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Fear of Falling

March 21, 2007

Fear of Falling

Over the holidays, our teenage granddaughter, Rachel, wanted to make a cheese soufflé like the one we enjoyed together in Paris in one of our favorite small restaurant. It serves cheese soufflés year-round as if they were shrimp and grits. And believe it or not, as I showed Rachel, soufflés are nearly as easy, and can be made in advance up to a couple of days.

My friend Anne Berg and I stumbled into the restaurant first, years ago. It was too early for them to let us in – nothing starts before 7:00 in Paris – and it didn’t matter how hungry we were. We stood with our noses at the window until it was opening time. The Auberge, for so it is called, opens into a bar area, with some dining across from the bar, the majority of the dining a bit further back. There are half a dozen booths for four people and then a long banquette with chairs opposite that can be grouped for 20 or 2 people. Anne and I sat on the banquette, sandwiched between two amorous couples. They ordered soufflés that arrived just as we were trying to figure out what we wanted to eat.

These golden puffs ensued from traditional soufflé dishes and were just the right size for a light dinner for one. We followed their lead exactly, moving from soufflé to green salad. The delicate leaves were a perfect match for the soufflé. We finished with a Grand Marnier soufflé whose aroma beckoned from the eating couples on both sides of us. (Grand Marnier is an orange flavored brandy. Cointreau or other orange or tangerine flavored liquors may be used instead.)

The waiters flamed the soufflés, pouring a large dollop from the bottle of Grand Marnier, and whisking out their lighter to complete the magic. Flaming foods has become so passé at American restaurants that I’d forgotten how much fun it was, and how vibrant the soufflé tasted with the fresh infusion of orange liqueur. (I have yet to master flaming at the table, I’m such a coward, so I am always respectful when it is done. I do it in the kitchen – or use a crème Anglaise sauce such as Kelly Wilson’s in her Grand Marnier Souffle.)

I’m not sure why this magical, fluffy creations have become so out of mainstream cooking – fear of eggs, perhaps? Or fear of failure? Because soufflés will fall. When and what to do about it is the question.

I didn’t master soufflé technique alone. I had the help many years ago of a little booklet by Irena Chalmers, dedicated to the art of soufflés. She said soufflés could be made ahead and baked later. Simca’s Cuisine, by Simone Beck, told a story of a stray ramekin of baked soufflé that had been left on the counter one night after supper was over. She put it back in the oven and it puffed, and helped me realize that if a soufflé is under baked and collapsed it can be returned to the oven or microwave and reheated.

One memory I treasure is of a chocolate soufflé three of us assembled in Atlanta, tucked in the back of a car, and popped in the oven when we arrived at our friend’s country home. It was such a delightful treat, and so liberating to know it could be assembled ahead that way! What a welcome for weary travelers!

I’ve found a couple of Charleston restaurants, Circa 1886 and Cypress, that serve dessert soufflés, so I’ve added their recipes in addition to my own. Circa’s Chef, Craig Diehl, with the able assistance of his pastry chef, M. Kelly Wilson, has a new book hot off the press. Look for it at the Charleston Food and Wine Festival where he will be autographing books. The soufflés at Circa 1886 are prepared by the pastry chef, Alice Prescott. My apprentice, Melanie Puckett, has adapted several of my recipes for the paper.

The Basics of Baking a Soufflé (Side bar)

A soufflé is a thick, well flavored sauce with separated beaten in it, the yolks first, then perfectly beaten whites. It may be assembled ahead and cooked at the last minute, or cooked right away. Think of it as a hot mousse.

The trick to making soufflés rise is in part the way the egg whites are beaten and in part the way the egg whites are folded in. Ideally, the eggs should be beaten in a copper bowl (the copper magically stabilizes the eggs, and gives them more volume) until thick and glossy, but not over beaten. Egg whites beaten by hand in a copper bowl will give more volume than those beaten with any beater, including a rotary beater such as the Kitchenaid. (Some have a copper bowl accessory.) A hand mixer will give less volume again. The soufflé will puff and cause excitement and taste ethereal anyway, but not to the same extent. The copper bowl stabilizes the egg whites as well as helping them rise. Beating by hand gives a larger air bubble, thus a better rise. Cream of tartar stabilizes egg whites when copper is not used.

