On Wednesday, after a long day at work, I got home and remembered that I hadn’t gone to the grocery. In a week. And we had no dinner plan. And everyone was hungry.
So I made cheese soufflé.
If you know me, or if you’ve been here for a while, then you know that cheese soufflé was standard fare in my growing-up kitchen. You know that I learned to make it (and, in general, to cook) by watching my mother, who learned to cook by watching her mother but also by watching Julia Child on TV. And you know that precise recipes are not what my mother was about, and that she passed that gift to me.
So, Wednesday night, I made what we call “the usual.” And when I shared the news of making “the usual,” someone asked me for the recipe. And although I’ve shared the recipe before, in other posts, I realized I did not have an easy way to find it.
Today my mother’s cheese soufflé gets its own spotlight, with its own title and everything, mostly so I can find it easily when I need it, but also mostly because cooking and sharing are acts of love, too, and it’s the cooking and sharing and loving time of year.
No, this would not meet any standard in any professional cooking school (which is why I did not use any cooking school words like roux or Mornay in the instructions). Cooking is love, not performance, and love requires grace and acceptance. Also, I promise this works, every time, if you’ll just be loose and relaxed about it.
Jennifer’s Mother’s Cheese soufflé
(as so-named by a dear friend)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees before you do another thing. This is the most important step.
Butter (not quite half a stick)
Flour (a scant quarter cup) (my mother sprinkled it in straight from the bag)
Milk (about a cup and a half) (technically it should be warm/hot) (but I never have time for that) (Also: love yourself enough to use whole milk) (and P.S. my mother just poured straight from the jug into the saucepan, so the measurement is more art than science)
Cheese (4-6 ounces, grated) (Gruyere is traditional, but any cheese will work) (except reduced fat/no-fat cheese, which should not even be a thing)
Eggs (4-6, separated, and preferably at room temperature, though I almost never have enough time for that to happen) (“almost never” means “never”)
Salt and other seasoning (nutmeg is traditional, but I never use it because my mother hated nutmeg; she used a dash each of Worcestershire and cayenne, and that’s what I use) (if I have it) (and if I remember)
Double check that you turned on the oven, because that is a non-negotiable first step.
Butter a soufflé dish and, if you have some on hand, coat the buttered dish with grated Parmesan. Be generous with the butter.
Make a white sauce: Melt butter (a good hunk – about 3 Tablespoons); stir in flour (a scant 1/4 cup) and whisk to make a paste; while whisking the paste, pour in the milk and whisk-whisk-whisk to get rid of lumps (this is the hardest part of the entire recipe). Keep cooking until the sauce thickens a bit.
(Note: I have inadvertently browned the butter, overcooked the roux, used cold milk, used hot milk, used salted butter, used unsalted butter, used half-and-half because we were out of milk, etc. You name it, I’ve done it. And every single time things turned out fine. Keep going.)
Turn the white sauce into cheese sauce: Turn off the burner and stir in 4-6 ounces cheese, grated (or cubed, if you get to this point and forgot to grate the cheese ahead of time) (again, Gruyere is the standard; I use whatever we have, which is often just cheddar). Stir until the cheese melts. If you need to put the pan back on the burner to get the cheese melted, that’s fine; just make sure to use low heat.
Season the sauce to taste. Do not skip this step. Add salt and seasoning (again, my go-to additions are Worcestershire and cayenne, but you do you), and then taste. If you are tempted to stand there and eat the entire saucepan full of sauce, then you’re ready to move to the next step.
Separate the eggs, if you didn’t already. If you are in a hurry and get a bit of yolk in the whites, DO NOT FRET. It will be fine. Also: you can make it work with 4 eggs, if that’s all you have on hand because you forgot to go to the store. If you are feeling generous, or unsure you’ll have enough food, use 6 eggs.
Beat the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry.
Add yolks to the sauce: Stir a couple of spoonfuls of the cheese sauce into the yolks to warm them up (I know, this is a prissy-sounding step, but it really does matter), then add warmed yolks into sauce and whisk well.
Add half of the whites to the cheese sauce and mix well.
Fold in the other half of the whites (you’ll see egg white showing), then transfer to prepared soufflé dish. (Note: If you did not prepare the dish, don’t freak out. Things will go better if you butter the dish, and even better if you butter and then coat with grated Parmesan. But, again, be gentle with yourself.)
Put the dish in the oven and, if you remember, reduce heat a little to 375/380 degrees. Cook for about 30 minutes, until the middle isn’t too jiggly but also isn’t too stiff.
While the soufflé is baking, make a salad, and/or have a glass of wine, and/or help with math homework, and/or catch up on Words with Friends, and/or pay the utility bill. Or just sit in a comfy chair and stare out the window for a few minutes, thinking about the birds and the sky. (Also: ask someone else to set the table while you and your soufflé are doing your thing.) (Do not check your work email.)
In about 30 minutes your soufflé will emerge looking puffed-up and glorious, and you will be very pleased with yourself.
Then, within seconds, your soufflé will deflate, and you may feel momentarily sad because you’ve imagined presenting this puffy, glorious creation to the people you love (and want to impress), and instead you’re stuck with something that looks rather saggy by the time it finally gets to the table.
But your saggy self is marvelous, and so is your saggy soufflé.
Say grace (meaning, give yourself some) and enjoy your meal.
And that’s Jennifer’s mother’s cheese soufflé.
If you made it this far, here’s your bonus, with thanks and a nod to the poet-priest-mama friend who always brings me joy and recently brought me Joy:
by Joy Harjo