A soufflé sums up French cuisine, a bravura display of timing and skill. When you follow the rules, with just a few minutes' work the soufflé puffs in the oven to impressive heights, perhaps doubling its original volume. It's all a matter of folding whisked egg whites into a basic flavoring mixture: Cheese is a favorite flavoring for savory soufflés but fish and shellfish, especially chopped cooked shrimp or lobster (a treat!) are delicious too. Poultry possibilities include chicken, turkey, and best of all, game such as pheasant. Note that all these basic ingredients must be already cooked—a favorite way in France to use up leftovers.
Sweet soufflés are more limited but make a spectacular finale to a grand dinner, with chocolate, Grand Marnier, raspberry, and banana the hot favorites. For all soufflés, vivid seasoning is important so that the basic mixture balances the blandness of egg whites—think herbs, garlic, anchovy, mustard, Tabasco, Worcestershire and soy sauce, with lemon juice, rum, kirsch and liqueurs for a sweet soufflé.
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There's only one serious secret to the perfect soufflé and that is careful whisking of the egg whites so they keep their volume and puff to a maximum in the oven. The whites should be at room temperature and you can reckon at least one and a half per person. When whisked and folded into the flavoring mixture, this will fill a one-cup ramekin. For a one-quart soufflé dish you will need six egg whites.
Whether you are whisking by hand or with the whisk attachment on the electric mixer, start whisking slowly to a generous froth, adding a small pinch of salt to the whites to break them up. Gradually increase speed as the volume of whites grows, until at full speed they tighten to a dense foam that forms a short peak when the whisk is lifted. (Do not over-whisk as the foam will separate and curdle.)
When folding the whisked egg whites into the basic mixture, first stir a generous spoonful of whites into the mixture. Return this into the remaining whites and fold, cutting across the center and under the mixture with a rubber spatula, revolving the bowl with your other hand in the opposite direction. Continue just until the soufflé mixture is smooth.
That's it. A perfectly mixed soufflé will rise in any oven, hot or medium, it can even wait around for 15 minutes before baking. Call the guests and get them seated—French guests will understand the urgency at once. Once risen, you must rush a soufflé to the table; it will not wait.