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No need to stress over souffles

There’s a whole lot of hype surrounding souffles. For starters, people think they’re hard to make. But they aren’t.

Then there’s that whole element of mystique, starting with “Ooh, they’re SO temperamental.” But frankly, I’ve seen crankier omelets, so let’s not overreact.

Maybe what some cooks find so daunting is the souffle’s high glamor rating. But unlike super models, the only special handling requirements for dynamic souffles are room-temperature eggs, the right shaped baking dish, and a light touch. Of course, because a poofy, lighter-than-a-cloud souffle waits for no person, you do have to have orchestrate the timing factor. From oven to table, you’ve got mere moments before the whole thing implodes.

But even if it does flop by some freak act of nature — such as tardy guests or your 10-year-old slam-dunking his way through the kitchen — simply call it egg pudding and serve it with a smile.

However, it's unlikely you'll have to deal with failure if you understand the basics of souffle making and execute the steps with care. This lighter-than-air meal is nothing more than a combination of a panada (a type of white sauce), a main flavor ingredient (such as broccoli and cheese), and beaten egg whites.

The first step is to have a souffle dish properly prepared and waiting in the wings. For main-course souffles, oil a 1 1/2 quart dish and coat with a mixture of grated Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Make a collar with a piece of waxed or parchment paper that is long enough to encircle the dish. Fold it in half lengthwise, then butter and crumb the upper half of the waxed paper. Wrap the paper around the dish, making sure the coated part extends above the rim. Now fasten the collar securely with a piece of string wrapped around the circumference of the dish.

With that done, you're ready to prepare the souffle. First you make a cream sauce and add whatever filling is desired. The eggs are separated and the yolks combined with this sauce. The whites, after they reach room temperature (they beat higher at room temperature), are beaten with cream of tartar and a dash of salt until the peaks are smooth and shiny — but not quite stiff and dry as for meringue.

During baking, the bubbles will expand, giving the souffle its loft. At the same time, heat is denaturing the heat-sensitive proteins within the egg white surrounding the pockets of air. That cements the whole precarious structure together long enough for all the "ooh's" and "aah's" at the table. For a longer-lasting loft, a souffle-expert who prepared them for food photography taught me to add about 1 tablespoon of sour cream to the panada mixture. She explained that the extra acid helps to stabilize the entire souffle.

Once the beaten egg whites have been carefully folded into the panada, simply spoon the mixture into the prepared dish with a large serving spoon. (Hint to overachievers: it’s better to leave an occasional white spot of unmixed egg whites to avoid over-folding the mixture, which will break down some of the bubbles.) Within 25 to 35 minutes after the souffle has been in the oven, the top should be a golden brown. This is the time to test for doneness. A gentle jiggle of the oven rack will do. A cooked souffle will move slightly, whereas an underdone souffle will still be quite lively.

Since the "poofy" part of a souffle is so short-lived once it hits the cooler atmosphere — even with the extra bit of sour cream — for maximum mileage, have everyone gathered around the dining table before you take it out.

Oh, and one last thing: Even though a cooked souffle won't freeze, you can assemble and freeze one before baking. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and then set it on a flat surface in the freezer. After it’s frozen, you can cover for long-term storage. Once you are ready to cook the frozen souffle, let it stand for 30 minutes at room temperature, then bake at the usual temperature — but for about double the time.

SPINACH SOUFFLE

Makes 6 servings

Butter or cooking spray

Grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup blanched spinach (water squeezed out; frozen chopped spinach, thawed, is fine, just be sure and squeeze the moisture out)

3/4 cup chopped onion

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons flour

1 cup hot light cream

3 egg yolks

1 tablespoon sour cream

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

5 egg whites at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Butter bottom and sides of a 2- to 2 1/2-quart souffle dish or straight-sided casserole. Dust with the Parmesan cheese. Make 4-inch wide band of triple-thickness aluminum foil long enough to go around dish and overlap 2 inches. Lightly butter 1 side of band and dust with Parmesan. Wrap around outside of dish, dusted side in, and fasten with tape, paper clips or string. The collar should stand at least 2 inches above rim of dish. Set aside.

