the edges or will be raw in the center.
- To ensure that the soufflé rises perfectly, the edges of the cooking vessel (e.g. a ramekin) should be greased with a hard fat such as butter or lard. Hard fat takes longer to melt, thus would not bleed into our foam before the foam had time to rise. Once the foam has had time to rise, fats would do damage, so the key is to include only fats that take a longer time to melt.
- Your soufflé dish should be small (about 10cm in diameter and 5 cm deep) and should have smooth vertical sides so that the soufflé does not change its shape. Clean the surface of the soufflé dish after the mixture has been added to prevent it sticking and thus not rising properly.
- The eggs whites should be beaten into a very, very stiff foam or else there would not be enough air in the mixture to make it rise sufficiently. My advice? Use the power of electricity – you are not looking for a kitchen workout. If done this way, you would not have to beat the mixture over a hot pan, use a copper bowl, or add an acidic component such as cream of tartar. These are all elements in traditional soufflé recipes included to make hand whisking easier, and adds nothing to the actual performance or flavour of the soufflé. Thus, electrical whipping is the way to go.
- Starch is a flavour inhibitor. So by adding flour to your soufflés, you’ll dampen their flavour. As long as your flavour base is a thick paste, it will have enough strength to support the soufflés once they have been cooked. Soufflés should not collapse the moment they are taken from the oven, but no soufflé however carefully crafted will remain puffed up indefinitely, so serve them as soon as they are ready.
- If fatty substances such as cheese or chocolate, are used as a flavour base the fats should be encapsulated in a little starch to delay its leakage for long enough to allow the foam to rise. Cornstarch added to the fatty base would do just that. Further more, by adding the fatty flavour component in a powder form (such as cocoa powder for a chocolate soufflé) or in a coarse form (such as grated chocolate) the release of fats would be delayed sufficiently to allow the foam to rise.
It was time for me to test the theory. I decided to test two versions – cheese and chocolate – both with fat in the flavour base, to see if these fats could be contained in the manner prescribed.
Chopped some brie cheese and melted it in a little water. This is done with the right hand. With the left, I am torturing four innocent egg whites with an electric whisk, until they resemble the highest peaks of the Himalayas. Right. Now for the cornstarch slurry. Add water and corn starch and make a paste. Add to the cheese and grab a hand whisk. Beat, beat, beat. Sweat beads are extruded from the hairline and all along the brow. Beat, beat, beat! The cheese is getting stingy. Should it do that?
A few more beats and now the cheese has turned into a firm ball. Is this what it looks like when cornstarch traps fat? Can’t be, so I quickly wipe my brow, and add a little cold water to the lump of cheese. Stir, stir, stir. Sweat, sweat, sweat. Even the dogs can smell my panic.
Add a little more water. Grab the electrical whisk and have another go at the egg white Himalayas, which by now had sunken to the heights of Kilimanjaro.
Mayhem as I stir the watered down cheese mixture with the right and beat Kilimanjaro with the right.
Grab the ramekins. Butter the edges with a clean finger. Mix the watery, cheese into the egg foam. Pour the mixture into the ramekins, and into the oven preheated to 170°C.
I collapsed onto the couch where I put a damp tea towel to my brow. I was exhausted!
After 15 minutes I take peak at the oven. One shows immense potential, the other three less so. After 17 minutes I take them out. Rush to grab the camera gear. Set up, and take the light reading. Dial and lock the settings and focus. Press the shutter, and yes! I took a picture of the perfect, failed cheese soufflé.
Folded onto it self, like that cheap dog’s blanket.
It tasted great, especially with homemade fig confit, but ultimately, my vigorous efforts were in vain. Turns out, I should not have added the extra water, that weakened the support for the foam, and I should have filled the ramekins to the top.
After a short, tearful break, I did the washing up, and started with the chocolate version.
After twenty minutes, I was in food heaven with a gooey chocolate center held captive by a light, fluffy exterior. And it survived a few frantic pictures too.
So, here is the recipe.