Soufflés popped into my mind the other day, and I realised that although a number of soufflé recipes have appeared in this blog in the past (see the list at the end), I have not touched upon their history.
When you think of a soufflé, what, exactly, do you think of? A stand-alone dish made from a thickened sauce or puree, lightened with stiffly-beaten egg whites, served in the container in which it was made, and either sweet or savoury, cooked or frozen? The dish with the reputation (in the case of hot soufflés) of being tricky to make and even trickier to get to the dinner table before it collapses?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a soufflé as ‘a light dish, either sweet or savoury, made by mixing materials with white of egg beaten up to a froth, and heating the mixture in an oven until it puffs up.’ After a brief foray into old cookery books, this seems like a pretty limited definition to me. The lightness of course, is a given – the word soufflé comes from French, and indicates that the dish is ‘puffed up.’ I think we would all agree with that. The egg-whites also seem to be a given, and indeed it is hard to think of an alternative way of providing the puffing up. Or is it? And the culinary fact of frozen soufflés does not enter the OED definition at all.
My brief (OK, I confess, very brief) hunt suggests that a soufflé is a concept rather than a specific dish. And, as instinct tells, the concept seems to be French. When then, did it appear in English cookery books? It seems that it was early in the nineteenth century. The first citation given in the OED is in 1813, the English translation of Louis Eustache Ude’s The French Cook, which features a Soufflé of young Partridges. I would ask you to help find the earliest English usage. So far I have, from The Imperial and Royal Cook, by Frederick Nutt (1809), the following marvellous recipe, which fits the usual image of a soufflé perfectly:
A Soufflé Of Ginger.
Put a pint of milk and cream on to boil; put the peel of two lemons, a little cinnamon, and a lump of sugar, to make it sweet; let it boil for half an hour, and then put it to cool; then put a quarter of a pound of butter into a stewpan (that will hold two quarts), and set it on the fire to melt; when melted, put in as much flour as will dry up the butter; keep stirring it over the fire until it leaves the bottom of the stewpan ; then take it off, and break in ten eggs, one at a time; keep stirring it till the egg is mixed well with the flour and butter; mix all the eggs the same way, until it becomes a thick batter; then put a sufficient quantity of the milk and cream that have been boiled; beat it up well together, (otherwise the eggs would separate in the boiling); and, when mixed, put half a pound of West India preserved ginger, cut in small pieces, a large glass of brandy, and a little nutmeg; butter a savoy cake-mould very thick with butter, not with the hand, but with a pastebrush ; stick dry cherries on the mould; in any manner your fancy directs; put the souffle in, and put the mould into a stewpan that has boiling water that will come better than half way up the mould; cover the stewpan, and put lighted charcoal on the cover; keep it boiling very slow for an hour, or better; take the mould out of the stewpan about ten minutes before it is wanted, by which means the souffle will keep firmer; before it is turned out of the mould run the knife round it, by way of loosening it; pour white wine sauce over it. The wine sauce is made as follows:—put about an ounce of butter into a stewpan; when melted, put about half a table-spoonful of flour; stir it until it is mixed with the butter, then add white wine to it, to make it of the thickness of melted butter; grate a little nutmeg in it, and put about half a glass of brandy in the sauce; pour the sauce over the souffle.
A whole set of soufflé ideas is presented in the 1836 edition of The Art of Cookery, by John Mollard. None of the recipes appear in the 1802 edition. Mollard gives a basic ‘Soufflé of Eggs’, a dish simply named ‘Soufflé’ which is based on rice, with an optional marmalade flavour, a Soufflé of Rice and Apples, and a Soufflé of Fowl. It also includes the following, entirely egg-white free recipe:
Soufflé of Bread or Panade For Sauces.
Boil some cream and milk, and soak the crumb of French rolls in it; when nearly cool, rub it through a hair-sieve.
Other variations on the concept of soufflés in Mollard’s book are:
Soufflé of Toasts.
Pound in a mortar half a pound of the dressed meat of fowls or game, with a quarter of a pound of beef marrow and four yolks of eggs. Fry some toasts in boiling lard, and, when done, spread over them the pounded ingredients together with the whites of three eggs beat to a solid froth, and over this some grated Parmesan cheese and a few fine bread crumbs: set in a moderately heated oven till of a nice colour. On serving, put a good cullis round.
Put into a stewpan six yolks of eggs, four ounces of sifted sugar, six ounces of ratafia cakes broken, the rind of a lemon grated, and a little salt; beat the whites of the eggs to a solid froth, and add to the mixture. Melt lightly in a frying-pan two ounces of fresh butter, put the mixture into it, stir it till congealed, and then, putting it on a plate or dish, set it in an oven till coloured; or, hold a salamander over.
Frozen soufflés may have to wait until another day, but in the meanwhile, as a final demonstration of the soufflé concept, may I point you back in time to a post long ago, on Soufflé Potatoes too?.
Previous Soufflé recipes:
Quotation for the Day.
Enchant, stay beautiful and graceful, but do this, eat well. Bring the same consideration to the preparation of your food as you devote to your appearance. Let your dinner be a poem, like your dress.
Charles Pierre Monselet.