I’ve always thought that mastering the souffle was a prerequisite to considering yourself a real cook. Countless stories abound about souffles deflating and collapsing at just the critical moment and I wanted to understand, just why is it so hard to create the frothy, creamy egg concoction?
Fittingly, my first taste of cheese souffle was in France. Whilst staying at my cousin’s house in Provence one summer, we ambled through the ancient Provancal town of a mere 5,000 on old bikes to an old family friend’s house. What greeted us upon arrival was a billowing puff of cheese — much like luxurious scrambled eggs. I’ve never forgotten that meal.
So it was time to attempt the finicky souffle. For the uninitiated, there are several critical steps to making a souffle. Like all egg dishes that require whipped egg whites, the bowl must be sparkling clean and the egg whites at room temperature, otherwise the egg whites will not whip properly. The oven must be preheated and the souffle must be eaten immediately. Otherwise you risk serving a punched egg dish that lacks the wonder of a souffle.
Alas, my first attempt was not wholly a success. Everything went according to plan during the first part of the preparation. First, a roux — a mixture of flour and butter — is whipped up over low-medium heat. With just these two ingredients and a good amount of whisking, the mixture turns a lovely golden yellow and becomes foamy and creamy. The egg yolks — a good four, this is no cholesterol-lowering dish — are whisked in one at a time along with a couple of spices.
Then comes the daunting part: getting those egg whites to whip perfectly. I used the KitchenAid stand mixer, but a good hand mixer and a very clean bowl will do. You start out with a low speed, watching for tiny bubbles to appear in the egg whites, and slowly bring up the speed until you reach a medium-high level. You want to watch for stiff peaks — that is, when you lift the beaters out of the egg whites, stiff, shiny peaks should form.
The shredded cheese and toasted pancetta are gently folded into the roux, alternating with the egg whites. You want to be brisk, but gentle so that the egg whites you worked so hard to whip don’t deflate.
Finally, the baking. This is where something went amiss for me the first time. You pour the mixture into a buttered ceramic baking dish and place it in the oven. The cooking time is critical. You don’t want it undercooked (what happened to me) and you don’t want to overcook it either. The recipe indicates you should wait until the top is “golden brown,” but I suggest testing it near the end with a skewer to make sure that the eggs are no longer runny.
Served best with a Fume Blanc or a Viogner.
Cheese and Pancetta Souffle (adapted from “The Mixer Bible”)
2 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup hot 1% milk
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
4 egg yolks
6 egg whites
1 cup finely shredded Swiss cheese (I used the flavorful Comte cheese — you can find a nice hunk at Costco)
1/4 cup cubed pancetta, slightly toasted
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch souffle dish and make a foil “collar” using tin foil that reaches out approximately three inches higher than the top of the dish. Use a paper clip to hold the edges of the foil together.
2. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add the flour and cook, making a roux, stirring two to three minutes, or until roux becomes foamy. Remove from heat, add hot milk and whisk vigorously to blend. Return to heat and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until thickened, about 3 minutes. Whisk in salt and cayenne pepper. Remove from heat. One by one, whisk in egg yolks. Transfer to a large bowl.
3. Place egg whites in the mixer bowl. Attach the whip and mixer bowl to the mixer. Begin by beating the egg whites slowly until the mixture forms small foamy bubbles. Bring up the speed (if using a KitchenAid stand mixer, get to Speed 6) and whip to stiff, shining peaks.
4. Scoop 1/4 of the egg whites on top of the egg yolk mixture and fold in gently using a rubber spatula. Fold in the remaining egg whites, alternating scoops of cheese and pancetta, making 3 additions of egg whites and 2 of cheese/pancetta.
5. Pour into prepared dish and place in preheated oven. Reduce heat to 375 degrees F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. When you reach minute 25, open the oven slightly and slide in a skewer into the middle of the souffle. If it is ready, it will come out clean.
6. Remove from the oven and serve immediately!