Cheese Souffle

Last week I was searching through cookbooks, looking for inspiration. I needed something different, something I hadn’t cooked in a while. August 2011 commemorates the fortieth anniversary of Chez Panisse, Alice Water’s iconic restaurant in Berkley, California. As I was paging through “The Art of Simple Food”, one of my favorite of Ms. Water’s books, it caught my eye. In the front of the book, included in the chapter “Getting Started”, there is a section on everyday meals. And lists of menus for each of the four seasons. At the bottom of the list for summer: cheese souffle. Brilliant! Just what I was craving: light but savory, easy to prepare, but dramatic to serve. Along with a hearty salad it would be just the ticket. The only drawback was having to turn on the oven, but I could tolerate that for the short time it would take to create my souffle.
I made the cheese souffle and served it with a chopped salad that included ham, lots of fresh vegetables along with the salad greens, and toasted walnuts for crunch. It was a perfect summer dinner and even though I thought the souffle was ever so slightly overdone, I didn’t receive any negative comments. The following recipe and instructions are adapted from Ms.Water’s book.
A savory souffle includes a base consisting of a basic bechamel sauce enriched with egg yolks, to which one adds the flavorings of choice, then folds in the beaten egg whites. A basic ratio of 1 1/4 cups of bechamel to 1 1/4 cups of cheese or vegetable puree to 4 eggs will produce a souffle that, when baked in a 1 quart souffle or gratin dish will serve 4 people. You can individualize your souffle by adding the vegetable of your choice ( asparagus, leek, broccoli, and garlic puree are very good) or goat, cheddar, blue, or gruyere cheese. You might want to add a little finely chopped shellfish or fresh herbs. And you can bake a souffle in a traditional round, straight-sided souffle dish, a shallower gratin dish, or individual ramekins. I chose to make my souffle in a gratin dish which has the advantage of making the baking time shorter and allowing a greater surface area of that beautiful golden crust. Here is the recipe:

Cheese Souffle ( adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters)
Melt in a heavy saucepan over medium heat:
5 tablespoons of butter
Stir in and cook for 2 minutes:
3 tablespoons of flour
Whisk in, little by little, whisking thoroughly between additions:
1 cup of milk
Season the bechamel with
fresh -ground black pepper
a pinch of cayenne
1 thyme sprig, leaves only
Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add:
3/4 cup of grated extra sharp Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese.
Stir together and let cool slightly
4 eggs
Stir the yolks into the sauce. Taste for salt. It should be ever so slightly too salty to compensate for the unsalted whites, which will be added later.
Preheat the oven to 375F. Butter a 1 quart souffle or gratin dish generously. I sprinkled my buttered dish with very finely grated Parmesan cheese to coat the bottom and sides.
Whip the egg whites to moist firm peaks. I use a copper bowl and a large balloon whisk for this task. It takes about three minutes and there is very little risk of over beating the whites. If you use an electric beater, be careful not to over do it. If your egg whites are clumpy and watery, they are over beaten. What you need is a soft peak that just stands up when you raise the beater. Stir one third of the egg whites into your souffle base. This lightens the base. Now gently fold the base into the rest of the egg whites, taking care not to deflate them. Don’t worry too much if there are a few streaks of white in the mixture, just don’t over mix. Transfer the mixture to your prepared baking dish. Bake a round souffle dish for 35 to 40 minutes, a shallow gratin dish for about 20 to 25 minutes, and individual 4 ounce ramekins for 10 minutes. Turn on your oven light and watch through the glass window as your masterpiece begins to rise and brown. Resist the urge to open the oven until the top of the souffle is golden brown and puffed. When you check the souffle if should be a little soft and jiggly in the middle when the dish is nudged. At this point your diners should be seated and ready to eat the souffle. Take it immediately from the oven to the table and enjoy the accolades before you break into the top of that golden crust. Serve each person some crust and the moist center and if you should have any leftovers, deflated souffle is great for breakfast.

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