The rise of the soufflé over the rim of the baking dish, creating a special “ah” effect, is dependent on the size of the baking dish and how much it is filled, as well as the depth and width of the dish. A deep dish will take more time than a shallow one, a wide ramekin less time than a smaller but narrower and taller one. Both may be marked, therefore, as the same size and have varying results. Slightly deep gratin dishes with sides are being used for individual soufflés with great success. Smaller ramekins will concentrate the heat, continuing the cooking, and perhaps overcooking, after removal from the oven, thus smaller soufflés will collapse faster.

A preheated oven is a must. Start out with the oven 25 to 50 degrees higher than needed, and turn down after the soufflé is added to the oven to compensate for any heat lost. Forgetting to turn down the oven or too hot an oven may result in a crust on top of the soufflé.

Assembled soufflés should be kept at room temperature, covered, for no more than a couple of hours. Longer than that, they should be refrigerated, up to two or three days. They are best brought up to room temperature before baking.

Coating the bottom and sides of the soufflé dish with butter and crumbs will enable the soufflé to climb better and allow for easy removal of the soufflé if the soufflé overbakes and must be turned out. For a savory soufflé, use bread crumbs or panko; for a sweet soufflé, granulated sugar, cookie crumbs and/or orange rind can be used.

Paper collars may be added to give structure to the sides of the soufflé that rise over the edge of the dish as well as to allow a bit more height in the risen soufflé, in effect creating a larger dish. Wax or parchment paper, or aluminum foil, are usually folded in half vertically, a small ridge is formed, to go under the protrusion of the ridge, buttered and crumbed and wrapped around the exterior of the baking dish.

Traditionally, equal amounts of egg yolks and egg whites provide a solid “pudding like” soufflé that is hard to collapse. For more volume and lightness, extra egg whites are frequently used. When making soufflés in advance, extra egg whites are desirable to compensate for any “oomph” lost in the sitting.

There can be no fat or egg yolk in the egg whites or they will not form air bubbles. (Think oil and water don’t mix.) Use three bowls for separating eggs - one to separate the egg over. The second to move the white of the egg, the third to hold the yolk. Continue to separate over the first bowl until all the eggs are cracked, moving each egg as above. If a yolk bursts, spilling into the egg white, it typically may be removed by using an egg shell to scoop it up. ( I’m told a spoon works equally well, but the egg shell is handy and doesn’t have to be washed.) If this doesn’t work, add the broken egg to the egg yolk bowl, and another white to the batch of egg whites. It will minimally affect quantity and flavor.

One egg white is one liquid ounce and may be kept in the refrigerator for several days or may be frozen. (Defrost before use.) Ice cube trays are handy if one makes sure to empty them and pop the egg white into a marked plastic bag. (Frozen egg whites are unattractive in sodas and scotches.) Frozen and properly stored egg whites will keep three months. Restaurants or those concerned about salmonella use pasteurized eggs.

When folding in beaten egg whites, soften the heavy base first with a large dollop of the beaten egg, using a metal spoon, sharp rubber spatula or wire whisk. Mix in quickly. Follow by folding the heavier mixture into the lighter, using an eight shaped motion to incorporate, going all the way down to the bottom of the bowl and back up. Underfold, rather than over fold. A few slightly white pockets are fine. Overfolding will result in a soupy mixture.

A preheated cookie sheet will give the soufflé a boost.

A small circle drawn in the top of the soufflé before baking will allow the center portion to rise in an attractive cap. It will also help prevent the top of the soufflé from baking too quickly and causing a barrier coat on top that prevents the soufflé from rising.

A soufflé is best baked on the bottom or the middle of the oven. Make sure any racks above are moved up sufficiently to prevent interference with the soufflé.

When a soufflé is under baked it may be returned to the oven and will continue to rise. When it is over baked, it will collapse more readily as the air bubbles have expanded to their capacity. If the soufflé collapses from over baking, it may be turned out of the dish by running a knife around the inside and served on a plate upside down. It will look exciting when a sauce and whipping cream or other garnish are added. Call it something else!

For three great soufflé recipes, check out http://www.nathaliedupree.com/newsletter.htm

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Layered, fluffy, feathery, silky, soft, and velvety biscuits all come together in Southern Biscuits, a book of recipes and baking secrets for every biscuit imaginable.
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A beautiful book, winner of the James Beard Award for Entertaining, that will help the novice and the experienced alike.
The best of traditional Southern cooking, as well as innovative, new cuisine.
This book will be a keepsake for anyone with Southern roots, and a practical book for those who like to cook! A winner of the 1994 James Beard Award.
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