À bout de soufflé

The impossibly cool Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de Souffle

Notoriously tricky to master, soufflé takes its name from the word ‘souffler’, meaning ‘to puff up’ in French. The same word also means ‘to breathe’, hence my tenuous link to Jean-Luc Godard’s effortlessly cool new wave flick Breathless ( À bout de Souffle) – any excuse to lead with a picture of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The film was shot in Paris, where the classic French dish made its debut in 1783 at Antoine Beauvilliers’ La Grande Taverne de Londres. Beauvilliers is credited as being the inventor of soufflé, and served various versions on his menu.

While Beauvilliers did much to popularise the soufflé, and introduce it to the great and good of Paris, royal chef Vincent La Chappelle, who cooked for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame Pompadour, is the first to mention the dish in his 1742 cookbook, Le Cuisinier Moderne. His version contained a mixture of sweet and savoury ingredients, including veal kidneys and candied lemon peel. A number of soufflé recipes made it into Beauvilliers’ popular L’Art du Cuisiner, published in 1814.

The twice baked soufflé Suissesse at Le Gavroche

France’s first celebrity chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, was mildly obsessed with the dish, creating hundreds of soufflé recipes during the 1820s and giving it a lot of airtime in his cookbook. More recently, the twice baked soufflé Suissesse remains the signature dish at Le Gavroche in Mayfair, and the benchmark for the cloud-like perfection that can be achieved in a soufflé when all the stars align. This is no easy feat, as there are all manner of obstacles working against the soufflé novice.

Continuing my exploration of eggs, I knew I’d have to tackle the dish eventually. A well cooked cheese soufflé is one of life’s simple pleasures. There’s something magical about the alchemy of how the ingredients work together, and something beautiful about how such simple ingredients can be elevated into elegance. My first attempt last month didn’t go too well. Having not been made aware of the crucial ‘top hat’ trick, my quartet failed to rise. They did, however, taste pretty good.

The egg whites need to be whisked into Mr Whippy-like peaks

Determined to get a rise out of them this time, I was meticulous in my planning, greasing my four ramekins with a generous amount of butter then sprinkling the sides with grated gruyère to aid their smooth ascent. Oven on, I set about making my source mornay, melting butter then adding flour, a teaspoon of mustard powder and warm milk, mixing all the while, until it formed a wonderfully thick béchamel. While cooling, I whisked in four golden egg yolks and an enormous mound of gruyère, then seasoned the sauce generously with salt and pepper.

The most demanding part of the recipe (if you don’t have an electric whisk) is vigorously beating the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Having made a fair few meringues recently, this wasn’t as tricky as I was anticipating. As I began to whisk Insomnia by Faithless came on the radio, which proved the perfect backing track to a few minutes of frenzied stirring. Having turned the whites into a cloud of foam, I folded them carefully, bit by bit, into the cheese sauce. This part of the process is crucial, as the whites need to remain as light and fluffy as possible.

My soufflés had risen to twice the size in the oven, but sank within seconds

I quickly dolloped the sauce into the four ramekins and created a ‘top hat’ effect by running a knife around the rim of the ramekins to create a space for the soufflés to rise. For the final flourish, I gave them a dusting of gruyère before whacking them in the oven and hoping for the best. After 15 minutes I decided to check on them and opened the oven door to find my quartet reaching heavenwards, their tops having risen enthusiastically like glorious cheesy clouds. My heart swelled with pride. It was the single most satisfying culinary moment of my life.

Preparing to capture the moment, I closed the oven door and tidied my work surface to make it camera ready. Feeling rather smug, I was looking forward to photographing their towering peaks and being able to show off their impressive height, like an angler snapped cradling a three foot trout. Opening the oven, I placed the ramekins on a wooden board then arranged them for the photograph. To my horror, they began to sink in front of my eyes, their bountiful peaks disappearing in seconds. By the time I clicked the camera shutter they had buckled under their own weight. I began to wonder whether it had all been a mirage.

Had I been so desperate for them to rise that I’d imagined the whole thing? I cursed myself for not taking a picture of the quartet while they were riding high in the oven. The image of my four, perfectly risen soufflés will continue to haunt me until I have photographic evidence of their existence. I can see why soufflés are so feared by chefs, who must want waiters to sprint them out of the door for fear of their imminent collapse. While mine may have failed to keep their height, they did taste rather lovely; light as air and full of tangy gruyère. I’m determined not to let this dish beat me – I’ve got them to rise, now I just need to keep their heads held high.

Published by lucyelizabethshaw

I'm a globetrotting wine writer by day and gluttonous food blogger by night. Having once written a wine blog that I dearly miss, in 2020 I will attempt to master the art of French cooking with a little help from Julia Child, having been inspired to do so after watching Nora Ephron's fantastically funny and supremely comforting Julie and Julia. Come and join me on my culinary journey...

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