es in the past seven days, I've made soufflé, at tricky dish that I typically cook half a dozen times a year.
My soufflés always turn out fine--while I wouldn't call myself an egg white savant, I do understand most of the science and artistry behind what makes a light, airy soufflé. But in my cooking, fine isn't what I aim for; I want everything I serve to be the most delicious version of itself. And when I prepare a dish only a handful of times a year, I don't really have much of an opportunity to master its ins and outs, let alone figure out how to achieve the most flavor or best texture.
What's been particularly illuminating about my soufflé experiences over the past week is this: I have to add WAY more egg whites than any recipe begins to hint at in order to get the kind of lightness I'm after. There's a joke in the Chez Panisse kitchen about the recipe book filled with all of the standards, tucked away behind the knife rolls and emergency aprons in the utensil drawer: none of the recipes work if you just follow them to the letter. You have to do an exhaustive investigation each time you're assigned to cook one of those old favorites, asking everyone who's been there longer than you for their secret techniques and ingredients, and even then you're often answered with vague responses that leave you more confused than when you began.
It's an idiosyncratic system, yes, but it does something really remarkable: it forces you to try things, to fail, to practice, and to learn by experience and repetition, which in my opinion is the best way to master any skill. With yoga, though our deepest experiences on the mat might come in class when we are led by our favorite teachers, often our biggest breakthroughs and moments of understanding come to us during our home practice, where we've collected the information, advice, and technical tools and have put them to the test with no guides but ourselves.
So though the recipe in the booklet in that drawer at Chez Panisse says to use an equal amount of egg yolks and whites, everyone there knows to add extra whites for lightness. What I'd never understood until this week--the first time in my career I've made soufflés four times in a row--is just how many extra egg whites it actually takes to get that ethereal texture. Each time I cooked this week, I pushed the boundary back a bit, adding substantially more whites in search of that perfect texture. By Monday, I was adding so many I feared that I'd ruin the dish and dilute its flavor, but surprisingly--magically, even--that batch was my best ever. They were perfect little pillows of springtime garlic, and I couldn't have been prouder to have finally cracked the code.
Now the question remains, how come no one ever records this in a recipe?
Green Garlic Pudding Souffle
Adapted from the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook
5 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups milk, slightly warmed
2 branches thyme
1 medium onion
1/2 pound green garlic, sliced
A pinch cayenne
1/2 cup grated Gruyère cheese
3 eggs, separated and at room temperature
3 egg whites only, room temperature
1/3 cup heavy cream
Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium-low heat in a very heavy-bottomed pan. Add the flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring to keep the flour from browning. Slowly pour in the milk, a little at a time, whishing each addition until smooth before adding more. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and the thyme branches. Cook over very low heat for 20 minutes or so, until this béchamel sauce is medium-thick and lump-free. Stir frequently to be sure it's not sticking. Cool to room temperature. Remove the thyme sprigs.
Dice the onion and cook over medium heat in one tablespoon of butter. When the onion becomes translucent, after about 5 minutes, add the sliced green garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and a splash of water and lower the heat. Cook until the garlic is soft and the water nearly evaporated. Add more water to prevent browning if necessary.
Cook the mixture and then puree in a food processor or food mill. Stir the puree into the béchamel. Add the cayenne, Gruyère, and some freshly ground pepper, and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning--the sauce should be fairly highly seasoned. Add the three egg yolks, lightly beaten, and mix well again.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Generously butter six 8-ounce ramekins, then coat with the grated Parmesan cheese. Beat the six egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold them into the soufflé base in two batches. Fill the ramekins and place them in a deep baking dish. Pour hot water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the soufflés are puffed and golden brown from the top. Carefully remove the ramekins from the water bath. When the soufflés have cooled a bit, unmold them by running a paring knife along the edge of each ramekin, inverting the soufflé into the palm of your hand, and placing it in a shallow baking dish, top side up. The pudding-souffles can now be held at room temperature for a few hours.
When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 425°F. Pour the cream over and around the soufflés. Bake until the cream is hot and bubbling and the soufflés are puffed up again, about 6-8 minutesServe with the hot cream.
Variation: If green garlic is unavailable, you can make a similar puree using leeks, scallions, and a few cloves of garlic.