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Souffles--low fat, no-fat, on the rise

The cook is nervous, the dinner guests more so. As the entree is cleared and thoughts turn toward dessert -- an interlude usually filled with pleasant anticipation -- blood pressure begins to rise. How high will it (the souffle, not the blood pressure) rise? Will it fall? Collapse? Do we care? Couldn't we have a plain layer cake? Furtive glances at the clock.

Finally, the cook --es out (on tiptoe lest the floor shake), takes the souffle from the oven, tiptoes back and with lightning speed serves her creation while admonishing the hapless victims, "Eat quickly before it utterly disappears. You know how delicate souffles are . . . but aren't they worth it?"

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In a word, no. Not that kind of souffle. Too delicate, too much anxiety, a test of stress-management skills.

There are two types of classic hot fruit souffles. One is made with a base of starch-butter-egg yolks (high in saturated fat); the other is a simple fat-free blend of pureed fruit and meringue. If the latter is so clearly the more healthful, you ask, why isn't it the darling of low-fat bakers? It is too unreliable and fragile. The texture can vary from watery sludge to dry cotton foam, depending upon the weight, sweetness and moisture content of the fruit. These souffles have an unnerving tendency to collapse upon even the most experienced baker because while they lack fat, they also lack a stabilized starch base to support the fruited meringue.

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After countless experiments, I have devised a souffle that is utterly reliable and does not fall. For overcoming this long-known and greatly feared kitchen terrorist -- the falling souffle -- I should win a Nobel peace (or chemistry) prize.

My souffle is not only divine to behold and sublime to taste, it is quick and simple to make and based on classic techniques with a new twist. The first trick is to cook a fruit-flavored puree thickened and stabilized with cornstarch and sugar. This flavor base can be made ahead and refrigerated, but must be at room temperature before blending it (the only last-minute task) with stiffly beaten egg whites just before baking.

The second trick is to bake the souffle in a water bath, which guarantees gentle even heat, a slow and steady rise, a creamy texture and a stable product. A traditional baking technique, it never fails.

The third trick is to use an instant-read thermometer to test the internal temperature of the souffle. Fruit souffles are perfectly baked when the thermometer inserted 1 inch from the rim reads 160 degrees, and 150 degrees at the center. (The souffle is hotter near the rim, so check both.) At this point the texture will be light and still moist, but does hold its shape. The center will be set but smooth and creamy, the edges slightly firmer and drier. Chocolate souffles bake slightly longer, until the temperature in the center is 160 degrees.

When first taken from the oven, the souffle is puffed to its greatest height, and it should be presented and served right away (take a bow). However, this souffle will not collapse seconds later, nor will it fall when you spoon out the first serving. It will sink about an inch, then hold its shape for two to six hours -- if there are leftovers.

A classic vanilla souffle, made with a cooked bechamel sauce base (flour-butter-yolks), using 4 or 5 whole eggs, receives approximately 45 percent calories from fat. Each serving packs a relatively minor 9 grams of fat but a huge 157 milligrams of cholesterol. A classic meringue/fruit souffle has the same amount of fat as it has dependability: None. My souffles, however, are dependable, and with one exception, they contain virtually no fat (they range from 0 to 2 percent calories from fat). The one exception is this chocolate souffle (14 percent) because it contains a little solid chocolate, high in cocoa butter, which is a saturated fat.

The intense chocolate flavor of this souffle comes from cocoa and a small amount of grated unsweetened chocolate. Serve this for a dramatic finale at a dinner party, sprinkled with a few drops of coffee liqueur. This recipe makes a slightly large souffle because it is typically served as a party dessert, and I wanted it to have an exceptionally high rise.

Chocolate souffle

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Makes 6 to 8 servings

2/3 cup non-alkalized unsweetened cocoa powder

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

4 teaspoons cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup non-fat milk

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2 teaspoons vanilla

7 large egg whites, at room temperature

dash salt

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate, grated

powdered sugar

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To prepare chocolate base, combine cocoa, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, cornstarch and cinnamon in heavy-bottomed non-reactive saucepan. Whisk to blend well. Whisk in milk. Set over medium heat and whisk constantly 5 to 7 minutes, until it reaches a boil. Then boil, stirring, making sure to reach into corners, 1 minute, or until mixture is as thick as pudding and generously coats spoon. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Let cool to room temperature. (Base can be prepared ahead, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)

Arrange rack in lower third of oven and heat it to 350 degrees. Coat 2-quart (8-cup) souffle mold or 6 (1 1/2 cup) individual souffle dishes with butter-flavor no-stick cooking spray. Sprinkle bottom and sides with 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Tap out excess sugar.

