Whisper it, but that most fragile of foods, the glamorous, unstable soufflé, is back. The “puffed up” French classic, beloved of restaurants and dinner parties in the 1960s, was a dish known to require both skill and split-second timing, thereby enhancing its spectacle. Gradually, it fell off the menu, replaced by desserts that were less awe-inspiring but also less prone to failure, sweet delights that could be prepared ahead of time such as dark chocolate mousse or panna cotta.
Now, the soufflé has come teetering back into favour, championed by the new breed of bistro that is currently so popular in London. Soufflés are popping up all over the city: a classic cheese version at Brawn in east London, prune and calvados at Wright Brothers in Spitalfields, knockout raspberry at Balthazar in Covent Garden, and orange and Grand Marnier at Casse-Croûte in Bermondsey, to name a few. At The Delaunay, you can breakfast on surprisingly light oatmeal soufflé, a brown-and-white-flecked tower of egg white and oats that comes with a cinnamon-scented plum compote. In Edinburgh, Martin Wishart’s brasserie, The Honours, always has a soufflé du jour, and in April, London’s first dedicated soufflé restaurant, Les Soufflés, will open. What makes them so special?
“Everyone loves soufflé; it’s like opening a bottle of champagne, it’s an event,” says Steve Williams, chef at 40 Maltby Street in Bermondsey. As the former pastry chef at the two Michelin-starred Ledbury in Notting Hill, Williams made thousands of soufflés.
“The compromise is between taste and height,” he says. “If you just made a meringue it would rise up but taste of nothing. You have to balance the amount of purée to white. I like to put something very flavoursome at the bottom – lemon curd, or fruit purée, or a small piece of fruit. You want something thick and viscous and with a very high acidity: damson is naturally very concentrated, or raspberry. The main thing is the purée should be so strong that you wouldn’t want to take a spoon of it.”
Les Soufflés, due to open in Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge in April, is the brainchild of French chef Gérard Idoux and his daughter Estelle. Over the past 10 years their Paris restaurant, La Cigale Récamier, has established a reputation for making the lightest soufflés in the city, with full, flamboyant flavours: figs and gorgonzola, escargots, caramel. Having noticed the vogue in London for one or two-trick menus such as those at Bubbledogs (hot dogs and champagne) and Burger and Lobster, the Idouxs felt encouraged to go ahead with plans for a soufflé-only restaurant. They are hoping the dish will become a craze (as did Ladurée’s coloured macaroons), a lighter alternative to lunch or the traditional afternoon slice of cake.
“As a child, the only time my father was calm and happy was when the chocolate soufflé appeared at Sunday lunchtime,” says Gérard. “That stayed with me and inspired me.”
The traditional wait for a soufflé is 20 minutes, but Gérard aims to get his out in 15. He uses a crème pâtissière with either 250g of a prepared savoury reduction or 100g sugar for the sweet ones. He whisks his egg whites (from a carton) with a good squirt of white vinegar (the French kind). He works fast, repeating “always clean, always clean” as he whips the wide, flexible spatula around the top of the bowl, incorporating the reheated crème pâtissière, lifting and turning the mixture. He combines this with a rapid smoothing motion on the top of the mixture, using the spatula, so that any bubbles of egg white are incorporated. He pours the mixture into the buttered soufflé dish rapidly, runs his thumb round the edge and then, with a crack, he slams the soufflé dish down to remove any air bubbles, giving it three hearty whacks on the counter top. The shape and thickness of the dish are crucial: Gérard favours a ribbed, shallower dish for sweet soufflés and a slightly higher dish for the savoury. The oven is very hot, 220-250C, and the soufflé takes less than 10 minutes to cook.
I tasted three savoury and two sweet versions, all light and aerated throughout, and cooked but still creamy. My favourites were the roast duck with a very subtly flavoured duck and orange jus, and a sensational almond, cranberry and pistachio. When it opens, Les Soufflés will also serve soufflés made with grilled red mullet, salted caramel, even carrot and muesli.
After the Idouxs’ display I became curious to refine my own technique. The most virtuoso soufflé maker I could think of was Pierre Koffmann, the Gascon chef renowned not just for his ability to inspire excellence in others but also for his pistachio soufflé. Who better to teach me?
In the basement of the Berkeley hotel, home to Koffmann’s eponymous restaurant, I squeezed myself into a corner of a kitchen that hummed with industry. Tall but not intimidating, Koffmann was a surprisingly twinkly presence as his head pastry chef, Sylvain Moreul, got to work on a pistachio soufflé. We watched Moreul beating the pistachio paste, warming it over a bain marie, whisking the egg whites in a mixer, then adding the sugar one tablespoon at a time.
The most common problem with soufflés is beating the egg white either too much or too little. Do this and your soufflé will either fail to rise or collapse prematurely – in the case of over-beating, your egg whites may curdle. The whites must be beaten to an optimum point where coagulation is advanced enough to support the foam but not so advanced that the proteins start to clump and lose volume. Reaching this point and stopping takes practice. Moreul has had plenty: he makes about 40 soufflés a day, and he folds the meringue and pistachio together delicately but swiftly. “It is very important that you do not leave a blob of egg white in the mixture,” says Koffmann, “but you must also be careful not to handle it too much.”
Moreul runs a thumb round the edge of the soufflé to make a circular indent and puts the dish in the oven at 180C, for 12 minutes. A higher temperature (205C) will cook the outside quicker, leaving a creamier centre; drop the temperature to 165C for a more even texture.
“When I was a kid, pistachio was my favourite flavour ice cream,” says Koffmann. “The colour is attractive but nobody was doing pistachio, so from day one, in 1977 [at his former restaurant, La Tante Claire], it was on the menu and it has been there ever since.”
We watch the soufflé rise, its sides showing the grated chocolate lining the ceramic dish. “To coat with chocolate is one of my things. The traditional way is butter and sugar but powdered almond is also good.”
The soufflé comes out of the oven and is taken to the table. A quenelle of pistachio ice cream is dropped into the centre, sliding through the delicate web of egg and sugar. The soufflé is pale green, dusted with gold; the taste is sweet but not sickly, with a delicate nuttiness underneath.
If you like to show off in the kitchen, this would be a wise choice. There is, after all, something a little heavenly about a well-made soufflé.
Jojo Tulloh is the author of ‘The Modern Peasant: Adventures in City Food’, Chatto & Windus
Pistachio soufflé (serves 6)
50g pistachio paste
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
50g caster sugar
40g plain flour
20g butter, softened
50g grated chocolate
6 egg whites
● Preheat the oven to 230C
● In a small heavy pan heat the milk and the pistachio paste to boiling point. In a bowl, beat the whole egg, yolk and half the sugar for 2 minutes, then add the flour and mix for 1 minute. Pour the milk mixture over this and then transfer to a pan and cook for 4 minutes, whisking continuously. Pour the mixture into a bowl, cover, and keep in a warm place.
● Grease the inside of six individual soufflé dishes with the softened butter and coat with grated chocolate.
● Beat the six egg whites very stiffly, add the remaining sugar and beat until firm. Whisk the pistachio mixture for a few seconds, then add a quarter of the egg whites and whisk vigorously. Add half of the remaining egg whites, stirring quickly with the spatula to make sure there are no lumps, then rapidly add the rest of the egg whites. Pour into the soufflé dishes and cook in the preheated oven for 10 minutes.
Taken from ‘Memories of Gascony’ by Pierre Koffmann, published by Mitchell Beazley, £30