Cheap Eats:
Cheese Soufflé

Which came first — the chicken or the egg? Well, technically speaking, it was the egg, since eggs were being laid for millennia before the bird we know as the chicken was bred from the wild jungle fowl of Southeast Asia.

The pinnacle of egg-dom, the coolest possible thing to do with these versatile little protein parcels, is the soufflé. And (here’s the surprise) it’s actually pretty easy to make a soufflé. In fact, this is an almost fool-proof recipe. Soufflés are fun, yummy, and a relatively easy way to impress the heck out of people. (The instructions may look ponderous, but don’t let that put you off — a lot of it is just technique, to help ensure your success.)

For soufflé making, in addition to the usual pots, cups, and measuring spoons, you must have a metal or ceramic bowl (never plastic), a rubber spatula, and a whisk. An electric mixer helps a lot and, depending on your stamina, may also qualify as a requirement. A soufflé dish is nice, but not required; you just need an oven-proof dish of some sort, 1 quart capacity for this recipe, or double the recipe, if all you have is a 2-quart baking dish..

Cheese Soufflé

¼ cup butter or margarine

3 Tbs. flour

1 cup milk

3 eggs, separated, plus 1 extra egg white

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

dash cayenne pepper

1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce

Eggs need to be at room temperature, so take them out of the refrigerator before you start. (Or put them in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes.)

Butter the inside of a 1-quart baking dish with 1 Tbs. butter or margarine.

In a deep pot over medium heat, melt the rest of the butter/margarine, then whisk in the flour. Slowly add milk, whisking continuously to prevent lumps. Continue whisking until the sauce begins to thicken (takes a minute or two — then suddenly, it happens). Remove pot from heat and whisk in the yolks, one at a time, blending thoroughly as each is added.

Set oven to 375°F. Fold the cheese and seasonings into the sauce, using a rubber spatula to blend gently but thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Set aside.

Now, you’re ready to beat the egg whites. There are a variety of tricks for keeping whipped egg whites from deflating. One is to use a copper mixing bowl — it just works better. Another way is to rub the inside of your bowl with a cut lemon, then wipe off any excess moisture — the tiny amount of residual acid helps keep the beaten egg white from collapsing. Even if you don’t want to bother with either of these options, make sure the bowl is very clean — any trace of oil can defeat your purpose. (I don’t have a copper bowl, so I alternate between using lemon and not worrying about it — it depends largely on whether this is for company or not.)

Into your prepared bowl, place the four egg whites. Beat at low speed until the whites are frothy, then at medium-high until they hold stiff peaks. With the rubber spatula, lift out about one fourth of the whites and fold them into the sauce. Use a smooth down, under, up, and over circular motion. Turn the pot at the completion of each stroke, so you combine contents thoroughly. Fold just until mixture is uniformly spongy.

Use the spatula to scrape the rest of the egg whites onto the sauce, and gently but quickly fold them in with the same circular motion, making sure you reach the bottom of the pot with each stroke. This time, do not blend completely, but stop while there are still some bits of white froth showing here and there.

With the spatula, smooth the mixture into the prepared baking dish. It should fill the dish completely. If it doesn’t fill the dish, smooth it into a smaller dish. Run your fingertip an inch down, all the way around, inside the rim. This creates the "top hat" effect when the soufflé rises, and also keeps it from overflowing.

Place the soufflé on the lowest rack of the hot oven and bake from 25 to 40 minutes, depending on the texture you like. The traditional, runny, fragile soufflé that the French prefer is produced by the shorter time. I prefer a slightly longer cooking time — both because I prefer a less damp texture, and because the soufflé becomes harder to damage when baked a little longer, since the shorter cooking time gives you an exquisite but delicate product that barely makes it to the table without caving in. It also makes better leftovers when it’s a little more "solid." For the firmer version, I test the soufflé after 35 minutes — a knife blade stuck in from the side should come out clean — then turn off the oven and let it stand for five minutes, while I prepare for the presentation (or just dig out a plate and fork, since I do make this for myself).

If you double the recipe, for a 2-quart dish, bake an extra 5 to 7 minutes.

Serves 4.

Special bonus:

This isn’t simply a cheese soufflé recipe — it’s an "anything you have on hand" soufflé recipe. For the cup of cheese, you could substitute cooked, finely chopped, well-drained spinach with a few tablespoons of grated parmesan and appropriate seasonings. Or a cup of canned tuna or salmon mashed up with some sautéed onions. Or a cup of puréed broccoli or asparagus seasoned to taste. Or a cup of cooked ground beef and/or mashed potatoes. In fact, a cup of pretty much anything with a little body and not too much liquid can be spun into this recipe. And if you want to stay with cheese, try Monterey Jack with chopped jalapeño peppers, or keep the cheddar but eliminate the Worcestershire sauce and use tarragon, or toss in a handful of diced ham. Once you get the hang of it, no one need ever know that they’re eating leftovers again!

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