Go to work on an egg

by Julia Watson

When she worked as a copywriter, British novelist Fay Weldon created the slogan, “Go to work on an egg”. It was a brilliant punning directive that my mother took as a command. Every morning for breakfast before school, my sister and I were presented with a hard boiled one. As soon as I left home, I vowed never to eat another boiled egg again.

But this April is a special month for eggs. Easter is observed and the shops are stacked with chocolate versions. Hens are happily, as opposed to unhappily, back outside, producing what’s expected of them. Everywhere, eggs are being celebrated.

I may have rejected eggs that had been boiled but what my mother concocted with eggs in other cooking directions that the whole family and guests did relish was to make wonderful fluffy soufflés.

There’s more myth and fear surrounding the making of soufflés than any other recipe. How to make them rise? Why didn’t they rise? Was the egg white over-beaten? Was the mixing bowl greasy? Was the whisk greasy? What mistake was made? So much unnecessary wringing of hands…

Forget all that. They are a doddle to cook and an excellent choice for a light lunch, a starter, an impressive dessert or a quickly assembled meal for unexpected visitors. All that’s necessary is to stop being impressed by them and remember they are merely a béchamel sauce with added flavour and puff.

If there’s a trick at all, it’s that you should always add one more egg white than you have egg yolks. Two, if you’re feeling trepidation or the eggs are small. Equally, for a cheese soufflé you should add a good deal more grated cheese – preferably from the strongest and cheapest Cheddar or Cantal – than most recipes call for. When she made a soufflé for four, my mother used at least 250g grams of whatever in the fridge was going stale (and sometimes needed some blue scraping off). Recipes other than hers can cite as little as 100 grams for the same number of servings.

A soufflé doesn’t have to be cheese or chocolate. For a savoury one, you can fold in shards of smoked salmon or crab, or a duxelle of mushrooms, a pea purée or anything you like. On the sweet side, the same cooking method produces a chocolate soufflé, a pistachio soufflé, a Grand Marnier soufflé, an apricot soufflé and so on… Once you have the knack, you can progress to “twice-baked” soufflés, a boon for the show-off dinner party cook since they’re made partly ahead of time.

Here’s my mother’s cheese soufflé recipe: Make a fairly thick béchamel sauce from around 200ml of warmed milk. While hot, take off heat and add 300g grated strong cheese. Stir till melted, season with grinds of black pepper, a little grated nutmeg or some cayenne pepper, then, one at a time, drop in four egg yolks whose whites you have separated off into a large clean bowl. Add one or two extra egg whites to the mixing bowl contents and whisk to firm peaks. Dump a quarter of the froth into the cheesy béchamel and briskly incorporate to loosen the sauce. Then carefully fold in the remainder, making sure no egg white remains to be seen. Pour into a greased soufflé dish and bake for 20-30 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 200C which you turn down at once to 180C. The length of time depends on how runny you like your soufflé.

If that lack of precision is a bit daunting, try the full recipe below…

Cheese Soufflé

Ingredients (serves 4):
50g butter
50g plain flour
200-300ml milk, heated
300g leftover hard cheese, grated
4 large eggs, separated plus one extra egg white
Grating of nutmeg
Pinch cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 200C.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Grease a 20cm soufflé dish with some of it, then, if you wish – my mother never did – dust with grated Parmesan. In the saucepan, stir the flour into the melted butter, until it turns a light gold and sandy. Very gradually, a little at a time, pour in the heated milk to make a béchamel sauce and stir till thick over low heat, cooking out the flour taste for around 3-5 minutes. (The difference in the quantity of milk cited relates to different types/freshness of flour and types of butter whose water content can affect the sauce. What you want to finish with is a thick sauce. Start with 200ml milk, adding the extra 100ml if the sauce is too stiff to introduce the cheese into it.) Stir in the cheese to melt. Draw off the heat, then one by one beat in the egg yolks. Season to taste, then add the nutmeg and cayenne pepper.

In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff. Beat a quarter into the cheese sauce, then carefully fold in the rest, making sure there’s no white showing, then pour into the soufflé dish and place in the centre of the oven. Turn the heat down to 180C. Bake the soufflé for 25-30 mins until puffed up and golden, 20 minutes if you like the base a little runny.

Serve with a salad and some crusty bread on the side.

For more than 4 servings, to the same amount of sauce and cheese base, the ratio is one egg per person plus one extra white for the whole number. If you want to serve 6 to 8 (limited by the size of the soufflé dish!), add 2 extra egg whites not 1.

Julia Watson has been a long-time Food Writer for newspapers and magazines in the US and the UK.

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