Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Valentine’s Day dilemma: Sonnet or soufflé

I’ve been meaning to write about soufflés for a while now, and it occurred to me that Valentine’s Day might be an opportune time to do so.

A soufflé is the culinary equivalent of a love poem. It’s vaporous. It’s enchanting. It’s far too insubstantial to sustain a relationship, but it can get one off to the right start.

Finally, like poetry, soufflés have the potential to be fairly wretched. But — fortunately or unfortunately — a great soufflé is significantly easier to pull off than an equivalent sonnet.

I’m not sure why soufflés have the reputation of being difficult. Even before I knew what a soufflé was, I knew that a loud noise could cause it to collapse in the oven.

Where did this idea come from? In my subsequent kitchen experience, I’ve never seen this happen.

On the contrary, I’ve found soufflés to be surprisingly resilient, quite able to withstand the casual opening and closing of the oven door, let alone the clatter of dropped pots.

It’s true that a cooked soufflé retains its full volume for just a few minutes after leaving the oven, then rather quickly deflates.

But you know what? A deflated soufflé is still pretty attractive. And, so long as it’s warm, it tastes just the same.

Soufflés can be sweet or savory. For my wedding, a friend and I made 10 dozen individual goat cheese soufflés--the most time-consuming part of the menu, and far and away its biggest success.

The interesting thing is that we baked the soufflés the day before, refrigerated them, then reheated them in time for dinner. So much for soufflés being temperamental.

When I’m feeling particularly amorous (or guilty), I’ll make my husband chocolate soufflés for those times when I’m out of town. These exceptional inventions can be prepared in advance and frozen, then popped directly into a hot oven to bake.

You can find the recipe for them in The Best Recipe (Boston Common Press, 1999), a terrific compendium put out by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.

But if you’re new to the genre, a basic cheese soufflé may be the best introduction. I still make this frequently as a weeknight dinner.

A soufflé is basically beaten egg whites folded into a thicker base, which for savory soufflés is frequently a béchamel, or white sauce.

First, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Butter a two-quart soufflé dish, or, if you prefer, a shallow gratin dish (which will yield more of the delectable crust).

If you have a good Parmesan cheese on hand, grate it finely and dust the dish with it, but don’t sabotage your soufflé by using the granulated stuff.

Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, then whisk in 3 tablespoons of flour. Stir over medium-low heat for three or four minutes, then whisk in a cup of hot milk.

Raise the heat a bit and stir continuously until the sauce thickens, five minutes or a little longer. Stir in a half teaspoon of salt and remove from the heat.

Grate a cup of good cheese (I’m partial to aged Cheddar). Separate six eggs, placing the whites in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, and the yolks in a smaller bowl or cup. If you want an extra-fluffy soufflé, separate two additional eggs and add their whites to the others. Throw away the yolks, or save them for another use.

The sauce should have cooled a little by now. Beat in the egg yolks, one or two at a time, then stir in the grated cheese.

Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry (they should hold their shape nicely, but still look a little wet). Stir a quarter of the whites into the sauce to lighten it, then quickly but carefully fold in the rest.

Transfer this mixture to your baking dish, smoothing the top with a spatula. If you have paprika on hand, dust it generously over the top. Put the dish in the oven.

The soufflé will be done in around 45 minutes, when the top is a deep golden brown and has puffed high above the rim of the dish. It will look sturdy: not exactly stiff, but not wobbly, either.

If the soufflé is part of a Valentine’s date, pair it with the movie “Sabrina,” with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. This is not only a classic romantic comedy, it’s a classic soufflé movie, too--and if your soufflé turns out like Sabrina’s, well, you’ll know you’re in good company.