The souffle shares this in common with some of nature's most vicious predators: It can sense fear. This, at least, according to noted American chef James Beard, who once observed, "The only thing that will make a souffle fall is if it knows you're afraid of it."
The scientific validity of this statement is, of course, debatable — but it's undeniable that many Americans are deeply afraid of making that fluffy French dish. The terrible shadow it has cast over American cuisine extends at least as far back as 1954, when Audrey Hepburn's character in the movie Sabrina failed to make one. Since then, souffles have been collapsing with alarming regularity in cartoons and sitcoms. The deflated souffle has become synonymous with comical failure.
Greg Patent is weary of the notion of the frightful souffle. The co-host of Montana Public Radio's The Food Guys says the intimidating reputation is overblown. "If you've ever made a mousse or you've ever made a sponge cake or you've ever made a meringue, you can make a souffle. There's absolutely no difference."
He's been making souffles since he first saw Julia Child whip one up on her original TV show, The French Chef. She called it a "noncollapsible souffle," a cheese souffle with extra egg whites folded in. And that gave Patent the confidence to try his own.
The souffle was a success: "It rose so high, it actually hit the electric element at the top of my stove. I thought, 'Look, this is so much fun.' And I just got hooked on it, and I started doing all kinds of souffles."
Patent discovered this recipe, an American twist on the French classic, while walking through his local farmers market in Montana. "I saw wonderful ears of fresh corn, I saw jalapeno peppers, red bell peppers, I saw cilantro and I thought, 'What if I put those ingredients together and made an American souffle out of a French technique?' "
You can find the delicious result of that experiment below. And before you let the old fear get the better of you, Patent says, know that both the process and the product will be well worth the effort. As you watch through the oven window, "it does all the work for you. The air cells expand, the souffles rise. You'll gush with 'oohs and 'aahs' yourself."
And you'll have your souffle-phobic friends in awe of your abilities. "Just the accolades you're going to get are going to make you want to rush into the kitchen and make another one."
Fresh Corn Souffle
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
6 ounces (3/4 cup) Gruyere or Comte, finely grated
3 minced garlic cloves
2 cups fresh corn kernels cut off the cob (about 4 ears)
1/2 cup diced (1/4-inch) red bell pepper
2 teaspoons seeded and finely chopped jalapeno chili
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup half-and-half
6 large eggs, whites and yolks separated
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Butter a 2-quart round or oval baking dish (such as a 10x2-inch round) and coat with 2 ounces of the Gruyere or Comte. The cheese will not cover the inside of the baking dish completely; there will be gaps.
Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Put 4 tablespoons of the butter into a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook about 15 seconds. Add the corn, red bell pepper and jalapeno and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pepper and corn are partly tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
Combine the milk and half-and-half in a small heavy saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat. Keep liquid hot on low heat.
In a medium saucepan, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 2 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, wait a few seconds for the bubbling to subside and pour in the hot liquid all at once. Whisk vigorously to make a smooth bechamel. Return the pan to medium heat and bring to boil, whisking constantly. Cook at a boil for 2 minutes until very thick. Take off heat, whisk in salt, pepper and the egg yolks, one at a time.
Beat the egg whites on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the cream of tartar and continue beating until the whites form stiff peaks that are not dry. Whisk 1/4 of the whites into the bechamel. Fold in the remaining whites in two additions, along with the cooled corn, red pepper, jalapeno and the remaining 4 ounces of Gruyere or Comte.
Spread the souffle in the prepared dish and place in the oven. This souffle puffs up quite high. Bake about 30 minutes until well-browned and a wooden skewer comes out clean. Serve immediately.
From Souffles by Greg Patent. Copyright 2014 by Greg Patent. Excerpted by permission of Gibbs Smith.