When a friend was getting sober a few years ago, he confessed his anxieties to his Irish American dad. "I'm so afraid all the time," he said. And his father had simply replied, "You're a grown man, what have you got to be afraid of?"
I think about those words of wisdom when I too am afraid, which is pretty much every day. I don't mean just afraid of climate change and global pandemics and mass shootings and whatever else is terrorizing your own imagination today. I mean that I find it incredibly easy to psych myself out about the seemingly smallest things. I'm afraid a friend hasn't replied to a text because she's secretly mad about something. I'm afraid I'll regret ordering the special when I had really been craving the usual. Afraid the chicken will turn out dry. Mostly, I'm afraid of messing up.
Yet I've learned in my life that the best antidote to those gnawing day-to-day fears is just trying anyway. Sometimes messing up and surviving it. Sometimes finding out it wasn't such a big deal after all. Realizing that when I see that I really can master the small stuff, it makes me better equipped the handle the big challenges. (Not knocking therapy and medication either.)
So I am going to endeavor from here on out to be less fearful of the things I can be less fearful of, and I hope you will too. Like soufflé.
I have long been a fan of strata, an easy, soufflé-adjacent egg dish that has the bonus attraction of containing bread. Yet I've also avoided soufflé because it just seemed too difficult. It demands a special dish to bake it in, right? And parchment paper and twine? And if you even look at the oven funny the whole thing falls apart, is my understanding? It feels like there's a lot of opportunity for failure there.
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But while soufflé is undoubtedly challenging if you're in the kitchen of a three-star restaurant where you're churning out dozens of sky-high creations every night, there's no need to be so intense about it at home. After all, the best soufflé in the world, in my opinion, resides in the frozen food aisle of your local supermarket.
The Stouffer's spinach soufflé holds a place of deep nostalgic reverence in my heart. Like the iconic Sau-Sea shrimp cocktail, it's one of the first things I ever ate that made me fancy and grown-up. It was the side dish that said, "Now this is a special occasion." And it is no skyscraper. It is a dense, verdant dish, as unpretentious as eggs should be.
For my homage to the classic, I have used more greens than most spinach soufflé recipes call for, because you want this baby to be Stouffer's level green. I have also borrowed from Ina Garten's trick of adding an extra egg white to the mix for additional lift. And to hell with buying a special pan; I've baked the whole thing in my trusty Dutch oven. Make it once, learn it forever — and then look at us; we're soufflé baking baddies now.
People get nervous about the timing with soufflés, but guess what? You can do all of the prep work — yes, even folding in the egg whites — and then just pop it in the oven a half hour before you want to eat it. It bakes up beautifully and really is plenty tall straight out of the oven. Then it slumps, in a pleasantly relaxed way, as you start to dig in. It also takes less time to cook than a frozen dinner. It is, in short, about as far from intimidating as a dish can get. And when you proudly pull it from the oven, all impressive and delicious smelling, maybe you'll hear the voice of my friend's dad in your head, asking, "What did you have to be afraid of?"
* * *
Inspired by Ina Garten and Dinner Then Dessert
- 3 tablespoons of butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
- 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for the pan
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup of room temperature whole milk
- 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 5 large room temperature eggs, separated
- 1 16-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Generously butter a dutch oven or high sided oven safe pan and sprinkle evenly with Parmesan. (I used a 2 quart vessel.)
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Stir in the flour and keep stirring for 2 minutes until smooth and nutty smelling. Remove from the heat and slowly but constantly stir in the milk, followed by nutmeg, cayenne, salt and teaspoon pepper. Return to simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, for 1 minute.
- Remove from heat and whisk in 4 of the egg yolks, one at a time. Stir in the Parmesan and the spinach, and then add the whole mixture to a large bowl.
- Put all 5 egg whites and a pinch of salt in a separate bowl. Beat with a hand or stand mixer about 3 minutes, slowly increasing the speed as you go, until the whites are glossy and look a little dry.
- Stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the spinach mixture, and then lightly fold in the rest until just blended. Pour into the pan, and smooth the top. Place in the middle of the oven and turn the temperature down to 375 degrees.
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until puffed and golden. Resist the urge to open the oven door while baking. Serve immediately.
This recipe leaves you with a lonely leftover egg yolk, but there's no need to waste such a precious commodity. You can freeze leftover yolks for future custards, or just throw an extra yolk into any egg dish you're making this week. Andy Baraghani's insanely good crispy mushrooms are a natural here.
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