Souffles seem to polarize people into two camps: one who claim that they are impossibly difficult and finicky and another who insist that they’re actually a cinch to produce. Souffles are marginally more difficult than making an omelette, which is similar to what you’re left with once one has fallen, but they should not be particularly frightening. Like many things in the kitchen, all that is required to make souffles is a bit of patience and some understanding of what is happening behind the closed doors of the oven.
Unlike omelettes, souffles come in two types, sweet and savory. Generally what you’ll see are chocolate souffles for the sweet side and cheese souffles for the savory, this is because people generally love chocolate and cheese. Souffles in my house, when I bother to make them, are no exception, because I too enjoy chocolate and cheese – though not typically simultaneously.
A souffle is essentially bechamel (savory), pastry cream or custard (sweet) leavened with egg whites. Since it is the structure of the egg white proteins and incorporated air that makes the souffle rise, that structure is essential in keeping it stable. Heated for too long, the structure will burst, causing it to literally collapse by the weight of itself. When the souffle is removed from the oven, the air that caused it to rise begins to cool, also slowly causing the structure to eventually fall. So no matter how expertly prepared, a souffle still has to be eaten pretty much immediately after being removed from the oven.
Whipping egg whites by hand is a pain. Just be thankful if you did not go to a culinary school that insisted on doing everything by hand, over and over again, to gain an appreciation for “how things used to be”. An electric mixer will make quick work of things for you. Just make sure absolutely no egg yolk gets into your whites and that your bowl and utensils are immaculately clean of fat. If you are in the predicament of doing things by hand (or happen to have a masochistic streak and enjoy such tedious productions, such as myself) start whisking those albumens in a figure eight pattern until soft peaks begin to form, and then switch to the vigorous rotations. Your wrist will thank you.
Why should you go through all this trouble of whisking egg whites and such when you could just make a frittata? Oh, my friend, you have obviously not eaten a souffle before, for a souffle has a wonderful airy texture that cannot be compared to something like a frittata, quiche or strata. It is light, like a delicate meringue, without feeling as though you are eating eggy air. Serving a souffle is all about timing, but eating it is all about appreciating the texture. Simply put, there is good reason why you don’t find “chocolate frittatas” and chocolate souffles around.
Below, you will find a recipe for the savory variety. When I say “strong cheeses” I mean anything particularly flavorful, not necessarily Roquefort. I used Emmenthal, Parmesan and some sort of French cheese I don’t exactly remember the name of. Sorry. I do remember it was delicious though.
- 1 cup milk
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 small onion, peeled and quartered
- 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
- 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
- 4 eggs, separated
- 3 ounces strong cheeses, grated
- salt and cayenne pepper
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Place milk, bay leaf and onion in a saucepan and bring just to a boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 10 minutes.
- In a separate saucepan, melt butter over medium heat until foaming bubbles subside, then quickly stir in the flour with a wooden spoon. Cook butter and flour together for one minute to make a roux.
- Strain the onion and bay leaf from the milk, discarding the onion and bay leaf. Gradually whisk the milk into the roux until fully incorporated. Cook until thickened, then remove it from the heat. This is your bechamel.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Whisk in a tablespoon of the bechamel to the egg yolks to temper them and prevent curdling of the eggs, then add the egg yolks into the bechamel, stirring to incorporate. Add the cheeses to the bechamel and season to taste with salt and cayenne pepper.
- In an impeccably clean stainless steel, glass or copper bowl, whisk or beat the egg whites with a small pinch of salt (a pinch of cream of tartar would be nice too, if you have it) until soft peaks form.
- Mix 1/3 of the egg whites into the bechamel to lighten it, then fold in the remaining 2/3 of the egg whites with a spoon or spatula.
- Pour this mixture into a buttered/greased 4 cup souffle dish. If you want, run the end of a wooden spoon or your finger in a circle around the souffle to give it a “tophat” finish. I like to see what kind of random chaos is going to emerge and leave it alone.
- Bake, without opening the oven, for approximately 30 minutes. When the top of the souffle has risen well beyond the rim of the dish, is browned on top and only slightly jiggles when shaked. Serve it immediately or risk a catastrophic collapse of all of your efforts into a very cheesy pancake.
