Inside every good cook is the heart and soul of a no-holds-barred showman. Who else would labor over homemade ravioli? Present desserts that took days to make? Stuff tiny squab with Armagnac-soaked prunes?

Then why do some of these same cooks shudder at the thought of making a souffle?

Because cooking a souffle is like jumping off a cliff. Take the leap, and there's no going back. Floppy egg whites--tough luck, your souffle won't rise. Underbake and you'll have a soupy mess. Overbake and a once beautifully majestic souffle will collapse. Get your timing wrong--souffles have no tolerance for late-to-the-table dinner guests--and your souffle will fall.

Recipes sometimes exacerbate the fears of the souffle-phobic. They can make the concoction sound more complicated than it actually is, or they go the other way and leave out the most vital instructions.

Other cookbooks guarantee success with tried-and-true methods, secrets and special tips. But few agree on what that perfect method might be.

Intimidated?

Too bad. The souffle is a simple, inexpensive and much appreciated and admired dish that can be mastered by perfecting three basic techniques: Making a sauce enriched with egg yolks, beating egg whites to firm peaks and folding, the method by which the whites are incorporated into the sauce.

Not one of these techniques is hard to learn. But a fourth element that is absolutely critical in making souffles is not so easily acquired by some: timing. A souffle must be served the minute it comes out of the oven. That isn't impossible, but it does require some advanced planning. The sauce, called the "base," can be made ahead of time. Most souffles can be assembled and set aside for up to 30 minutes before baking. Some can even be refrigerated for a few hours and then baked. (See box on Page F3.)

In fact, while I would not recommend souffles as a project for a beginner, anyone who can make an omelet is ready to move on to souffles. Four or five souffles under your belt and you'll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

If you have everything ready--pan, ingredients, oven--and are using an electric mixer to beat the egg whites, it should take about 15 minutes to assemble the souffle from start to finish. Souffles that feed four to six people generally take 30 to 35 minutes to bake. Individual one-cup ramekins take 15 to 20 minutes.

PICKING AND PREPARING THE PAN

Almost any ovenproof pan can be used. I prefer to use straight-sided dishes because I know the souffle will rise effortlessly and cook evenly. But once you're comfortable, feel free to experiment. Ovenproof tea cups make charming containers for dessert souffles. Fruit bowls can be used for individual main-course souffles.

Whatever container you choose, the dish should be buttered and then dusted with bread crumbs, cheese, sugar or flour. What you dust the pan with depends on the kind of souffle you're making. Fill the prepared pan about three-quarters full with the souffle mixture. Less than that and the finished souffle may not rise above the rim of the dish. Fill the dish too far and the souffle may flow over the rim before it starts to rise up in a crown.

OVENS AND TEMPERATURES

I bake my souffles at 375 degrees. Give the oven plenty of time to get to 375 degrees and then always use an oven thermometer to double-check the temperature. If the temperature is too low, the souffle won't rise properly. If the temperature is too high, the souffle will rise just like a popover with big air pockets inside.

Ideally, bake the souffle in the lower third of the oven. There are plenty of theories about why this position is best. The main reason I found is that the crown is less likely to brown prematurely in the lower part of the oven.

PREPARING THE BASE

Traditional souffle bases are made by combining a thickened sauce with egg yolks. The tricky part is adding the yolks to the hot sauce--there's always the danger a yolk will cook before it's worked into the sauce. To lessen this possibility, transfer the hot sauce to a large clean bowl. Quickly whisk in one yolk, then add each additional yolk separately, whisking to incorporate before adding another.

The base can be prepared ahead of time then covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated. Bring it to room temperature before mixing with the beaten egg whites.

BEATING THE EGG WHITES

Use a clean bowl, clean beaters and egg whites with no trace of yolk. And to keep water from seeping out of the egg whites, add a pinch of cream of tartar.

Beat the whites on medium high. As the whites are beaten, they will start to form glossy waves as the beater moves through them--this is a sure sign they're almost ready. To test, lift the beater up--the whites are ready when they hold a firm peak (see diagram above).

FOLDING IN THE WHITES

First lighten the base mixture: Using a spoon, mix a quarter of the beaten egg whites into the souffle base until thoroughly combined.

Then fold in the rest of the whites: Scrape the remaining beaten egg whites from the mixing bowl. Using a rubber spatula, cut into the middle of the mixture, reaching down to the bottom of the bowl. Then sweep the mixture up from the bottom, out to the sides, then onto the top of the mixture. Rotate the bowl and repeat until just blended. Pour into the prepared pan

WHEN IS IT DONE?

