This Valentine’s Day, go for luxury and affection with a chocolate soufflé

By Evan Kleiman

Even if you don’t master the classic high rise of a chocolate soufflé, it will still make you swoon. Photo by Shutterstock.

It’s no surprise that chocolate is a proxy for love. Women, in particular, use it for self-care regularly. It contains the mood enhancing chemicals phenylethylamine and serotonin, but its seductive qualities lie with the way the heat of the body allows it to melt in the mouth. There is no other food like it as an expression of luxury, and eating a bar of it on your own is a particularly intimate experience. 

There are many ways to consume chocolate in company, but the chocolate soufflé shares that intimacy in ways other desserts do not. The urgency of eating a soufflé adds to its appeal. After all, the word soufflé means breath in French. A breath is evanescent, here then gone. That characteristic texture, which is made of a batter that relies on air bubbles created by foamy egg whites — means the risen structure is tenuous, delicate, unstable, kind of like love. By the way, a lava cake is not the same as a chocolate soufflé.

The texture of a chocolate soufflé is unique in that it combines a crisp exterior with cake-like edges that move to a soft, frothy, melting interior (if you don’t over bake it). If it’s made with a ganache base rather than a custard one, the sweetness is tempered by the intense flavor of the chocolate itself. Then there’s the pool of crème anglaise that is often poured into the center of the chocolatey mass just before eating. Crème anglaise is a custard made of milk, sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla. I prefer it slightly warmed and on the side so I can pour it where I want it in quantities that feel just right. Although in restaurants it’s most common to see the soufflé served in individual ramekins, that feels too constrained for me. To experience the cakey, fluffy, melty dessert at its best it should be made in a larger vessel, preferably one that will serve two to four. If we’re not all dipping into the thing together with our own spoons and eating it straight from the porcelain vessel, the best way to eat it, in my opinion, is too dip a large spoon into the proud, raised dessert to get a bit of all the textures and serve it into individual bowls. Then each eater can dress it with the custard sauce as liked. 

There are restaurants all over the Southland that excel at making chocolate soufflé. I’m sure you have your favorites, from casual cafes to dining palaces. Do yourself a favor and make an appointment for one with a friend or two. You might even forgo the dinner before. I reached out to our listeners and here are some of their favorite places with a few of mine added in. There are many others, but always call before to make sure they are still making them.

But despite its luxury, making chocolate soufflé is well within your reach. It’s not difficult. There are just a few techniques that are easy to master. And even if you don’t manage to make one that rises three to four inches above the rim of the baking dish, it will still have all the attributes that make you swoon. 

One of the reasons the chocolate soufflé is such a celebratory dish is the wait. It can be made ahead but just to the point of making the whipped egg whites, which create the rise and fabulous texture. So if you’ve ordered one, or are making one for a special friend, there is a built-in 30 minute flirtation time when expectation builds as you wait for the moment you can sink your spoons into that loose molten center and lose yourself in chocolate heaven. The chocolate base is easy to put together and can be made ahead and refrigerated. If you prepare your baking vessel ahead of time, then all you have to do when you’re ready to serve is whip the egg whites, fold them into the base, and bake without opening the oven door to peek. Or you can make them completely in advance, including the egg whites, refrigerating them and baking when you’re ready, particularly with those individual ramekins. 

I recommend watching a couple of videos from different makers first, so you can clearly see the techniques at work and also how there are different ways of approaching the same result. For example, the NY Times has 10 different recipes for the dessert. This video with Claire Saffitz for the NY Times is a good place to start. She uses the ganache method, and in a previous video for Bon Appetit shared the cheat of using melted vanilla ice cream for the crème anglaise, which I think is kind of genius. Melissa Clark’s bittersweet chocolate soufflé includes a deep dive into the genre. David Lebovitz’s essay on his Top Souffle Secrets is great to read even though it’s not focused on chocolate. Here is his very simple double chocolate soufflé from his book, “The Great Book of Chocolate.” Here is a video on how to fold egg whites into another mixture. 

Have fun! And that myth about tip-toeing through the kitchen and not slamming the oven door? Don’t worry about it!