What to Eat in France: Soufflé au Comté, or Comté Cheese Soufflé
Comté cheese is a jewel born of Franco-Swiss history. By today’s boundaries, it is in the Jura Mountains in France, so it is technically considered a French cheese, although it’s made in a manner similar to that of the hard “cooked” Swiss cheeses we know as “holey Swiss cheese.”
Cara De Silva waxed poetic about Comté several years ago in Saveur magazine. I can’t describe it any better:
…that semifirm Comté is born of the distinctive milk of the region’s Montbeliarde cows, whose diet includes wild orchids, daisies, dandelions, and more than 400 other plant varieties; that it’s produced in the fruitières, or cooperative dairies, that have dotted the landscape of the Franche-Comté region for centuries; that the Montbeliardes’ milk is partly skimmed and heated gently in copper-lined vats before being combined with rennet; that the resulting curds are broken into fine grains, put into molds for pressing, and set on spruce boards for a few weeks of aging before being entrusted to an affineur, who oversees the further maturing of the cheese.
The Ancient Romans were already enjoying cheeses from this Franche-Comté region, and the cheese production in the villages of Deservillers and Levier were mentioned as early as 1264-1280. In 1380, there was mention of a cheese of such a large size that it could only be produced by a cooperative. After 1678, when Franche-Comté became part of France, there was an exodus of native Helvetics. It was then that other Swiss from the Gruyère region moved to the region, bringing the method of making Gruyère cheese — the cheese we often call “Swiss cheese” — with them. It is for this reason that the original name was Gruyère de Comté, now the AOC “Comté.”
In the Franche-Comté, cheese shops sell a whole range of Comté, from very young to aged, and according to the season in which it was made. The aged versions become dense and rich with a texture resembling that of Parmesan. Summer Comté is yellow, while winter Comté is white. Summer Comté is made from cows fed on grass and tastes fruitier, while winter cows feed on hay, making it taste earthier.
Soufflés came into the French repertory rather late in history. Vincent de la Chapelle mentioned it in the early eighteenth century. Chef Antoine Beauvilliers, who established the first restaurant in Paris in 1783, published the first recipe for soufflés in his The Art of the Chef in 1814. It was only later that soufflés gained popularity, through the efforts of Marie-Antoine Carême and Escoffier.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a soufflé as “a food that is made with eggs, flour, and other ingredients (such as cheese, vegetables, fruit, or chocolate) and that is baked until its top rises and it becomes very light and fluffy.” Soufflé is a concept more than actual dish. The verb souffler simply means “to breathe, to blow or puff,” which is essentially what one does by folding egg whites into a Béchamel sauce-batter.
In the case of a cheese soufflé, the cheese is mixed into the hot white sauce before folding in the egg whites.
This is a regional soufflé recipe from the Franche-Comté region, so of course it uses Comté cheese; it is not from the haute cuisine repertory.
Cheese soufflés are traditionally eaten as a starter, but they also make a good light lunch, accompanied by a green salad.
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons butter
1 cup flour
3 1/5 cup milk, warmed
Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
5 eggs, separated
3.5 oz. or 4/5 cup Comté cheese, grated
2-quart soufflé dish
- Preheat oven to 200°C or 400°F.
- In a saucepan, melt the butter.
- Add the flour and mix with whip until it starts to brown.
- Add the milk gradually, continuing to stir with the whip.
- Salt and pepper to taste and continue stirring.
- Add a couple of turns of nutmeg (if you’re using the nuts) or a generous pinch.
- Stir well and remove from heat.
- Stir in the egg yolks and beat until smooth.
- Stir in the cheese. Mix until smooth.
- In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.
- Gently fold egg whites into Béchamel mixture, just until folded in. The mixture does not have to be perfectly smooth and homogenous; that would risk pushing the air out of the egg whites.
- Butter a soufflé dish.
- Pour batter into the dish until it is three-quarters full.
- Turn oven down to 190°C or 375°F.
- Bake in the middle of oven until the soufflé is puffed and golden brown, about 25 minutes. DO NOT OPEN DOOR OF OVEN FOR THE FIRST 20 MINUTES.
- Serve immediately.
NOTE: Soufflés are sensitive to altitude, humidity, ingredients, and the true temperature of your oven. If your first one fails, don’t despair. Make notes about what you think went wrong: oven too hot, not placed in center of oven, overmixing of egg whites, eggs too small, too much milk, no allowance for altitude, etc. Felicity Cloake gives lots of good pointers in her thorough “investigation” of soufflés. Here are a few more tips. Once you master the basic technique, the variety of options for soufflé flavorings is virtually endless.