Here's the hard part. Take the souffle out too soon and it will collapse within moments and be too moist inside. Take it out too late and it will collapse in the oven.

Here's a strategy. First let it bake, undisturbed for at least 80 percent of its projected cooking time. Then, for the remainder of the cooking time, watch for the crown of the souffle to become nicely browned. Gently shake the dish; it should not wobble too much. Pray and remove.

SERVING

Do not waste time now. Even the most perfectly cooked souffle will fall eventually--be ready to serve it immediately. Individual souffles should go right on serving plates in their dishes and to the table. Big souffles should be brought to the table. Use a serving spoon and fork and cut right into the center. (The souffle is less likely to fall if you cut into the center rather than cutting around the edges.) Working quickly, spoon the souffle on to the serving plates.

With entree souffles, I like to serve the souffle on a dinner plate with salad. Dessert souffles should served on smaller plates.

HOPE FOR THE BEST, PREPARE FOR THE WORST

Before making souffle for company, try a couple of test runs. After a few trys, you should have it mastered. And in case disaster strikes in front of your guests, have a backup plan.

Fallen dessert souffles are unattractive--I wouldn't serve one to company. Have a quart of ice cream safely stowed in the freezer--serve with whatever garnish or sauce you were planning to use for the souffle.

If it's an entree souffle that's fallen, a little subterfuge can save the meal. Call the souffle a baked omelette, flan, strata, custard--whatever fits the crowd and the occasion. Serve it from the kitchen and don't tell anybody what it was supposed to be.

PREPARING SOUFFLES IN ADVANCE

Though all souffles have to be baked right before serving, they don't all have to be assembled at the last minute. Most can sit for up to 30 minutes before baking. Others can even be prepared hours in advance. The key is in the ingredients. The lighter the base mixture, the longer it will hold.

The most flexible mixtures are those made for light dessert souffles like lemon, lime and raspberry. They can easily be refrigerated for two to three hours.

Souffles made with heavier ingredients should be baked as soon as possible. Cheese souffles are particularly vulnerable to disaster. If assembled too early, the cheese will settle to the bottom of the baking dish and the fluffly egg white mixture to the top. In the oven, the souffle will form an especially high crown. When removed from the oven, the crown collapses, and underneath it you will find a flat, heavy, eggy layer of cheese.

THE CHOCOLATE SOUFLLE CHALLENGE

A chocolate souffle may be the highlight of a special restaurant memory but before you try to make one at home, one word of caution: Chocolate souffles have their own set of rules. I consider them advanced souffle-making. Melted chocolate makes the base heavy and requires different handling.

For instance, most chocolate souffles can't be mixed and held for any length of time before baking. The chocolate may separate from the egg white and the meringue will deflate. Pastry chefs get around this by making a cooked meringue mixture--called an Italian meringue--which is very firm and durable.

It's best to stick to the basic cheese or simple dessert version until you are very confident. Then, you will be ready to follow the instructions in whichever recipe you choose.

Cheese Souffle

(4 servings)

For a classic souffle recipe, I went right to the master--Julia Child. I adapted this recipe from her book "The Way to Cook" (Knopf, 1989).

2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese

2 1/2 tablespoons butter, plus additional for the pan

3 tablespoons flour

1 cup hot milk

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Nutmeg to taste

1/2 teaspoon salt

Pepper to taste, preferably white pepper

4 egg yolks

5 egg whites

Pinch cream of tartar

1 cup (3 1/2 ounces) coarsely grated Swiss cheese

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven. Then preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 6- to 8-cup baking dish (at least 3 inches deep). Dust the bottom and sides of the dish with the Parmesan cheese. Set aside.

In a saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and whisk together to blend. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the hot milk. Whisk until thoroughly blended. Return to the heat and bring to a slow boil and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 3 minutes. The sauce will be very thick. Remove from the heat and whisk in the paprika, nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Quickly, transfer the sauce to a large bowl. Whisk in the egg yolks 1 at a time. Set aside.

In a standing mixer or using a hand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until the mixture becomes glossy and holds a firm peak when the beater is lifted.

