Oh, I've had the occasional success from time to time and the results have been tip-top. No doubt about it. Tall and glamorous they've been, applauded by generous friends and eaten with pleasure by them (and with blessed relief by me). The best souffle I ever made - a particularly fine cheesy one - was when I was very drunk, after a long Sunday lunch. My light-headedness with the "folding in", the flamboyance of my Gruyere grating and the smooth fling of the thing into the oven, clearly contributed much to its success.
Making souffles is a little bit like making pastry: one needs the knack. And to perfect any sort of knack, one must have a "need to make": one will only ever have green fingers if one loves gardening, that sort of thing. A brilliant chef in a professional kitchen - who may well be the leading light with a lemon sole and a lemon tart - can often collapse into a slimy, buttery heap when he gingerly opens the door of the digitally controlled, supposedly foolproof convection oven, only to find himself looking at an image of himself, rather than a proud souffle. He has, from time to time, been called Simon.
I spent the whole of this summer at Sharrow Bay Hotel (by this I mean that one week at the end of May). While in residence, there was one dish I hooked on to quite early: a Suissesse of spinach, onion and Stilton. In essence, this is one of those clever twice-baked souffles, and I enjoyed it so much I ordered it almost every day as a first course for lunch. Deeply savoury, baked in a neat shallow dish in a small pond of cream, the resultant fondant dome emerged as a crusty bosom. A spoon of freshly grated Parmesan was offered at table, as a veil.
In a similar vein, the famous souffle Suissesse puffed and swelled the reputation of the Roux brothers when this, their dish, was first introduced to an astonished clientele at Le Gavroche restaurant, Chelsea, which opened towards the end of the 1960s.
It is the richest and most luxurious dish of the French style of cooking that is haute cuisine: unrelentingly cream-soaked yet surprisingly light, and with a body that just allows a morsel of the souffle to teeter into the spoon when scooped. And whereas the Sharrow version is merely moistened with cream, the Roux example simply bathes, submerges itself, and then drowns in it.
Fruit souffles can be safer for beginners. And yet again, it was the French chef Michel Guerard who introduced me to the light and fruity pear and raspberry souffles, from the pages of his book, Cuisine Gourmande. With these little beauties, however, there is none of that base panade (butter, flour and milk paste) to bother about, as the binding of yolks and frothy whites tethers naturally to a simple puree of fruit. If you are lucky (I remain, as always, reserved), a good one of these can be so vertically beckoned, you do actually wonder whether any of it is going to be left within the cooking dish.
Twice-baked Lancashire cheese, spring onion and apple souffle, serves 4
This idea is loosely based on the spinach one I mentioned. The combination of apple with Lancashire cheese is notable - as any northern devotee will tell you - with the raw onion flavour adding an essential edge. For the second baking, and the most elegant presentation, it is best to use the shallow porcelain dishes that have ears (pictured)- or similar individual oven-proof dishes.
1 bay leaf
1 blade of mace (or a pinch)
4 eggs, separated
75g Lancashire cheese, grated
50g spring onions, trimmed and sliced
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and finely diced
100ml double cream
2 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
Put the milk into a pan and bring to a simmer with the bay, clove and mace. Cover and leave to sit for 20 minutes. Strain into a bowl. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan and stir in the flour. Cook for a couple of minutes over a low light and then stir in the milk to make a bechamel sauce. Once good and thick, leave to simmer over a meagre flame for a little while longer, stirring frequently, to allow the sauce
to mellow and soften in texture.
Remove the sauce from the heat and cool slightly. Separate the eggs (putting the whites into a roomy bowl) and beat the yolks into the sauce one by one. Put the sliced spring onions into a small pan and cover with a little boiling water from the kettle. Bring back to the boil over heat and strain in a sieve. Rinse under cold running water, pat dry and mix into the egg yolk/bechamel mixture. Add the cheese and diced apple, and stir in well. Pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C/gas mark 5. Lightly butter four large ramekin dishes or dariole moulds, and, in the bottom of each, place a little disk of greaseproof paper so that it exactly covers the bottom. Beat the egg whites until firm, not stiff, and add a couple of large spoonfuls to the sauce mixture. Stir in thoroughly to slacken the mix, and then, carefully, and with a large metal spoon, fold in the remaining bulk of the egg whites. Spoon into the ramekins or moulds and fill to the top. Smooth over and place into a deep roasting tin. Fill the tin with tap- hot water to at least two-thirds of the way up the sides of the dishes, put into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes. Turn the oven temperature up to 450F/230C/gas mark 8.
