Let’s bring back the bulging, billowing souffle
Contrary to popular belief, making one of these French creations is not as difficult as you may think
Souffle is not a word seen frequently on restaurant menus any more.
Souffles demand a bigger time commitment from modern diners than we’re generally willing to hand over. They’re also not making regular appearances at dinner parties or homely suppers.
There’s the time factor again, plus there are newer, groovier recipes doing the rounds. And then, of course, the fear factor doesn’t help: we’ve been told all our lives (if souffles feature in one’s life) that they’re so dauntingly delicate and disobedient that failure is almost guaranteed.
My mother was a keen and successful souffle maker, and I was spoilt enough to grow up with a regular supply of sorrel, cheese, spinach, lemon and orange versions. Yet I still retained the fear. It’s all a bit sad. Restaurants probably won’t resuscitate them, so I think a home revival is in order.
And guess what? They are far tamer than the cooking universe has led us to believe. I learnt this from one of my long-ago visits to erstwhile Johannesburg institution Ile de France, for decades a bastion of old-school French fine dining in the ’burbs.
Chef patron Marc Guebert made a Grand Marnier souffle that put all others to shame. As this heavenly creation was placed in front of you, billowing and quivering, a hole was cut into the top and an extra dose of flaming Grand Marnier was poured in. It was beyond words.
One evening we had the luck of being invited into the kitchen, to watch the stream of souffles being prepped and cooked. Orders were coming in thick and fast. To my surprise, a pair of really big dudes were engaged in what was souffle abuse.
They were preparing the things with a recklessness that was mesmerising: they folded the whipped egg whites into the base mix negligently and even roughly, spooned the mixtures into the ramekins with equal casualness, threw them into the ovens wildly, and most shockingly of all, opened and closed the various ovens continuously (often banging the doors) to add new orders and remove finished specimens.
Either these guys had never been told they were supposed to fear the things, or they simply didn’t have the time to mollycoddle them. Or both. And so, because neither the delicate nature nor disobedient streak in souffles could be catered for, they simply behaved.
I tried the devil-may-care method at home and it works. OK, it mostly works. Anyway, it works better than the tippy-toes method. And Ile de France had made more than 400,000 souffles when they closed, so you can’t expect their hit rate. Plus, you know what? Even an imperfect souffle is better than most other things.
If you’re looking for more advice and a great savoury recipe, Felicity Cloake of The Guardian is — as always — a fountain of knowledge. This is also one of the rare times I’d choose to be in the hands of staid stalwart Delia Smith: while your method can be wild, when it comes to souffle measurements you can’t play fast and loose.