At the risk of public flagellation, I’m going to make a confession: We don’t eat a family dinner. I know, I know, research and lifestyle bloggers regularly tell us how important it is to gather round the table once a day. Babies eat a bigger variety of healthy foods, they connect with their parents, and obesity, drug use, teen pregnancy, etc. are all avoided. But here’s the reality: Lucy eats dinner at 5:30pm. (I sit with her and appease her demand for stories. “Boook. Boook,” she says, reaching to touch pictures of dogs with avocado-smeared fingers.) Her father gets home at 8pm (or later), and I usually eat with him. Right now, while she’s still so little, Lucy’s dinner simply exists on a separate plane from ours.
I’m sure things will change once she gets older (e.g. stays up past 7pm). But for now I tamper my guilt by preparing one family meal of the week. On Saturday mornings while Lucy and her papa are out, I whirl around the kitchen like a madwoman. When they come home at noon, we sit down to lunch, the three of us all eating the same thing. I try not to dumb down the food too much, because part of the exercise is about community and expanding the palate. On the other hand, there’s always the fear that she won’t eat anything. I try to split the difference, which is how I found myself making spinach soufflé for a toddler.
Soufflé aux épinards sounds labor intensive and it does use its fair share of pots and bowls. But really, a soufflé is just a very thick, egg-yolk enhanced béchamel sauce, mixed with whipped egg whites—a simple concept that’s also a good way to eat spinach if you don’t have many teeth. I started with the recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and adapted it to suit my needs. This meant frozen chopped spinach squeezed dry, and enough eggs to fill an 8-cup soufflé dish X 2 — because I made an extra for the freezer, to be defrosted for weeknight baby dinners.
Soufflés need an extra whipped white or two to give them lift, which means you’ll have yolks leftover. Here’s a thrifty tip: mix them with sugar (one teaspoon per yolk) and freeze for later use in homemade ice cream.
Use a light hand when folding the béchamel sauce and egg whites together—don’t worry if they’re not completely combined. I like to leave large dollops of whipped whites streaking through the thick sauce, which I think allows for a more extravagant rise.
I timed lunch perfectly that day, everyone seated at the table, salad dressed, baby bibbed, and baguette sliced, just as the timer dinged. I felt unusually smug as I surveyed my beautiful soufflé, which puffed gently over the rim of the dish, golden with toasted cheese. Parenting can sometimes feel like a relentless slog, but then there are moments like this: sitting down with your little pack, your family, to enjoy a home-cooked meal together.
And then there is reality. Don’t let this picture fool you—Lucy ate two bites of soufflé and I had to beg her to even put those in her mouth. Like most babies, she eats when she’s hungry (a novel concept!) and that afternoon she was not hungry. (She went on to scoff a huge portion at dinner the next day, so all is not lost.)
What are your favorite family meals?
Spinach soufflé / Soufflé aux épinards
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Serves four (on its own) or six (with a salad)
Julia Child’s soufflé recipes use a 6-cup dish, but I increased the quantities for an 8-cup dish because I feel like if you’re going to make a soufflé, you might as well go big. Leftover soufflé is delicious, though no longer airy, I still enjoy the denser texture—and the taste remains the same, of course.
1 package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
3 1/2 tablespoons butter
4 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
6 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
8 egg whites
1/2 cup grated Gruyère or Comté cheese
Butter to grease dish and 1-2 tablespoons fine bread crumbs
Special equipment: 8-cup soufflé dish, electric beaters
Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
Thoroughly squeeze the liquid from the chopped spinach. Butter the soufflé dish and sprinkle with enough breadcrumbs to generously coat the interior, tapping out the excess (this prevents sticking).
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook until it smells slightly toasty, about 2 minutes. Add the milk, whisking continuously until the mixture forms a very thick sauce, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.
Separate the eggs, dropping the whites into a large, clean, dry mixing bowl. (Any trace of fat will cause failed whipped whites, so make sure your bowl is scrupulously sparkling clean.)
Whisk the egg yolks, one by one, into the hot béchamel sauce, until fully incorporated. Add the chopped spinach and stir until thoroughly combined. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg (the egg is raw, but I usually taste at this stage so I can adjust seasonings; sample at your own risk).
Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat them until stiff. Stir one quarter of them into the sauce (this lightens the mixture). Add all but 1 tablespoon of the cheese. Gently fold the rest of the egg whites into the sauce and spoon the mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and place on the middle rack of the preheated oven. Turn the oven down to 375ºF and bake for 30-35 minutes until the soufflé is puffed, golden, and slightly jiggly when you shake the dish. Serve immediately.