Gnocchi are one of those things that blur the line between pasta and dumpling. Being Italian in name, gnocchi seem to fall under the heading of pasta, but by their nature of ingredients and preparation, share every other similarity with the dumpling family. Gnocchi share more in common with perogies than ravioli or tortellini, even though those are both technically dumplings as well. Strangely, people would typically call those pasta as well, even though you would be hard pressed to find someone that would call a wonton pasta instead of a dumpling, despite being essentially the Chinese equivalent. What a strange world we live in.
In any case, gnocchi are inexpensive and delicious. Although they are often simply boiled and sauced, gnocchi can also be fried to give them a crispy outer texture and soft interior. Typically, gnocchi will be served with pesto, such as this recipe that I share with you, a basic tomato sauce or brown butter with sage, but they go well with virtually anything. They also make a great addition to soups, such as minestrone, finished in the broth at the last minute.
The trick to making tender gnocchi is to use a gentle hand and to avoid adding too much moisture. As you may have seen in a recent episode of House M.D. the trick is to bake the potatoes instead of boil them (thus removing moisture instead of introducing it), leaving the gnocchi fluffier and noticeably more tender. The addition of egg yolks is not a requisite ingredient, but a common one. I prefer adding Pecorino Romano, because it is a saltier cheese than Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the salt really helps to boost the flavor of the potato without stealing the show, but use whatever you prefer, or simply salt itself, when making the gnocchi.
To roast red peppers at home, simply turn your oven broiler on to maximum temperature and place red peppers within a few inches of the broiler on a baking sheet. Char (and I do mean char) the entire outside of the peppers, then transfer them to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to steam. Once cooled to the touch, rub the skins off with your fingers, slice open and remove the seeds. If you have a gas stove, you can do this directly over the fire, turning them with tongs as required. Canned red peppers are often a suitable substitute, just make sure to look for acidic ingredients (such as vinegar or citric acid) as this will make them a more pickled than smoky addition. Commercially prepared pesto is probably the best bet this time of year, as basil quality wains outside of the summer months.
- 1 pound starchy potatoes (such as Yukon gold or russets)
- (optional) 1 egg yolk
- 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano, finely grated
- All-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 roasted red peppers, sliced into strips
- 1/4 cup pesto sauce
- Juice of one lemon
- Pecorino Romano, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Pierce the potatoes with a fork and bake them in their skins on a baking sheet until very tender, about an hour.
- Cool the potatoes to the touch, remove the skins and pass them through a food mill or mash to a fine consistency.
- Stir in the egg yolk, if using, and Pecorino Romano. Using a wooden spoon, delicately incorporate just enough flour to form a cohesive, slightly sticky dough.
- Divide the dough into four equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, being delicate and careful not to overwork, roll out the portion of the dough into a rope approximately 1/2″ thick. That, or sip some tea while the children of the house get to work on making “snakes”.
- Using a sharp knife, slice the rope (or snakes) into 3/4″ slices. If you like, gently roll the gnoccho (that’s a single gnocchi) along the twines of a fork. The depressions in the gnocchi will become future homes for sauce.
- Repeat with the remaining dough. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the gnocchi on it, as close as you can get them without touching. Place this in the freezer. Once the gnocchi are frozen, you can remove them from the tray and place into a freezer bag that will keep for at least 3 months without any significant detriment to their quality. Since they are already frozen, they will not stick to each other. Otherwise, just get the water to the boil, and cook them for dinner already.
- To prepare the gnocchi, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the gnocchi, giving them a gentle stir to prevent them from sticking. Once they’ve floated to the top, they are finished cooking, and can be removed with a slotted spoon and transferred to your sauce.
- To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a large pan until hot, then add the roasted red peppers. Heat through, then add the pesto sauce. When the gnocchi are done, transfer them to the pan with their clinging, starchy water and cook for an additional minute. Remove from the heat, add the lemon juice and stir in a desired quantity of grated cheese. Simple and delicious.
This recipe makes enough for four people as an accompaniment or two as a hearty main course (it is a pound of potatoes, after all.)