If you like formal or fancy dining then you will know that a soufflé is the ultimate dessert. Generally, you order your soufflé at the same time as the main course because you know it will take the chef around half an hour to make one. Even, then, the chances are that he will not put it in the oven till the waiter has told him that you are through with the entrée. While the soufflé is rising, the chef will prepare the service plate, keep a little boat of sauce ready and then, when the soufflé has risen so high that it threatens to creep over the edge of the ramekin, he will take it out of the oven, summon the waiting waiter and rush it to your table.A good soufflé will keep its shape for only around five to six minutes from the time it leaves the oven and many chefs think that even that’s too long. Ideally, they require the soufflé to be placed in front of you not more than three minutes after it is ready. As you gaze in astonishment at this snowy hillock of air, sugar and flavour, the waiter will usually offer to make a hole in the centre. Then, he will either pour some sauce in or he will spoon a little ice-cream into the hot centre of the soufflé. As the cold ice-cream meets the warm flesh of the soufflé, it begins to gently melt. And that’s when you take your first bite and let the hot, cold, sweet, creamy, airy, frothy flavours dance on your tongue.
There was a time, a few decades ago, when a formal restaurant was required, almost by definition, to put a soufflé on the menu. Then, as kitchens became busier and restaurant staff strengths were slashed, the soufflé began dropping off the menu. To get a soufflé right you need to cook it by the clock. Wait a minute too long and the soufflé will be overcooked with a nasty skin on top. Open the oven door too early and it will collapse. As the number of chefs per kitchen reduced, most restaurants decided that it was simply too much trouble to make it. And as the waiter-to-table ratio changed so that each waiter had more tables to look after, restaurants were no longer sure that they could count on a waiter being available to rush the soufflé to the guest as soon it was ready.
Now, the soufflé is making a comeback. The French have embraced it once again. It is a mainstay of Joël Robuchon’s Atelier chain, Alain Ducasse serves warm soufflés at his Michelin-star establishments (though his famous Baba au Rhum is probably the better dessert) and other famous French chefs brag about how light they can make their soufflés. The soufflé is back on English menus too. A whole new soufflé restaurant was scheduled to open in London this month. (Perhaps it already has; I haven’t been to London for a while).
Even in India, the soufflé is suddenly more visible than it ever has been. For decades, Indians were told that all soufflés were cold and were fobbed off with gelatine-packed mousse-type desserts. The first restaurant that I know of that served soufflés was Delhi’s Orient Express. Ever since it opened in 1983, the restaurant has had a cheese soufflé on the menu. Around a decade later, the Zodiac Grill at the Bombay Taj stole the recipe, started calling it a Camembert dariole and made it a signature dish.
Then, in the Nineties, the Orient Express put a dessert soufflé – a chocolate version – on its menu and began calling it the restaurant’s signature dish. That chocolate soufflé became so famous that it was widely imitated. And by the time the new century dawned, stand-alone restaurants were also offering dessert soufflés. At the original Diva in Delhi’s Greater Kailash-II, Ritu Dalmia even put a “Soufflé of The Day” on the menu. (No matter which day you went, it was always chocolate – or so I seem to remember.)
So, what exactly is a soufflé? Well, in essence, it is a baked dish, either sweet or savoury, which rises in the oven thanks to the combination of air bubbles and egg white. The basic principle is easy enough and chefs will tell you in confidence that the trick to getting anything to rise in a light and airy manner is the use of egg white. They will also tell you that once you understand this principle then you come across a whole family of soufflé-like dishes: omelettes, fondants, crepe soufflés and even the Zodiac Grill’s Camembert dariole.I asked Soumya Goswami, the Oberoi group’s cerebral and accomplished corporate chef, about the origins of the soufflé. Though there are soufflé recipes dating back to Jean Antoine Carême (1784-1833), Soumya reckons that the dish gained popularity when Auguste Escoffier, the father of modern French cooking, included 80 soufflé recipes in his classic Ma Cuisine. But Escoffier liked his food hearty and with a little bite. So an Escoffier soufflé would use a little bit of bread crumbs, and would be based on a roux (a flour-and-butter mixture that is the base for many of the greatest sauces in French cuisine) to which he would add the egg whites etc for his soufflés.
