Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Nineteen: Mousses and Soufflés


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

Mousses and Soufflés are the stuff of romance, and the metaphor is actually appropriate. Romance, after all, is normally sugar and air. These things use air as a vital ingredient, trapping it in a matrix of cream or eggwhites or batter -- a foam, essentially.

Both of these concoctions use a base that is basically a sauce, which contain the flavorings. The order in which these are put together is important, so that things like chocolate -- very high in fat -- do not seize up and form choco-bits instead of a smooth mixture. Once the base is made and set, it can sit for a while (held at the right temperature, of course) before the "foamy" part is carefully folded in and either chilled or baked.

In the case of a soufflé, the base is a béchamel, made with a beurre manié, which is a paste of equal weights of flour and softened butter. You heat milk, which can be infused with a flavoring, then take a bit of the beurre manié on the end of a whisk, and whisk that into the hot milk till smooth. The reason you do this instead of making a roux as for usual in making a béchamel, is that you want the base to be neutral and remain white. You have to carefully cook the floury taste out of the mixture, but in general, it doesn't get a chance to brown this way. If you do opt for a roux method, be careful to keep it white.

From here, you add egg yolks and the flavorings; in the case of cheese soufflé, add very finely grated cheese. A note, be sure you don't add too much cheese, as it changes the ratio of fat to eggs. The egg is what will give the "lift" to the concoction, so you don't want to overdo it. A dry cheese has different properties from a moister, fattier cheese. This is why mixtures of cheeses can work well, as long as they are of different types. Make sure the base is smooth -- any lumps will overwork the leavening agent, which is egg whites. For a chocolate soufflé, use dry cocoa powder, to keep the fat content controlled more easily. For sweet flavorings, add liqueurs or extracts. Do NOT add pieces, since these cannot be lofted by the batter and will prevent the whole thing from rising to its full potential, or at all.

Prepare the ramekins: buttering with softened butter, then coating with sugar for a sweet souffle, or flour for a savory one. Be sure to tap out any excess. You do this so that the soufflé has something to "grab" onto so it can rise up high in a manner that doesn't cause the batter to stick to the sides. Think of the flour or sugar as "ball bearings" for the rise.

Beat the eggwhites till they are not quite stiff. You don't want the whites to go all grainy, which is what happens when you overbeat. In general, if the whites get a bit gray in color and liquid oozes out of it, there is no recovery. Dump them out and start again. Oh, remember that eggs, bowl, whisk, etc. should be at room temperature, unlike cream, where everything should be cold. Fold about a third of the whipped whites into the base to "temper" the base (so the densities of the two mixtures is not too different), then fold them together. Pour carefully into the prepared ramekins and place on a sheet pan to put into the oven (much easier to remove later, I swear!).

In about 10 minutes, the air trapped in the whites will have expanded on heating, causing the batter to balloon up. The effect is spectacular, texture is light, and it's very impressive. The only caveat is that your guests MUST be ready for the soufflés, as they will collapse within a couple of minutes when the air in the foam cools down and contracts. Use a spoon!

As for the chocolate mousses, there are two different treatments, depending on whether or not you use eggyolks, or white or dark chocolate. For the dark chocolate, the chocolate is melted in a bowl over simmering water while you prepare whipped cream. When soft peaks are formed, add sugar and set aside over an ice bath. Whip the eggwhites as for the soufflé, then drizzle the melted dark chocolate over whites and fold in, using a rubber scraper. Be sure to scrape down to the bottom of the bowl so you don't end up with puddles of chocolate. You have to do it in this order -- adding melted chocolate to the whipped cream will cause it to seize up, so you "temper" it in a way by folding it with the eggwhites first, thereby reducing its density (fat). Once folded into the whites, fold in the whipped cream. You can put these into a serving bowl or bowls, then cover with plasticwrap and chill till set, at least an hour.

For white chocolate mousse, beat the cream till just before it tightens, and set aside over ice. Heat some more cream to a simmer, and chop the white chocolates very fine -- you can even grate it. Set aside, then blanchir the eggyolks and sugar. Temper this with a bit of the warm cream, the pour it into the pot the cream was heating in, and cook with a lot of stirring. You are making a custard here, so don't allow it to get too hot or too still or the yolks will curdle. When the sauce thickens to nappant, pour it through a chinois right into a bowl with the chopped/grated white chocolate and let it sit WITHOUT STIRRING for a minute. The white chocolate needs to assimilate the heat before stirring. After the white chocolate has softened, stir the mixture together till the chocolate has melted completely. Fold in the whipped cream, then put into serving bowl(s) and chill till set. This will take longer than for the dark chocolate mousse, due to the higher fat content.

I took the mousses to work the next day and people were frightened at the decadence -- this is a dessert that costs big bucks in restaurants, and if one were made for you by a loved one ... well, who could resist ... anything? I even took the leftover fallen soufflés home, and they were eggy but very nice as a sort of fluffy cake. Don't use the word soufflé to describe them if they fall (which means "blown up," by the way) -- call it "cooked pudding" or something more elegant like "élffous" and you'll be a genius in their eyes! Hey, it worked for me!

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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