Looking for a grand finale for the Valentine’s meal you’re planning to cook for your beloved? Something that will show him or her just how much you care?
A sweet soufflé will fit the bill on several counts. It’s a bit labor-intensive, and in these times of microwaves and meals in minutes, a bit exotic for the home cook, so your valentine will be impressed. It’s not only lovely to look at, but rich and luscious to eat, with an achingly creamy interior protected by a delicate shell, perfect for satisfying any sweet tooth. And it’s French, so it carries with it all the requisite associations of love and romance.
But with soufflés, as with love, timing and technique are paramount.
First, timing: The principle of the soufflé is the beating of egg whites to incorporate air into them, thus increasing their volume. Combine the fluffy expanded whites with a base of other, more flavorful ingredients and bake (most of the time—more on this later). The heat of the oven will cause the air-filled whites to expand further and rise, and—voilà!—a soufflé is born. Be warned, though: its life is brief. That’s where the timing comes in; once risen, the soufflé must be rushed to the table, admired for a moment, and eaten. If holding hands across the table with your beloved has slowed down your consumption of the main course, you’re out of luck. The soufflé will likely deflate before he or she realizes the lengths to which you’ve gone to mark the day. So timing truly is important.
As is technique: You have to whip your egg whites to just the right consistency and volume. Underwhip, and your soufflé will fall prematurely. Overwhip and it will be gritty and unappetizing.
“It’s all about the egg white,” says François Payard, who, as one of New York’s foremost pastry chefs, proprietor of two restaurants (Payard Patisserie and the recently opened InTent) and author of two cookbooks, knows soufflés well. “The idea is to get the beautiful egg white,” he says. “The most important thing is to whip the egg whites very slowly to three to four times their volume” until they achieve a “beautiful, smooth consistency and soft peaks.”
He offers several other pointers on soufflé-making:
· Make sure your egg whites are perfectly separated. Carefully remove even the tiniest particle of yolk, as it will interfere with the beating of the whites.
· Beat the whites in a bowl that is absolutely clean and dry. Anything less will interfere with the beating.
· Beat the whites perfectly. Payard, like most professionals, uses a stand mixer, but you can use a handheld electric mixer, especially for the small quantities that a soufflé pour deux requires. Or, if you’ve got the elbow grease, you can use a wire whisk, although it’s difficult to get as much volume.
· For warm soufflés, when the whites are whipped add a pinch of cream of tartar or cornstarch to stabilize them.
· To test for doneness, very gently insert the tip of a knife into the center of the soufflé. If it comes out clean, it’s done. If not, return it to the oven for a minute.
· Stick with individual soufflés. Sure, you can make a soufflé for two people, or big one for a large party, but then you have to hack it up and replate it. With individual soufflés, each diner just dips a spoon into the orb and eats.
Now you’ve got the basic technique, but of course, there’s still an all-important question to consider: how do you want to flavor your dessert soufflé?
The V-Day Game Plan
Again: The soufflé’s flavor profile comes from its base. There are three kinds of dessert soufflés, says Payard. The first is the fruit soufflé; this has a base of puréed fruit, canned or fresh, mixed with egg yolks and other flavorings. Combine this base with your beaten egg whites, and bake.
The second, he explains, relies on a pastry cream base, which can be flavored with chocolate, coffee, chestnut purée, a liqueur or any number of other ingredients. (You can even add a bit of crunch, in the form of chopped nuts or candy.) Payard notes that if you use an alcoholic spirit, use a concentrated one, such as a liqueur or brandy. This way, you can have the flavor and richness that the spirit will impart without adding too much liquid. (That’s why a liqueur is a better choice than wine; you’d have to add too much of the latter to make an impact.)
The third category of dessert soufflé, the frozen soufflé, departs from the method of preparation explained above once you’ve beaten your egg whites. Payard likens it more to a parfait than a soufflé, although generations of Frenchmen have known it by the latter name.
Like its warm namesakes, the frozen soufflé relies on beaten egg whites, but that is where the similarity ends. The beaten whites are poured over cooked sugar and frozen, not baked. Payard reassures those who are concerned about using raw eggs without baking that the sugar in this recipe is—must be—cooked to a temperature of 260- to 300ÂºF, which is hot enough to pasteurize the whites and kill any lurking bacteria. He recommends using pasteurized eggs as an extra precaution.
Timing the preparation of a frozen soufflé runs counter to that of a warm one. While a warm soufflé has to be baked and eaten, the frozen soufflé must be made in advance and frozen for at least eight hours. (They’ll keep for a month in the freezer.)
