Food: Simply souffles

You, too, can rise to the occasion. By the time it came to whisking the egg whites, suspense had killed all conversation and I felt obliged to tip-toe round the kitchen

That moment of opening the oven door and finding your souffle has risen into a precariously fragile dome sealed with a golden crust is one that never ceases to thrill. The pleasure is a childish one, where the sense of achievement is out of all proportion to the task of actually making it. Yet I cannot think of another dish shrouded in greater mystique than the rising of a souffle.

It was some years before I could face making my first souffle, having watched a friend's boyfriend nimbly performing what, in my eyes, were the steps to a ballet which culminated during the final act with the removal of a perfect cheese souffle from the oven. If only I'd known just how easy it was.

First he made his roux, a paste of flour and butter, into which he blended milk, and then rushed the pan into a sink of freezing water in order to beat the yolks in one at a time. This he did with the speed with which you might catch a falling object. By the time it came to whisking the egg whites, suspense had killed all conversation and I felt obliged to tip-toe round the kitchen.

The freezing-water-in-the-sink bit isn't technically necessary, as long as you can make a basic cheese sauce (which, of course, you can), the only thing you can possibly get wrong is the whisking of the egg whites, and this is even easier than making the souffle base.

Those Delia-style, electric hand-held whisks to use while looking straight ahead are, sadly, hopeless for whisking egg whites. Mine has since been relegated to the occasional bowl of cream and all-in-one sponge cakes. It's probably only a matter of time before it joins the Dustbuster in the Oxfam shop.

Serious cooks favour huge, voluminous balloon whisks to pump air into egg whites, but I am far too lazy. I find I have to keep stopping for a rest, and that's no good at all. With some embarrassment, I confess that my rotary whisk - a clumsy contraption with a red plastic handle that is about as uncool as kitchen equipment gets - is as important as my knives. It is designed for people without biceps and, as you turn its handle, it clacks away contentedly like a mother hen. And it always succeeds in turning egg whites into a frenzied white foam in a matter of seconds.

Souffles have a habit of coming in straitjackets. Or, rather, neat, straight-sided white china dishes, and sometimes individual ones. But there's really no reason why this should be the case. Some of the most delicious souffles are far more relaxed and don't conform at all to the perfection of a foamy mass risen a couple of inches above the rim.

At the risk of seeming purist, a plain cheese souffle is possibly the finest of all savoury souffles. Such a magical combination - it's far too unctuous to even try to put into words, especially in these days of mature farmhouse Cheddar and organic eggs. For a chocolate souffle, however, I am prepared to sacrifice towering inches in favour of something that oozes melted chocolate when you spoon into it, as opposed to the textbook affairs made with cocoa.

There is also a recipe this week for a souffled lemon pudding. I have a suspicion this is what many people know by the name of lemon surprise pudding, although I have always called it lemon souffle pudding. I like to bake it with a layer of fruit underneath, loganberries in the summer and bramley apples in the winter. It's got the foamy bit on top and that's what counts.

Cheddar cheese souffle, serves 4

This is a great showplace for a really tangy, mature farmhouse Cheddar. Buy the very freshest and best eggs you can find, and these should be at room temperature. The lining of the souffle mould is a trick belonging to the chef David Chambers that I adopted many years ago when first reading of it. There is so much butter involved that the souffle just glides upwards with no resistance, without tearing or toppling over.

For the mould:

110g unsalted butter

50g freshly grated Parmesan

Souffle:

50g unsalted butter

50g plain flour

275ml milk

175g mature Cheddar, grated

sea salt, black pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

4 large egg yolks

7 large egg whites

To line the mould, clarify the butter by melting it in a small saucepan. Skim off the white foam on the surface and pour off the clear yellow liquid, leaving behind the milky residue in the base. Swill the inside of a 20.5cm souffle dish with half the clarified butter and dust it with half the Parmesan cheese. Chill the dish until this firms up. Repeat with the remaining butter and Parmesan, tipping out the excess cheese. Chill the dish again.

