People are always, always, always impressed by soufflés. Where can these light dishes, called zephyrs in Regency England, have acquired their reputation for difficulty? There are only two things to watch out for. First, you must separate the eggs in such a way that the whites contain not one whit of yolk. Second, you must take care not to decompress the egg whites while folding in the sauce. Neither of these steps is half so tricky as thickening a custard over heat. But we will address them with care.

Separating Eggs

Everybody who has seen The Hours has been thrilled by Meryl Streep's acrobatic way with eggs. I have never observed this method in person, but I do know people who confidently separate eggs communally, cracking each egg open atop a bowl of unsullied whites, a practice that obliges me to leave the room. Mine is certainly not the charmed life that such people seem to take for granted.

The one thing to know about egg whites is that they will not stiffen if there is so much as a molecule of egg yolk amongst them.

As a rule, you will be separating eggs in order to cook the yolks and to whip the whites. If you are making Hollandaise, and don't need egg whites at all, you may simply pour the contents of the cracking vessel into a bottle for storage and later use.

To separate eggs for a recipe involving beaten whites, get out the bowl in which you're going to do the beating, and find a mug or a teacup with a moderately sharp edge. You will be cracking each egg on this rim, and immediately shifting the half in each hand so that each half is like a cup, with the rounded end pointing toward the counter. The yolk will be in one of these halves; if it has broken, discard the egg, and if any of the egg has touched the interior of the mug, clean the mug out as well, or, better still, get another mug. You may want to practice doing this until you can assuredly break eggs without breaking yolks. The price of two dozen eggs will be worth the lesson, and if you expect to take that long to pick up the knack, you can always plan to make omelettes.

Crack each egg over the mug as directed above, and allow the white to droop over into the mug while pouring the yolk back and forth between the two halves of shell. Eventually, most (not all) of the yolk will have dropped into the mug, while the yolk will remain round and unbroken in one of the half shells. See your recipe for what to do with the yolks at this point. Pour the egg white from the mug into the mixing bowl.

Repeat until each egg has been separated.

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The problem with 'folding' is that, while the word doesn't seem to describe the procedure until you've got the knack of it, there's nothing that works better The idea is to preserve the integrity of beaten egg whites, which are actually a mass of bubbles. They're much firmer than soap bubbles, much firmer if you remember to add that pinch of cream of tartar to the whites when they begin to froth, but they're not made out of cast iron, either, and they must be handled with a light touch.

When it's time to fold, you will have a mixing bowl of beaten egg whites and a saucepan containing flavored béchamel. I like to use a large, stainless steel cooking spoon (that is, not something you'd eat with) to do this job, but if something works better for you, go with it.

Take a big scoop of egg whites and whisk them into the sauce. This is not folding, and certainly some of the bubbles will pop (not that you'll notice). The idea is to spread bubbles throughout the sauce.

Take a scoop of the sauce and droop it over the egg whites. Very gently, insert the spoon deep into the bowl and pull up from the bottom, swirling as you go - doing anything, in short, that will distribute the sauce among the whites without disturbing them. Imagine that you are feeding a very small, slightly ailing infant. (Humming softly helps.) Repeat until you have incorporated all of the sauce. The mixture will not be perfectly even, but there should be no clots of either the sauce or the whites.

Gently spoon the mixture into a prepared soufflé mold.

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Basic Savory Soufflé

A basic five-egg soufflé will support approximately three-quarters of a pound of what-have-you: cheese, corn, mushrooms, diced ham, shrimp, lobster, and so on, in any combination that pleases you. The only limitation that I can think of, aside from those of taste, is that these extras must be relatively dry. Vegetables must have been parboiled, mushrooms sautéed. Excess water weighs down the whites before evaporating, and of course it contributes nothing to the flavor. Also, extras must be diced. A piece of ham or lobster ought not to be more than thrice the size of a kernel of corn. For these reasons, soufflés are great for using up leftovers, especially tasty ones that might have a little gravy on them. A soufflé is really nothing but a beautifully-textured delivery system for whatever goodies you select. We will henceforth call these extras stuff.

1. Preheat the oven to 375º.

2. In a heavy saucepan, combine 3 tablespoons butter with 3 tablespoons flour. Cook over low heat for three minutes, while bringing 1 cup milk to the boil in a microwave. When the butter and flour are thick and bubbly, remove the saucepan from the heat and pour in the boiling milk. Whisk firmly until smooth. Return the saucepan to the stove and boil the sauce, or béchamel, for about a minute. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow the sauce to cool down for a few minutes.

3. Prepare a soufflé mold by brushing its interior with soft butter and dusting it with a tablespoon or two of grated parmesan.

4. Following the procedure outlined above, separate five eggs, dropping the whites into a stainless steel or copper mixing bowl and adding the yolks to the hot sauce, whisking after every addition. You will need all five egg whites, but the fifth yolk may be discarded or reserved for another use - a good idea, if your stuff is either copious or rich.

5. Add 3/4 pound stuff to the béchamel. Combine well.

6. Using a portable or stand electric mixture (or a patient, well-developed body-builder), beat the egg whites. When they begin to froth, add a pinch (1/4 teaspoon) cream of tartar. Continue to beat the whites until they form soft, but not dry, peaks. Dry peaks, in case you're wondering, look like the Matterhorn. Settle for a more Appalachian profile.

7. Following the procedure outlined above, fold the sauce into the egg whites, and spoon the mixture into the prepared mold.

8. Bake in the oven for thirty to forty-five minutes. That's a big window, I know, but ovens vary widely. The problem is, no peeking. Once you open the oven door, the soufflé will begin to deflate. (If you're working in an old kitchen with wooden floors that creak and wobble, you will want to walk on tiptoe while the soufflé is in the oven, and banish everybody else.) Go with forty minutes the first time. 

9. I probably ought to have begun this recipe by saying that you must be ready to sit down and eat when the soufflé emerges from the oven: table set, salad tossed, wine chilled, and, most of all, guests in their seats, so that they can ooh and ah at your towering creation. But you'll have read this recipe in advance, like a good cook, right?

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