Special equipment: Ramekins
1. Prepare the molds. Generously coat the interiors of 8 6-ounce straight-sided ramekins with the softened butter using a pastry brush or your fingers. Pour 2 tablespoons sugar into 1 dish and turn it until all surfaces are coated, then tip the sugar out into the next and repeat the process until all the ramekins have a thorough coating of butter and sugar. Set the prepared molds in a large shallow baking pan or on a half-sheet pan.
2. Applesauce. Tie the rosemary sprigs together with kitchen twine, wrapping the twine in a spiral up the length of the stems to keep the needles from falling off in the sauce. Put 3/4 cup sugar in a 4-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan and place it over medium-high heat. When the sugar begins to melt, stir it with a wooden spoon. it will form big lumps at first, but keep cooking and stirring until all the sugar is dissolved and you have a smooth amber syrup. As soon as it reaches this stage, add 2 tablespoons butter and stir until it is melted and incorporated. Add the apples and stir. The caramel will harden and form lumps again, but once the sauce cooks it will dissolve. Add the rosemary bundle, cinnamon stick, and vanilla bean. Stir in the vanilla extract if using. Puree the mixture with a handheld immersion blender, in a food processor, or by passing it through a food mill. You should have a deep brown sauce that is thick enough to hold its shape in a mound. (This applesauce can be stored covered in the refrigerator up to 1 week. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)
3. Egg whites. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks and liquor if suing into the applesauce. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks, add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, and continue to beat until they form stiff peaks. Using a large rubber spatula, fold one-third of the whites into the apple mixture until it is thoroughly incorporated, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Tilt the bowl over the prepared souffle cups and, using the rubber spatula to carefully guide the mixture, fill the dishes to 1/2 inch of the top. Wipe up any spills ont he sides of the dishes and, using your thumb, wipe off any mixture that is touching the rims. If the souffle bakes onto any buttered surface at the top of dish, it will stick and prevent it from rising straight up. At this point the souffles can be held up to 1 hour at room temperature.
4. Baking. Put the baking pan holding the souffles in the oven and pour about 1/2 inch hot tap water into the pan. Bake until the souffles are nicely browned and risen about 1 1/2 inches, 20 to 25 minutes. Using tongs or oven mitts, immediately transfer the hot dishes to individual serving plates and rush them to the tables with pitchers of the custard sauce. Each guest should break open their souffle in the middle and pour in some of the custard.
1. Heating the milk and warming the yolks. Pour the milk and sugar into a small (1 to 2-quart) saucepan and set it over medium heat. Put the egg yolks in a medium stainless-steel mixing bowl and float that bowl in a larger bowl half full of hot tap water. Whisk the yolks until they are lukewarm, about 90 degrees to 100 degrees F. (it will take less than 1 minute), then lift the bowl out of the water.
2. Cooking the custard. The instant the milk mixture comes to a rolling boil and rises in the pan, lift it off the heat. With the whisk in one hand and the saucepan in the other, pour the boiling milk into the egg yolks as you whisk constantly but gently. Continue to gently stir the sauce with the whisk for 30 seconds. At this point it should be fully cooked. An instant-read thermometer set in the sauce should register 170 degrees to 180 degrees F. It should coat a teaspoon, but it will become much thicker when it cools. (If for some reason the sauce did not get hot enough to thicken, you can place the bowl on top of a saucepan of boiling water and stir it with a rubber spatula until it reaches 170 degrees F. Do not heat the sauce above 180 degrees F. or it will curdle.) Now whisk the sauce rapidly for 30 seconds to cool it and then pour it through a fine sieve. Store it in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Pour the milk into a small (1 to 2-quart) saucpean and place it over medium-high heat. Watch the pan carefully. As soon as the milk comes to a full boil, add the herbs and any additional flavoring, push them under the surface of the pan and let the herbs steep for 30 minutes. If they steep longer, it will have little effect on the flavor, but you should uncover the pan so that the milk can cool faster. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve into a large liquid measuring cup, pressing down firmly on the herbs with the back of a spoon to extract all the liquid from the leaves. Add fresh milk if needed to measure 2 cups.
Variation for a large souffle: pour the batter into a 1 1/2-quart souffle dish, generously coated with butter and sugar. Bake the souffle in a shallow water bath at 375 degrees F. until the top is browned and risen about 1 1/2 inches above the rim, 35 to 40 minutes.
Recipe courtesy of the Herbfarm Cookbook. Published by Scribner, 2000.