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Though these billowy works of art look difficult, souffles are actually easy to make. Whether sweet or savoury, they never fail to impress. Best of all, they can be made ahead of time and baked when needed.
There are two main elements: the base, which has the flavour, and the egg whites, which are the raising agent.
The base is often a bechamel or white sauce flavoured with cheese, pureed vegetables, cooked fish or chicken. It should have lots of flavour – add herbs, spices, Dijon mustard, garlic, miso or tahini – as the beaten egg whites will dilute the taste.
The whites are beaten with a pinch of cream of tartar and a little salt, which helps keep them firm. They are folded into the base and the mixture is then spooned into buttered souffle dishes or ramekins. The dishes should be filled three-quarters full.
In North America, we tend to use equal amounts of egg yolks (in the sauce) and whites, but an extra egg white, as is common in Europe, will give a more impressive rise.
These are even easier, because you do not need a white sauce. My favourite base is chocolate, but I love orange and lemon, too. For these, you make a custard, so they are not quite as easy as chocolate. Flavourful fruits, like chopped or pureed peaches, apricots, plums or bananas, also make a good base when the yolks are mixed with a few tablespoons of whipping cream before folding in the fruit.
The secret to a great souffle, whether savoury or sweet, is to beat the egg whites properly, either by hand with a whisk or with electric beaters. Add salt and cream of tartar and beat until frothy and then, if making a sweet version, slowly beat in the sugar. Whisk until the mixture is thick, glossy and holds stiff peaks. Stir in a big spoonful to the souffle base to lighten it, and then fold in the remaining whites.
You can make souffles ahead of time without baking. A shorter refrigeration time is better, but savoury ones can be made the day before. They take a little extra time in the oven because they are cold from the refrigerator. Leftover souffles, which have a muffin-like texture, are good the next day.
To make chocolate souffles, butter and sugar two 1-cup ceramic ramekins or 4 smaller ones.
Melt 2 ounces dark chocolate and 3 tablespoons butter in a heavy pot over low heat. Cool slightly and stir in 2 egg yolks and 2 tablespoons sugar. In a medium bowl, beat 3 egg whites with a pinch of salt, ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar and 2 tablespoons sugar. Beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks. Stir a large spoonful of egg whites into chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in remaining whites. Divide batter between ramekins and refrigerate until needed.
Place soufflés on a baking sheet in the bottom third of a preheated 400 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until tops have risen and cracked but are still slightly liquid in the middle. Serve immediately with whipped cream.
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