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Archive for the ‘Desserts’ Category

In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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Ever since local summer fruits began appearing in our greenmarkets, Someone in my household has become passionate about fruit desserts. He’s happy with any kind I make, as long as it’s fruity. (He claims he’s fighting scurvy.) To his delight, I’ve gone through strawberries, blueberries, and cherries, tried early nectarines and plums (too soon) and am now moving to peaches. I have a favorite greenmarket farm stand, which brings its produce up from southern New Jersey – a region as famous in our part of the world for peaches as it is for tomatoes.

This week there were four ripe peaches in my refrigerator needing to be used, and Someone was looking at me with hungry puppy eyes as we discussed upcoming days’ dinner plans. I could see where my responsibilities lay.

Out came those peaches, to be dipped in boiling water, skinned, and halved for a pie – of sorts.
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What I was about to make was a recipe in Joy of Cooking called simply Peach Pie, which I’d discovered several years ago and which was unlike any fruit pie I’d ever made or seen. At the time, I thought it was weird: To begin with, it wasn’t even an actual pie, because it had no top crust at all – so, more of a tart. The peaches weren’t to be sliced but left in halves. And there was a peculiar slurry to be poured around the fruit before baking, which sounded unattractive. But this was the ever-reliable Irma Rombauer’s recipe, so I gave it a try. To my surprise, it was terrific, and it has been a standard of mine ever since.

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This day, I made up a basic pastry dough for a one-crust pie, rested it briefly in the refrigerator, lined a medium-sized pie dish with it, and arranged my peach halves in it. I’d have been happier with one more peach to fill it more generously, but the four I had were just about enough.
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Over them I poured that slurry, made from 1 egg, 2 tablespoons of flour, ⅔ cup of granulated sugar, and 2 ounces of melted butter. It’s always thick and gummy, not at all dessert-looking, but I’ve learned to trust it.
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The pie baked for 15 minutes at 400°, then another 50 minutes at 300°. Out it came, looking much the way it had looked going in, except that the slurry had firmed up enough that the fruit appeared to have been set in a pool of slightly moist concrete.
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All this notwithstanding, the pie was delicious, as always. The peaches were soft and sweet, and the slurry had become a tender custard, lightly peach-flavored and far more attractive to the palate than to the eye. Rombauer prefers serving the pie warm, but we like it cool. If cool, she recommends whipped cream on top, but for home use we find it perfectly fine just plain.
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Someone was very happy that evening. And the next day at breakfast, too. Scurvy was fended off for another few days.

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We could have taken our Fourth of July picnic up to a table on our building’s roof garden, but it was still ghastly hot and humid that evening, and since the elevators don’t go up to the roof, we’d have had to shlep food, drink, and all their accouterments up a sweltering stairwell. So our foursome picnicked in the dining room in air-conditioned comfort.

Tom created a dandy little hors d’oeuvre for the occasion – a sort of micro-mini ballpark hot dog. He fried two slices of sandwich bread in butter, spread them with yellow mustard, cut them in one-inch squares, and laid a chunk of frankfurter on each. Half of them received a round of homemade bread-and-butter pickle under the frank, and the other half were topped with a piece of cornichon. Both were very tasty, but we all agreed the bread-and-butter-pickle version had the edge.

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The main event opened rather elegantly with Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison. A few years ago I wrote a post about making this specialty of the famous New Orleans restaurant. It’s a luscious dish and always a favorite.
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After that came the more traditional picnic-y foods.