So what is your Valentine’s Dinner game plan? If you opt for a frozen soufflé, you can do it as far in advance as you wish. If you choose a warm soufflé, you can prep the base in advance, set out your eggs to be sure they reach room temperature, and proceed with dinner. Pour another glass of wine and ask your beloved to step into the kitchen to keep you company while you whip up a bit of dessert. Beat the egg whites and make up your batter, fill your ramekins and pop them into the oven. Escort your valentine back to the table and sip your wine during the baking time. Then, (if all goes as planned) whisk your creation onto the table and take your bow. And don’t despair too much if your soufflé falls. It will still be delicious, and the two of you will have a story for the grandchildren. Or something like that.
If you want to enjoy your dessert in the French manner, Payard suggests bringing the soufflés to the table, and there, cracking the tops open gently with a spoon. Spoon in a scoop of ice cream for a luscious hot-cold contrast. (Dessert sauces are also used, but ice cream is easier on the cook.)
Match Made in Heaven
Do pour a dessert wine with your soufflé. What to pour? Laurent Chevalier, the general manager and sommelier at Payard Patisserie, says that pairing wine with a dessert such as a soufflé is much like any other pairing; you consider the flavors and textures of the dish and find a wine that balances them.
“The soufflé is already pretty sweet and rich, so I don’t like to go with something too sweet. I try to balance it with some acidity,” he says. Hungarian Tokay dessert wines are not as sweet as Sauternes, for example. Neither is Quarts-de-Chaume from the Loire. It’s made with botrytized Chenin Blanc and is one of Chevalier’s favorites; Domaine de Baumard gets his nod as the best producer of the latter, and Chevalier says it will go with any dessert soufflé.
Sparkling dessert wines can be particularly nice with creamy dessert soufflés because they also provide a textural contrast. Chevalier likes Inniskillin’s sparkling ice wine, a Canadian bottling that he calls “very unique” and ideal for a fruit soufflé.
A tawny Port or Banyuls, a dessert wine from the Pyrenées region, is a classic match with anything chocolate because of its richness and complexity and its mocha notes.
So this might well be the grand finale for your Valentine’s dinner, a sweet worthy of your sweet. And here’s to love and soufflés! May neither one deflate before its time.
Warm Apricot-Passion Fruit Soufflé
Adapted from Simply Sensational Desserts: 140 Classics for the Home Baker from New York’s Famous Patisserie and Bistro by Francois Payard (Broadway Books, 1999). This recipe was originally an apricot soufflé, but for Valentine’s Day, Chef Payard has added passion fruit. Likewise, the recipe was initially developed to yield six individual soufflés, but for a Valentine’s Day treat, the proportions have been divided so you can make just two slightly larger soufflés. If you want to make six, just double the ingredients (except for the egg whites; use three of those). If fresh passion fruit is not available, you can use frozen passion fruit purée (not juice) available at some Caribbean grocers, specialty markets or via the Internet. Or skip the passion fruit and just add a bit more apricot.
Unsalted butter for greasing ramekins, at room temperature
1/ 4 cup granulated sugar, plus more for dusting ramekins
4 ounces canned apricot halves, well drained
2 large or 6 small passion fruits, cut in half, flesh strained and seeds removed (you’ll have about 2 tablespoons pulp)or 2 tablespoons frozen passion fruit purée, thawed
1 large egg, separated, at room temperature
1/ 2 tablespoon peach schnapps or apricot liqueur
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1 1/ 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350ÂºF. Generously butter the insides of two (8-ounce) ramekins. Chill the ramekins in the freezer for 15 minutes. Then butter them again and coat the insides with sugar, tapping out the excess. Pour out any excess sugar and reserve the ramekins in the refrigerator.
Purée the apricots and passion fruit in a blender until smooth. Add the egg yolk, 1 tablespoons of the sugar and the peach schnapps or liqueur and blend at medium speed for 2 minutes, or until the mixture is smooth and thickened. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl.
In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer at low speed until foamy. Add the lemon juice and beat at medium speed until soft peaks form. Add the remaining sugar and beat at high speed until stiff peaks form. Using a large rubber spatula, fold 1 scoop of the beaten egg white mixture into the apricot mixture; then gently fold in the remaining egg white mixture.
Spoon the mixture into the ramekins, filling each about three-fourths full. (You might have a little extra batter, depending on the amount of liquid in your fruit; if so, discard it.) Run your thumb around the inside edge of each ramekin, wiping off the sugar and butter from the rim.
Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and bake the soufflés for 10 to 12 minutes, until puffed and golden. Serve immediately. Serves 2.
Wine Recommendation: Laurent Chevalier, the general manager and sommelier at Payard Patisserie, suggests a Monbazillac to accompany these fruity soufflés. The wine, which is from southwestern France, is made with Sauvignon, Sémillon and Muscadelle grapes, and although it falls squarely in the sweet wine category, “it has a little dryness,” so it won’t make for a collision of sweet dessert and sweet wine. Chevalier particularly recommends the 2001 or 2003 Château Theulet. Any Sauternes or Barsac would be a worthy substitute.
