Monday, September 7, 2009

Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts by Alice Medrich

After hours of searching for a real, but cream-free, chocolate mousse in vain (so many unwanted tofu and avocado options) I gave up. Some things are just not meant to be. Until my birthday. Then looking through my favourite cookbook, I decided on a Bittersweet Chocolate Truffle Hazelnut Mousse Torte. Yes that's a lot of adverbs, adjectives and nouns slung together, but I got over it when I realized that the back of the cookbook featured three mousse recipes with no avocados, no tofu, no whipping cream and no soy. All I needed to replace to make my lactose-intolerant stomach happy was the milk. How I love Almond Breeze.

Toasted and blanched hazelnuts
Instant espresso or coffee powder
Brandy (or vanilla or other flavouring or liqueur)
Egg whites

Bittersweet Chocolate Truffle Mousse:
Milk (Almond Breeze)
Bittersweet or semisweet Chocolate
Cream of Tartar

Giving myself 5 hours for this undertaking, I started blanching the hazelnuts. The trick is boiling them for 2 minutes in water with two tablespoons of baking soda, then squeezing them out of their skins in cold water. Finally drying and toasting them in the oven at 350 for 15-20 minutes (until fragrant). This took a bit longer than planned, but there was no chopping, no mess, only slight dying of my fingers black, and a delicious snack of toasted hazelnuts which far surpassed the raw ones. I nver knew the skins were so bitter, but the sweet results were eye-opening.

The food processor is a wonderful thing when you know how it works. Double- and triple-checking that everything was secured before plugging it in and turning it on, I processed the hazelnuts with the sugar and cocoa. It was so fun pouring in just enough egg white to turn it into the consistency of fudge frosting, a delicious image. I had to remind myself to not eat it with the raw egg inside. Then another nit-picky detail: tracing three 8-inch circles on parchment paper on baking sheets (unfortunately I only had enough for two full circles and one circle made of two pieces of parchment. Not so good for spreading stiff layers of hazelnut. It turned out to be a very thin layer, more wafer-like than cake-like, but more than enough flavour from the hazelnuts would later result in a glad feeling for not consuming way too many nuts in a dessert that tastes rich but really isn't that bad. Don't get me wrong, two chocolate bars in a cake is easy math to figure that if you cut it into 8 pieces, you're eating a quarter of the chocolate bar per piece (more than enough fat per serving) but so much flavour and so much less fat than a traditional mousse. After baking and cooling the hazelnut layers, they peeled easily off the parchment, making me very happy I hadn't caved and baked them directly into cake pans, greased or not.

Then the mousse. I've always sucked at meringue, so making a "safe" meringue, where the egg whites are cooked to 160 degrees celcius before being beaten until stiff and cool, was a daunting challenge. The chocolate part was easy. Let the gelatin sit with water five minutes or until needed, combine ingredients up to milk in saucepan (the trick is stir only a little almond breeze or milk into cocoa/sugar mixture until smooth, then add the rest, to resist clumps of cocoa), heat without scalding and when taken off the heat stir in the chocolate. Cool in an ice bath to thicken.

Then the egg whites. Stainless steel bowl in skillet of bowling water to create a quasi-double-boiler. Instead of whipping the eggs directly in the bowl, however, you first stir with a wooden spoon while burner is on high heat to get the egg whites hot enough to not have to cook more, but to keep it from scrambling. Unfortunately, I THINK I didn't have the heat high enough on the skillet as it took way too long to get the egg whites to 160 (only supposed to take a minute) so when they finally got there and I hurriedly got the bowl to the stand-mixer and set it to high, the egg whites had mutinied and decided to rise. they did get stiff...and then limp...but I hoped they might change their mind, or think about something stiffening, but in the end, I was left unsatisfied and disappointed. I couldn't be angry at them. It was my fault. I didn't handle them properly. How could I expect them to perform with all the pressure I'd put on them and how nervous I had been. I certainly am no professional, but I will persevere and try again sometime.

Anyway, it really wasn't that bad. The mousse just wouldn't be as fluffy and light as it should have been. Even folding egg whites in to chocolate is a dangerous thing, but I figured not much more harm could be done and I diligently cut in, scooped under and let fall back into the mousse until fully combined. The mousse seemed a little runny so I stuck it in the fridge to encourage thickening, in a juvenile attempt to cheat death...or maybe that's a little too macabre? Maybe just to cheat sickness, like a cold, or a sniffle.

When I gave in to defeat-by-mousse and decided it was time to layer the mousse anyway in a springform pan, my genius idea to make the hazelnut rounds a little smaller than 8-inch no longer seemed like a brilliant idea. the mousse had thickened a little and didn't drip everywhere but it did extend past the borders of the layers. The cake should have been a lot taller in an epic ode to the triple-layer cake, but this squished version was going to be just as tasty, so I poured and topped with another hazelnut layer and poured and topped. Back in the fridge until dessert.

Finally the cake came out, the springform sides were removed from the pan and the mousse was cut. The hazelnut cracked, but by now it really didn't matter, and the delicious, chocolatey glop was spatula-d and knifed and scooped onto plates. Chocolate got everywhere as the mousse overflowed it bounds and the advantage was that the mousse needed to be wiped from the pan sides. Fortunately my non-discriminatory cake-eating friends ate happily, accompanied by prosecco (isn't everything better with prosecco?) and the chocolate was not too sweet, not too bitter, and I woke up the next day with not even a sugar headache, miracle of miracles.

My new goal, to make more of the chocolate desserts in the book involving mousse. I WILL get it right. This will culminate in the ultimate mousse adventure: Triple celebration cake, featuring three kinds of mousse. Not sure how I will substitute the cream cheese in the mocha mousse recipe, but I have brainstorming plans with raw fresh cheese, LEGAL in Quebec (take that Ontario!).

Also looking forward to trying the Buttermilk pound cake (have to find yogurt that I can eat...I think baking kills the probiotics that eat the lactose in my yogurt, so may have to resort to difficult to digest soy). It will be worth it, however, as it calls for a liqueur soak and glaze that I bought an amazing bottle of blueberry liqueur at an 18th Century Quebec marketplace in the Old Port. Another day will produce a sweet chestnut torte, my new favourite flour replacer.

Alas, mousse can be made better, but it still tastes absolutely and completely divine.