As I peered into the window of my oven last week, I was reminded of something the food writer James Beard once said: "The only thing that will make a soufflé fall is if it knows you are afraid of it." I have been making soufflés for years - hot, cold, savoury, sweet, cheese, spinach, lemon, chocolate. Yet as I made the simplest cheese soufflé, I felt that old suspension of breath. Had I adequately folded in the whites? Had I over-folded the whites? Would my soufflé puff, rise and grow into something tall, crusty and lovely?
A soufflé (it means "puffed up" in French) is built of eggs, those marvellously compact sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. The quality of the protein in eggs is of a higher grade than the protein in meat and fish. Although people still worry about the amount of cholesterol eggs bring to the table, if you ate an average of one egg a day you'll still consume less than the 300 milligrams of cholesterol recommended as the daily maximum.
Early humans weren't concerned about cholesterol. They knew a good thing when jungle fowl laid their bounty back in Neolithic times. By 3200BC, chickens were being domesticated in India; by 1400BC, the Chinese and Egyptians were boiling, scrambling and frying eggs. And by Roman times, cooks had discovered the egg's talent as a binding and leavening agent in cakes and custards. Fast-forward a few years to late 18th-century France, when a restaurateur named Beauvilliers took the egg to new heights by creating the first soufflé, an airy dish made of flour cooked in butter to which yolks were added, then lightened with whipped egg whites and baked.