Saute the spinach with the onion and olive oil in a saute pan until the onion is transparent; remove from heat and set aside.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then whisk in the flour and cook slowly, for about 2 minutes without browning. Remove pan from heat, stir in the light cream, and combine well. When the mixture is smooth, return the pan to the heat and cook for about 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir a portion of the sauce into the egg yolks, then return the yolk mixture to the pan; add the spinach mixture, sour cream, and salt and pepper (to taste), and nutmeg.

Cool the creamy spinach mixture.

Beat egg whites with cream of tartar until stiff but not dry. Gently fold the egg whites into the spinach mixture. Gently pour/spoon the mixture into the prepared souffle dish. For a “top hat,” hold spoon upright and circle mixture to make ring about 1 inch from side of dish and 1 inch deep. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven. Immediately turn the oven down to 375 degrees and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until done. Quickly, but gently, remove collar. Serve immediately.

SHRIMP SOUFFLE

Makes 6 servings

Butter or cooking spray

Grated Parmesan cheese

1/3 cup butter

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon dry mustard

3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 1/2 cups milk

6 eggs, separated

3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

8 ounces cooked Pacific shrimp (either fresh or frozen/thawed)

1/2 cup chopped green onions (white and pale green portions)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Butter bottom and sides of a 2- to 2 1/2-quart souffle dish or straight-sided casserole. Dust with the Parmesan cheese. Make 4-inch wide band of triple-thickness aluminum foil long enough to go around dish and overlap 2 inches. Lightly butter 1 side of band and dust with Parmesan. Wrap around outside of dish, dusted side in, and fasten with tape, paper clips or string. The collar should stand at least 2 inches above rim of dish. Set aside.

In medium saucepan over medium-high heat, melt butter. Whisk in flour, mustard and salt (if desired). Cook, whisking constantly, until smooth and bubbly. Whisk in the milk and continue to whisk until mixture boils and is smooth and thickened. Set aside.

In large very clean mixing bowl, beat egg whites with cream of tarter at high speed until stiff but not dry, just until whites no longer slip when bowl is tilted. Set aside.

Whisk egg yolks into reserved sauce until thoroughly blended. Stir in sour cream, shrimp, onions and lemon juice. Gently, but thoroughly, fold yolk mixture into whites. Carefully pour into prepared dish.

For a “top hat,” hold spoon upright and circle mixture to make ring about 1 inch from side of dish and 1 inch deep. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven until puffy, delicately browned and souffle shakes slightly when oven rack is moved gently back and forth, about 50 to 60 minutes. Quickly, but gently, remove collar. Serve immediately.

— Adapted from a recipe provided by The American Egg Board.

CHEESE AND ONION SOUFFLE

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Butter or cooking spray

Grated Parmesan cheese

4 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 1/4 cups light cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

1/2 cup shredded Swiss or Gruyere cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons sour cream

2 tablespoons dry sherry

4 lightly beaten egg yolks

1/2 cup finely chopped green onion

5 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt

Additional Parmesan cheese

Butter bottom and sides of a 2- to 2 1/2-quart souffle dish or straight-sided casserole. Dust with the Parmesan cheese. Make 4-inch wide band of triple-thickness aluminum foil long enough to go around dish and overlap 2 inches. Lightly butter 1 side of band and dust with Parmesan. Wrap around outside of dish, dusted side in, and fasten with tape, paper clips or string. The collar should stand at least 2 inches above rim of dish. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then whisk in the flour and cook slowly, for about 2 minutes without browning. Remove pan from heat, stir in the light cream, salt and pepper, mixing well. When the mixture is smooth, return the pan to the heat and cook for about 4 minutes, until thickened. Remove from heat. Whisk in the mustard, cheeses, sour cream and sherry. Stir a portion of the sauce into the egg yolks, then stir the yolks back into the sauce. Stir constantly for 1 minute over low heat; remove from heat and stir in the chopped green onion.

Beat egg whites with cream of tartar and the salt until stiff but not dry. Gently fold the egg whites into the cream mixture. Gently pour/spoon the mixture into the prepared souffle dish with foil collar (as described above). For a “top hat,” hold spoon upright and circle mixture to make ring about 1 inch from side of dish and 1 inch deep. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven. Immediately turn the oven down to 375 degrees and bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until done. Quickly, but gently, remove collar. Serve immediately.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit," and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.