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My potato salad, made with the season’s first new potatoes, thinly sliced, a little red onion, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and homemade mayonnaise.
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Tom’s macaroni salad, with bits of celery, bell pepper, red onion, and tomato; dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and the same mayonnaise.
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A broiled flank steak with Tom’s minimal barbecue sauce: his own seasoned ketchup, Worcestershire, and chipotle Cholula. It makes a light coating, penetrating the meat just enough to liven up its own flavor.
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There was also corn on the cob – white corn, first of the season, wonderfully fresh and sweet – chunked heirloom tomatoes, and a crusty baguette; all set out family style and attacked with enthusiasm and old-fashioned boardinghouse reach.
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To finish the meal we had a nectarine cake, which I make from a Joy of Cooking recipe called Plum Cake Cockayne. It’s a regular summer dessert of mine, sweet, easy, and good with any stone fruit. It was consumed with alacrity, even though everyone protested how full they already were. That’s the magic of fruit desserts.
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Summer is officially here at last! One happy concomitant of that is the increasing abundance of local fruits and vegetables at my Greenmarket. We’d invited a pair of friends to a dinner to celebrate the season, and when I did the shopping for it, a few days ahead, I went way overboard on my purchases: inescapable rapture of the season.

Not everything shown here was for that one meal, but it all looked so good I couldn’t resist. And good it all was, too.

 

Our Italian-themed dinner party began simply, with a few Castelvetrano olives, cheddar cheese sticks (homemade), and cubes of country terrine (not homemade) to go with glasses of aperitif wine in the living room.

 

At the dinner table, we started with that quintessential summer antipasto, prosciutto and melon. It was pushing the season, but I had managed to find a single cantaloupe in the grocery store’s bin that actually smelled like a melon. Its texture was a little too stiff for full ripeness, but the flavor was right.

 

We went on to a primo of risi e bisi, another seasonal classic. This Venetian dish of rice and peas is a close relative of risotto. My version, from Tom’s and my cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, includes pancetta in addition to the usual onion, parsley, broth, butter, and parmesan cheese. Quite a substantial dish, and just lovely with young, sweet English peas.

 

Our secondo, also from that cookbook, featured a dish we call Summertime Lamb Stew. It’s lamb lightly braised with tomatoes, pancetta, and chopped aromatic vegetables. Normally it uses fresh plum tomatoes, but in June all we get are greenhouse-grown, so we made it with canned San Marzanos. Sautéed early zucchini and spring onions, lightly scented with mint, made fresh, flavorful companions to the lamb.

 

After a cheese course (which I failed to photograph), we finished with a dessert of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries in grappa – a recipe from Tom’s and my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana – and hazelnut biscotti baked and brought to us by our guest Joan.

This was as light and refreshing as you can imagine – a perfect palate cleanser of a dessert.

 

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the array of bottles that Tom chose from his wine closet to accompany the meal. Here they are at the end of the evening:

They were:

  • 2015 Paumanok (Long Island) Festival Chardonnay as aperitifs
  • 2016 Abbazia di Novacella Gruner Veltliner with the prosciutto and melon
  • 2016 Pra Soave Classico Otto with the risi e bisi
  • 2001 Tor Calvano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with the lamb
  • 2004 Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico Riserva with the cheese
  • 2011 Dogliatti Moscato d’Asti with dessert

I hasten to point out that the four of us did not finish all six wines that evening. In fact, we didn’t finish any of them – just enjoyed the pleasure of tasting the differences from one to the next with each course.  They were still fine the next day, as Tom and I feasted on the leftovers.

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Earlier this month Tom came home from a sojourn in Naples with a palate primed for ricotta. He’d been there for “Campania Stories,” an annual five-day event showcasing the wines of the region. Several of the meals provided for the attending journalists had included luscious fresh buffalo- or sheep-milk ricotta, and he longed for more of it.

I was happy to indulge him. Fortunately, we can get good fresh ricotta here now, and though it’s usually from cows’ milk, it’s vastly better than commercial brands filled with stabilizers and preservatives. I promptly acquired some.
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While the ricotta was at its freshest, we had it first in an antipasto: on each plate a big scoop of ricotta, paper-thin slices of felino salame, halved grape tomatoes dressed with salt, pepper, oregano, and olive oil, and a few fennel-flavored taralli. This reproduced what had been the ubiquitous Neapolitan antipasto during Tom’s trip, and we both reveled in its flavors – an appetizer in the truest sense.
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Our second use of the ricotta was in a pasta recipe from our own cookbook La Tavola Italiana: Maccheroni with Ricotta and Tomato Sauce. It’s a breeze to make – the simplicity highlights the ricotta itself, so the freshest, most flavorful ricotta is essential.

