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Posts Tagged ‘chocolate’

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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A very big birthday – one ending in zero – befell Beloved Spouse this week. We considered declaring it to be fake news and paying it no attention, but in the end we decided to celebrate it. In our house (as should be common knowledge by now), celebration requires dining on excellent food and wine, so that’s what we did – with a menu chosen by Himself.

We made a bold start with caviar and champagne. In addition to the relatively inexpensive American “osetra” that we’ve bought online in the past, the birthday boy snuck in a tiny jar of Russian osetra, for comparison. Alas: It was noticeably better than the domestic one, making it a costly taste to try to avoid acquiring. The champagne was Krug, a gift from a very good friend. And very Krug it was, a big, vigorous, richly flavored companion to the caviar.
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This luscious start, Himself averred, already began to ease the sting of the birthday’s bigness.

For the main course, he had requested saucisson en croûte, a large sausage baked in a pastry crust. I’d never made one before, but with a little help from Julia Child, in Mastering, I set to work. Early in the day I simmered a one-pound cotechino sausage in water until fully cooked and made up a batch of pâte brisée. Later I rolled out an oblong of the pastry dough, brushed the center with mustard, and set the cooled and skinned sausage on it. I encased the sausage in the dough and rolled out another strip to lay over the top, decorated it modestly and brushed it with egg glaze.
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The stuffed pastry baked in a hot oven for 45 minutes.

For a vegetable, the birthday celebrant joined me in the kitchen and washed, parboiled, drained, and sauteed a bunch of fresh Swiss chard in butter with chopped onion. As a condiment we served mostarda di Cremona, fruits poached in mustard syrup, which we bring back from our trips to Italy. The combination was excellent. Though the pastry crust tried to fall apart at the slicing, it was very tasty, seeming to have imbibed some meaty essence from the juicy, spicy sausage.
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In keeping with the developing binational theme of the meal (American and Russian caviar, Italian sausage in French pastry, Italian fruits and Swiss chard) Tom selected two bottles from his wine closet to drink with the main course, one each from Italy and France, both vintage 2004: a Barolo riserva from Giacomo Borgogno and a Nuits-St.-Georges from Drouhin.
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He was curious to see which one would go better with the food. Here he is with the result.

The two wines behaved remarkably similarly with all the elements of the dinner, both feeling soft, even velvety, on the palate, and tasting of earth-and-mineral-inflected dark fruit. Neither wine was anywhere near its peak, but both showed well, enjoyably drinkable and fresh, while hinting of the greater complexity they’d be capable of in the future. The Barolo evidenced a bit more tannin, the Burgundy a bit more acid – but either wine would have served comfortably as the consort of the dishes. Another illustration of why so often Barolo and Burgundy are compared!

(In a rare fit of birthday moderation, we didn’t finish either wine; nor did we finish the champagne.)

To conclude this festive meal we indulged in a pair of purchased chocolate delicacies: a square of opera cake and a chocolate mousse tartlet.
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(We didn’t finish either of them, either.)

And so ended another decade of the culinary and enological adventures of Himself and his adoring spouse. We mustn’t wait too long to have Russian osetra again and another bottle of Krug. After all, who knows how many more decades we have in us?

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byrn-american-cakeI’ve just acquired an intriguing new cookbook, devoted entirely to cakes. Anne Byrn’s American Cake tells the story of cake making in this country from colonial days forward, illustrating changing trends and fashions in baking with well-documented classic recipes and gorgeous photography. I’ve never been much of a cake maker, relying more on pies and tarts for dessert-making occasions, but this book looked like a good opportunity to try new things.

As soon as the book arrived, Beloved Spouse – who has developed more of a sweet tooth than he had when we were young – fell on it joyfully and put in an immediate request for its Boston cream pie, a kind of cake I’d never made before and could only vaguely remember even having tasted:
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This picture made it look almost cloyingly rich, oozing with custard between the layers of cake and dripping with a thick chocolate glaze. I was sure the two of us wouldn’t be able to consume a whole cake that size before it went stale.

Then I had my Great Idea: Make half of it! Instead of baking two layers of cake, bake only one, slice it in half, and put the halves together with half batches of the custard and the glaze.  What simplicity! What genius!

It was easy enough to reduce the quantities of the ingredients, but it’s still an elaborate process to follow. I had to start early in the day, because the custard had to be made and chilled for at least five hours before being used.

First I whisked together milk, sugar, gelatin, and salt in a saucepan and simmered it until the sugar and gelatin were dissolved. Next I whisked together an egg yolk, cornstarch, and a little more milk, and gradually combined the two mixtures. It all went back into the saucepan, to be cooked and whisked continually until it thickened. It did, very properly. So far, so good.

