1 lb asparagus spears, bottom ends trimmed and discarded, thick spears peeled, spears cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup finely ground dry bread crumbs
3 Tbsp cake flour (can substitute all purpose flour)
1 1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch dry ground mustard
Pinch ground cumin
Pinch ground ginger
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese or Parmesan
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
5 egg whites
6 8-ounce ramekins
Blanch asparagus for 2 minutes in boiling salted water (1 teaspoon of salt for every quart of water). Drain. Rinse in cold water to stop cooking. Set aside to let cool.
Melt 1 Tbsp butter in saucepan on medium heat. Add shallots, garlic, and thyme. Cook gently until soft, do not let brown. About 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Purée asparagus and shallot mixture in a blender. Measure out 1 1/4 cup of purée.
Butter 6 8-ounce ramekins. Coat well with the bread crumbs, reserving any leftover bread crumbs.
Make a thick béchamel sauce. Over medium-low heat, melt 3 Tbsp butter in a medium sized saucepan. Add the cake flour and whisk to completely incorporate the flour into the butter, continue to stir for a couple of minutes. Do not let brown. Very slowly, add the milk to the mixture, little by little, whisking constantly. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon of salt, the nutmeg, cumin, mustard, ginger, and some fresh ground black pepper. Lower the heat to low and let cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the mixture from sticking to the pan.
After 15 minutes, remove the béchamel from the heat and stir in the cheese. Transfer the béchamel and the asparagus mixture to a large mixing bowl (if you have a mixing bowl with a pour lip on the side, use it, it will make it easier to pour out later). Taste the mixture and adjust the seasonings. The souffle base should be well-seasoned. Stir in the egg yolks until well combined.
At this point you can make ahead the souffle mixture. Refrigerate to store for up to two days. Return to room temperature before proceeding.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Prepare to make a water bath. Have ready a 9×12 baking dish with at least 2 inch sides. Put on a kettle of water to boil.
Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and using a mixer, beat the egg whites to firm but soft, almost stiff, peaks. (Make sure there are no traces of egg yolk or shell in your egg whites before starting.) Do not over-beat. Over-beating results in stiff peaks that are dry, somewhat reminiscent of styrofoam. Use a rubber spatula to first fold in one quarter of the beaten egg whites into the asparagus mixture, then the remaining three-quarters. Use a light touch to keep from deflating the egg whites.
Fill ramekins with the mixture up to a quarter-inch from the top. If you want, sprinkle leftover bread crumbs on top. Place the ramekins in the bain marie baking dish. Place baking dish on the middle rack in the oven. Pour boiling water into the baking dish around the ramekins until the water comes up halfway the sides of the ramekins.
Bake for 10 minutes at 400°F, reduce the heat to 350°F and bake for about 15 minutes more, until puffed up and golden brown. Don’t open the oven door until the soufflé is just about done, or it may fall.
You can serve the soufflés immediately or you can serve them later. To proceed for serving them later, let the soufflés sit in the bain marie for 15 minutes. Then use run a sharp knife around the edges and invert the individual soufflés to a buttered baking sheet. Cool to room temperature, wrap in plastic and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Return to room temperature before re-baking. Heat oven to 400°F, bake the souffles on a buttered baking sheet, not in ramekins, for 7-8 minutes, and serve.
Yield: Makes 6 individual soufflés.