Add 1/4 of the egg whites to the sauce. Mix with a wooden spoon until well blended. Scrape the remaining beaten egg whites on top. Using a rubber spatula, cut into the middle of the mixture, reaching down to the bottom of the bowl. Then sweep the mixture up from the bottom, out to the sides, then onto the top of the mixture. As you're folding in the egg whites, add the some of the coarsely grated Swiss cheese. Rotate the bowl and continue to fold and add the Swiss cheese until the mixture is just blended and all the cheese has been added.

Pour the mixture into the prepared mold. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the souffle has puffed up and the top of the crown is nicely browned. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 311 calories, 18 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 22 gm fat, 266 mg cholesterol, 12 gm saturated fat, 508 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Spoon Bread Souffle

(6 servings)

Loe Sibert Pappas has a recipe for Southern spoon bread souffle in her new book "Omelettes, Souffles & Frittatas" (Chronicle Books, $14.95). I tinkered with the recipe and the result is perfect for brunch or a really big breakfast.

This souffle is well suited for a beginner because even if it falls, it's still delicious.

Flour for dusting the pan

1 1/2 cups milk

3/4 cup cornmeal

2 tablespoons sugar

Salt to taste

Hot red pepper sauce, such as Tabasco, to taste

3 tablespoons softened butter, plus additional for the pan

4 egg yolks

5 egg whites

Pinch cream of tartar

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven. Then preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 6- to 8-cup baking dish (at least 3 inches deep). Dust the bottom and sides of the dish with flour. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat the milk just until it starts to boil, then gradually stir in the cornmeal. The mixture should thicken immediately. If it has not thickened, reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring, until it does.

Remove from the heat, transfer to a large clean bowl, and stir in the sugar, salt, hot sauce and softened butter. The mixture will be very thick. Quickly whisk in the egg yolks 1 at a time. Set aside.

In a standing mixer or using a hand mixer with the whisk attachment, combine the egg whites and cream of tartar; beat until the egg whites become glossy and hold a firm peak when the beater is lifted.

Add 1/4 of the egg whites to the sauce. Mix with a wooden spoon until well blended. Scrape the remaining beaten egg whites on top. Using a rubber spatula, cut into the middle of the mixture, reaching down to the bottom of the bowl. Then sweep the mixture up from the bottom, out to the sides, then onto the top of the mixture. Rotate the bowl and repeat until just blended.

Pour the mixture into the prepared mold. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the souffle has puffed up and the top of the crown is nicely browned. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 223 calories, 8 gm protein, 21 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 166 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 120 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Orange Souffle

(8 servings)

There's a great tip buried in this recipe adapted from "The Way To Cook" by Julia Child (Knopf, 1989). Instead of just adding orange peel to the mixture, the recipe has you process the zest with the sugar in a food processor or blender. This produces a fragrant orange sugar mixture. Make extra and serve it with tea or sprinkle over fruit.

1/3 cup sugar, plus additional for the pan

Zest of 1 orange

3 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup milk

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons softened butter, plus additional for the pan

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier

5 egg whites

Pinch salt

Pinch cream of tartar

2 tablespoons sugar

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven. Then preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 6- to 8-cup baking dish (at least 3 inches deep). Dust the bottom and sides of the dish with sugar. Set aside.

In a food processor or blender, process the sugar and orange zest until well combined. Set aside.

In a saucepan, whisk the flour and 1/2 of the milk together, then add the remaining milk and the orange-sugar mixture. Mix to blend. Cook over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sauce thickens. When the sauce comes to a boil, switch to a whisk and continue whisking and boiling for 30 seconds.

Remove from the heat and transfer the sauce to a large bowl. Quickly whisk in the egg yolks 1 at a time. Beat in the butter, then add the vanilla and orange liqueur and stir to combine. Set aside.

In a standing mixer or using a hand mixer with the whisk attachment, combine the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar. Beat until the egg whites hold a soft peak. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the sugar and continue beating until the whites become glossy and hold a firm peak when the beater is lifted.

Add 1/4 of the egg white mixture to the sauce. Mix with a wooden spoon until well blended. Scrape the remaining beaten egg whites on top. Using a rubber spatula, cut into the middle of the mixture, reaching down to the bottom of the bowl. Then sweep the mixture up from the bottom, out to the sides, then onto the top of the mixture. Rotate the bowl and repeat until just blended.

Pour the mixture into the prepared mold. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the souffle has puffed up and the top of the crown is nicely browned. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 147 calories, 4 gm protein, 16 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 116 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 42 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

CAPTION: SOUFFLE SURVIVAL TIPS

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