Elegant souffles elevate eggs with surprising ease

An egg aficionado, I prize these perfect parcels of protein primarily for their versatility, economy and quick-cooking quality.

But much as eggs are among my everyday foods, I’m still in awe of their alchemy. Handle them a bit differently, combine them with a few carefully considered ingredients and you’ve got a dish that epitomizes eggs.

Souffles, of course, often are considered eggs’ pinnacle, likely the reason I was intimidated for so many years by the prospect of making one. Then I wanted to prepare our early-summer garden produce to maximum effect. Meat seemed incongruous with such tender vegetables and greens. And perish the thought of serving less than ocean-fresh fish to our Japanese guest. So souffles made with our own hens’ eggs emerged.

And as with so many classic recipes, souffles were much more accessible than I had believed. Perhaps it was the concise, straightforward method that I consulted in the 299-recipe tome “French Feasts,” by Stephane Reynaud, that shored up my confidence. Or maybe some of my own intuition contributed to these elegant marvels that emerged gloriously puffed from my oven. Either way, I wondered what took me so long to finally make them.

Chicago Tribune writer James DeWan makes a similar argument but leaves nothing up to chance in his in-depth instructions for preparing souffles. I definitely agree that coating the buttered or sprayed ramekins is excellent advice after spending more time scrubbing mine than making the souffles.

Quantities listed here yield 6 to 8 individual souffles or one big, group souffle.

Tribune News Service photo

1. Butter or spray ramekins (4 to 6 ounce size), then coat insides with some grated Parmesan, flour or breadcrumbs. (The coating of fat keeps the souffle from sticking to the sides, making cleanup easier.)

2. To make the bechamel, melt 3 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan. Whisk in 3 tablespoons of flour, and cook, stirring, over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Remove pan from heat and whisk in 1 1/4 cups milk. Bring it to a boil, stirring continuously, then reduce heat and simmer for several minutes, until very thick. Remove from heat.

3. Separate 5 eggs, taking care to make sure that no yolk gets into whites.

4. When bechamel has cooled somewhat, stir in 4 of the yolks (Oh, I can sense the creeping panic now: “But, but … what do I do with that extra yolk?” Well, I put that very question to our old friend, Mr. Google, and in exactly 0.93 seconds he came up with over 7 gazillion suggestions. You’ll think of something.) and a cup of flavoring. If this is your first time, cheese is so easy: cheddar or Swiss with a little Parmesan. Season with salt to taste.

5. Whip the egg whites by hand or with a mixer. Regardless, here are some hard truths: First, the bowl has to be squeaky clean. Any grease or any yolk will prevent the foam from reaching its potential loftiness. Second, start by mixing slowly. Slow mixing means lots of small air bubbles rather than fewer, larger bubbles. As the foam builds, you speed up until the whites have attained about 8 times their original volume, and the consistency is soft to stiff peaks. Don’t overmix, as that makes a dry foam, which means there’s less water to evaporate into steam.

6. Fold a third of egg whites into béchamel base, then carefully and patiently fold base into remaining whites thusly: Pour base onto whites, then use a spatula to scrape and lift whites from bottom over top of base while rotating bowl toward you. Keep scraping and lifting (see why it’s called “folding”?) until all whites are incorporated. Batter should be thick but should fall from spatula when picked up.

7. Divide mixture into prepared ramekins, filling them three-quarters full. Bake in a 400-degree oven until they’ve risen above ramekins and tops are a beautiful golden brown. Take them out of the oven, and let them rest for a few minutes, then serve. They will fall during the resting, but that’s OK. That’s the air bubbles cooling and steam condensing back into water, both of which will cause the souffle to deflate.

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