Monday, February 18, 2008

pantry no. 1: chocolate

I am rooting through my mother’s china cabinets. This, on a recent visit, and I find myself looking in the cupboards at all the serviceware of my childhood: a bevy of patterns collected over the years by my mother, Royals this and that, a few good French pieces, the Italian porecelain I have added by way of gifts from travels. They all conjure memories. One in particular is brought on by the Royal Chelsea Hunt pattern, the little cups, saucers, butter plates. At my parents' house, we drink our morning coffee out of them at the dining table pretending we are the Bennetts from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (we have been thick into discussions of this book). I’m surprised to notice that my parents’ dining room is very English, and it fulfills our little fantasy quite nicely. The Royal Chelsea dinner plates are another matter. They all have slightly diffent images in the center, and at dinner time when I was small, we used to play a game, guessing who would get the plate with the lady riding sidesaddle, all dressed in black, looking elegant and somehow heroic. We believed getting the lady's plate was somehow a good omen bringing luck and riches the recipient. But that is another story. This story is about chocolate.

It is the collection of Coalport demi-tasse that my mother received as a wedding gift, that my eyes spy. White bone china, straight sides, with gold leaf handles. I can’t help but touch those handles. These cups were used for coffee after holiday dinners, or at the end of the ladies luncheons for my mother’s book club. They would be set out on the sideboard with the silver coffee service: antique urn, cream, sugarer, spoons. This was all from such another time.

My mother also used these particular demi-tasse for serving chocolate mousse. A light, smooth mousse filled three-quarters up the cup, with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream on top at the time of service. My recollection is that my mother made this mousse, but she could have just as easily had help from one of the two women famous in our town for their good cooking—Fanny or Charlie Belle. Women with flawless dark chocolate skin who could make flawless chocolate mousse.

Several weeks later, I am still thinking about those cups filled with that chocolate mousse. We’ve scheduled a small dinner gathering and I think this is the perfect time to make my own. A snowstorm prevents our guests from coming, and ultimately prevents me from going out to provision for the ingredients, but I decide to make the mousse anyway. If I use Julia Child as my guide, I don’t need any ingredients that I don’t have. We always have plenty of chocolate in the pantry, chocolate bars from local makers, or variations on bitter, dark chocolate bars. There are bars that save endangered species, bars named after colors, bars named after estates in Costa Rica. A pantry can never have too much chocolate.

I don’t have white Coalport demi-tasse for my confection, but I do have my own wedding china, a Royal Doulton pattern, and if I’m honest, I no longer really like it. I’ve outgrown its particular fussiness, but somehow I can’t part with it, as if selling my wedding china on e-bay or Craig’s List, might be selling my own marriage down the river. A chocolate mousse seems a good way to appreciate the fine elements of my own stately cups, maybe even appreciate that said marriage as well.

My recipe is a semi-disaster. It’s been a long time since I’ve made dessert which is funny as I was once a self-styled pastry chef in the early days of our bakery so long ago. All goes relatively well, until I reach for the wrong chocolate in the pantry, and instead of the rich dark bitter chocolate I’d been hoping for, I use without thinking a sweet milk chocolate (where did that unlabled rogue milk chocolate bar come from anyway?!). The end result is very sweet, but the addition of espresso in the mix makes it almost toffee-ish, and the unsweetened cream ( a lucky carton found at the back of the refrigerator that is still good, and perhaps left there since the holiday?) provides much needed balance. A little luck goes a long way.

Mousse Au Chocolat (Loosely adapted from The Art of French Cooking….)
For 4-6

2 eggs
3 ounces bitter dark chocolate
¾ stick of soft butter
½ cup sugar
2 Tbs espresso
Sprinkle of sugar
Dark chocolate shavings
Pinch salt
Brandy, Kirsh, or some other liquer to your liking
Whipped cream

Beat for 3-4 minutes in a bowl over warm water (water not yet simmering), or in a bain marie, the two egg yolks, brandy, and the sugar until smooth and making loose ribbons. Then beat another 3-4 minutes over cool water to chill down.

Melt the chocolate, and two tablespoons espresso over the hot water. Add the chocolate and espresso to the egg mixture, along with the butter, a little bit at a time. Beat until smooth.

Add ½ pinch of salt to the eggwhites. Beat until soft peaks form. Sprinkle sugar on top of the peaks, and beat until the whites form stiff peaks. Mix ¼ of the eggwhites into egg-chocolate mixture, then fold in the rest of the eggwhites until whole mixture is streaky. Be careful not to fold in too much, and break the whites.

Pour the mixture into the cups and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours, or up to 24 hours. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream on top, and shave a little dark chocolate over the top. Serve.


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