The English introduced this dish to the South, where it was served at Mt. Vernon and Monticello, among other plantations. It is delicious, light, but filling and makes for a great lunch, or even a light supper. Add a green salad and a small desert and everyone will be quite satisfied. Comte, a type of gruyere cheese, mixed with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese will make a delicate soufflé. For a more robust flavor, use white or yellow Cheddar, but almost any combination or cheese will do. Freshly grated nutmeg (avoid pre-grated nutmeg) enhances the dish, but be sparing as it can also dominate, or leave it out altogether.
Don’t worry about opening and closing the oven. Once or twice to check won’t hurt in modern ovens. Most soufflés fall from overcooking, not a draft.
One word about the center of the soufflé, the French call a perfect soufflé center “baveuse” or to translate, “drooling”. They prefer it a little runny and sauce-like.
3 1/2 Tablespoons butter
4 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
6 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cup grated cheese
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Dash of grated nutmeg
Dash of cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
8 large egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Position a baking sheet in the center of the oven, with no racks above. The hot metal will give the soufflé a boost from the bottom, as well as catch any drippings.
Butter a 6-cup soufflé dish and dust it with fine dry bread crumbs or Panko. Wrap a buttered and crumbed parchment or waxed paper collar around the outside of the dish, and secure with string to extend the size of the dish if desired.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. Add the flour and stir briefly until smooth. Add the milk all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture boils and becomes a smooth white sauce. Remove from heat and add the egg yolks, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the cheese, mustard and seasonings and mix together. Season with salt and pepper liberally, remembering the egg whites are yet to be added and need seasoning too. The sauce may be prepared in advance and stored in the refrigerator, or frozen. If letting the mixture rest, cover with plastic wrap or coat with a light cheese topping to avoid the forming of a film on top.
If refrigerating or freezing, reheat sauce gently before proceeding.
Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until they are shiny and form a firm peak in a clean, dry bowl, preferably using a wire whisk or an electric mixer with a rotary whisk, such as a Kitchen Aid. They should lightly cling to the bowl without moving when beaten sufficiently. Underbeating the eggs is better than overbeating them and causing the air bubbles to burst. Stop short of beating the eggs before they look rough and rocky.
Using a spatula or large metal spoon, fold about 1 cup or one large whiskful of the beaten egg white into the warm sauce to soften. Pour the sauce over the remaining egg whites folding in with a spatula or large metal spoon, until nearly completely integrated. The last few pockets of egg whites will disappear as the soufflé bakes. (This may be done up to several days in advance, with the soufflé brought up to room temperature before baking.)
Pour or ladle the soufflé carefully into the prepared dish. It should fill the dish within an inch of the top of the dish. Smooth the top. If desired, make a circle in the middle of the top of the soufflé to form a “cap”. This will rise separately and enhance the presentation.
Move the dish to the middle of the hot baking sheet. Immediately turn the oven down to 375 degrees. Bake 20 minutes, until the soufflé has risen. Open the oven door, reach in and touch the top of the soufflé. If it is soft on top continue to bake. Check again in five minute increments. When it is done it will be lightly firm on top, and a fork inserted into it will have souffle on it when removed. Take the souffle dish from the oven, closing the door, and move to the plate to make it easier to carry.
Snip off the string. Put a knife between the open parts of the folded parchment or was paper to use as a firm guide, and move it around the dish, peeling off the paper. Discard paper and string. Serve immediate, using two large spoons inserted back to back in the center of the dish and “open” the soufflé. It should have a small pool of sauce (bavuse) in the center. If the soufflé is moderately runny, start serving by moving around the outside edges of the soufflé dish. The center will continue to cook and should be perfect in a few minutes. If the soufflé is still very runny, it may be returned to oven until it firms a bit, just a few minutes, before or after serving the outside edges.
If the soufflé falls, the soufflé overbaked, causing the air bubbles so carefully beaten into the eggs to over expand and burst. Run a knife around the inside rim of the collar-free souffle dish. Invert the serving plate over the soufflé dish and flip the soufflé and the dish over. Give a quick, firm shake. If properly buttered and crumbed the bottom and sides will release. Serve on the dish. No need to tell anyone it fell. It will be slightly denser than a regular soufflé – more like a light custard. Call it a soufflé pudding if you like – or say nothing and just enjoy the raves.
To make a paper collar: Cut a piece of parchment or wax paper large enough to surround the outside of the soufflé dish with a slight overlap. Fold the paper in half horizontally. If the soufflé dish has a small ridge under the lip, as most do, help enable the paper to stand up straight by making a small crease where the paper has already been folded, about the size of the ridge in the dish. This will fit under the ridge. The paper should be buttered and sprinkled lightly with panko as above.
To tie: After folding the paper as above, wrap the folded portion of the paper on the exterior of the dish under the ridge. Have ready a length of twine half again as long as the paper and tie around the dish just below the ridge, so the paper is secure.