Food & Drink: Souffles can rise to every occasion: Don't panic, and don't tamper with the recipe, if you want to produce a foolproof, fluffy dish

It has been said before, but it bears repetition: souffles are not difficult to make. I have never understood why the myth persists so strongly that they are only for the expert cook. If you follow the recipe to the letter, and you know the basic rules, you are virtually guaranteed an impressively puffy cloud of a souffle. It is true that they do occasionally collapse flat as pancakes before they are done, but there is always a perfectly good reason for their demise.

There are three sets of rules to the game: the do's, the don'ts, and the refinements. Perhaps the most fundamental of the don'ts, is: don't tamper with the basic recipe, unless you are an inveterate experimenter and patient enough to live with a few failures. Quantities really matter. You must have the right ratio of base to egg white, and it must be of the right thickness.

Almost as fundamental: don't keep opening the oven door to check on progress. In the early and middle stages of baking, a blast of cold air is quite enough to damage the still very delicate structure. You might get away with it once, but more than that and you are heading for trouble. Towards the end of the cooking time it is fine to have a quick peek.

On now to the more positive instructions, beginning at the beginning. The souffle base - the sauce with the flavourings in it - can be made in advance and stored in the fridge, but do be sure to warm it through again before folding in the egg whites. A cold base will have congealed, making it far too gluggy to mix easily or evenly.

The oven should be thoroughly heated to the correct temperature before you begin to whisk the egg whites. Souffles need a solid blast of heat to give them their lift. To improve that initial whack, place a metal baking sheet in the oven when you turn it on, and bake the souffle on the hot sheet.

For maximum height, it is best to whip the souffle straight into the oven as soon as the whites have been incorporated. If you do not mind losing a little of that height, a souffle can be frozen, and then cooked straight from the freezer. Increase the cooking time by a quarter.

The dish should be straight-sided. Proper cylindrical souffle dishes are ideal, but I have also made souffles in wide, shallow gratin dishes. You do not achieve the same dramatic appearance, but the souffle is just as light, and you get more of the delicious browned top. If I am in a hurry, I spoon the mixture straight into an untreated dish; but generously-buttered sides, perhaps coated with breadcrumbs for a savoury souffle or with sugar for a sweet one, make for a smoother, perkier lift.

The first test of whether a souffle is cooked is its appearance: it should be well risen, and nicely browned on top. Then give the dish a gentle shake. If the souffle shudders alarmingly, it probably needs another five minutes. If, on the other hand, it remains steadfast, with only the gentlest of tremors, it is probably perfectly cooked.

By 'perfectly cooked', I mean light, puffed and firm but still slightly runny and moist at the centre. If you realise, just as you are serving up, that it is horrendously undercooked, scoop off the upper layers to eat immediately, and return the dish to the oven for a few more minutes.

Finally, a ruse for getting you out of trouble. If you have enthusiastically added some small bits such as chopped nuts or chocolate chips to a souffle for contrasting texture, and you discover they have all sunk to the bottom, do not panic. Exclaim, in a delighted tone, that the wonder of this dish is the way the souffle rises majestically over the hidden layer of treasure underneath.

Goat's cheese and dill souffle

Cheese souffles are the kings of the souffle world. I like one made with mature cheddar, but well-flavoured goat's cheese is even nicer. If you prefer not to make individual souffles, use one 6in (15cm) souffle dish instead, and bake for 25-30 minutes.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 2oz (55g) butter, plus extra for greasing ramekins

2oz (55g) plain flour

1/2 pint (280ml) milk

1tbs chopped fresh dill

4oz (110g) goat's cheese, crumbled

4 eggs, separated

salt and pepper

Preparation: Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. Butter four 3-4in (7.5-10cm) ramekins.

Make a white sauce with the butter, flour and milk. Simmer gently for 3-4 minutes until very thick. Draw off the heat and stir in the dill and goat's cheese, followed by the egg yolks, salt and pepper.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff, and fold into the goat's cheese mixture. Immediately divide between the ramekins, filling them about two-thirds full. Put straight into oven and bake for 12 minutes until well-puffed and golden brown. Eat immediately.

Courgette and spinach souffle

The plumber was very dubious about a vivid green spinach souffle, but we persuaded him to give it a go. He downed the whole helping and announced that he was a convert.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) spinach

1lb (450g) courgettes

3oz (85g) butter

1 1/2 oz (45g) plain flour

5fl oz (150ml) milk

4fl oz (120ml) double cream

3tsp freshly grated parmesan

4 egg yolks

5 egg whites

salt, pepper and freshly grated

nutmeg

Preparation: Pick over and wash the spinach, discarding any damaged leaves. Trim off the toughest, thickest stalks. Shake off water, but do not dry. Stuff the leaves into a pan, clamp on the lid and cook over a low-medium heat for a few minutes, stirring once or twice, until collapsed into a green mass. Drain thoroughly, squeezing out excess moisture.

Slice the courgettes and place in a heavy pan with 1oz (30g) butter, salt and pepper. Cover, and sweat over a low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until tender. Drain well, reserving any liquid. Puree spinach and courgettes until smooth in a processor, or pass through the fine blade of a mouli- legume. Add a little of the reserved courgette liquid if needed to lubricate, but do not overdo it: the puree should be thick, not runny.

Set the oven to heat thoroughly at 200C/400F/gas 6. Grease a 7-8in (17.6-20cm) souffle dish. Make a thick white sauce with the remaining butter, the flour, milk and cream, letting it simmer for 5-10 minutes. Stir in the vegetable puree and about half the parmesan, followed by the egg yolks. Season as needed with salt, pepper and plenty of nutmeg.

Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold into the souffle base and spoon into the dish. Sprinkle remaining parmesan over the top. Bake for about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Apple souffle

There are several ways to make sweet souffles, but I have always found this one, with a creme patissiere base and egg-white meringue, most successful.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 10oz (280g) cooking

apples

1tbs calvados, or Cointreau, or brandy

butter and caster sugar for mould

icing sugar (optional)

For the creme patissiere:

4 egg yolks

1oz (30g) caster sugar

1oz (30g) plain flour

1/2 pint (280ml) full cream milk

For the meringue:

4 egg whites

5oz (140g) caster sugar

Preparation: Chop apples roughly but do not bother to peel or core. Put into a pan with a tablespoon of water, cover and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until they collapse to a puree. Sieve and reserve.

Set oven to heat thoroughly at 200C/400F/gas 6.

To make the creme patissiere, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and flour and a tablespoon or so of milk until smooth. Bring the remaining milk up to the boil, and tip into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the pan and bring slowly up to the boil, stirring, then allow to simmer for about 2 minutes. Mix with the apple puree and calvados.

Just before cooking, butter a 7-8in (17.5-20cm) souffle dish, and coat the sides with caster sugar. Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Add the sugar, and continue whisking until smooth and glossy. Fold into the apple mixture and spoon into the mould. Whizz into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes until well risen. Dust with icing sugar and serve.

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