Whip egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until foamy in large, grease-free bowl using electric mixer on medium speed. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar and whip until whites are medium-stiff but not dry.

Be sure chocolate base is at room temperature. Stir it well. Fold about 1 cup whipped whites into chocolate mixture to lighten it, using whisk. Sprinkle in grated chocolate and then fold chocolate mixture into remaining whites. Turn mixture into prepared molds(s) and smooth top(s) with spatula.

Place mold(s) in baking pan large enough to hold them. Add hot water to come about a third of the way up sides of mold(s). Bake until well risen and firm when lightly jiggled with your hand, 35 or 40 minutes for large souffle (instant-read thermometer inserted near center should read about 160 degrees), or about 25 minutes for individual souffles. Remove from oven. Sift some powdered sugar over top. Serve at once.Nutritional analysis per serving (based on 6 servings): 172 calories; 7 grams protein; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 34 grams carbohydrates; 86 milligrams sodium; 1 milligram cholesterol.*

This fat- and cholesterol-free souffle can be made in any season because frozen raspberries work as well as fresh. The raspberry flavor is intensified by using either Chambord (a sweet raspberry liqueur) or framboise (raspberry eau-de-vie).

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Raspberry souffle

Makes 6 servings

1 1/3 cups fresh raspberries or frozen unsweetened whole raspberries

5 tablespoons granulated sugar plus extra for molds

1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest

1 tablespoon water

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2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons Chambord or framboise

5 large egg whites, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

dash salt

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powdered sugar

To prepare raspberry base, combine 1 cup raspberries, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, orange zest and water in heavy-bottomed non-reactive saucepan. Set over medium heat and bring to boil, stirring and mashing berries with wooden spoon.

Meanwhile, dissolve cornstarch in lemon juice. Stir cornstarch mixture into raspberries and return to boil, stirring constantly. Then boil, stirring, about 45 seconds, or until mixture is no longer cloudy and is as thick as preserves. Remove from heat. Stir in Chambord and remaining 1/3 cup whole raspberries. Let cool to (( room temperature. (Raspberry base can be made ahead, covered and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)

Position rack in lower third of oven and heat it to 350 degrees. Coat 1 1/2 -quart (6-cup) souffle mold or 6 (1 1/2 -cup) individual souffle molds with butter-flavor no-stick cooking spray. Sprinkle bottom and sides with sugar. Tap out excess sugar.

Combine egg whites, cream of tartar and salt in large grease-free bowl. Whip until foamy using electric mixer on medium speed. Gradually add remaining 3 tablespoons sugar and whip until whites are medium stiff but not dry.

Be sure raspberry base is at room temperature when using. Stir it well. Fold about 1 cup whipped whites into raspberry base to lighten it, using whisk, then fold mixture into remaining whites. Turn mixture into prepared souffle mold(s) and smooth top(s) with spatula.

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Place mold(s) in roasting pan. Add hot water to come about 1/3 of the way up sides of mold(s). Bake until well risen, medium-brown in color and fairly firm when lightly jiggled with your hand, about 35 minutes for large souffle (instant-read thermometer inserted in center should read about 150 degrees) or about 25 minutes for individual souffles. Remove from oven. Sift powdered sugar on top. Serve immediately.

Nutritional Analysis per serving: 90 calories; 3 grams protein; 0 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 92 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol.

Susan G. Purdy is the author of "Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too," William Morrow, from which this article is excerpted.

SOUFFLE TIPS

Here are some tips for successfully making souffles.

* These souffles do not need paper or foil collars.

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* Plan your time so the fruit base, if it has been made in advance, can be brought to lukewarm temperature (about 70 degrees) before folding it into the meringue. Make the sauce, if any, well in advance.

* Be sure to heat the oven for at least 15 minutes before baking the souffle. Place the souffle in its water bath in the oven about 35 minutes before you plan to serve it.

* Remember that eggs separate most easily when cold but whip to greater volume when at room temperature. If your egg whites are cold, place them in a bowl set into a larger bowl of warm water. Stir until the whites are warm to the touch.

* Treat the egg whites with care -- they are the leavening for the souffle. The bowl and beaters must be completely free of fat; wipe them with a paper towel dampened with white vinegar. Whip the whites until foamy before adding the sugar. Then whip until stiff but not dry; at this point, the whites will be smooth, glossy and just hold their shape. Do not overbeat, or the souffle may collapse when baked.


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