As I put the finishing touches on my contribution to an upcoming fundraising auction—a soufflé cooking lesson and dinner, complete with a basket filled with gear for making soufflés—I’ve been jotting down some notes on the subject and decided to share them with you. Just in case you’ve never made a soufflé. Just in case you’re one of those people who have despaired of ever making a soufflé because…what? Because it might come crashing down like King Kong plummeting from atop the Empire State Building?
Let’s not be so dramatic. For starters, all the hype about falling soufflés is grossly overblown. You don’t have to tiptoe around the house, speaking in whispers and leaving doors open that you’d be slamming if not for the soufflé in the oven. (If a loud noise could destroy a soufflé, this one would have been a goner after our Prima Donna paraded into the kitchen and meowed long and loud in her robust Wagnerian manner.) What will destroy a soufflé in the making is cold air. That means don’t open the oven door for about 20 minutes after you put it in there–it needs this much time for the structure to set up. Simple, eh? You can even let it sit for an hour or two after you assemble it before baking. A soufflé accommodates you and your schedule, not the other way around.
So what if your soufflé does collapse? It won’t lead to the downfall of civilization as we know it. We’re talking about a pittance in ingredients that, even if they lose their lift, will still taste just fine. If you want to serve a soufflé at a dinner party then, yes, by all means practice a time or two beforehand. But pleeeze don’t let a pouffy bowlful of eggs, milk, butter and cheese intimidate you. Try thinking of a soufflé as an omelet with an ego.
In case you’re concerned about what’s at stake if your soufflé falls, I priced out a basic cheese soufflé (using measurements from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking), so you’ll see that the investment in this dish is minimal. These prices are based on a trip to the grocery closest to my house in the Los Angeles area, one that has neither the highest nor the lowest prices in my neighborhood:
5 large eggs $1.04 (@ $2.50/1 doz. lg. eggs)
1 cup milk .50 (@ .99/pint)
3 oz. cheese (Gruyere) $3.75 (@ $9.99/half pound)
3 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. butter (< 2 oz.) .38 (@ $2.99/pound)
3 Tbsp. flour (appr. 1 oz.) .06 (@ $1.99/2-pound bag)
1/2 tsp. salt .01 (nominal charge)
1/8 tsp. black pepper .01 (nominal charge)
a pinch of nutmeg .01 (nominal charge)
The grand total for the ingredients in one cheese soufflé that serves four people is $5.74. If you and your significant otter stop in at Starbucks for a couple of lattes you’ll spend more than that. You’ve probably spent more on a magazine–or on the wrong shade of lipstick. (And if you still have your calculator out, a little quick math will show you that a $5.74 soufflé will feed four people for $1.44 each in ingredients. How’s that for economy?! La-di-da dish indeed…)
Like most things you learn to do, the soufflé gets easier to make the more you practice. And the better the results are (by the way, an oven thermometer will go a long way toward ensuring good results). And the freer you feel to experiment with it, so that you can develop your own signature soufflé.
What if it turns out looking like the one at the top of this blog entry? It’s a little whomperjawed, I know. I selected this picture to assure you that even if it doesn’t turn out looking like it’s ready for its close up, Mr. DeMille, it’s still a fine, lovely thing. A tasty thing. A thing worth having with a little salad and a crisp white wine. A thing worth enjoying with a cloth napkin and a lighted candle. And with someone you like.
If you’re ready to give it a try, check out my pal Molly Wizenberg’s take on one of Julia’s cheese soufflé recipes.
And remember: even if it falls, it will still taste good. Maybe you can even have a competition amongst your friends, to see who can produce the ugliest soufflé. If you do, send me some pictures, okay?! I’ll put up an “ugly soufflé gallery” right here on my blog.