“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
― Charles M. Schulz
A chocolate souffle is ethereal, elegant, and decadent. And I wanted to bake one.
It was 1960 and I was newly married. We invited a few close friends for a small dinner party at our little cottage. In those days, we didn’t have much furniture, so I planned to serve the meal on the only table we had which was a low round coffee table and have our guests sit on pillows around it.
I loved experimenting and trying new dishes. So for our friends, I decided to make Lobster Fra Diavolo and chocolate soufflé. Isn’t that what every twenty-year-old bride makes? You may ask, “Weren’t you crazy to attempt something so challenging?” Well, the truth was that I was pretty fearless when it came to cooking, because while growing up, I had spent a lot of time perched on the white tile countertop in our kitchen watching my mother cook and bake. She was constantly cooking (because “God forbid, you might starve like the children in China”).
The kitchen was painted white except for one corner which had a hand-painted scene of yellow roses climbing up a trellis all the way to the ceiling. It was light and bright and a nice place to keep my mother company while she cooked and baked. No dish fazed her. She wasn’t the least bit intimidated by any recipe, so why should I be? I watched her make everything from scratch ––– stuffed cabbage, spinach patties, sweet and sour meatballs, endless baked goods which included delicious strudel, sponge cake, coffee cake, and her secret recipe for cheesecake. Everything she made seemed effortless and always tasted delicious. By the time I was a teenager, I fancied myself quite the chef. I would slice a wedge of iceberg lettuce, slather it with my home made thousand island dressing, and then open a box for a Chef Boyarrdee spaghetti dinner. This was cooking in my book.
So for our special evening with friends, I was eager to try some culinary experiments. The idea for Lobster Fra Diavolo came from my husband who, prior to our marriage, had lived in and traveled all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East for four years. One of his favorite dishes was Lobster Fra Diovalo which he’d enjoyed many times in Rome at the Hostaria dell’Orso Restaurant, established in the 15th century and the oldest restaurant in the city. So, of course I was going to make him the best he’d ever tasted! And I did.
Next was the chocolate soufflé, the piece de resistance. I started whipping together the ingredients, gently placed the souffle´ in the oven and warned everyone not to move around too much because I was worried that any reverberation would make it fall. I couldn’t even sneak a peak into the oven because I was afraid some errant gust of air would make it collapse into a muddy puddle. So we all waited patiently for forty minutes. Finally, I opened the oven door and what did I see? I saw souffle dish but no puffy pillow of risen chocolate.
It was a sad soufflé. It just laid there in the bottom of the dish. Flat. Not risen. At best it looked like a large, shallow brownie. Julia Child once said, “Never apologize.” So I just sprinkled powdered sugar over the deflated brownie and served it. I called it my Chocolate Frisbee.
I didn’t try another souflle adventure until a new show, The French Chef, came to PBS starring my idol, Julia Child. I’d loved her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I still have it after all these years, quite food-stained and dog-eared.
One day, Julia made a chocolate soufflé on her show. I was stoked. I was glued to the screen and took pages of notes and realized where I had gone wrong:
1. I learned that you need a quarter teaspoon of cream of tartar in the egg whites. It imitates the change in chemistry that occurs when you beat eggs in a copper bowl. It makes the egg whites stable.
2. Don’t beat the egg whites till they’re too stiff and dry. They should be shiny and have soft peaks.
3. Use room temperature egg whites.
These three tips transformed my next soufflés into triumphs. Suddenly, I was The Soufflé Queen. It was always a wonder to see a risen soufflé directly from the oven, all kind of wobbly and tall in it’s chocolate majesty.
But creating the penultimate souffle really required combining elements and ideas from more than one chef.