Lightly grease the four individual oven-proof dishes and turn out each of the souffles into them (don't forget to remove the paper disk from the top!). Spoon the cream over each souffle and evenly scatter with the Parmesan. Place them on a flat metal tray and slide onto the top shelf of the oven. Re-bake for 7-10 minutes until the souffles are golden-crusted, puffed up and wobble nicely when nudged with an oven-gloved mitt.
The Roux Brothers' Souffle Suissesse, serves 4
I would like to assume that the very term "Suissesse", when now used in menu terminology, originated from this dish. It remains the benchmark for all other interpretations, however disguised. This recipe make eight souffles, two per serving. If you would like to serve smaller helpings, or to feed fewer people, simply halve the recipe. It is just that you will need a very large dish and a spacious oven to do the given recipe all in one go.
140g butter, at room temperature
5 egg yolks
1 litre double cream
6 egg whites
200g Gruyere cheese, finely grated
salt and freshly ground white pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6. Put eight 8cm individual metal tart tins (or small shallow Yorkshire pudding or dariole moulds) into the deep freeze. Note: non-stick is best here. Bring the milk to the boil in a large pan. Melt 65g of butter in another small pan. Add the flour and stir together over a low heat for a couple of minutes, to form a pale roux. Cool. Add a big ladle of the hot milk to this and whisk together until well mixed. Tip into the big pan of milk. Continue to whisk over a gentle heat until thickened and really smooth - about 3-4 minutes.
Take the pan off the heat and whisk in the egg yolks. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Using about a tablespoon of the remaining butter, flick small amounts over the surface so that they melt and prevent a skin forming. Leave to cool at room temperature. Remove the tart tins from the freezer and grease generously with all the softened butter that is left. Arrange onto a baking sheet.
Pour all the cream into a large round or oval gratin dish (or, perhaps, something like a paella pan). Lightly salt the cream and warm it over a low light without boiling. Pour the cooled egg-yolk-sauce-base into a large bowl. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Then gently whisk about a third of the whites into the base mixture, just to slacken it, then carefully fold in the remainder using a large metal spoon. Pile this mixture into the buttered dishes and bake in the oven for 3 minutes - or until the surfaces are beginning to turn golden.
Remove the dishes from the oven and, protecting your hands with a cloth, deftly turn each of the half-baked souffles into the cream (you may find that they simply "slip" out of the moulds into the cream; if so, so much the better, as the less they are handled the better). Sprinkle over the grated Gruyere and return to the oven for 5-7 minutes, until the cheese has melted and is beginning to brown. Serve directly from the pan, at table, spooning the creamy sauce over and around the souffles.
Note: depending upon all sorts of things such as oven temperatures and kitchen gremlins, you may just need to finish the gilding of the souffles under the grill. So pre-heat it just in case, as the dish should not hang about before being eaten.
Hot raspberry souffles, serves 4
250g fresh raspberries
100g icing sugar
a generous squeeze of lemon
2 egg yolks
8 egg whites
tiny pinch of salt
softened butter and a sprinkling of caster sugar for coating the souffle dishes
a little sifted icing sugar (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 425F/220C/gas mark 7. Liquidise the raspberries with half of icing sugar, the lemon juice and egg yolks until smooth. Pass through a sieve into a bowl, to remove the seeds. Generously smear the insides of four good-sized, individual souffle dishes (regular-sized ramekins are too small here) with the softened butter, then sprinkle the first one with plenty of caster sugar, shaking it around so that it sticks to the butter evenly. Tip out the excess into the next dish and continue t o do the same with the others.
Put the egg whites and salt into a scrupulously clean metal bowl and whisk until soft and snowy. Continue to beat, sifting over the remaining icing sugar, until the mixture starts to look glossy. Now take about one quarter of the beaten whites and whisk into the raspberry mixture to loosen it. Deftly fold in the rest with a metal spoon until there are no white streaks and all is pink, light and smooth. Spoon into the dishes, filling to the rim. Smooth the surfaces with a pallet knife and run your finger around the edge to form a little hat - this will help the souffle to rise.
Put the souffles onto a flat metal tray and place on the centre shelf of the oven. Bake for 12-15 minutes. For a nicely crusted surface, sift a little icing sugar over their surfaces after 3-4 minutes of them being in the oven. I like to serve these with very cold, loosely whipped and slightly sweetened double cream, that has been judiciously flavoured with eau-de-vie de framboise