Contrary to what the year-round egg supply at supermarkets might lead us to believe, eggs do have a season. Hens begin to lay eggs upon the arrival of spring's sun-filled days, after a natural rest during the cooler, darker winter months. (Industrial production gets around this pause by using artificial lighting and heating.) One of my favorite ways to prepare these first spring eggs is to bake them in a puffed up soufflé. As magnificent as soufflé can be, the stature of the dish (or the suspense of its collapse) can conjure fear in even the most experienced cooks. However, soufflés truly aren't all that difficult to make. The basic recipe calls for just four ingredients: eggs, milk, butter, and flour. You can whip up a soufflé in no time, adding in cheeses, vegetables, or even leftovers. Your dinner guests will be wowed. (And we won't tell them what a snap it was to make!)
Understanding the components of an egg is an important step towards mastering the soufflé. The egg's outermost layer, a calcium carbonate-rich shell, protects the precious contents within but has no effect on taste. Most eggshells range in color from pearl white to russet brown, but some hens lay blue, green, or pink eggs. Generally, the color of the feathers inside a hen's earlobe indicates the color of the eggs that she will lay. If a hen has white feathers, she will lay white eggs. If her earlobe feathers are red, expect to find brown eggs. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Araucana hens, native to Chile, have red earlobe feathers but they lay sea foam green eggs.
The color of an egg yolk, however, is determined by the hen's diet. Plant pigments called xanthophylls, present in leafy greens and alfalfa feeds as well as marigold petals, impart a deep amber color. The yolk stores the entirety of an egg's fat content and, along with it, all of the fat-soluble nutrients, including retinol and vitamin K. The egg white contains slightly more than half of an egg's protein, which allows the sticky liquid to be aerated into reinforced foam. To create an elevated soufflé, those lofty egg whites must be put to work.
First, separate the whites from the yolks. Any trace of yolk will interfere with the creation of light, stable foam. I find that the best way to ensure yolk-free egg whites is cracking the eggshell on a flat surface (cracking the egg on a corner creates piercing shards), using my fingers as a sieve to catch the yolk, and letting the white drip through into a bowl. Next, mix the yolks into a thickened milk sauce and add any desirable ingredients such as cheeses, puréed vegetables, or even sweet things for a dessert soufflé. Whisk the whites until they glisten and stand up stiffly. Finally, combine the yolk mixture and the whipped whites without knocking out the air. To do this, use a spatula to gently scrape along the bottom of the bowl, lifting up at the end of the stroke so that what was on the bottom is now on the top. Repeat until the mixture becomes nearly uniform. All that's left to do is bake and admire your work!
Herb and Ricotta Cheese Soufflé
These small soufflés make a lovely, light dinner when paired with green salad. If you are cooking for more than two people, you can easily double the recipe and use a larger baking dish, filling it no more than ¾ full. Try using grated Gruyère cheese in place of the ricotta, or adding two tablespoons of caramelized onions. Soufflés will naturally deflate once they are taken out of the oven (it's part of their mystique) so be sure to serve them straight away.
1 teaspoon and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon finely grated Parmigiano cheese
2 eggs plus 1 egg white
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons finely sliced fresh herbs (basil, thyme, chervil, or anything else you like)
2 ounces ricotta cheese
1 ½ teaspoon lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 400°F. Adjust the oven rack to the lowest position and place a baking sheet on it.
Using upward strokes, rub 1 teaspoon butter along the inside surfaces of two 1 ½-cup ramekins. Sprinkle an even layer of Parmigiano inside the ramekins. Place prepared ramekins into the freezer.
Separate the egg yolks and the egg whites into two small bowls.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming, add the flour and whisk to combine. Continue whisking and cooking for 1 minute until the raw flour taste is gone. Reduce the heat to low and slowly whisk in the milk. Cook until the mixture thickens, about 1 minute longer, and then remove the pan from the heat. Stir in ½ teaspoon salt, several grinds of black pepper, and the herbs. Whisk in the egg yolks and the ricotta. Set the yolk mixture aside.
In a very clean metal or glass bowl, whip the lemon juice and egg whites by hand or with an electric mixer on medium-low. The whites are done whipping when they turn snow white and just begin to glisten. If you lift the whisk from the egg whites, they should hold proud peaks. Be careful not to over-beat the egg whites; if they become grainy, it's best to start over.
Using a flexible spatula, gently fold ¼ of the egg whites into the yolk mixture. Add another ¼ of the egg whites, taking care not to deflate them. Add the remaining quarters in no more than 5 gentle folds. Divide the combined mixture between the prepared ramekins. (At this point, you can refrigerate the soufflés for up to four hours, but allow them to warm to room temperature before baking.)
Place the soufflés into the oven and bake them for 30 minutes, until they puff up and turn golden brown on top. (Resist the urge to open the oven door during this baking time because you wouldn't want the oven's interior temperature to drop dramatically--that would spook your soufflés.) Serve promptly.