The prospect of making a souffle strikes fear into the hearts of many home cooks. There's this misconception that a souffle is so delicate it will collapse if you so much as look at it sideways.
The happy truth is that these elegant and airy little egg cakes are pretty doggone resilient. James Beard had it all figured out decades ago. He used to say that the only thing that will make a souffle fall is if it knows you are afraid of it. So I say, have no fear!
A souffle is comprised of two elements — a base and a leavener. It's worth noting that the base must be highly seasoned. This is because the leavener — namely, egg whites — not only contributes no flavour of its own, it actually dilutes the souffle's flavour by adding air into the mix.
The only tricky part of making a souffle also is related to those egg whites. The challenge is to ensure that the whites reach their full whipped capacity, then retain as much of that oomph as possible right up until the first bite is eaten. To help you get there, I've assembled a checklist that walks you through the most important points.
— Start with the freshest eggs you can find; the whites will be more viscous and stable than those of older eggs.
— Separate the eggs using your impeccably clean hands, not the eggshells. There are no sharp edges on your hands, meaning that the yolks will not break easily and ruin your whites.
— If just a little bit of yolk does somehow speckle your whites, use an eggshell to remove it. Somehow the eggshell acts like a yolk magnet. You don't want any fat (yolk) in your whites.
— Beat the whites when they're at room temperature. It's easier than when they're cold.
— If you own one, use a copper bowl for beating your egg whites. There is a chemical reaction between the copper and the whites that makes the whites sturdier. If you don't have a copper bowl, add cream of tartar or a little lemon juice to the whites; these additions produce similar reactions.
— Be careful not to overbeat the whites. Indeed, don't whip them until they become stiff peaks. Instead, whip them until the peaks are firm, but soft, right before they become stiff.
— Fold the whites into the lightened base slowly and gently; do not press down. Stop just as soon as the two seem to have come together.
Take a bow when you're done. If anyone asks, it wasn't magic, it was science.
CHEDDAR AND WALNUT SOUFFLES ON ARUGULA WITH PEAR DRESSING
Start to finish: 1 hour
For the pear dressing:
1 very ripe pear, peeled, cored and chopped
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup walnut oil
For the souffles:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering the ramekins
3/4 cup toasted walnuts, pulsed in a food processor until finely chopped (about 1/2 cup chopped)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk, warmed
6 ounces coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs yolks, room temperature
4 large egg whites, room temperature
Pinch of cream of tartar
6 cups baby arugula
3/4 cup finely chopped dried pears or dried cranberries
To make the dressing, in a small saucepan over medium-high, combine the pear and vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Transfer the pear mixture to a blender, add the honey, salt and pepper, then blend until smooth. With the motor running, add the oil in a thin stream. Set aside.
To make the souffles, heat the oven to 375 F. Use a bit of the extra butter to coat the insides of six 6-ounce ramekins. Sprinkle each ramekin with a bit of the ground walnuts, swirling it to coat evenly. Discard any excess.
In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the 3 tablespoons of butter. Whisk in flour and cook the mixture, whisking, for 3 minutes. Add the milk in a stream, whisking, then bring the mixture to a boil and simmer for 3 minutes, whisking occasionally. Add the cheese and stir until the cheese is melted.
Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the cayenne, Dijon, salt and egg yolks. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and let cool to room temperature.
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and a pinch of salt until they form soft peaks. Stir a quarter of the whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining whites gently but thoroughly.
Divide the souffle mixture among the ramekins, then place the ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake the souffles on the oven's middle shelf until puffed and golden brown, about 20 minutes.
To serve, in a bowl toss the arugula and dried fruit with some of the dressing. Divide the arugula between 6 serving plates, making a hole in the centre of each for the souffles. Run a knife around the edge of each souffle to loosen it, then gently invert it onto a towel and re-invert it into the middle of each salad. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 520 calories; 350 calories from fat (67 per cent of total calories); 40 g fat (15 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 115 mg cholesterol; 30 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 19 g sugar; 14 g protein; 590 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."