Ah, the dessert soufflé, or, as the great Julia Child described it:
the epitome and triumph of the art of French cookery, a glorious and exciting finish to a great meal.—Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 1961
While Marie-Antoine Carême is often credited with perfecting the soufflé in the mid-1800s, it made its first appearance in the early 1700s and is attributed to Vincent de la Chappelle, chef to Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. His recipe for “omelette soufflée,” appearing in Le Cuisinier Moderne in 1742, called for both candied lemon peel and veal kidney.
In 1783, another chef, Antoine Beauvilliers, established the first high-end restaurant in Paris, the Grande Taverne de Londres, which featured several soufflés on the menu. By 1813, the soufflé was popular enough that an English cookbook, The French Cook, by Louis Ude, contained recipes for six “soufflés for entremets,” including such flavors as chocolate, potato with lemon, orange flower, rice cream, and coffee.
In 1815, Carême came out with his own book, Le Pâtissier Royal Parisien, in which he devoted several pages to making soufflés. Ultimately, it is said that he created hundreds of variations on the simple soufflé.
Soufflés were made popular in America by Julia Child and James Beard in the 1960s, which is probably around the time I had my first soufflé. But I don’t recall having eaten a real chocolate souffle, let alone making one … until now.
Soufflés are notoriously tricky to make. Each element must be done correctly, and timing is crucial. The base — in this case a chocolate custard — has to be the right consistency, not too thin and not too thick. The egg whites must be beaten to stiff peaks, then folded in gently so as not to burst the millions of tiny air bubbles. Once it’s in the oven, best not disturb it until it’s had time to rise to its fullest potential. But when it’s done it will only stay at its glorious height for a short while before falling, so it must be served immediately.
I didn’t have any real problems with this challenge, except for extreme bouts of fear and self-doubt. The trickiest part for me was knowing when to take the soufflé out of the oven. It’s difficult to tell if it’s browned since, being chocolate, it’s already pretty brown. I knew it should still jiggle in the middle; I just didn’t know how much of a jiggle. I decided to err on the side of less jiggle, as I didn’t want to end up with a soggy mess to serve the friends I had invited over to share in this deLIGHTful dessert.
I told my friends what time I expected the soufflé to be done but let them know I would text them about half an hour before it came out of the oven. I wanted them to witness it in its full glory, knowing it would fall within a few minutes of hitting the cold air. Fortunately, I was able to snap these few photos while it was still at its peak. It actually didn’t fall as quickly as I thought it would — it was more like a slow slump.
The texture of a soufflé is hard to describe. It’s much more cake-like than I imagined it would be — soft and moist, yet light as air, it almost melts in the mouth. I served it with homemade coffee ice cream, and when the ice cream came in contact with the hot interior of the gossamer, cloudlike soufflé, it turned into a melty river seeping into all those tiny air bubbles. Every bite was like a soft pillow of rich, creamy chocolatey heaven.
We devoured most of it while it was still warm, but I was surprised, hours later when our friends had left, that the soufflé was just as good after it had completely collapsed and cooled down. I even kept a little in the fridge overnight, and it was still delicious the next day, warmed in the microwave and topped with another scoop of ice cream. This dish is more than a one-hit wonder.
This being a technical challenge, I used Mary Berry’s recipe, which you can find here, but I have adapted it for American bakers below.
Mary Berry’s Hot Chocolate Soufflé
Adapted for American bakers
For the crème pâtissière:
- Butter, for greasing
- 6¼ oz. chocolate (at least 36% cocoa solids)
- 1¼ c. milk
- 5 T. cocoa powder
- 4 large egg yolks
- 4 T. superfine (baker’s) sugar, plus extra for dusting
- 5 T. all-purpose flour
For the meringue:
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Place a heavy baking sheet on the middle shelf in the oven.
- Grease a 1-quart soufflé dish with butter and dust it with caster sugar. Make a collar for the soufflé dish by folding a 20×12-inch piece of parchment paper four times lengthwise (to make a 3-inch deep collar). Wrap it around the top of the dish and secure with string.
- For the crème pat, melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Remove from heat and leave to cool slightly.
- Pour milk and cocoa powder into a heavy-bottomed pan and bring gradually to a boil, whisking to incorporate cocoa into the milk. Remove pan from heat and leave to cool for 30 seconds. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until pale, then whisk in the flour. Slowly pour the chocolate milk onto the egg yolks, whisking continuously, then pour the mixture back into the pan.
- Over medium heat, bring mixture back to a boil, whisking continuously, and cook for 1 more minute until thickened. Remove from the heat and whisk in the melted chocolate. Pour the pastry cream through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl, then cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Leave to cool to room temperature.
- In a clean mixer bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. Add sugar, a little at a time, and continue whisking to a stiff, glossy meringue.
- Whisk one-third of the meringue into the pastry cream, then fold in the remaining two-thirds using a large metal spoon or spatula. The mixture should be fairly loose, with no large flecks of meringue.
- Pour the batter into the prepared soufflé dish. With your thumb, make an indentation in the mixture all around the edge of the dish to ensure a good rise. Place in the oven on the preheated baking sheet and bake for 40-50 minutes, or until well-risen and springy to touch. Serve immediately.