The cook is nervous, the dinner guests more so. As the entree is cleared and thoughts turn toward dessert -- an interlude usually filled with pleasant anticipation -- blood pressure begins to rise. How high will it (the souffle, not the blood pressure) rise? Will it fall? Collapse? Do we care? Couldn't we have a plain layer cake? Furtive glances at the clock.
Finally, the cook --es out (on tiptoe lest the floor shake), takes the souffle from the oven, tiptoes back and with lightning speed serves her creation while admonishing the hapless victims, "Eat quickly before it utterly disappears. You know how delicate souffles are . . . but aren't they worth it?"
In a word, no. Not that kind of souffle. Too delicate, too much anxiety, a test of stress-management skills.
There are two types of classic hot fruit souffles. One is made with a base of starch-butter-egg yolks (high in saturated fat); the other is a simple fat-free blend of pureed fruit and meringue. If the latter is so clearly the more healthful, you ask, why isn't it the darling of low-fat bakers? It is too unreliable and fragile. The texture can vary from watery sludge to dry cotton foam, depending upon the weight, sweetness and moisture content of the fruit. These souffles have an unnerving tendency to collapse upon even the most experienced baker because while they lack fat, they also lack a stabilized starch base to support the fruited meringue.
After countless experiments, I have devised a souffle that is utterly reliable and does not fall. For overcoming this long-known and greatly feared kitchen terrorist -- the falling souffle -- I should win a Nobel peace (or chemistry) prize.
My souffle is not only divine to behold and sublime to taste, it is quick and simple to make and based on classic techniques with a new twist. The first trick is to cook a fruit-flavored puree thickened and stabilized with cornstarch and sugar. This flavor base can be made ahead and refrigerated, but must be at room temperature before blending it (the only last-minute task) with stiffly beaten egg whites just before baking.
The second trick is to bake the souffle in a water bath, which guarantees gentle even heat, a slow and steady rise, a creamy texture and a stable product. A traditional baking technique, it never fails.
The third trick is to use an instant-read thermometer to test the internal temperature of the souffle. Fruit souffles are perfectly baked when the thermometer inserted 1 inch from the rim reads 160 degrees, and 150 degrees at the center. (The souffle is hotter near the rim, so check both.) At this point the texture will be light and still moist, but does hold its shape. The center will be set but smooth and creamy, the edges slightly firmer and drier. Chocolate souffles bake slightly longer, until the temperature in the center is 160 degrees.
When first taken from the oven, the souffle is puffed to its greatest height, and it should be presented and served right away (take a bow). However, this souffle will not collapse seconds later, nor will it fall when you spoon out the first serving. It will sink about an inch, then hold its shape for two to six hours -- if there are leftovers.
A classic vanilla souffle, made with a cooked bechamel sauce base (flour-butter-yolks), using 4 or 5 whole eggs, receives approximately 45 percent calories from fat. Each serving packs a relatively minor 9 grams of fat but a huge 157 milligrams of cholesterol. A classic meringue/fruit souffle has the same amount of fat as it has dependability: None. My souffles, however, are dependable, and with one exception, they contain virtually no fat (they range from 0 to 2 percent calories from fat). The one exception is this chocolate souffle (14 percent) because it contains a little solid chocolate, high in cocoa butter, which is a saturated fat.
The intense chocolate flavor of this souffle comes from cocoa and a small amount of grated unsweetened chocolate. Serve this for a dramatic finale at a dinner party, sprinkled with a few drops of coffee liqueur. This recipe makes a slightly large souffle because it is typically served as a party dessert, and I wanted it to have an exceptionally high rise.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2/3 cup non-alkalized unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup non-fat milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
7 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate, grated