I opened a jar of my homemade tomato sauce and heated it up. I cooked the pasta, dressed it lightly with the sauce, then tossed in ricotta (brought to room temperature) and mixed all together well. Contrary to what one might expect, the ricotta lightened the dish and made it surprisingly fresh – not the effect that cheese usually has on pasta.
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There was still enough ricotta left to use in a dessert on another day. Also in La Tavola Italiana is a recipe for a Ricotta and Strawberry Parfait. The ricotta is whipped or beaten until smooth and flavored with sugar, egg yolk, and amaretto liqueur. The cream is heaped on berries that have been hulled, rinsed, and tossed with lemon juice. Slivered almonds go on top.

This day the stores’ strawberries didn’t look very good, so I bought big juicy blackberries instead. And for the liqueur, since I didn’t have any amaretto, I used kirsch. The dish was fine with those substitutions. Once again, the ricotta created a sense of lightness, beautifully complementing the berries and making the dessert a pleasing grace note to the meal that preceded it.
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Neapolitans, says Tom, know a thing or two about dining.

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Caramelized Torrijas

All of three years ago, on my return from a trip to Spain, a post that I wrote here about many of the foods I enjoyed there mentioned a dessert called a torrija. Entirely new to me, it seemed to be a sort of structured-chunk-of-bread pudding with a crunchy crème brûlée topping – quite delicious. Here’s the picture I took of it:

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Eager to try making it at home, I began looking for recipes. There were two in my Spanish cookbooks, and I found others on the internet, but they were all essentially French toast: bread slices dipped in a thin custard, some also in beaten egg, and fried to thorough brownness in oil or butter. It was clear from my photo that the one I had in Spain hadn’t been done that way.

The soft white sides of that torrija made me think it couldn’t have been fried at all, so when I attempted to recreate the dish I baked it and ran it under the broiler with a brown sugar topping. Never mind the details; it didn’t work. I never got around to trying again.

But I couldn’t get that torrija out of my mind. Recently I had an idea about it: I searched for the name on Google Images. Among the hundreds of photos that came up, a few looked something like the one I had in Spain. Pursuing those to their sources, I learned that there are two kinds of torrijas. “Mine” was the kind called caramelezada, and it’s cooked in a way different from the French-toast type. Eureka!

But not so fast: the underlying recipes were all in Spanish. The little of that language that I know wasn’t enough to fully grasp the techniques, and Google’s translations were ludicrous. So I had to improvise somewhat. Here, by the way, is the recipe I relied on, to the extent that I could, for my experiment.

Making just a fraction of the recipe’s quantities, I stirred together milk, heavy cream, beaten egg and sugar. I put two thick slabs of my own white bread into this uncooked batter and left them to absorb it, which turned out not to be as simple as it sounds.

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The recipe said they’d need 45 minutes on each side. That seemed like a lot, but fortunately I’d started early enough in the day, because it did take that long, even with occasional pour-overs to expedite the process.

Then came the actual cooking. This was where the Spanish instructions weren’t clear to me. Here’s exactly how Google translated the final words of the recipe:

We go with the marking of the French toast. We light the pan with butter. We pour plenty of sugar on the top and put them in the pan for a while until the sugar is roasted (but be careful not to burn). We do the same for the other side and put them on the plates.

Was I supposed to put the sugar on top of the butter, which was just referred to, or on “them,” the breads? How much sugar is “plenty”? It would also have helped to know how high a heat to use and how long it might take for the sugar to “roast.” ¿Quién sabe?

First I tried putting the sugar in the pan and laying the bread slice on top of the sugar.