Years later, I went on a cooking tour which started in New York City where we met a number of chefs and among them was Jacque Pepin. We were invited to his home in Milton, Connecticut. It’s a cheery place, and decorated in a French Country style. In his kitchen, next to the range top, he kept a memo pad where he noted every step and ingredient he used while cooking. I started making notes in my cookbooks after seeing how he did it. At the end of the day, he gave us his personal recipe for Chocolate Souffle. I gleaned a number of ideas from his recipe, combined them with those from Julia and Dori Greenspan to make the best, and my very favorite souffle recipe. If you can’t make it with this recipe –– buy doughnuts.
This recipe is my adaptation of recipes by Jacques Pepin, Julia Child and Dori Greenspan.
6 large eggs separated and at room temperature
2 egg whites separated and at room temperature
6 ounces really good semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons of sugar
1/3 cup milk at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon of Cream of Tartar
Softened butter for greasing the soufflé mold
Sugar for sprinkling the inside of the soufflé mold
I used an 8 cup souffle´mold which serves six to eight
You can use individual molds and lower the cooking time to about 20 minutes or less. Definitely place the individual molds on a cookie sheet.
First preheat the oven to 375. Smear the inside of the soufflé mold with a nice thick coating of butter. Then sprinkle the butter with a generous helping of sugar so that it sticks to the butter. Turn it upside down to remove any excess sugar. Place the mold in the refrigerator.
The eggs need to be at room temperature.
When you separate the eggs, pour the white into it’s own separate bowl. Then pour it into the large mixer bowl.
You do this because you don’t want to accidentally get any yolk into the egg white. If you do the whites will not rise properly. Place the yolks all together in a separate bowl.
Combine the chocolate and the 1/2 cup sugar in a heatproof bowl over simmering water. (imitating a double boiler) Stir the chocolate constantly. It will resemble rough grainy chocolate, just keep on stirring. When the chocolate is melted remove the bowl from the top of the simmering water and place on a counter. Now whisk in the milk. Use a whisk it’s much easier to stir and make the chocolate smooth. Now let it cool because we’re going to be putting egg yolks in the chocolate and we don’t want the hot chocolate to scramble the eggs. After about 5 minutes, add the egg yolks one at a time whisking until the yolk is completely absorbed.
Now place the 6 egg whites in the bowl of your mixer. ( I add 2 more egg whites because I like my soufflé´to really rise up tall. You can just use 6 and it will still rise but maybe not to the heights that I’ve photographed) Start beating the egg whites till they’re opaque, then add the cream of tartar, beat some more until there are soft peaks and add the 2 tablespoons of sugar dribbling into the bowl a little at a time. Beat until the egg whites are shiny and hold they’re shape. Don’t over beat and make them dry.
Now add 1/3 of the beaten egg whites to the chocolate mixture and fold them together to lighten the chocolate mixture. Then add the rest of the egg whites and fold with a spatula until nicely blended. It’s OK if there are streaks. You don’t want to over-fold so that it deflates.
Remove the mold from the refrigerator. Gently place the chocolate egg white mixture into the mold. Place it in the lower third of your oven. I also took out the oven shelf above so that the souffle´would not get caught up in the shelf when it rises. Now you can place this mold on a cookie sheet to protect it from dripping in your oven or do what I did, just go for it. Cook for about 40 minutes or until a straw or a knife inserted into the soft part comes out clean.
Now gently remove this glorious souffle from the oven, lightly sprinkle with powdered sugar and then tip-toe into the dining room to rapturous applause.
To further gild the lily, top each generous serving with sweetened whipped cream or Creme Anglaise.
Oh, and by the way, there’s one more ingredient to add to this souffle story.
Many years ago, one of my sisters was dating a charming, handsome and very intelligent man. He came from a rather elegant and patrician Hollywood family. I mean he knew his knives and forks and P’s and Q’s. He also had very definite ideas about food and wine. He had a passion for chocolate roulades and chocolate soufflés. One day he jokingly remarked that he would propose to my sister if I would make one of my special chocolate soufflés. I took him at his word and made the souffle. He loved the soufflé, he loved my sister, and they have been happily married for forty-one years.
Our family motto.