To make the souffle, melt the butter in a small saucepan, stir in the flour and cook the roux for a couple of minutes. Take off the heat and gradually incorporate the milk, then cook the sauce for 4 minutes, stirring. Stir in he grated cheese and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Remove the pan from the heat, allow the sauce to cool for a minute or two and then add the egg yolks.

Preheat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/220C (electric oven)/425F/gas mark 7. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, stir a couple of spoons into the sauce and then incorporate the remainder as deftly as possible. Pour the souffle mixture into the mould and place immediately in the oven, giving it plenty of headroom. Turn the oven down to 160C (fan oven)/170C (electric oven)/325F/gas mark 3 after 5 minutes. Do not open the door for the first 20 minutes. The souffle will take 25-30 minutes to cook; ideally it will be baveuse in the centre, so act on the side of caution.

Chocolate souffle with chocolate-clove sauce, serves 6

This is not one of those light and ethereal numbers, more in line with a gooey pudding. The clove that scents the sauce could just as well as be cinnamon, cardamon or vanilla.

Souffle:

unsalted butter and caster sugar for the dish

50g unsalted butter

50g plain flour

275ml milk

25g vanilla sugar

175g dark chocolate, melted

2 tbsp brandy or dark rum

4 large egg yolks

7 large egg whites

Sauce:

250g dark chocolate, broken into pieces

40g unsalted butter

50ml milk

50ml double cream

2 tbsp strong black coffee

3 cloves, freshly ground

Butter the inside of a straight-sided 18cm souffle dish, or six individual 10cm dishes, and dust with caster sugar. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, stir in the flour and cook this roux for a couple of minutes. Take off the heat and gradually incorporate the milk and vanilla sugar. Cook the sauce for four minutes, stirring. Remove from the heat and cool for a minute or two, then beat in the melted chocolate, alcohol and egg yolks.

You can prepare the pudding to this point in advance.

To make the chocolate-clove sauce, set a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water; place the chocolate in the bowl with the butter and melt. Whisk in the milk, cream, coffee and cloves and warm over the simmering water. The sauce can be made in advance and refrigerated, covered, for several days.

Preheat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/220C (electric oven)/425 F/gas mark 7. Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Stir a couple of spoonfuls into the sauce and incorporate the remainder as quickly and deftly as possible. Spoon the mixture into the souffle dish or dishes, filling individual dishes three-quarters full. Bake, allowing plenty of headroom, giving individual souffles 10 minutes and a large souffle 20-25 minutes; do not open the oven door for the first 15 minutes and turn the oven down to 160C (fan oven)/170C (electric oven)/325F/gas mark 3 after 5 minutes.

Serve with the hot chocolate sauce. If serving individual souffles, open them up with a spoon and pour the sauce in.

Souffled apple and lemon pudding, serves 4

This is the kind of souffle for people who don't really like the idea of all that ceremony or have special moulds. You can make it in any dish that you want, I usually use an earthenware gratin dish.

Apples:

700g bramley apples

75g golden caster sugar

15g unsalted butter

75ml water

Souffle:

50g unsalted butter

75g golden caster sugar

3 large eggs, separated

25g plain flour

finely grated zest and juice of two lemons

75ml double cream

75ml milk

icing sugar

To serve: whipped cream

Peel, quarter and core the apples and cut into slices. Place in a small saucepan with the sugar, butter and water. Bring to a simmer, then cover the pan and cook for about 10 minutes until the apples are soft. Remove the lid and cook until the fruit dries out.

For the souffle, cream the butter and caster sugar together. Incorporate the eggs yolks, then the flour, lemon zest and juice, cream and milk. Take a large gratin dish and spoon the apples into it. You can prepare the pudding to this point in advance.

Preheat the oven to 180C (fan oven)/190C (electric oven)/375F/gas mark 5. Stiffly whisk the egg whites and fold them into the souffle mixture - if you used a food processor to cream the mixture, transfer to a bowl first. Pour the souffle mixture over the fruit, dust with icing sugar and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden and risen. Serve straightaway with whipped cream

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