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Souffles take just the right touch

(ran SP edition)

Making souffles is a matter of beating egg whites into stiff peaks, and that intimidates cooks who have trouble separating yolks from whites.

Sorry to say, even a speck of yolk spilled into a bowl of egg whites will stop all foaming action. The whites will never beat into drifts; you must start over with more eggs.

The good news here is that eggs aren't expensive. Go ahead and fry the whites in a no-stick omelet pan and have a no-cholesterol egg sandwich while proceeding with the souffle. Even a mistake can be nutritious and delicious.

Most cooks can separate eggs, so turning out tall, golden, savory souffles is no trick. In fact, souffles were often included in economy cookbooks decades ago.

Souffles are definitely one way to enjoy champagne tastes on a beer budget, and, besides, the dishes are so cute.

In early spring, I haul out a favorite souffle dish of mine, white on the inside, a sunny yellow on the outside. It's the dish I reach for when baking scalloped potatoes, double-cheese grits, a wild-rice casserole and any broccoli-rice combination.

When there is time on the weekend, the dish is put to use for its intended purpose, the tall, straight sides supporting the delicacy of a souffle.

These two recipes show the variety of souffles. Have the corn version with a ham dinner or for brunch with toasted English muffins and honey; thin, frizzle-fried ham slices, and navel oranges, especially sweet this time of year.

The cheesier spinach souffle makes a great side dish for a fancy fish meal, or it can stand alone at a Bloody Mary brunch.

Double Corn Souffle Puff

Cooking spray

Yellow cornmeal for dusting

4 eggs, room temperature

} cup water

\ cup yellow cornmeal

1 teaspoon sugar

{ teaspoon salt, optional

1 8}-ounce can cream-style corn

{ cup bottled roasted red bell peppers, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped chives or green onion tops

{ teaspoon cream of tartar

Evenly spray a 1{-quart souffle dish or straight-sided casserole. Dust with cornmeal. Set aside. Carefully separate egg yolks from whites, placing whites in a large glass or metal mixer bowl (never use plastic for whipping egg whites; it retains a greasiness that retards foaming). Place the four egg yolks in a smaller bowl or measuring cup temporarily. Be sure not a speck of yolk gets into the whites, or they won't whip properly. Set aside. Have oven heating to 350 degrees.

In a medium saucepan, stir together water, \ cup cornmeal, sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Remove from heat. Cool slightly by stirring in corn until well-blended. Stir in egg yolks, peppers and chives until well-blended. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl at high speed, beat egg whites with cream of tartar until stiff but not dry, just until whites no longer slip when bowl is tilted. Gently but thoroughly fold reserved yolk mixture into the beaten whites. Carefully pour into prepared dish.

For a souffle "top hat," hold spoon upright and circle mixture to make a ring about 1 inch from the side of the dish and 1 inch deep.

Bake at 350 degrees 45-50 minutes, until top is puffy and delicately browned and souffle shakes when oven rack is moved gently back and forth. Serve immediately while the souffle is at its height. The diners must wait for the souffle to come to the table, not the other way around. Use two forks to divide servings; a spoon can flatten a souffle.

Yield: 2-4 servings. Preparation time: 20 minutes. Baking: 45 minutes.

Nutrients: \ of recipe using chives, no salt, has 173 calories, 5.9 gm. fat, 212 mg. cholesterol, 276 mg. sodium.

Source: American Egg Board.

Spinach and Bacon Souffle

3 slices bacon, cut into {-inch squares

cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons unsalted butter (plus extra for greasing dish)

1 yellow onion, diced

6 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

5 egg yolks

Salt and freshly ground pepper

6 egg whites, room temperature

1{ cups lightly packed shredded Swiss or Gruyere cheese

2 cups lightly packed tender spinach leaves, torn into pieces, rinsed and dried

In a medium skillet, fry the chopped bacon until crisp and remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined saucer. Set aside.

Have oven heating to 450 degrees (this is extraordinarily high for a delicate egg dish, but the author/chef said the recipe was tested and re-tested at this very hot temperature).

Butter a 2-quart souffle dish and dust with half the Parmesan cheese. Add a foil collar to contain the volume from an extra egg white: Measure out a sheet of foil long enough to encircle the souffle dish with an extra 2 inches left over and fold it in half lengthwise. Butter one side of the foil. Wrap it, butter side in, around the souffle dish, positioning it so that it stands 2 inches above the rim of the dish. Secure in place with kitchen string.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter. Saute the onion, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes, allowing mixture to bubble. Meanwhile, gradually whisk in the milk over medium heat and cook until the sauce is thickened and smooth except for the onion. Transfer sauce to a large bowl and stir in the bacon, then add the egg yolks, one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

In a large mixer bowl, metal or glass, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, fold half the whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it. Top with the Gruyere or Swiss, the remaining whites and the spinach. Fold in just until no white drifts remain. Do not overmix and beat out the air.

Pour into the prepared souffle dish and sprinkle the remaining Parmesan on top.

Bake at 350 until the top is golden and the center no longer quivers when the dish is shaken, 45 minutes. Remove foil and serve immediately, dividing portions with two forks.

Yield: 4 servings. Preparation time: 45 minutes. Baking: 45 minutes.

Nutrients: \ of recipe has 577 calories, 28 gm. fat, 312 mg. cholesterol, 420 mg. sodium.

Source: adapted from Williams-Sonoma Seasonal Celebration: Spring, by Joanne Weir Time-Life Books, March 1997, $21.95 hardcover.