Warm Chocolate Soufflé
Adapted from Payard’s Simply Sensational Desserts. He notes that while many chocolate soufflés are made with cocoa powder, the best, most luxuriant ones require real chocolate. It won’t rise quite as high as a fruit soufflé, but you won’t miss the height when you taste it.
3/4 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, plus more for greasing ramekins, at room temperature
4 teaspoons granulated sugar, plus more for dusting ramekins
1 3/4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 large egg, separated, at room temperature
1 large egg white, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pistachio ice cream for serving, optional
Generously butter the insides of two (6- or 8-ounce) ramekins. Chill the ramekins in the freezer for 15 minutes. Then butter them again and coat the insides with sugar, tapping out the excess. Pour out any excess sugar and reserve the ramekins in the refrigerator
Fill a medium saucepan one-third full with water and bring to a simmer. Place the chocolate and butter in a medium bowl, set it over the simmering water, and melt, stirring occasionally until completely smooth. Set the chocolate mixture aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 350ÂºF. Whisk the yolk into the cooled chocolate until smooth.
In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer at low speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and beat on medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar and mix on high speed until stiff peaks form. Using a large rubber spatula, fold 1 scoop of the beaten egg white mixture into the chocolate mixture; then gently fold in the remaining egg white mixture.
Spoon the mixture into the ramekins, filling each about three-fourths full. Run your thumb around the inside edge of each ramekin, wiping off the sugar and butter from the rim.
Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and bake the soufflés for 11 to 13 minutes, until puffed. Serve immediately. If you wish, crack open the top of the soufflé with a spoon and add a scoop of pistachio ice cream. Serves 2.
Wine Recommendation: Chevalier would pair these chocolate treats with a tawny Port or Banyuls, two classic pairings for chocolate. He notes that the Banyuls and the Port are both rich, complex wines, though the Banyuls, made from Grenache, isn’t quite as creamy as the Port. It has mocha/cocoa notes and a nutty quality that complements the chocolate soufflé well. Both are dark and complex, like chocolate itself. For Banyuls, he recommends either Chapoutier or Domaine du Mas Blanc.
Frozen Nougat Soufflé
Adapted from Payard’s Simply Sensational Desserts. This recipe makes 8 frozen soufflés, but you can serve just two for a Valentine’s Day dessert and keep the rest in the freezer for up to a month. Allow at least 8 hours for soaking the raisins in rum, or soak them overnight before you make the soufflés. Then, the soufflés themselves must be frozen for at least 8 hours or overnight.
1/ 2 cup raisins
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark rum, such as Myers’s
5 cups blanched sliced almonds
1/ 4 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon confectioner’s sugar
10 large egg whites, preferably pasteurized, at room temperature
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/ 4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon honey
2 1/ 2 cups heavy cream
Soak the raisins in the rum in a small, airtight container for at least 8 hours or overnight.
When you are ready to make the soufflés, preheat the oven to 325ÂºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the almonds and corn syrup in a medium bowl and toss until the almonds are coated. Spread the almonds on the prepared baking sheet in an even layer. Sift the confectioner’s sugar through a fine-mesh sieve over the nuts. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the almonds turn light brown. Remove the nuts from the oven and allow to cool completely on the baking sheet.
Cut 8 (12-by-5-inch) strips of aluminum foil. Fold the strips in half lengthwise. Wrap one strip around each of eight (4-ounce) ramekins. The collars should extend about 1 inch above the rims of the ramekins. Secure the collars with tape.
Transfer the cooled almonds to a medium bowl and stir with a wooden spoon to break up the large nut clusters; set aside. Drain the raisins and set them aside.
In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer at medium speed until foamy. Beat in the cream of tartar. Meanwhile, combine the granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon water and the honey in a small saucepan and cook over high heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Cook without stirring until the mixture reaches 243ÂºF on a candy thermometer. Immediately remove from the heat and with the mixer on, pour the hot syrup over the whites, being careful to avoid the beater. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the whites form stiff peaks and are almost cool.
In another bowl, beat the heavy cream with an electric mixer at high speed to form soft peaks.
Using a large rubber spatula, fold a scoop of the beaten eggs into the whipped cream. Gently fold in the remaining whites; then fold in the raisins and almonds. Spoon the soufflé mixture into the ramekins, filling them to the tops of the collars. Freeze the soufflés for at least 8 hours, or overnight. Remove the collars just before serving.
Wine Recommendation: Chevalier recommends a Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a Rhône wine made from the Muscat Blanc grape, whose bouquet exudes peaches and orange blossoms. He likes the 2003 Jaboulet.