Chocolate Mousse

Where to begin?

Two finals due tenth week, two due finals week.  A flight home, and a flight back to Chicago, with a celebration for my brother's graduation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and for our last Russian Easter in my house in between.  My parents accepted an offer on the house.  I'm 20 years old now, too.  I started my full-time position at the same place I've been working part-time since February, and began my summer rowing with Lincoln Park Boat Club.  And I made chocolate mousse.  John and I ate the whole bowl of it ourselves in one sitting - well, he ate most of it, but I helped.


Now I'm in Chicago, living in the guest bedroom at my dad's apartment.  We're out in the town of Worth, southwest of Hyde Park, in the suburbs.  There's not really much else for me to say, even though so much has happened since I last wrote.  I haven't really digested the fact that on July 19 my house won't be mine anymore, that I can now call myself a twenty-something, that I'm halfway done with my undergraduate education.  It just feels like a matter of course.  I feel like I'm floating, not like in some pleasant dream, but in a fragile, untethered way - walking in a mirage, not really sure where I'm going.  I go to work, I row, and then I go back to the apartment and watch Game of Thrones or The Wire.  I pack my lunches, I clean my room.  What else is there to do?  I'm thinking about applying for a Fulbright, to do psychology research in Russia, but other than writing that application I don't know what sense of purpose I'll have for a while.  Friends, I am restless.  Terribly restless.


Chocolate Mousse
from Bon Appetit 

3/4 c chilled heavy cream, divided
4 large egg yolks
1/4 c espresso, room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 large egg whites, room temperature

Beat 1/2 c heavy cream until stiff peaks form.  Check for stiff peaks by turning off the beaters, pulling them out of the whipped cream, and turning them upside down - the peaks of whipped cream at the ends of the beaters should stand straight up.  Cover and chill.

Set a large glass or metal bowl over a pot filled with 1 inch of simmering water.  Be sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water - the point is to cook with indirect heat.  Combine the egg yolks, espresso, salt, and 2 tablespoons sugar in the bowl.   Cook, whisking constantly, until the color of the mixture has lightened and it has almost doubled in volume.  I did this by eye, but if you want a more exact measure, the mixture should register 160 degrees Farenheit when it's done.

Remove the bowl from the pan, and whisk in the chocolate until smooth.  Set aside and let the mixture come to room temperature, whisking occasionally.

Beat the egg whites in another bowl on medium speed just until foamy.  With the beaters running, gradually beat the sugar into the whites until stiff peaks form (check the same way as with the cream).  Wait until the chocolate mixture has come to room temperature before you beat the whites, since you don't want the whites to sit once they've been whipped.

Take 1/3 of the whipped egg whites and gently fold them into the cooled chocolate mixture.  Fold with a rubber spatula by cutting a line through the center of the mixture, scraping along the bottom of the bowl to the left, folding this half of the mixture over the rest, and continuing to scrape down along the the right side of the bowl.  Fold this half of the mixture over, and repeat. Turning over the mixture gently like this will make sure the egg whites don't deflate.

Add in the remaining 2/3 of the whites and do the same thing, until only a few streaks of white remain.  Add in the whipped cream, and fold in the same way as the whites.  Cover and chill the mousse for at least 2 hours, and up to 1 day, before serving.  Serve with the remaining 1/4 c cream, whipped just before eating.

Little Bites: Thoughts on Shared Meals

Introduction

I’ve eaten many pieces of Chicago, in diners and burger joints, upscale restaurants, and corner cafes.  The city offers almost endless places to eat.  As someone who enjoys food for its own sake, I’ve made lists and maps of restaurants to visit before I leave here.  Some of them are a bus ride downtown, but others are far out in the western suburbs or way up on the North Side.  I’ll explore as many as I can.  But the most important meals I’ve had haven’t been for the sake of food, but for the sake of people.  There’s something poetic about sharing a lovely meal with a loved one – I don’t have other words to describe the experience, but I’m sure you know what I mean. 
The meals I’ve written about here follow from one another as courses do, from small plates to dinner and then dessert.  I didn’t include names, because I figured anonymity would be better for the people described here, and it also may help you connect better on a personal level with the piece.  If you know me, you’ll know whom I’m talking about.  I wanted to write about these memories to reflect on how these people have shared their lives with me, and to share them with you, too.

The Purple Pig

3 Cheese Tasting with fig-grape jam and crostini
Chorizo Stuffed Olives
Peas and Bacon with spearmint
Porchetta with Salsa Verde

A long, rectangular plate slides across our table, with three cheeses and a small, curvaceous dish of fig-grape jam.  The plate and dish are a crisp white, the cheeses tinged with different muted shades of cream and beige; but the jam, at the far right of the arrangement, catches our eyes with its jewel tones.  The slumped fruits themselves seem to be a bowl of precious stones, with the figs broken open to reveal their brilliant quartz interiors, crimson-brown with veins of tope and tiny blips of yellow, the seeds, some of which have cascaded out from the fruit and studded the glistening sauce.  And the grapes are richly purple orbs, pearls that grew too large to be contained by their oyster shells. 