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The butter bubbled along merrily, but when I tilted up the bread to see how it was browning, I couldn’t see any effect from the sugar. So just before turning the bread, I put some sugar on top of it.
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The butter was getting pretty dark, and I worried that it, not the sugar, might burn. When the first chunk of bread was well browned, I took it out of the pan. No sugar had caramelized on it, but it was clearly cooked enough. For the second chunk, I added more fresh butter and put sugar both in the pan and on each side of the bread.
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I got basically the same result: The sugar just dissolved, and the bread simply browned in the sweetened butter. I gave up and called them done.
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They weren’t a disaster. Their texture and flavor were very like the torrija I had in Spain. But I’m really sorry I couldn’t get the crunchy topping. Not just for the pleasant mouthfeel: Caramelizing sugar cuts some of its sweetness, and the amounts of sugar each torrija absorbed in my futile attempts to caramelize it gave it a far more intense sweetness than I’d have liked.
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A little blowtorch would probably have done the job, but I don’t own one. Beloved Spouse is voting for a few minutes under the broiler, but that didn’t work when I made my first torrija try. If anyone who reads this post has had success with torrijas caramelezadas, I’d be grateful for any tips you’d care to provide. In English, please: My Spanish is clearly inadequate for this dish.

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When it comes to making desserts, I’m usually a minimalist. Oldies but goodies are fine for me, and the easier, the better. So when the occasional urge to make something chocolaty comes over me I’m more likely to turn to a simple mousse than a multilayered torte or lushly frosted cake. Chocolate mousse seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it’s still a fine, light chocolate dessert – which, these days, is almost an oxymoron.

For the prospective mousse maker, there are lots of recipes to choose among. Every general French or American cookbook has one, often more than one. They’re all over the Internet too. Some are fairly elaborate, with many ingredients, cooking steps, and flavorings; others promise to be simple and easy. I’m sure they’d all be good, but I’ve never found a recipe that’s as minimal as the one I usually make. It has only two ingredients: semisweet chocolate and eggs.

I think I invented this, one day when I wanted a mousse but didn’t have any cream on hand – heavy cream being an almost ubiquitous ingredient in mousse recipes. For each portion I use an ounce of chocolate and one egg. Here are the components for four servings, with the eggs separated.
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I start by melting the chocolate in a double boiler. Most other recipes I’ve seen add cream or butter or water to the chocolate at this point. On its own it melts slowly and stays very thick, but that’s not a problem. I’m also not obsessive about the type of chocolate. I use what’s in the pantry, and if it’s plain Baker’s chocolate, that’ll do. (And if all I have is unsweetened, I just add a tablespoon of sugar per ounce of chocolate.)
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While the chocolate is melting I beat the egg yolks with a hand mixer until they’re thick and pale. Well, sort of thick – I don’t make a big deal of that step, either. Some recipes cook the egg yolks with cream and sugar, rather than mixing cream with the melting chocolate. Again, not I.
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I beat the melted chocolate into the yolks a little at a time, so they don’t get so much heat as to scramble them.
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I beat the egg whites to peaks in my big Kitchen-Aid mixer and fold them into the chocolate mixture. This time I overbeat the whites a bit, stiffening them so much that they needed a lot of folding and lost some of their volume as a result. But that’s not a problem, either: the mousse is still good that way. I’m not sure you can hurt a chocolate mousse.
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When my mixture was all combined I realized the custard cups I had set out were too small. The filled cups would have to be chilled in the refrigerator for at least several hours, some for a day or two. (Tom and I try not to eat more than one portion apiece on the first day.) So they had to be in containers large enough that foil or film coverings wouldn’t touch the mousse itself. I switched to larger cups, just for the refrigeration.
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At serving time, I transferred each portion to a smaller, more attractive dish.
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This is a very ordinary looking dessert, but it’s chocolate, and it tastes just fine. It could be dressed up – say, decorating it with rosettes of whipped cream, or a scatter of raspberries, or a few candied violets. But since the whole point of my mousse making is to have an easy family dessert, all I usually serve it with is a spoon.

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