My 8-year-old daughter shared a joke with me the other day. “Mamma, why can’t you tease egg whites?” I offered up a couple of silly – and apparently wrong – answers before she rescued me with the punch line. “Because they can’t take a yolk!”
As I watched her giggle I recalled that wonderful phrase by novelist, television producer and Duck Dynasty-look shoe in George R.R. Martin: ‘Wisdom oft comes from the mouth of babes.’ So true. If whipping egg whites is tantamount to teasing them, it’s a darn lot harder to do it if there’s even a speck of yolk in the batch.
That’s one of the many lessons I learned in my efforts to tame the feisty egg. Sure, it looks so unassuming all wrapped up in its sea shell-like cocoon, but it can be a bit of a high-maintenance prima donna. I learned this the hard way, which is to say my family and I endured many dense and uninspiring cakes until I finally got the process right.
One dessert in particular almost drove me to the point of chucking my electric beaters out the window. Repeated failures made me a little trigger-shy around dishes that required whipped egg whites.
But a life without soufflés, puddings and cakes seemed like such a sad life…before long, I was back at cracking eggs. I did educate myself first, though. While I am not an ‘eggspert’ necessarily, I have learned a thing or two. I now know, for instance, that egg whites and yolks are two bags of mostly water filled with well-dispersed and temperamental protein molecules. Any whipping success depends on our ability to cajole some air into those little critters.
My studies also confirmed that eggs, and egg whites in particular, really can be prima donnas. Thankfully, they also gave me a roadmap to get them to step into the chorus line. Allow me to share some of the techniques I use to get my egg whites to stand to attention.
First, use room temperature eggs.
Proteins in the whites expand better when warm, giving a more voluminous foam. Food and cooking authority Harold McGee, author of the seminal book On Food and Cooking, disagrees with this. He states that the temperature of the eggs is not important since the whisking action warms the yolks quickly. Though admittedly anecdotal, my own experiences have yielded greater, stiffer rewards when using eggs not straight out of the refrigerator. And no, leaving eggs out for a few hours won’t make you sick. Many bakeries do the same thing for this exact reason.
Second, ensure that the bowl and beaters you use are absolutely clean. Any trace of oil, dish soap or water in the bowl, or any hint of yolk, and the egg whites will rebel and go flat on you. When it comes to attending a party, they like to go stag.
Third, start the whipping process slowly at first. Egg white proteins apparently don’t like to be tousled without a nice warm up first. I mean, we wouldn’t expect a big, sloppy kiss at the beginning of a first date. A strong start on high speed will not intimidate those whites into stiff peak submission. Instead, they turn passive-aggressive by turning gooey and ruining your dessert. (Chemically speaking, the protein strands break.) Instead, beat your egg whites in a metal bowl on medium-low speed for 3 minutes before adding anything else.
At this point, add some cream of tartar. Its function is to bond the proteins in the egg whites to one another. Adding 1/16 of a teaspoon of cream of tartar per egg white does the trick. Switch the speed to medium high and beat for another 6 minutes or so. The whites will start to look foamy at this point, like this:
Once you see foam and can create droopy peaks by lifting up the beaters, start gradually adding one and a quarter tablespoon of sugar per egg white. The goal is to continue adding it, a tablespoon or so at a time, right up to the very end of the whipping process. Doing so ensures that the sugar doesn’t get in the way while the proteins are bonding. The eggs will start getting whiter and become stiffer and stiffer at this point.
Many people successfully use granulated sugar, but I prefer to use the powdered form since it is light and airy. Kind of like properly whipped egg whites, come to think of it…
By the way, I’m hard pressed to find another dessert that offers more decadence with only 4 tablespoons of butter. Light, fluffy, subtly sweet and oh so chocolaty…a perfect treat! Plan on eating them all right away, as they do not hold their fabulous texture for very long.
making ramekin chocolate soufflés
Grease 12 ramekins with room temperature unsalted butter.
Dust them with granulated sugar, tipping each ramekin to get rid of surplus sugar. Make sure that the sides and base are completely coated.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Heat 1 cup of whole milk and 1 ½ oz. of chopped dark chocolate in a small pot on medium high heat.
Add 2 heaping tablespoons of sifted Hershey’s cocoa powder.
It’ll look like this:
Meanwhile, make the butter paste. When I first learned of butter paste, my heart first sank. It seemed like something that would be laborious and time consuming and I started nervously looking at my keys as I considered running out to a nearby bakery to just buy a dessert. But intrigue with butter paste got the better of me and I decided to stick it out. And it’s a good thing too because the whole thing was a snap. You’ll see for yourself.
Just place 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a small bowl and add ½ cup of unbleached white flour.
With a fork, work the two ingredients until they create a thick paste.
And a little more.
This should take a minute or two to do.
When it’s finished, you should be able to lift the whole darn thing out of the bowl with the fork. Like this…
Take the pot with the milk off the heat and add the flour/butter paste into the liquid. Some recipes will call for adding the paste a little at a time, which I used to do until one day I was in a rush and added the whole thing at once and saw that it didn’t seem to make a bit of difference.
Mix constantly with a whisk until the mixture becomes smooth. Add 4 egg yolks, one at a time, into the chocolate mixture and blend well each time with a whisk.
Stir in 1 egg white and mix well. The mixture will look very creamy and shiny at this point.
Add half of the chocolate mixture to a large stainless steel bowl containing the 4 whipped, stiff egg whites. Mix gently and thoroughly with a spatula. Add the remaining chocolate mixture and mix well once again.
When folding the chocolate into the egg whites, make sure the spatula goes all the way down to the bottom of the bowl to ensure that the mixture is thoroughly mixed.
Fill each ramekins to within a ½ inch from the top.
Arrange all the ramekins in a baking dish large enough to accommodate all the ramekins. Pour in enough hot water into the baking dish to go halfway up the ramekins. Place the dish in the oven and lower the temperature to 375°F. Bake for 40 minutes. Remove them from the oven and carefully remove the ramekins from the baking dish. Sift some confectioners’ sugar over each ramekin and serve immediately. Makes 12 servings.