Baking challenge: a breath of lemon air

Until this challenge – Mary Berry’s perfect lemon souffle – I had never made a souffle before, ever, nor had I tasted one. I feared it a little – not because of its notorious difficulty, but because I was worried it would taste excessively eggy, something I dislike very much indeed. At the time of writing, however, I have made several (savoury) souffles, all puffy and delicate on top, cheesy and foamy on the bottom. Savoury souffles are not as delicate as they sound, as it turns out: the celestial crown of aerated eggwhite tops a thick, vegetable-rippled bechamel which sticks to the palate.

However, the souffle I made for this baking challenge – the technical challenge of episode four of the first series of the Great British Bake Off, to hastily recap – was definitely dessert, sweet and lemon-flavoured. I made this with a friend while we watched The Time Traveller’s Wife, a sweet enough film that didn’t entirely make sense to me: I didn’t feel it hung properly together, though as my friend pointed out, we were getting up rather frequently to mix batters together.

My souffles did not rise very high, and I think that the reason was that my ramekins were actually too big (even though I thought they were the standard ramekin size). The recipe specifies filling each ramekin to the brim and then levelling it with a spatula, but if I had done that I would barely have had enough mixture to fill three ramekins. I therefore divided it slightly meagerly between four, so they didn’t rise beyond the top of the ramekin. Nonetheless, very delicious to eat, like the lightest, most delicate sponge cake you could ever dream of making. A good and easy recipe.

Just a note: souffle recipes always specify, slightly hysterically, that they must be served immediately! And it is true that you should do that when serving them warm from the oven, to prevent them from collapsing, albeit in a genteel and almost embarrassed way. However, I always thought this suggested that souffles were actually disgusting beyond that narrow window of puffed-up glory. Not so: saved until the next day, slightly denser, cold, the lemon thick and yet spongey – wonderful. I may have preferred them this way.

One final note: I would recommend blueberries to go with. I didn’t, but regretted it.

Mary Berry’s Lemon Souffle
Not adapted from Mary Berry’s recipe, which is available on the BBC (but some of my own instructions)

  • Melted butter, to grease the ramekins
  • Two lemons, juiced and finely zested
  • Two egg yolks
  • Four egg whites (I used two egg whites from a Two Chicks carton)
  • Six rounded tablespoons caster sugar, and a little extra for the ramekins
  • Three rounded teaspoons cornflour
  • One rounded tablespoon plain flour
  • 90ml double cream
  • 110ml full-fat milk (can I admit I used skim, because that’s what we buy? Well, I did. It was fine)
  • Icing sugar, to dust
  1. Brush the insides of four ramekins with butter, with upward brushstrokes going in one direction only. Tip in a little caster sugar and turn the ramekins so that the sugar coats the sides and bottom. Shake out the excess and chill in the fridge.
  2. Combine the zest and juice of the two lemons and set aside. Love bears
  3. Separate the eggs and set the yolks aside in a small bowl. Place the egg whites (including the additional two whites) into a large bowl. Add the six tablespoons of caster sugar to the bowl with the egg yolks.
  4. Preheat the oven to 180C and place a baking tray in the middle of the oven.
  5. Place the cream, flour and cornflour into a medium-sized bowl (yes, many bowls); whisk to a smooth paste. Warm the milk in a saucepan over a medium heat until it just comes to the bowl. Remove from the heat. Little by little, whisk the hot milk into the cream and flour mixture, adding a little to start with and mixing well until the mixture is perfectly smooth, like thick cream. Press any lumps to the side of the bowl to break them up and then add the rest of the milk.
  6. Pour the mixture back into a saucepan and set over a gentle heat, and beat vigorously with a hand whisk until thickened. Keep whisking it all the time so that the mixture doesn’t stick. Once thickened, remove the pan from the heat and whisk the lemon juice and zest in a little at a time.
  7. Use a wooden spoon to beat the egg yolks and caster sugar together in the bowl until a thick paste (I did this for ages while watching the film between advert breaks but this actually happened fairly quickly). Add this egg yolk paste to the lemon mixture in the saucepan and mix until smooth. Put it back on the hob to thicken again. Whisk together just until it bubbles and then take it off the heat. The mixture should appear like custard. Set aside to cool before adding the egg whites.
  8. Whisk the egg whites in the large bowl using an electric hand mixer until soft peaks form. Once the mixture in the saucepan has cooled – to body temperature or cooler – add a large spoonful of the egg whites and whisk briskly into the mixture to make it less stiff. Using a large metal spoon, gently fold in the remaining egg whites, going round and cutting into the middle. Fold the egg whites in slowly, without breaking them up. Continue cutting them in until the mixture is pale yellow with no streaks of egg white.
  9. Fill the four ramekins to the brim with the soufflé mixture and level off with a spatula or palette knife or large knife (as I did!). If it does actually reach the brim, run your thumbnail around the inside rim of the ramekins to help the soufflés rise evenly without catching on the side.
  10. Place the ramekins on the baking tray in the middle of the oven for about 14 minutes until risen and turning golden on top. Do not open the oven during baking and watch the soufflés carefully, taking them out as soon as they’ve risen. If using smaller ramekins, you will need to reduce the cooking time by a few minutes.
  11. Dust with icing sugar (if desired) and serve immediately.
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