On a recent cold, dry Tuesday evening in February, I found myself rummaging around our little casita kitchen, wondering what to make for dinner. There didn’t seem to be anything worth assembling into a meal, nothing in the vegetable crisper but a heel of iceberg. But I’d been writing all day and was just back from a long rugged hike. It was dark already, and windy out there, bone-cold, and I was not in the mood to drive to the supermarket, park, wrangle a wayward mule of a shopping cart through crowded aisles, wait in line, lug my haul home… I would have to make do with whatever we had, a meal I’ve always called a Cupboard Supper.
Luckily for me, I stumbled on a hidden, motley treasure trove in the fridge and freezer: half a carton of eggs; two bags of frozen spinach; butter; milk; and three different cheeses. From the pantry I unearthed an unopened jar of apricot jam.
Finding the jam clinched it: I decided to whip up a spinach and cheese soufflé, that airy baked eggy concoction whose expert mystique belies how easy it is to make, once you get into the swing of it.
Side note: Brendan’s Minnesota Fitzpatrick family has always eaten apricot jam with their spinach soufflé. And now that I know how indulgently good that combination is, the jam giving the savory, puffy eggs a tart-sweet kick, so do I. Maybe this is because I have Minnesota roots, too; maybe it’s a midwestern thing. Whatever it is, I highly recommend that you do the same.
The soufflé was perfected in the early 1800s by the father of French haute cuisine, Marie-Antoine Carême. Almost a century later, Escoffier nailed down 60 variations, both sweet and savory, in his “Le Guide Culinaire.” Sixty years after that, Julia Child brought the basic technique to America and taught a generation of home cooks how to combine sweet or cheesy glossy butter-flour-milk sauce with airy beaten egg whites, then bake it to puffy perfection.
Souffler means “to breathe,” and the trick to making soufflé is to beat your egg whites into stiff white Alpine peaks and gently but firmly fold them into the sauce just until the two substances are melded. In the oven, the egg whites magically lift the rich, thick sauce into a pouf of cheesy lusciousness under a browned top.
Once out of the oven, you have to eat it before it deflates, spooning generous portions onto a plate, a whole meal in itself, but so good with a crunchy salad. And jam.
The two of us ate this entire magical creation, serving ourselves seconds and thirds with most of the jar of jam over several cutthroat rounds of the card game Spite & Malice, while the dogs lay at our feet and a windstorm raged outside in the high mountain desert and Edith Piaf sang of no regrets.
You will need:
5 large eggs, separated
1 cup milk
3 T flour
3 T butter, plus more for greasing the dish
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
2-3 shallots or one smallish onion, minced
2 ½ cups grated cheese (I used 1 cup each Romano and goat jack plus ½ cup crumbled chevre)
1 pound frozen spinach, thawed, all the liquid squeezed out
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
Pinch each of nutmeg and cayenne
1 jar of apricot jam
Preheat the oven to 425.
Generously butter a 6- or 8-cup soufflé dish (a casserole works too—the baking time will be about 30 minutes). Lightly dust the buttered dish with grated cheese: parmesan or Romano work best for this.
In a sauce pan, melt the butter and add the shallot or onion and cook till soft. Whisk in the flour and let cook for a minute on low heat, still stirring. Slowly whisk in the milk and let it come to a simmer. Turn off the heat and stir in the egg yolks one by one till fully mixed in, then add the cheese, spinach, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne. Mix well.
Beat the egg white with the cream of tartar until they form stiff peaks. Stir ¼ of the egg whites into the cheese sauce until incorporated, then fold the rest in with a spatula and mix until all the streaks of white disappear but no further.
Pour into the baking dish, smooth the top with the spatula, and put into the oven. Turn the temperature down to 375 and bake for just over an hour at higher altitudes, 40-45 minutes or so at sea level, until the top is nicely browned and the eggs are firm.
Serve immediately in (technically four but actually two if you’re both very hungry) generous portions, with a side of iceberg wedges with Ranch dressing, and a jar of apricot jam.
Kate Christensen is a novelist, memoirist and food writer based in Taos, New Mexico. This essay is part of a monthly series about French food called Bouffe, created and written exclusively for Frenchly by Kate Christensen. Her books, Blue Plate Special, How to Cook a Moose, The Last Cruise and more can be purchased here, on Amazon. Her next book, a novel, will be published in 2023.
All photos are courtesy of the author. To see more of Kate’s photos of food, family, the writing process, books and her darling pups, visit her on Instagram, here.