Regardless of religion, the one thing that unites us as nation at Easter is our boundless appetite for chocolate eggs – we spend £220m a year on the things. If you’re out to impress, however, turn those eggs into a chocolate souffle instead: richly flavoured, yet featherlight, it’s the perfect end to an Easter feast and, crucially, far easier to pull off than its fearsome reputation suggests. Not that your guests need to know that, of course.
Souffles are, essentially, a meringue mixture folded into a flavoured base and baked so that the air bubbles trapped in the meringue expand, causing the souffle to rise. Many sweet souffle recipes start with either a crème pâtissière (an egg custard thickened with flour, favoured by chefs Daniel Clifford, Rowley Leigh and Gordon Ramsay) or a béchamel (a butter-based white sauce, also thickened with flour and used in Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook), to give them more substance. Martha Stewart, Delia Smith and the folks at the US magazine Cook’s Illustrated prefer a flour-free recipe, relying on the thickening power of eggs alone, in a style sometimes known as a souffle à la minute.
The problem I have with the flour-based souffles is not that they tend towards the slightly cakey in texture (though there is a good argument to say that: we already have chocolate fondant and countless other chocolate puddings, so have no need of a hybrid souffle version). Instead, it’s the dairy used to make the bechamel or crème pâtissière that dilutes the flavour of the chocolate: as Harold McGee notes in On Food and Cooking, “the base must be over-flavoured to compensate for its dilution by tasteless egg white and air”. Milk, or milk and cream in Ramsay’s case, takes the edge off the bittersweet flavour of the cocoa, leaving the souffles rather bland. The more intense flavour of the flour-free versions appeals more to testers, and the simpler recipe to me.
If you’d like to make a slightly denser dessert, but would prefer to keep it gluten free, you may be as interested to know that Leigh specifies that his crème pat can be thickened with arrowroot, potato flour or cornflour, all of which are coeliac-friendly.
That said, even the flour-free versions don’t deliver quite the chocolate hit I want in a dessert, so I’m going to up the chocolate content and add a generous spoonful of cocoa powder, which will help to boost the flavour without adding too much extra weight in the form of cocoa butter.
Berry, Stewart and Cook’s Illustrated put vanilla essence into their batter, and the last of those adds Grand Marnier for good measure. If chocolate isn’t enough for you, feel free to add other flavourings as suits your fancy: Smith’s rum, Fine Cooking’s coffee or Gourmet’s salted caramel all tickle my fancy.
Because I’m not adding any extra fat in the form of dairy, my recipe will include as many egg yolks to thicken and enrich the base as egg whites to lighten it – beaten with sugar, they will help add volume, too.
As I find to my cost, it’s imperative the egg whites are whipped properly: too soft, and the souffle will be runny; too dry and grainy, and they’ll be hard to mix properly with the base, and a chocolate-coloured batter is very unforgiving of white streaks. A pinch of cream of tartar will help stabilise the mixture, though a squeeze of lemon juice will perform the same function.
It’s vital to invest in proper straight-sided souffle dishes for a decent rise (you’ll get a better rise on individual portions than one big sharing ramekin). McGee reckons the common claim that buttering (preferably with “upward strokes”) and sugaring the ramekins before filling will give the mixture “a kind of lattice to climb while baking”, as the New York Times puts it, is rubbish: “Souffles made in unbuttered or uncrumbed dishes rise just as high,” he writes. McGee does, however, concede that this does make them easier to get out of the dish – and, I’d suggest, adds a delicious crunch. Nigel Slater’s version of Leigh’s recipe in Real Food suggests chilling the prepared dishes while you make the batter, which is a clever way of ensuring they stay buttered once the warm filling is added.
Many recipes also claim that, for a restaurant-style flat top, you should fill the dishes, pull a palette knife across the top, then run a fingertip around the side to create a trench. In fact, there’s a wealth of helpful advice out there on how to guarantee a neat rise, from hot baking sheets to banging the dish against a hard surface before baking. My best advice is to leave about 1cm space to the top, and don’t worry too much about a rustic rise; they’ll still look impressive.
Bake at in a very hot oven: the hotter, the faster the mix will rise before the inside has a chance to overcook, and, as eggs have a tendency to be dull when served as hot as a souffle requires, we conclude it’s important to leave the interior molten, rather than baking it solid. Souffles keep surprisingly well in the fridge uncooked, but once they are baked, they need to be served immediately, preferably with a spoonful of nutty ice-cream: as Slater writes, “the marriage of chocolate and pistachio – especially in this case when the chocolate is hot and the pistachio cold – is one made in heaven.”
Perfect chocolate souffle
For all of the scare stories, the mixture below can be made several hours in advance – I’ve even left it overnight without much loss of volume – but if you’re super well organised, I cannot recommend Cook’s Illustrated’s make-ahead chocolate souffle highly enough. It employs an Italian meringue, and I can confirm that it bakes perfectly straight from the freezer.
Prep 15 min
Cook 45 min
Softened butter and 4 tbsp sugar, to coat
125g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
2 tbsp cocoa
6 medium eggs, separated
50g caster sugar
1 good pinch of salt
¼ tsp cream of tartar
Heat the oven, and a baking tray, to 210C/410F/gas 6½. Generously butter six 9cm ramekins with upward strokes, then coat the insides with caster sugar. Put in the fridge while you make the batter.
Melt the chocolate and cocoa in a heatproof bowl set above, but not touching, a pan of simmering water, stirring to combine. Remove and leave to cool slightly, stirring occasionally.
Separate the eggs, being careful no trace of yolk creeps into the whites. Beat the yolks with 40g of the sugar until very thick and pale.
Wash the beaters well, then whisk the whites with a good pinch of salt until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and whip to soft peaks. Add the remaining sugar and beat until just stiff, but still glossy: make sure you don’t overdo it.
Stir the chocolate mixture into the egg yolks, then add a spoonful of egg whites and stir well to loosen the mixture before gently folding in the rest with slow strokes, trying to keep as much air in there as possible.
Spoon the souffle mix into the prepared dishes, leaving a 1cm gap at the top. Bang on a work surface to level the mixture, then clean the sides well. At this point, you can either chill until ready to bake, or put them in the oven straight away. Run the tip of a knife around the side of mixture, put on the hot baking tray and bake for 10-12 minutes, until well risen but still molten inside. Serve at once.
• Chocolate souffle: the perfect featherlight chocolate dessert, or style over substance? And what are your tips for achieving the perfect restaurant-style rise?
- Food styling: Iona Blackshaw
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010