Barrett and I made this recipe together for the first time a couple of years ago when I was staying with him and his wife Rebecca. I was intrigued by the recipe from the start with its mixture of pasta (usually heavy) and whipped eggs (light). When I was at university my friend Tom and I used to make a kind of spaghetti frittata and this looked like a lighter and more elegant version of it. The first attempt with Barrett turned out well but I still thought it was a little flat and a little bland. So earlier this week when I accidentally made the wrong kind of pasta (strange, yes, but I had it in my head to make rigatoni and somehow blanked out and put angel hair pasta in the water) I thought of Madison's recipe and decided to give it another go.
I didn't change the recipe enough to claim it as my own, but I think I made a couple of crucial changes that improved the end result. It turned out light and fluffy and full of flavour, but still with that satisfying pasta base that turned it into comfort food.
Deborah Madison's Pasta and Cheese Soufflé (Serves four as a starter, two as a main dish or one extremely greedy cook as a dinner and then a midnight snack; I'll never lose those last two kilos...)
Béchamel sauce made with 2 cups milk, 5 Tbs butter and 5 Tbs flour, generous salt and a quarter of a nutmeg, grated
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup grated Gruyère (I substituted about little over a cup of grated Beaufort for this and the following)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
8 ounces capellini (about 3 cups cooked spaghettini in my case)
salt and pepper
1 large bag of spinach
Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente, then drain and rinse under cold water. Wash the spinach and cook, covered, in a shallow pan on a low heat. The water clinging to the leaves should be enough to wilt it. Whisk the béchamel sauce with the egg yolks and one cup of the cheese. Drain the spinach, roughly chop it and add it to the béchamel mix. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks. Now this is where I deviate from the instructions. The instructions call for mixing the béchamel mixture with the pasta and then folding in the egg whites. I find this counter-intuitive as anything as it's almost impossible to mix as strands of pasta with egg whites without losing all the air you've carefully put into the whites. So instead, this time around I folded the whites into the béchamel without the pasta. I then put a layer of pasta in the bottom of my buttered soufflé dish and added a third of the egg mixutre, another layer of pasta and so on, making sure to finish with a very thin layer of egg mixture on the top. I then grated a little more cheese on top of the soufflé and baked it in a very hot (450f/210c) oven for about 25 minutes.
The egg mixture sank into the pasta but remained light and fluffy. It doesn't look that high in the photo, but you have to allow for the fact that I did not have a professional photographer in the kitchen and had to run and find the camera, losing precious seconds (and millimeters). (It was even less photogenic after serving.) Nevertheless, it was a delicious indulgent meal. Make sure you are generous with the salt, pepper and nutmeg and use a flavourful cheese and you'll end up with something that is simultaneously light and filling. It's a paradox, but it works. It's like a grown-up macaroni and cheese!