Pastry Chef Dominique Ansel has managed to find time between national media appearances and 16-hour work days to create another innovative dessert that appears to chart new territory. With the introduction of the Magic Souffle ($7) on Friday, Ansel continues to blur the line between traditional bakery offerings and specialty sweets designed to be consumed like plated desserts at a restaurant.
The Magic Souffle may be his most risky pastry endeavor to date. The precursors to his last two hits—Doughnuts and S'mores—appeal to large audiences, including people who don't consider themselves "foodies." But the souffle is the kind of dessert many people (irrationally, in my opinion) avoid because they feel like it's too formal or uptight. So if Ansel can de-stigmatize the souffle, he'll solidify his place as a true influencer of food tastes.
Like the Frozen S'more that preceded it, Ansel and his team clearly put a lot of thought into the presentation of the Magic Souffle. The whimsical red and white striped paper container evokes a box of circus popcorn. And in a first for the bakery for a mass-produced item, a sticker provides you with a description and the details about what you just bought: "'The Magic Souffle' a light-as-air chocolate souffle inside a toasted orange blossom brioche, brushed with Grand Manier caramel. Please eat immediately when warm do not reheat or refrigerate."
The Magic Souffle is served hot from the oven and the bakery advises you to "rip it in half with your hands" immediately rather than cut it with a knife, to reveal the molten chocolate core. Take this advice to heart! If you wait too long because you're texting friends ("I'm about to eat a Magic Souffle!"), the molten core will bake through and turn into chocolate cake.
While you're ripping the souffle in half you will immediately experience one of the most pleasurable aspects of this dessert—the otherworldly aroma of fresh-baked brioche and melty chocolate—and you can detect a little orange blossom scent as well.
The contrast between the moderately dark, chocolate souffle—or sponge cake—and the orange blossom brioche dough is immensely satisfying as well. Though the edges of the Magic Souffle are much crispier, the combination of components and aromas reminded me of hot pancakes or French crepes with dark chocolate chips. These characteristics will appeal to those looking for a more comfort-style dessert. Meanwhile, the well-done, rectangular brioche container and the sheer wizardry of the preparation will appeal to those looking for a more refined, plated-dessert-like experience.
Speculation About How the Magic Souffle is Made
Unlike the Cronut and the Fro-Smo, where the entire baking procedure and recipe is well documented, almost nothing is known about how the Magic Souffle is made. In fact, Ansel has made the details a tightly kept secret. Even the manager of the bakery, Anthony Soriano, claims, "I'm not even allowed to see how the Magic Souffle is made." So in an effort to try and deconstruct the process I invited Jeffrey Wurtz, Executive Pastry Chef of the Plaza Hotel and the creator of one of the best souffles I've ever had, to taste and examine the magic souffle with me.
Wurtz outlined a couple of theories about how Ansel might make the Magic Souffle:
I think Ansel uses a two-piece rectangular teflon metal mold with a lid, like those used for small breads. Then, they scale out an exact amount of brioche dough and put it in the mold to continue the proofing process. A spacer is probably used to keep the brioche dough from taking up the entire interior of the mold and to leave room to insert the chocolate souffle. Another theory is that the brioche dough is already fully proofed or even par-baked and then wrapped around a frozen souffle batter and the whole unit is then stored frozen inside the mold. This process would enable them to align the baking times of the brioche and the souffle. Each complete unit is baked or toasted to order in a short period. The brioche is so thin it would not require a lot of baking.
Wurtz said that the question of how Ansel makes the Magic Souffle really got him thinking but acknowledged that "he could be completely off [the mark]." Noting that he would need to run some experiments in his own kitchen to see if any of his ideas held water. He also thought the low sweetness and airiness would make it an ideal accompaniment to coffee or espresso at any time of the day or served as a petit four in a fine dining establishment.
Choosing a favorite between the Cronut, Fro-smo and Magic Souffle will ultimately depend on personal tastes. That said, I love the innovation behind the magic souffle. Consider that for 15+ years restaurants have been parading out one molten chocolate cake after another and few have added anything new to the dish. And now, many of the aspects of a molten chocolate cake have been combined and repackaged inside orange-blossom brioche dough. And this innovation took place, not in the test kitchens at El Bulli, but in a tiny bakery on Spring Street.
More details on how to get one: The bakery will be making about 100 Magic Souffles a day initially, and the good news is you don't have to wait on the Cronut line to get one. However, they did sell out of all 100 before noon on Sunday (day two of availability). So go as early as possible if you have your heart set on one.