Let's consider the souffl.

Why?

It's an obsession of mine, albeit a minor one, along with Forgotten Town by The Christians, and our marvellous women's hockey team: the chemical properties of eggs, and their ability to make extraordinary transformations the souffl, the cake, the egg liaison, the hollandaise sauce. In fact I've harboured an idea to write a book about the egg the egg in cookery, the egg in culture, the philosophical egg, the religious egg, etc. But it's overkill I think, and potentially pretentious overkill at that, although I'm a great fan of an equivalent book about the testicle: Testicles (Balls in Cooking and Culture) by Blandine Vi, described by Fergus Henderson as a load of bollocks, wonderful!'

Still, I think the souffl is a marvel; and it's becoming an endangered species, an example of a kind of traditional French cookery that is going out of fashion - too many dairy products, too much bother, no guarantee of success.

Anyway, stop me if you know all this already.

Here's an old-school savoury souffl, in which the main ingredient is carried by a bchamel sauce.

Cheese Souffl (serves 4, generously)

Cheese is the perfect main ingredient of a souffl strong tasting but light. Try using Gruyre instead of Cheddar.

Spinach works well. So do mushrooms. So do Jerusalem artichokes (with the help of hazelnuts and parsley). So does smoked haddock. So, surprisingly, does crab (with a lot of help from parmesan).

40g butter

2 tbsp plain flour

300ml hot milk

100g grated Cheddar

50g grated Parmesan

pinch cayenne pepper

a scraping of grated nutmeg

salt and pepper

4 egg yolks

5 egg whites

a little extra grated Cheddar

Heat the oven to 190C.

The souffl dish should hold about a litre. Thin china works better than thick.

Make a bchamel sauce: melt the butter over a gentle heat, and cook the flour in it for a couple of minutes without letting it colour. Gradually add the milk, stirring continuously, and simmer for about five minutes until the sauce is smooth and thick. Add most of the cheese, the cayenne, the nutmeg and the salt and pepper, and stir well.

Beat the egg yolks into the sauce, and let the mixture cool to lukewarm. Add a pinch of salt to the whites and beat with a balloon whisk until they stand up in soft peaks that hold their shape. Stir a couple of tablespoons of the whisked whites into the cheese mixture to loosen it up, and then, using a rubber spatula, very lightly fold in the rest of the whites.

Butter a souffl dish and sprinkle in the rest of the cheese. Pour in the mixture. Make a deep groove in the surface about 2cm from the rim the idea being to make the souffl rise like a cottage loaf. Bake for 25 minutes, or if you're feeling brave, slightly less. The middle should be slightly runny.

Here's an old-school sweet souffl, which has no bchamel sauce carrier. In fact it has no carrier at all. It is simply a mechanism for inflating the main ingredient, or rather a pure of the main ingredient.

Apricot Souffl (serves 6)

175g dried apricots

50g caster sugar

vanilla pod

2 tbsp brandy

the grated ring of half an orange

4 egg yolks

6 beaten egg whites

Heat the oven to 190C.

Put the apricots in a baking dish with the sugar and the half vanilla pod, cover with water, and bake for 40 minutes. (Alternatively, poach them in a saucepan on top of the stove but I think they retain more of their taste in the oven.) Remove the half vanilla pod, drain and liquidise. Put this pure into a large bowl, add the brandy and the grated orange rind. Mix in the egg yolks. Fold in the egg whites. Pour into a buttered souffl dish, make a deep groove in the surface about 2cm from the rim and bake (still at 190C) for 20 minutes. The middle should be slightly runny. Serve with crme frache.

Beautifully simple. Works well with prunes too.

It's tempting to apply Ockham's Razor, and try making a savoury souffl without a bchamel sauce. The yoghurt simply loosens up the mixture you could use ricotta cheese.

Ockam's Cheese Souffl (serves 4, modestly)

100g grated Cheddar

50g grated Parmesan

2 tbsp yoghurt

generous pinch cayenne pepper

generous scraping of grated nutmeg

salt and pepper

4 egg yolks

6 beaten egg whites

a little extra grated Cheddar

Heat the oven to 190C.

Whizz together the cheeses, yoghurt, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Put the mixture in a large bowl. Mix in the egg yolks. Fold in the egg whites.

Butter a souffl dish and sprinkle in a little grated cheddar. Pour in the mixture, make a deep groove in the surface about 2cm from the rim, and bake for 20 minutes.

Gloriously simple!

Though not as gloriously simple as

Posh Cheese On Toast (serves one)

which is basically a cheese souffl on toast.

Make a piece of toast. Meanwhile mix 50g grated cheddar, a beaten egg and half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Spread the mixture on the toast and put under the grill till brown. Some people add beer to the mixture. No! apply Ockam's Razor.

Words by Orlando Gough

Images by Tessa Huff

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