Feature: As light as air
As light as air
The origin story of my soufflé-making is now lost in the mists of time. However, I will admit that it had a lot to do with the fact that, after a string of epic fails with everyday lunches, I turned to baking under the impression that baked dinners would make for at least one decent meal per day.
I do remember that my first attempt turned out fairly well, and soufflé philistines that my husband and I were, how much it rose was the exact amount of rise we expected, and since we loved eggs, this was a light and satisfying dinner. Soon it became cheese soufflé for dinner one night every week.
My soufflé-making started in the pre-internet days, so my go-to recipe was one culled from an 1966 issue of my grandmother`s stash of Woman & Home. I read the recipe, more than a bit surprised at how easy it seemed. Apparently, all one needed was some white flour, butter, eggs, cheese and milk… and some wrist game to beat the eggs to frothy perfection. In 1966, apparently manual exertion was what made for light-as-air soufflés. In time, the kid was an enthusiastic if slightly ineffectual egg-beater when she was home for the holidays. Later on in life, the husband eschewed the egg-beater in order to go at the mixture manually, with delicious results.
Necessity being the mother of invention and all that, I soon turned to my masala shelves to desify the flavour of my soufflé. Voila! A touch of cracked pepper, a pinch of chilli powder, finely minced garlic, all wonderfully amplified the basic flavour. As time went on, I grew more daring in my experiments. I`d grate onion and add it to the mix. Paprika and mustard became regular features, as did julienned mushrooms, bits of salmon, ham, bacon.
Once in a while, though, I`d overplay my hand. Like the time I diced coloured bell peppers, cauliflower and cooked potatoes, and put it into the soufflé. Or the time I sliced sausage bits into it; the other time I slid sliced sweet potato bits into the mix. These soufflés rose but not too high, were definitely not light as air, and though the end result was delectable, any old-fashioned professional chef, fictional or real, from Bertie Wooster`s aunt Dahlia`s cook Anatole to Auguste Escoffier would have immediately castigated me for passing off a Spanish omelette as a soufflé.
Then there are individuals and establishments aplenty who make fruit soufflés but that offends the purist in me. If a soufflé doesn`t have eggs and cheese in it, it simply is not a soufflé, so say I. As for soufflés made with coffee liquors, chocolate or Grand Marnier, let`s call them by their right names, shall we? They are custards. Or mousses.
Reading up on this dish I found that the perfect soufflé was a work of art, involving a judicial balance between air and moisture, using a bain-marie, pre-chilling the mixture, and so on. I also gleaned several useful facts. That a soufflé rose to wonderful heights only if it involved the use of many eggs and was a smoother than silk mixture. That a spoonful of cream along with the milk made for an uber-binder. That it was best eaten hot, not after it had fallen in on itself and become some sort of an egg casserole; this collapse is often because the dish is baked to a dry consistency, so a jiggle test comes in handy here. That a few cheeses did nothing for the dish, being stringy or bland, while most others gave it a sublime flavour. That the external browning did not always correspond to a fully cooked interior. That all your efforts will come to naught if you don’t have a ceramic soufflé dish or ramekin with sides high enough to encourage the soufflé to reach for the sky. That there shouldn’t be even a smidgen of yolk in the egg white mix. That the egg whites have to be beaten to a just-so consistency: not too wet, not too stiff. That all your efforts will (again) come to naught if you open the oven door while the soufflé is baking inside.
Some years ago, a group of us dined at Le Voltaire restaurant on the Left Bank in Paris. I ordered an onion soup (another dish which I made often, back at home) and a cheese soufflé. Behaving rather typically, our group was soon tasting each other`s food. The French onion soup was far better than my version. The soufflé was excellent, literally melting in the mouth, the cheese leaving a lingering aftertaste.
Everyone had a forkful of the soufflé. Then everyone turned as one to me and said, I don’t know what it is but I much prefer your soufflés. More chatpata.
It was hard not to feel smug, that much I will tell you.
Cheese soufflé recipe from the cult cookbook Larousse Gastronomique:
40 gms butter, plus extra for greasing
40 gms flour
2 decilitres or 1 cup cold milk
4-5 large eggs
75-90 gms cup finely grated Gruyere cheese
60 gms finely grated Parmesan cheese
Pinch of salt, pepper, grated nutmeg.
- Pre-heat the oven at 200 C for 15 minutes.
- Make a béchamel sauce with the butter, flour and cold milk.
- Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and the cheese.
- Add 4 egg yolks.
- Beat 4 egg whites to stiff peaks, fold into mixture.
- Butter a soufflé dish, pour in the mixture and bake until it`s well-risen and a deep golden-brown on top, about 25 minutes.
This appeared in The Hindu`s Sunday magazine of 4 July 2021.