Keen for the dinner party cred a soufflé confers, but scared of falling flat on your face? The secret, writes Emma Knowles, is double baking.
Note This recipe is based on Stephanie Alexander's recipe in The Cook's Companion.
A soufflé is a beautiful thing. All light and delicate, it's guaranteed to impress dinner guests, not only for its flavour, but also because of its reputation for being notoriously difficult to make. It's a nerve-racking thing, though, whipping up a soufflé. Only the most seasoned of soufflé-makers manages to escape soufflé angst. Even chefs who turn them out 19 to the dozen every night aren't immune. Will it work? Won't it? Fingers and toes tightly crossed does not a relaxed host make.
Fear not, soufflé lovers. There's an alternative. Purists may disagree, but for our money, a twice-baked soufflé is just as good as its single-cooked relative, minus the nail-biting wait. The joy of the twice-baked soufflé is that you can execute the first step hours, or even a day or two, before you plan to serve the finished dish. It's stable enough to hold up for this length of time and then be reheated with no detrimental effect. If anything, there's a bonus to this method. Before its second stint in the oven, the soufflé gets doused with cream and scattered with cheese, which, once cooked, transforms into a molten sauce. Soufflé plus sauce equals perfection.
For all intents and purposes, the first step of the process is the same as for making a regular savoury soufflé. A béchamel base is enriched with egg yolks and flavoured with whatever you desire - cheese is most popular, but you could add slivers of sautéed mushrooms, a handful of finely chopped herbs or puréed blanched spinach, among other things. Then the lot is lightened and aerated by the addition of eggwhites, whisked to firm peaks. And then into ramekins and into the oven to bake. So far, so standard. The difference, however, is that the béchamel base is slightly sturdier than that of a regular soufflé, all the better to withstand being upturned and left to sit for any number of hours. You will be turning the soufflé out of its mould, so it's even more important than usual to ensure the mould is very well buttered and floured.
When first baked, double-baked soufflés will puff and turn golden, but perhaps less voluminously than you'd expect of standard soufflés, again because of their more robust nature. Once the first stage of cooking is complete, stand the soufflés in their ramekins for a few minutes, then turn them out onto a tray lined with baking paper. At this point you can refrigerate them for several hours, or even overnight - they'll be none the worse for it. The soufflés will deflate and look a little sorry for themselves, but that's par for the course. Once cooked again, they'll come back to life.
For the second bake, place each soufflé in a shallow ovenproof dish - a classic gratin dish is ideal, although a shallow soup bowl would work just as well. A good drizzle of pouring cream and a scattering of cheese and then into a hot oven until they're revived - all puffed and golden, sitting in a pool of cheesy sauce. These more-ish beauties are light enough to be served as an entrée, paired with a vinaigrette-dressed green leaf salad to cut the richness. Or make a meal of it and serve with crusty bread to mop up all that cheesy goodness.