Recipe

A Durham Chef Resurrects a Legendary Twice-Baked Grits Soufflé—and Shares the Recipe for the First Time  

Labor intensive but quite possibly life-changing, the dish features local grits, Gruyère cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and a Vidalia onion puree

A bowl with a grit dish inside

Photo: courtesy of Nanas


While working as a young chef making his name in Durham, North Carolina, Matt Kelly dined at the venerable Magnolia Grill and tasted a dish from chef Ben Barker that blew his mind. “I put my spoon in it and to this day, I remember that first bite,” Kelly says. “I kept eating, and when I was done I ordered another one because it was the best dish I’d ever had.” Twelve years ago, Magnolia Grill closed its doors, and that holy-grail recipe, a twice-baked grits soufflé, disappeared with it—until now. 

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Kelly went on to become a Durham icon in his own right, with his hospitality group opening celebrated spots like Vin Rouge, Mateo, St. James Seafood, and Mothers & Sons. At the end of last year, he reopened Nanas, a beloved fine-dining spot that hadn’t survived the pandemic—but before opening day rolled around, he made a phone call. “He said, ‘I want to do something like your soufflé on the menu at Nanas,’” Barker recalls. “I said, ‘You know what, Matt? I’ll give you the recipe.’ And the phone just went silent for a minute.” 

photo: D.L. Anderson
Chef Matt Kelly in the kitchen at Nanas.

Needless to say, Kelly accepted the offer (“my eyes were watering a little”). But as recipes go, the twice-baked grits soufflé as Barker makes it is not exactly user-friendly. The grits are lightened up with whipped egg whites. There is a mushroom emulsion, a Vidalia onion puree, a sherry vinaigrette, and a melted confit of foie gras on top. “I’ve only made the dish once since we closed the restaurant, because it has so many steps,” Barker admits. “And we definitely had a love-hate relationship with it while we were open.” The end result, though, is worth it. “You put it in your mouth and it lasts so long on your palate,” Kelly says. “You have all these perfect textures and complementary flavors and layers of savoriness.”

A recipe like this one doesn’t materialize overnight. “Its story tells you a lot about how dishes coalesce and come together,” Barker says. He and his wife, Karen, became especially interested in grits after Magnolia Grill’s grits cake with asparagus, morels, and country ham gained a national spotlight. They experimented with using them as the base for a twice-baked cheese soufflé from Richard Olney’s landmark cookbook Simple French Food, something they had cooked at the Fearrington House before opening Magnolia Grill. From there, they added regional touches, like the Vidalia onions, and tweaked and fiddled until they landed on the perfect combination. “We must have made 15,000 of them while Magnolia Grill was open,” Barker says. “It was the most re-ordered dish on the menu, which says a lot.” (Even more tellingly, Magnolia Grill busboys used to grab hunks of bread to sop up the cheesy, creamy leftovers from ramekins coming back into the kitchen.)

Now, with a few tweaks, it lives on at Nanas—with credit to Barker—and is already gaining a following there, too. “I’m proud to serve it because Magnolia Grill was such a landmark restaurant in the South,” Kelly says. “Nanas is all about telling stories, and that means bringing new dishes to the table and keeping other dishes like this one alive.” 

Below, find an adapted, more approachable version of the recipe, which has never been shared before. 


Ingredients

  • Twice-Baked Grits Soufflé (Yield: 8 servings)

    • 2 oz. unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the baking dish

    • Fine cornmeal for the baking dish

    • ½ cup white grits

    • 2 cups whole milk

    • 1½ tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste

    • 6 eggs, separated

    • 1¼ cups grated Argentinian Parmesan cheese

    • 1¼ cups grated Gruyère cheese

    • ½ cup Vidalia onion puree (see note)

    • Freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg

    • ½ cup chopped flat parsley

    • 2 tbsp. picked thyme


Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat the inside of a 2- to 3-quart baking dish with butter, then add cornmeal to coat. Place in a larger deep baking dish.

  2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the milk and salt. Warm over medium heat, stirring frequently, until small bubbles appear all around the outside of the pan (it should register 180–185°F).

  3. Reduce the heat to low and whisk in the grits. Be careful to add the grits gradually so that they evenly incorporate. Continue to cook, stirring regularly, until thickened and cooked thoroughly, about 20 minutes.

  4. Place the egg yolks in a heatproof bowl. As you whisk, add a small ladleful of the grits mixture into the yolks to temper them. Once incorporated, whisk the tempered yolks into the saucepan.

  5. Fold in the cheeses, onion puree, and soft butter.

  6. Season generously with black pepper and nutmeg, and add salt to taste. Fold in parsley and thyme.

  7. In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk, whip the egg whites until they form medium-stiff peaks. Add the whites in three additions, folding very gently after each addition.

  8. Ladle the soufflé into the prepared dish, leaving a bit of space at the top for them to rise. Carefully pour boiling water into the larger baking dish so it comes about halfway up the soufflé dish, being careful not to let it splash.

  9. Bake, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Rotate the pan halfway, then continue to bake for about 15 minutes longer.

  10. Carefully pull the pans from the oven and transfer the soufflé dish to a wire rack to cool slightly. To serve, use a butter knife to loosen the sides, then invert onto a plate. Serve right away.

  11. Note: To make the Vidalia onion puree, place whole Vidalia onions on a sheet tray. Roast at 375°F for 40 minutes, or until very soft. Let cool completely. Remove the peels, puree, and store in the refrigerator.


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