I don’t know why, but for the last few weeks, I had been yearning for a nice soufflé, a cheesy crusty au gratin, or what we simply call a baked dish. When we were young, they were one and the same thing. A baked dish was a staple at least two times a week at dinner and no party could be complete without one. Most often, the baked dish was mounted around noodles, corn, mushrooms, roast chicken, slices of ham, bacon, eggs, or boiled cauliflower, or blanched spinach, carrots and French beans. Not all together, but one or two of the other. It could be combinations of “ham and cheese” or “spinach and egg” or “cauliflower and mushroom” all in a white sauce, covered in stiffly beaten egg white, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and grated cheese and then baked till it turned brown. As must be incontestably obvious to you, this is not a very Indian dish. It is the influence of the West on our cooking though I give the Parsi community full marks for popularizing it.
So then, is a “soufflé”, a “gratin” and a “baked dish”, one and the same thing? Well one thing is for sure, they all use “white sauce”. Now in Classical French cooking, there are five mother sauces. The five mother sauces are, Velouté (a simple sauce made from butter, flour, and meat stock). Espagnole (a rich, dark sauce made from thickened stock, puréed tomatoes, and mirepoix—a mix of sautéed carrots, onions, and celery that’s used as a base). Hollandaise (a tangy, creamy sauce made from butter, lemon juice, and raw egg yolks like a mayonnaise but warmed). Tomato sauce (puréed tomatoes seasoned with herbs, thickened and reduced), and finally Béchamel, or white sauce (milk-based sauce made from butter and flour).
How to Make Soufflé
Without giving you a whole lesson in French cooking, I’m going to quickly tell you what goes into making a Béchamel. You start by cooking butter and flour in a saucepan until it forms a thick, paste-like substance called a ‘roux’. Into that you whisk in warm milk and slowly keep whisking until it forms a smooth, creamy sauce. Simple? Not really, it’s an art to prevent this sauce from becoming lumpy. Once ready, this becomes your base for all baked dishes, and soufflé.
The soufflé is the epitome of artistry and craftmanship. The word soufflé comes from the French verb “souffler,” which means “to inflate”. A flavourful base sauce either sweet or savoury is mixed with stiffly beaten egg whites and baked. The air bubbles in the egg whites expand, puffing the soufflé up, over the top of the dish. That is a soufflé, and you can do it with any ingredient that catches your fancy. Be it apple, pork, vegetables, broccoli, corn, pineapple or chocolate.
When the Zodiac Grill opened at The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (Mumbai) in 1989, the signature dish on its menu crafted by Chef Hemant Oberoi was the Camembert Dariole. A version of the cheese soufflé from Delhi’s Orient Express, this was the lightest, fluffiest, pillow-of-air baked on a bed of cheese sauce. It was the epitome of luxury and fine food. Though for me I’d have preferred the Dariole made from a sharper older Camembert, or even Roquefort. Today, The Chambers at the Taj and Hemant’s own restaurant at BKC Mumbai has a version of this on their menu.
The Homemade Baked Dish
Speaking of cheese and sauce, let’s talk about the ‘Gratin’. Simply put, a gratin is always baked in a shallow dish. The dish is traditionally topped with cheese or breadcrumbs, or both, and they must get crispy under the grill. The most common or popular one is “Dauphinoise potatoes”. In a shallow casserole, you lay out layers of sliced potatoes, with milk or cream, topped with butter, grated cheese, breadcrumbs, creamy potatoes and put it under a grill till they all brown. It’s the crustiest, creamiest, saltiest heaven on earth.
At our home, we would combine the methods of a soufflé and au gratin to make what we called a “Baked Dish”. My mum would melt a knob of butter in a glass baking dish, and then lay blanched seasoned spinach. The next layer would be sliced boiled eggs on top of which she would spread mushrooms, buttered corn kernels and shredded roast chicken. All the layers would then be doused in a generous helping of Béchamel sauce. The casserole would then be finished with stiffly beaten egg-whites folded in with the yolk and bread crumbs and grated with cheese, and shoved into a hot oven. The thickening sauce brought together all the layers and the top remained fluffy and crusty and sharp. A thick wedge was enough to put you to sleep.
While lots of restaurants now make soufflé, they are all dessert soufflé. Unfortunately, the baked dish died many years ago. It may, however, live in some restaurants as lasagna, which is pasta sheets layered with ragu (meat sauce) and béchamel. Or, a Mac and Cheese. But it is seldom that you would come across a nice light airy ramekin full of cheesy goodness.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. Views are personal.