Culinary Curiosities: Souffles
Forget everything you think you know about this classic dessert. A soufflé’s ingredients are not particularly expensive (unless you add gold flakes—more on that, later) and can be nearly anything from berries to beef tongue. And, far from being fragile, the soufflé is remarkably sturdy.
The beaten egg whites provide the airy lift that gives the dish its name. Soufflé comes from the French souffler, which means to breathe, to blow, or to puff.
The first written mention of the soufflé occurs in Vincent La Chapelle’s Le Cuisinier Moderne, printed in 1742. La Chapelle was an accomplished chef who cooked for the wealthy and aristocratic, including Madame du Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XIV. Perhaps the royal lovers feasted on a soufflé of veal kidney flavored with candied lemon peel and parsley, one of the recipes in Le Cuisinier Moderne. Soufflés of the late 18th century were baked in a pastry case called a croustade which was removed and not eaten.
It was another Frenchman, Antoine Beauvilliers, who was called “the inventor of the soufflé” for the many versions he featured on the menu of his restaurant, Le Grande Taverne de Londres. His establishment was one of the first truly sumptuous, high-end restaurants opened in Paris in 1786. Beauvilliers paid close attention to the preferences of his well-heeled clientele and the variety of soufflés surely satisfied even the most particular palates. His recipes were published in 1816 in L’art du Cuisinier.
But it was Chef Marie-Antoine Carême who truly made soufflés accessible and popular. New modern ovens with heated air ducts replaced coal-fired versions, allowing for a more constant and regular heat. Soufflés could bake without the cumbersome croustade, instead rising majestically out of a straight-sided dish. His soufflé recipes were included in Le Pâtissier Royal Parisien, published in 1815. One of his most famous was Soufflé Rothschild, named for Baron James de Rothschild, his extremely rich employer. It featured candied fruits that were soaked in Danziger Goldwasser, a liqueur with gold flecks suspended in it.
Now, to clear up a few myths the soufflé has collected over the years. First of all, it’s not going to collapse if you open the oven door or loudly drop your copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The soufflé collapses as it cools and the hot air trapped in the egg whites begins to contract. A quick peek in the oven won’t affect the heat dramatically. Also, some recipes will insist that you butter the sides of the soufflé dish and then coat with sugar, breadcrumbs, or cheese in order to give it something to “climb.” Food writer Harold McGee in his book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, assures us this is nonsense. The butter will allow you to remove the soufflé from the dish more easily, it is the hot air expanding that forces the soufflé to rise straight up and out.
The standard rules of meringue-making apply to the soufflé: Use older eggs (not too fresh) at room temperature. Make sure no trace of yolk or fat is in the bowl or the white won’t whip up well. A pinch of cream of tartar will create a chemical reaction that helps stabilize those whites for maximum lift. And finally, approach soufflé making with confidence and flair. As James Beard once said, “the only thing that will make a soufflé fall is if it knows you’re afraid of it.”
And if it does fall? Omelets, anyone?