As light as air

Want to impress? Bake a soufflé. Soufflés have an almost magical appeal, complete with their own mythology: You must tiptoe and whisper in the kitchen while the soufflés are baking. Don’t slam the door! In the restaurants that offer them, the dessert soufflés must be ordered before dinner and cost extra.

Pffft! That is not the sound of a soufflé deflating, but of the air going out of an old kitchen adage. In truth, soufflés are a simple sleight of hand – an easy trick for the cook. So go ahead, slam the oven door and stomp through the kitchen, because the soufflé will not fall. There are only two critical soufflé rules:

Rule No. 1: Absolutely no fat can be in the egg whites. Since egg yolks are full of fat, careful separation of the eggs is very important. Cleanly separate the eggs using a three-bowl method: Crack an egg on the counter (not on the rim of the bowl), let the white fall into a dish, pass the yolk only once (the more times you try to pass the yolk, the more chances for the yolk to break), and place the yolk in the second bowl. Then pour the egg white into the third bowl before cracking the next egg. This way, if you break the last yolk, the whole bowl of whites is not contaminated. Additionally, never whip egg whites in a plastic bowl, because they are usually greasy.

Rule No. 2: A soufflé will wait for no one. Serve it as soon as it comes out of the oven. Better to make your guests anticipate the dessert than to try to hold a hot soufflé.

A soufflé is simply a combination of custard and egg whites. Here’s the easy part for the cook: The base of the soufflé – béchamel sauce – can be made ahead of time, even days ahead of time. Béchamel is a simple cream sauce made by cooking butter and flour together, then adding milk and bringing it to a boil. For a chocolate dessert soufflé, this base is then flavored with chocolate, vanilla, sugar, salt and egg yolks. At that point, the sauce can be refrigerated and baked later.

The egg whites are what give a soufflé its trademark airiness; to ensure extra lightness and loft, I always use more egg whites than yolks in a soufflé. The whites should be whipped to soft peaks, then whipped further with a little sugar, which helps to stabilize them. Do not overwhip the whites; the peaks should be creamy and hold their peaks, but they should not be dry.

As soon as the egg whites are whipped, the soufflé must be immediately assembled and baked. Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture. (If the custard was made ahead of time and refrigerated, bring it to room temperature before adding the egg whites.) I use a whisk to combine the chocolate mixture and egg whites, because folding with a wire whisk does not deflate the whites. It is always better to have streaks of egg white in the batter than to deflate the soufflé by overmixing.

To bake individual servings, grease 6-ounce ramekins with butter (which will make them much easier to clean) and place them on a sheet pan so that they are easy to take out of the oven. For impressive puff factor, fill the ramekins to the top with batter; the soufflé will rise dramatically above the dish. When baking, do not use the oven’s convection setting because the fan will blow the soufflé out of the ramekins. The soufflés are ready when they are puffed and browned on the outside, but they should still be still soft and creamy and saucy on the inside. Do not overbake or the soufflé will taste dry.

Serve immediately – whipped cream or custard sauce can be passed to gild the lily – and sit back and accept the compliments from your guests.

Anne Cori, a certified culinary professional, has taught cooking classes for more than 15 years at Kitchen Conservatory.