Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cheese souffle two ways, and a paen to ricotta

Souffle has been called a sauce holding its breath. Conventionally, you make a very thick bechamel sauce, beat in some egg yolks, and then add cheese or another flavoring ingredient.  You then fold in beaten egg whites which trap air bubbles expand in the oven , causing the souffle to rise.  It always seemed like too much of a patschke (Yiddish for production) to me, until we were eating at Picnic, a local restaurant with our friend Louise who was in from Chicago.  She ordered a cheese souffle which we all swooned over, and said, "You know, you can make this easily for yourself.  I do it for dinner all the time and it's a cinch."  When she got home she sent us her recipe and she was right, it is a cinch.  Her recipe is below, and has become our go to Sunday night dinner.  It isn't much more difficult than an omelet, and so much more satisfying.  I include Louise's recipe at the bottom.

Years ago I read a recipe for an "easy" souffle, which uses ricotta rather than a bechamel sauce as the base.  The results are pictured below.  It is a little easier, since you don't have to make the sauce.  On the other hand, it is more difficult to work the whipped egg whites into the ricotta mixture, and you need to use a few more whites to compensate for the heaviness of the ricotta.  I actually think that it tastes better.  I urge you to try both.

Both can be varied by adding about 1/2 cup duxelles, chopped spinach sauteed in butter, or for something wild,  Indian green cilantro chutney.  My favorite of all, however, is chopped fresh chervil -- use a generous 1/4 cup, chopped in either of the recipes below.  If you are using the spinach or mushrooms, you can keep in the nutmeg but otherwise, leave it out.

Cheese souffle, ricotta version

  • 3/4 cup ricotta (the better the ricotta, the better the souffle:  see below)
  • 3/4 cup grated cheese -- we used an aged Gruyere, but any full flavored hard cheese that melts well could be used; Comte or a good aged cheddar would be nice as well
  • 2 egg yolks
  • salt, freshly ground white pepper, paprika, cayenne and nutmeg
  • 6 egg whites
  • butter for the casserole
  • additional   grated Parmesan or Grana Padano 

  1. Place a large piece of aluminum foil on a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees.
  2. Push the ricotta through a sieve into a medium bowl, or if you are too lazy, break it up the ricotta with a fork until smooth.  Mix in grated cheese and egg yolks until smooth.  Season with a pinch each of the salt, pepper (freshly ground white preferred), paprika, cayenne and nutmeg.  (The nutmeg is optional, but nice, and should ideally been freshly grated.)
  3. Butter a one quart casserole very thoroughly, and add sprinkle with the Parmesan.
  4. Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat them in a large bowl with a balloon whisk, or with an electric mixer, until soft creamy peaks form.  This is emphatically not a patschke.  By had with a whisk, it takes about 5 minutes.  If you have a copper bowl, so much the better, but who has a copper bowl?
  5. Using a rubber scraper, fold about 1/4 of the egg whites into the ricotta mixture to loosen it. 
  6. Pour the mixture back into the rest of the egg whites, cutting and folding gently from the bottom until well mixed.  Do not over mix, it does not have to be smooth and uniform.
  7. Pour into the casserole, and sprinkle the top with a bit more Parmesan.
  8. Place casserole in the oven and bake for about 23 minutes.   (Exact times are a bit difficult to determine, and depend on size of dish, temperature of ingredients, and the actual temperature of your oven.  The top should be light brown when done, and the inside somewhat liquid.  If it is slightly over or under cooked, it will still be delicious.)
  9. Serve immediately.  You wait for a souffle, it does not wait for you.  When you cut into it, the top will be a bit crusty, and the bottom a light cheesey sauce.
  10. Serves two with salad and a glass of wine for special, easy every-night dinner.
In praise of ricotta : If you have only had supermarket ricotta out of a plastic container, you never have had ricotta.  The first time I had the real thing was when Amy was a visiting nurse in the Bronx.  Her territory included Arthur Avenue, famous as the Little Italy of the area.  It is now more of a Little Albania, but most of the Italian businesses are still around.  She brought home some fresh ricotta from one of the local dairy stores.  The owner warned her that she had to rush straight home and not make any other stops, because it would not last long in the car.  This was obviously serious stuff.  When we got it home, it practically floated out of the paper when we unwrapped it.  We ate it for dinner with a salad and bread from the Terranova bakery with just salt, pepper and olive oil.   Mark Bittman published a recipe for toasted peasant bread topped with ricotta, sliced peaches, and arugula salad, which kicks this up a notch, so to speak.

Ricotta literally means "recooked."  I prefer to think of it as milk stopped in its tracks, concentrated, and raised to a higher level of consciousness.  It is made by boiling the liquid whey which is leftover when certain kinds of cheese are made and the solids are removed.  The remaining proteins coagulate and are strained out, and you have ricotta.  This may not sound that appetizing and whey is not all that physically appealing but it is wonderful stuff, far to good to feed to animals which is a traditional use.  It is tart, sweet and milky, and in India is used for drinks, makes a terrific rice when used as the cooking liquid, and is the real secret in an excellent mattar paneer (peas with cheese).  However, ricotta must be its greatest use.  Although we are used to the creamy ricotta, it may also be salted, pressed and smoked.  I remember being served several kinds of ricotta in hotels in Naples and Sorrento, each in a different state of solidity and seasoning, and one better than the next.  Fairway stocks a creditable fresh ricotta from Joe Calabro's in West Haven, Connecticut.  I urge to you seek out some good ricotta for your own happiness.  It also adds a lot to this particular recipe.

Louise's Souffle

This is the recipe that Louise sent us, which is made the more conventional way, with a very thick bechamel sauce. If you use the lesser quantity of butter, which is what the original recipe called for, the roux will be difficult to work with and the sauce will be a bit lumpy.  It will not affect the final product, and the caloric content will be much lower.    I used skim milk, Louise uses unsweetened almond milk -- feel free to use whole milk, half and half, or even soy milk.

  • butter and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano for preparing the casserole (and to sprinkle on top) 
  • 2 teaspoons to 2 tablespoons butter 
  • 1 tablespoon  flour
  • 1/3 cup milk (skim, whole, soy, half and half or almond milk -- make sure they are unseasoned)
  • salt, white pepper, paprika, cayenne and nutmeg
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 4 egg whites
  • 3/4 cup  packed grated cheese, as above
  1. Butter a one quart casserole and sprinkle with Parmesan.
    Line a rack in the middle of the oven with aluminum foil and preheat the oven to 425
  2. Melt the remaining butter in a small pot and stir in the flour.  Let cook over low heat for a minute, stirring then remove from the heat for a moment's rest.
  3. Now pour in the milk, whisking vigorously, and return to low heat to simmer for 1 minute, stirring constantly as the sauce thickens.
  4. Season with the salt and spices -- just a pinch of each..
  5. Again remove from the heat, and whisk in the egg yolk.
  6. Put the egg whites in a clean bowl, and beat until they form soft peaks.
  7. Add a dollop of the egg whites to the sauce, and mix in with about half of the cheese.
  8. Now fold in the rest of the egg whites and the cheese.
  9. Transfer everything to the prepared casserole. 
  10. Bake for 21 minutes until the top is lightly browned and the soufflé has risen.
  11. Serves two for dinner with a salad.

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