There is a conspiracy surrounding the soufflé. I lay the blame on a man named Marie-Antoine Carême for this. This uneven-tempered chef of the 18th century, with his penchant for the most grandiose of Grande Cuisine food, almost single-handled made the tower of egg flour, sugar, and butter seem a thing of the gods. Maybe it was a sop to his own brilliance, maybe to keep other chefs' tanks off the lawn – either way in his 1841 book, Patissier Royal Parisien, he made them sound bloody difficult to make. A double affront, as it wasn't even he who invented them.
According to the invaluable Penguin Companion to Food, that laurel probably belongs to Antoine Beauvilliers or Louis Ude. The latter's book, The French Cook (1813), a homely work, promised "a new method of giving good and extremely cheap fashionable suppers…", which sounds much more like it. For although the dish takes its name from the French for "whispered" or "breathed", the little rising towers are not of reach-for-the-smelling-salts frailty; nor are they beyond the range and faculty of us cooking at home.
These are myths in need of quashing. "In fact, they are easy-to-make, resilient things," says Antony Ely, avuncular executive chef at the Chequers Pub in Oxfordshire and a former sous chef at Michelin-starred The Square. As more of a "restaurantie" than a "foodie", I haven't made a soufflé since secondary school. So today Antony is going to dispel the dread and teach me.
I had taken the Oxford train to the Cotswold village of Churchill and the Chequers pub, where Antony spends a third of his week (he also looks after sister restaurant The Wheatsheaf Inn, and Cheltenham's The Tavern). Here, amid the clutter of exposed beams, more dogs than I can count, and well-worn button-back leather chairs, they specialise in a double-baked cheese version. "We prepare them in advance, cook them partially in the oven and then refridgerate them. We finish them off and melt the cheese on top when we get the orders," says Antony. "People come from all around for them," adds bar manager Frank Wildman.
Today, though, what I'll be making is the real deal – a once-baked, no second chances, raspberry soufflé. The first words Antony has for me when we get into his kitchen are the most salient. "The thing about a soufflé is that they are all hot air," he says, leaning against the range cooker, "everything else is delusions of grandeur." Whether you are making a chocolate soufflé for a Valentine's knee-trembler, a cheese one for Sunday supper or one with grits (they do that in the US – The New Yorker referred to this as "like putting a hat on a donkey"), the key remains that hot, undisturbed air.
The physical law that animates the soufflé was discovered by a French balloonist by the name of JAC Charles. It runs like this: all other things being equal, the volume occupied by a given weight of gas is proportional to its temperature. Or to translate: put a soufflé in a hot oven and its many bubbles of air swell and push the mix skyward. A further fillip, according to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, comes from the mix reaching boiling point: even more liquid becomes vapour at this point, pushing it higher.
These principles under my belt, we get going. The soufflé base comes first. This gives the dish flavour (in this case raspberries) and starch to strengthen Monsieur Charles' bubble walls. Antony has me heat the milk first, then I separate yolks from whites. "Make sure there is no cross-over or the whites won't rise properly later," he cautions. This carefully done, I mix the yolks with flour and sugar until smooth, which makes my arms ache like hell. I add the milk, now hot, and then transfer to another clean pan on the heat, constantly mixing away the lumps as we go.
It goes off to cool in the fridge and we purée the raspberries. Now we turn to the ramekins – which are surprisingly important. They need to be clean, fridge cool and you must butter them in a special way. "My second best tip is to butter the ramekins with an up and down, vertical motion – this helps them rise properly," Antony adds, miming a vertical wax-on wax-off action. We swirl some sugar around them.
The next bit must be done quite soon before cooking and is the most fun. We need to whisk the egg whites with the remaining sugar until they form snow-white peaks. You can do this by hand if you are a madman or a body-builder. But best to use a machine. A note of caution though: "Whatever you use, make sure it is spotlessly clean," says Antony. "Just a smear of fat or yolk on a whisk will cause the whites not to peak." We now mix the base and the fruit mix gently together. Then the egg whites are folded in. All of which are now added to a ramekin and into the 180C oven. "Now for god's sake, don't open the door," says Antony with an air of command I imagine Marie-Antoine Carême used in his kitchen. Opening the door might disturb the level temperature. We wait 10 pensive minutes.
I ask if soufflés have always been on his menus? "Yes, quite often, because they impress the customers and it's nice to give them something they don't have at home." A sous chef adds less diplomatically: "And they are a good money-spinner, too."
At this moment, and before any chasing of the sous chef starts, the timer goes and I retrieve my soufflé from the oven. Airy, wobbling, and as pink as one of Dame Barbara Cartland's frocks, it's a triumph. Or as Antony says, "not too bad".
The soufflé will remain erect for 1-2 minutes and has to get to table and diner in that time. This explains one of the curious hierarchies of the kitchen. When a pastry chef shouts for service, even the fieriest sous must hold his tongue. Because the patissier might be calling for service for his soufflé – and a second too long on the pass and you have some major floppage.
Mine lasts an admirable couple of minutes before succumbing. It tasted as it looked: light, fruity, soft as a kiss and with a touch of molten ooze in the centre – and it took no longer than half an hour to make. "The trick is just not to be afraid," says Antony. So ignore the pomp and puff, don't be put off, the rising towers of baking accomplishment are within your reach.
Ingredients to make 4
4 eggs, separated
100g caster sugar
55g plain flour
300g raspberries, washed
First warm the milk. Whisk the egg yolks with 80g of the sugar, whisk in the plain flour until smooth. Pour the warmed milk over the egg yolk, flour and sugar mix, whisk until smooth and return to heat in a clean pan. Over a gentle heat cook the egg yolk/milk mix. whisking all the time until it thickens. Pour into a container and cool.
Place the raspberries, 20g of the butter and 60g sugar into a pan and simmer gently until fruit is puréed and has no juice left. Remove from heat and pass though a fine sieve to remove seeds. Reserve the reduced fruit pulp and chill. This is the "soufflé base".
Make sure your ramekins are clean and cool. With the remaining, softened, butter, brush from bottom to top of the mould in straight lines. Then add the 10g of the sugar into these moulds and turn until sugar has coated the buttered moulds until all moulds are buttered and sugared.
Preheat your oven to 180C. Lastly, whisk the egg whites with the remaining 20g of sugar until stiff and peaking. You must ensure you have clean whisk and bowl with no trace of egg yolk because this will stop your whites from whisking
Get a large bowl, mix your soufflé base and fruit pulp together until smooth, then fold in your whisked egg whites, gently does it, until combined. Pour into your buttered and sugared moulds, smooth over with a palette knife. Don't be tempted to tap the moulds on the worksurface as this will knock out the air! Run your finger around the lip of the mould. Cook for 10 minutes – and don't open the door during cooking.