Try a soufflé

A glorious but achievable finish to a great meal

Soufflé is one of those miraculous dishes that transforms seemingly humble ingredients into a marvelous main course or decadent dessert. Julia Child writes about them extensively in The Art of French Cooking, with several pages dedicated to detailing every nuance of the process. She wrote that, "Many people consider the dessert soufflé to be the epitome and triumph of the art of French cookery, a glorious and exciting finish to a great meal." While this dish may seem formal and unapproachable, preparing a soufflé is absolutely achievable by home cooks as long as a few key principles are kept in mind.

This recipe utilizes classic techniques to turn everyday ingredients like milk, flour and eggs into a showstopper dish that can be either sweet or savory. Child describes a soufflé succinctly as "...a sauce containing a flavoring or purée into which stiffly beaten egg whites are incorporated. It is turned into a mold and baked in the oven until it puffs up and the top browns." Its preparation relies on two key culinary techniques that, when mastered, open up a gateway to preparing hundreds of different recipes.

The first is making a béchamel sauce, one of the five French "mother" sauces. Known to many as white sauce or simply cream sauce, this is the first step to making a host of dishes from homemade mac and cheese to moussaka to crispy fried croquettes. In preparing a soufflé, the base béchamel is enriched with egg yolks and either cheese or sugar.

The second technique essential to pulling off a lofty soufflé is proper handling off the egg whites and yolks. It helps to temper the egg yolks to prevent them from cooking and curdling as they are whisked into hot sauce. Have all your ingredients and equipment ready and whisk continuously as they are incorporated into the hot sauce.

Stiffly beaten egg whites provide loft and structure to the soufflé. In order to achieve the best possible volume, be sure to use room-temperature eggs and very clean hands, beaters and bowls. Any trace amount of oil or grease will impair the egg whites' ability to form a stable network of air bubbles. For this reason it is also important that there be no trace amounts of egg yolk in the egg white mixture. My preferred method for separating eggs is to crack the whole egg into a small clean bowl, then simply pluck the yolk out of the bowl and place it in a separate dish. Transfer the white to a clean mixing bowl and repeat. Doing each egg one at a time will prevent an accidentally broken yolk from spoiling a whole bowl of clean egg whites.

A final consideration when preparing soufflés is the type of dish that must be used. They can be prepared in small individual dishes (you will need to adjust baking time) or in a large family-style type dish. Whatever you decide, it is essential that the dish have straight sides like a ramekin and be deep enough to allow the soufflé to climb – approximately four inches for a large family-style preparation or two inches deep for individual dishes. Sprinkling the buttered dish with cheese or breadcrumbs acts like a ladder and allows the soufflé to climb up the sides of the dish.

The soufflé is an ideal dinner party or brunch dish. The béchamel base can be prepared up to three days ahead. Bring up to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe. The soufflé can be prepared completely and held in the mold for an hour before being put in the oven so it can easily be timed to come out of the oven at just the right moment when entertaining.

Spinach and Cheese Soufflé

4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs or grated parmesan
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup hot milk
½ teaspoon salt
A pinch each cayenne, nutmeg, and pepper
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons minced green onion
1 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed very dry
(Optional add-ins or substitutions include cooked broccoli or diced ham – use up to ¾ cup total of cooked fillings)
¾ cup grated cheese such as sharp cheddar or Gruyère, divided
¼ teaspoon salt
5 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Coat the inside of an eight-cup soufflé dish with a tablespoon of the butter and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs or cheese. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and position the rack in the middle of the oven.

To make the sauce base, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the garlic and then the flour and cook until they foam up without browning, about two minutes depending on the heat of your stove. Whisk in the hot milk and bring to a boil, reduce heat and continue to cook, whisking all the while, until the sauce is thick, about one minute. Remove from heat and stir in the salt and seasonings.

Have the egg yolks ready in a small mixing bowl. Whisk a spoonful of the hot sauce into the egg yolks to temper them, then whisk the tempered egg yolk mixture into the hot sauce. Stir in the chopped, dry spinach and ½ cup of the grated cheese. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

Using a clean bowl and whisk, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and a pinch of salt on medium speed for one minute until they're foamy. Increase the speed and beat until they are firm and glossy and seven times their original volume.

Whisk a quarter of the beaten egg whites into the spinach mixture to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Carefully turn the mixture into your prepared mold and sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup of cheese. Place the soufflé in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 375 degrees and bake for 25-30 minutes.