Butternut squash soufflé presents rich fall flavor with elegance

November 19, 2021

Last week, I talked about finding ways to lighten up the Thanksgiving Day menu, and I planned for more of the same this week, until John McDonald (see his wine column below) sent me his recipe for “outrageous” butternut squash soufflé. He assured me it was worth the time and effort to roast the squash, and then work with white sauce and whipped egg whites to build the soufflé. He was correct.

For those of you who may be intimidated by the prospect of baking a soufflé only to have it fall into itself as you try to serve it, please know that is what is supposed to happen. The French word souffler means "to blow up," or more descriptively, "puff up,” which is exactly what occurs when it’s baked. But, whether sweet or savory, the airy concoction will begin to deflate shortly after it’s removed from the oven.

The key to presentation is to get it on the table while the top still towers over the edge of the baking dish (see photo). This was the first picture Jack took, and he had to select this one for the column, because looking at the subsequent snaps was like watching time-lapse photography as the top gradually sank into the middle of the dish. This did not in any way affect the delicious flavor and delicate texture of the soufflé.

There are a few keys to a successful soufflé. The first is to be sure to coat the inside of the baking dish with butter. The traditional pan is round with a flat bottom, straight sides and fluted or ribbed exterior. Dishes come in various sizes, from 1/2-cup ramekins for an individual serving up to eight cups for a crowd. Buttering the inside will encourage the batter to rise up over the rim.

The next step is to make sure the oven is preheated so the batter will begin to rise immediately. Most savory soufflés begin with a white sauce, to which other ingredients are added. In these steps, be careful with hot ingredients when you combine them with the egg yolks. You will want to “temper” the egg yolks by adding in just a little of the hot mixture before whisking them completely together.

One reason your soufflé rises is because of whipped egg whites. As you beat egg whites, you are incorporating air, and the protein in the egg white forms a delicate skin around the air bubbles. The slightest trace of oil or yolk particles will prevent this important structure from forming, and the air bubbles will disintegrate. Because they are so thin and fragile, once they’re whipped, you’ll need to handle them with care.

At this point in the recipe, you have the sweet or savory base in one bowl and the whipped egg whites in another. Now you will use a spatula to gently fold the whites into the batter, taking care not to overmix and flatten the whipped egg whites. Before now, you will have chosen which size baking dish and it will be on the counter ready to be filled.

Gently spoon or pour the batter into the prepared pan, then smooth the top. Before placing the pan in the oven, run an icing spatula or knife around the very top of the pan rim, separating the batter from the rim. This will force the soufflé to rise upward, instead of spreading outward. Keep a close eye on the time and try not to open the oven to check, or you’ll lose heat and potentially stop the soufflé from rising completely.

As for John’s recipe, be sure to use freshly grated Parmesan cheese to avoid the anti-caking agents in pre-grated cheese. Also, consider taking advantage of the packages of already-cubed butternut squash, to avoid potential knife wounds while wrestling with the squash’s very tough skin. I’ve included two different recipes for Turkey Day. And, as John said about his, it’s worth it!

John McDonald’s Butternut Squash Soufflé

1 butternut squash

2 T butter

2 T flour

1/2 C milk

2 T finely grated Parmesan cheese

2 sage leaves, minced

3 large eggs, separated

pinch cayenne

1/4 t salt

4 sage leaves

olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 F. Butter the inside of soufflé dishes (one 4-cup, two 2-cup or four 1-cup) and set aside. Peel and chop the squash into cubes; arrange on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer. Roast until tender and slightly caramelized, turning once or twice. Transfer squash cubes to the bowl of a food processor and purée until smooth; reserve 3/4 C of the purée, and store the rest for another use.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour, stirring until combined. Add milk and continue whisking until smooth. Add Parmesan cheese, 3/4 C squash purée, minced sage, cayenne and salt; allow to cool slightly, Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a large mixing bowl. Temper them by whisking in a spoonful of the heated mixture, then pouring the rest of the squash mixture into the bowl. Stir to combine completely; set aside. In a scrupulously clean metal or glass bowl, beat the egg whites until medium peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the squash mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish(es) and smooth the top. Run an icing spatula or knife around the inside at the top of the pan rim.

Bake until well-risen and golden: 15 to 20 minutes for small dishes, 20 to 25 for the large dish. While soufflé is baking, heat olive oil in a small skillet and crisp the 4 sage leaves for garnish. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 starters or 2 mains.

Pumpkin Soufflé

3 egg yolks

5 T sugar, divided

5 egg whites

2 drops lemon juice

2 T milk

1 t cinnamon

1/2 t ginger

1/4 t allspice

1/2 t ground cloves

5 T pumpkin puree

Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter the inside of 5 individual soufflé pans; set aside. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with 3 T sugar until thickened and light in color; set aside. In a scrupulously clean glass or metal bowl, beat the egg whites with lemon juice until foamy. Gradually add 1 T sugar while continuing to beat until whites are firm and glossy; set aside.

Add the milk and spices to the yolks, beating to combine. Gently fold in the beaten whites. Spoon batter into prepared pans and dust tops with remaining 1 T sugar. Bake until puffy and browned, about 10 minutes. Yield: 5 servings.



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