I strained that mixture into a bowl, stirred in butter and vanilla, and whisked, yet again, until the custard was smooth. Covered the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing it right down onto the surface of the custard, and set it in the refrigerator.
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Then it was on to the cake. I creamed butter, sugar, and vanilla in the heavy-duty mixer, beat in an egg, then added flour, baking powder, and salt, alternately with milk, to make a smooth batter. The batter baked in a greased 8-inch round pan for about 20 minutes, until the cake was golden. Unmolded, it had to cool completely on a rack.
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I sliced the cake in half, put one piece on a plate, spread the custard filling over it, topped it with the other cake piece, and put the plate in the refrigerator while I made the glaze. That was easier to do than I expected. In a saucepan I melted semisweet chocolate, heavy cream, and a little syrup. (It should have been corn syrup but I didn’t have any and didn’t want to buy a whole bottle for one tablespoon’s worth, so I just made up a bit of simple sugar syrup.) Off heat, I added vanilla and stirred until the glaze was smooth.

The last step was to pour that glaze over the cake and let it drip artistically down the sides, as shown in the book’s photo above. That was not as easy as it sounds, as you can see from my results. There must be an art to manipulating glaze that I never learned.
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And if you think that looks terrible, have a peek at the cut side of the cake.
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Not a thing of beauty, and not one I’d dare set before anyone other than ourselves. But you know what? – It was great. The textures and flavors of cake, custard, and glaze made a marvelous combination. Not as overly sweet as I’d feared it was going to be, either. I now see why Boston cream pie is such a classic American dessert.

And, when sliced and served, it was almost decent looking.
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Beloved Spouse would like another.

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Every December, I make many kinds of the same much-loved Christmas cookies: ginger snaps, ruggelach, kourambiedes, Toll House, peanut butter, walnut crescents…. it’s glorious holiday excess, but by mid-January Tom and I are fairly sated with cookies. This year I vowed more restraint: only two of the traditionals, plus one new kind, as much for novelty as for this blog.

After lengthy research, I chose a new recipe from the Cookies and Crackers volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series: Linzer Nussgebäck, or Linz Nut Cookies from Germany. The technique is to make a pastry base, partially bake it, spread it with a layer of chocolate-nut cream, bake again until the topping is firm, and cut it into squares or bars. It sounded delicious.

This was, however, the most worrisome cookie recipe I’ve ever attempted. At no point in the very long procedure was I at all confident that anything edible would result.

Start with the pastry base. In my Kitchen-Aid mixer I put flour and sugar, worked in butter, and added 5 egg yolks – the only liquid. This was supposed to turn into dough and be kneaded well. (That was weird. You never knead pastry; too much handling makes it tough.) My mixture refused to come together. It remained sticky crumbs, even when I tried to compress it by hand. I had to add 5 tablespoons of water before the dough grudgingly formed.

The next step was to roll the dough to a thickness of ¼ inch. It kept trying to break apart under the rolling pin, and I had to virtually mold it by hand like clay. By the time it was thin enough, it was about 12 inches square, which I was sure would fall to bits if I tried to transfer it to a baking sheet. I cut it in two pieces and persuaded them onto separate cookie sheets.

While they had their first baking, I prepared the topping. I blanched, peeled, and ground 7 ounces of almonds; ground 8 ounces of semisweet chocolate (a very messy task!), mixed these with the 5 egg whites and a cup of sugar. It was all to be stirred over low heat until it became “thick and creamy.” Well, it was thick to begin with, and the chocolate and sugar melted all right, but with all those gritty ground almonds the mixture wasn’t what I’d call creamy.

When I subsequently spread it on the pastry base and saw how thickly the soft topping lay, I feared I’d made a terrible mistake by using flat baking sheets instead of pans with a rim. I could visualize the chocolate liquefying, running over the edges of the pastry, spreading out over the sheets, and dripping onto the floor of the oven. But it was too late to change, so I slid the sheets into the oven and prayed to the pastry gods and the spirit of Christmas Present.

Mirabile dictu, the topping stayed just where it was put! (One of the few cooperative things about this recipe.) It took twice as much baking time to firm up as the recipe called for, but I was immensely relieved. When the pastry cooled, I carefully cut it into 2-inch squares. Here they are:

Not bad looking, are they?  But how do they taste? Well, I have to say I was underwhelmed. The thick pastry base was bland, without the richness you’d expect from all the butter, sugar, and egg yolks it contained. The equally thick nut-chocolate topping was rich and fudgy – a great wallop of sweetness – but the two parts of the cookie didn’t do much for each other. They just sat there separately in the mouth. When Tom tasted one, he said it was like commercially made cake: something you’d find on a grocery store shelf wrapped in cellophane.

Now, this was only two people’s opinion. We aren’t great sweet eaters in any case. I had some contrary evidence the next day, when I brought a batch of them to a Solstice Cookie Exchange, a holiday event for Morgan Library staff and volunteers. There was an abundance of homemade treats on offer, and an abundance of enthusiastic nibblers. Within an hour my nut bars were all gone. Some folks must’ve liked them!

So, tastes vary. Never mind; it was an experiment. And I’ve got my other two kinds of Christmas treats to console me: This year I did my excellent ginger snaps and peanut butter cookies. (Tom says yum!)

 Merry Christmas, everyone!

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