|HOT CHOCOLATE SOUFFLÉ|
INGREDIENTS: (For three to four servings)
Modern chefs have moved away from the heartiness of Escoffier’s style and now pride themselves on how light they can make their soufflés. Soumya and Vikas Vibhuti, the pastry chef at the Delhi Oberoi, showed me how they made their soufflés. For his savoury soufflés, Vikas mixed foie gras or blue cheese with a béchamel sauce (a classic white sauce), whisked egg whites till they were stiff, folded the savoury béchamel mixture into the eggs and then put them in the oven for 20 minutes. For his sweet soufflés, he dispensed with the béchamel and used chocolate or a hazelnut mixture and folded it into the egg whites. The soufflés that resulted were perfect and seemed deceptively easy to make.
At the Orient Express, home of India’s most famous soufflés, they use a different method. The cheese soufflé was introduced by Arvind Saraswat, the Taj Group’s legendary chef, when the restaurant first opened. But according to the restaurant’s current chef, D N Sharma, who has been the backbone of the kitchen from the time the restaurant started, the cheese soufflé is not baked in the oven. Instead it is steamed. This is what gives it the solidity of its shape and allows it to last longer in the plate than a typical soufflé. Many recipes for long-lasting cheese soufflés suggest the use of a bain-marie (a double boiler) even if you are putting them in the oven. In some versions of the recipe, you can even refrigerate the finished ‘soufflés’ and then warm them once in the oven before serving.
With all this confusion about soufflés and darioles, there’s the whole business of the fondant. You’ve probably eaten a chocolate fondant somewhere. It is one of the great dishes of dessert menus. It is a kind of (usually flourless) chocolate cake with a liquid centre so that thick chocolate oozes out when you cut into it. The famous New York-based French chef, Jean-George Vongerichten, popularised the dessert in the late Eighties, but if you look at his recipe, what he really did was to make a kind of soufflé. The Orient Express chocolate soufflé is really a Jean Georges-style fondant. And the molten chocolate cake or flourless chocolate cake you will find on many, many menus is basically the same dish.
With all these variations floating around, I asked Rohit Sangwan of the Bombay Taj, who is the single-best pastry chef I know, what the secret of a good soufflé is. Why is it that the same basic recipe sometimes yields a stodgy soufflé and sometimes ends up with a soufflé that is light as air?
Rohit reckons it comes down to the hand of the chef. The key to the final texture lies in how you whisk the egg whites and the manner in which you fold the flavouring into the stiff egg whites. It takes practice to get it right and many chefs either do not try hard enough or just don’t have the skill. Plus, as Soumya pointed out, chefs are often in a hurry. If you are churning 20 or 30 soufflés in a kitchen, you don’t lavish the care on the preparation that say, Vikas does in the Oberoi kitchen.
So can a home cook make a soufflé? I told Rohit that all of the young cooks I knew were into baking and yet, most of them seemed to regard a soufflé as being too grand or ambitious. Could he come up with a recipe that was simple enough for an amateur to follow and would still yield professional-type results?
Rohit sent me a recipe for a chocolate soufflé. It has been, I suspect, adapted for the home cook because it requires you to make a chocolate custard into which you fold stiff egg whites. But Rohit says it is idiot proof. I’m not much of a baker so I’ll never try it myself. But if you do use an oven at home, then give this a shot. I’ve never known Rohit’s recipes to go wrong. And won’t it be really impressive to serve a hot chocolate soufflé, a dish that still intimidates so many professional chefs, to your guests when they come for dinner?
Lots of luck. And long may your soufflé rise!
From HT Brunch, March 2
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