Vivian Howard has three words for home cooks who fear soufflés: Get over it. And it’s a message made all the more compelling by a recipe from her debut cookbook, in which she uses a distinctly Southern ingredient—sweet corn—to create an unexpectedly simpler version of the fussy French classic.
“You have this image of a server running a soufflé from the kitchen to someone’s table and everybody gasping about how tall the soufflé is,” says Howard, a chef and public television host. “People get worried because they see their own soufflé poufing up and it’s so beautiful, and then it comes out of the oven and it falls.
“But it doesn’t matter when it falls. It’s going to fall. It’s going to fall by the time you put it in your mouth, no matter what.” And even a deflated soufflé still is going to be ethereally light, fluffy and delicious.
Proof perfect is the corn soufflé in Howard’s “Deep Run Roots” cookbook—named for her hometown. Inspired by the traditional corn puddings of the South, her recipe blends her New York City fine dining finesse with her North Carolina sensibilities. Her creation is a tender, custardy soufflé that plays up the natural sweetness and creamy texture of fresh corn.
Howard starts by simmering corn kernels (fresh is best, but frozen is fine), sugar, salt and a vanilla bean pod in heavy cream, allowing the vanilla to steep off-heat. She then purees the mixture, adding it to a bechamel-like flour batter along with egg yolks and lemon zest (and some reserved corn kernels, for texture).
As in most soufflés, that bechamel is what gives the soufflé structure. The lift comes from folding whipped egg whites into that starchy mixture. Soufflés rise as they bake because air in the egg whites expands as it heats and the batter traps it. The stronger the batter, the better it holds its shape.
Despite that, most soufflés still collapse. Yet Howard’s didn’t. Though it followed the typical formula, Howard’s recipe proved surprisingly rugged, yielding puddings that never failed to rise.
Turns out it was due to the pureeing of the corn, which releases the kernels’ natural starch. Added to the starch of the flour, that corn starch acts almost glue-like in the batter, creating a particularly strong base for trapping the hot air.
With the mystery solved, we made only minor changes to Howard’s recipe, mostly to streamline (including using extract instead of vanilla bean to skip the steeping step). We also preferred the texture of pureeing all of the corn, rather than leaving some of the kernels whole.
The result: a remarkably sturdy soufflé that nonetheless tastes light and fresh.