Soufflés were never a thing for me. Not the way chocolate cake or donuts are, at least. My only connection to a soufflé came from Sabrina, one of my favorite Billy Wilder films. Sabrina, played by Audrey Hepburn to full stylish gamine effect, is attending a Parisian cooking school and the teacher is counting down to the big soufflé reveal. He goes down the line of students, examining their soufflés: “Too flat, too tall, too sloppy, perfect,” and coming up on Sabrina’s, he sniffs “Much too flat.” A classmate turns to her and explains, “A woman happily in love, she burns the soufflé. A woman unhappily in love, she forgets to turn on the oven.”
A few weeks ago I was in Paris, shooting a commercial, and I couldn’t help but remember that moment in Sabrina.
On a whim, my assistant Kathryn and I ordered a soufflé at lunch, saying, “Well, we’re in Paris, aren’t we?” and not thinking much more of it. Then it appeared. Buoyant, tall as a skyscraper, and as delicate as a spider’s web. The annihilation was glorious. We stabbed into it, first devouring the golden brown powder sugared top, eating our way through the eggy, spongey center, and then cleaning the crisp, sugared edges. Like two half starved vultures we picked and picked until there was nothing but the bones. Once we snapped out of our sugary blackout, I sat there surprised by the carnage before me. This was the type of destruction I usually reserve for chocolate or deep fried things, not lighter than air balloons of sugar and egg. But I guess that’s what it is. The soufflé isn’t about decadence or heft, it’s about the magic you can spin from just a couple of eggs, flour, and sugar. The simplicity marveled me, and the uneventfulness of the ingredients charmed me entirely.
How can something so lovely, so exceptional come from the same ingredients I use to make pancakes? It’s not something that keeps me up at night, but it is a happy thought when biting into something as delicious as this.
Note: Soufflés are not as difficult as they appear. The trick is in preparation. Use only the freshest, room temperature eggs you can find, fold the ingredients gently so as to keep as much of the air whipped into the whites as possible, make sure your oven is fully preheated with the grate moved to the center, and be ready to serve these immediately.
For two 16-ounce ramekins
Feeds 4-6 people total
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus additional for buttering ramekins
1/3 cup sugar plus additional for coating ramekins
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole milk
3 large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of kosher salt
1 tablespoons Grand Marnier
5 large egg whites
powdered sugar, to garnish
Preheat oven to 400°F. Generously butter the ramekins and coat with sugar, knocking out excess sugar.
In a medium saucepan melt the butter over medium low heat and whisk in flour. Whisk them together until the paste smells a bit nutty, about 3 minutes. Add milk a little at a time and cook, whisking, until the mixture is very thick and pulls away from sides of pan (about 2 minutes). Transfer mixture to a bowl and cool for 5 minutes. In a large bowl whisk together yolks, vanilla, and a pinch salt, and whisk in milk mixture and Grand Marnier until smooth. This is best done an electric beater unless you’ve been working out; it can tire you out!
In a large bowl with an electric mixer beat whites until they hold soft peaks. Beat in the sugar, a little at a time, and beat meringue until it just holds stiff peaks. Fold about a quarter of the meringue into the yolk mixture, just to lighten the whole thing, then fold in the remaining meringue. Be gentle so you keep as much lift from the meringue as possible, this is what causes the soufflé to puff.
Spoon the batter into the ramekins, filling them just to rim. Arrange the ramekins at least 1 1/2 inches apart in a large roasting pan and add enough hot water to pan to reach halfway up sides of ramekins. Bake soufflés in middle of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until really puffed and the tops are golden. Don’t peek! Opening the oven releases the steam and can make the soufflés fall.
Pull out of the oven, dust with powdered sugar, and serve immediately. They will fall in a matter of seconds so be gentle and quick about getting them to the table.