The imagery is broken by the way the fruits have melted and collapsed into one another at the edges, rendering the burgundy sauce surrounding them.  And so we plunge our spoons into the dish, and spread the sweet jewels over our grilled slices of bread, barely charred and brushed with olive oil.  Faint pepper and citrus notes rise up from the warmed olive oil and intertwine with the deep, caramelized flavors of the stewed fruit.  The whole bite is soft and subtle, rounded out by the toasty bread and interrupted every so often by blackened bits of crust, where the fire was burning a little too hot.  These shards of black accent the otherwise subdued bite with a welcome and surprising bitterness.
The dim, burnt lighting casts a golden glow over everything. The quadrello is pale, almost luminescent, standing in slight contrast to the pecorino noce, creamier in color from a longer period of aging.  Bluish hues from the streaks of mold in the piquant gorgonzola seem to have seeped out into the cheese itself, draining the warm milk tones from its flesh.  The cleanly cut wedge resembles a marbled stone; but the scents wafting up from the plate breach this imagery, too.  The cheeses to the left of the jam progress in pungency from the mildly sweet quadrello, to the salty pecorino noce, and end with the heady stink of the piquant gorgonzola.  The aroma is pungent, but not unpleasant – it’s like the smell of wood after a strong rain, that’s been put over a fire and begun to breathe a spicy smoke. 
I slip the knife down through the tangle of blue veins that stretch across the gorgonzola, and break off a corner.  The cheese gives way easily, and I spread the ragged knob across another crisp slice of toast.  This bite is bright and peppery, almost smoky, with the tingles of the cheese’s tang concentrated on the front of my tongue, and the olive oil’s peppery notes farther to the back.  The gorgonzola and olive oil come together and cover my palate with a smooth, almost buttery texture, only to be washed away by a sip of effervescent lemon soda.
Between bites, he and I talk about all the little pieces of our lives we’ve missed.  It’s been months since we last spoke – but we always just seem to pick up where we left off.  We’ve met here before, at The Purple Pig, as a halfway point between us.  We’re sort of regulars now.  It’s our spot, we say.  There’s a parallel between the small plates of food and these conversations we share that makes it a lovely meeting place. 
I crack the pecorino into shards and pop one into my mouth, chewing thoughtfully, listening to him describing his apartment next year.  In Evanston, he says, there’s a law that no more than three people can occupy an apartment; since at some point in the town’s history, apparently, it was full of brothels.  Thus, the law was created to abolish them – but for some reason it’s still in effect, centuries later, as a college town.  There aren’t any brothels around anymore that I know of, he jokes, and giggling with him I describe my own apartment for next year.  Five people will be living there, oh the scandal! 
We burst out laughing when our waitress is coming by with our stuffed olives.  At the same time, the bus boy whisks away our cheese plate, empty if not for scattered crumbs and sticky streaks of jam.  The two move together as continuations of one another, with one arm sweeping down to set the small cobalt bowl upon the table, and the other swiftly scooping up the plate behind her.  My eyes wander away from my friend for a moment, as I watch them both leave in unison, and then return to his face. 
We each pick up an olive with our fingertips, making sure to sweep it through the garlic aioli.  I taste the aioli first, redolent with garlic and savory olive oil, before I break through the fried crust.  I feel the crunch, then the firm olive beneath.  Its strong brininess compliments these deep, rich flavors, and is an extension in flavor of the salty chorizo inside.  The paprika and subtle spiciness of this filling creates a cohesive, delicious bite.
We went to high school together, and our friendship has grown even deeper since we came to Chicago for college.  Even though we see each other far less often than we used to, I feel like I know him better now than I did before.  We both ended up in Cambridge last summer for internships, too.  Somehow fate manages to bring us together, if only for the occasional cup of coffee or dinner.  And we talk about everything: old friendships, new enemies, personal drama, breakups, my adventures to Starbucks without him, the compliments he’s gotten on the shoes I helped him pick out the last time we were together.  We reminisce about high school, and how different Chicago is from New Hampshire, or even how different Evanston is from Hyde Park.  We gossip and joke about our classmates, our families, and ourselves.  We dream about the future, about what we want to do with our lives – or at least the things we want to do next quarter. 
It’s not hard to dream with him, or to lean on him when I need support, or to discuss the deep dark secret things with him.  That’s a wonderful, happy kind of freedom to share with another person, and the reason why we have these meals.

Tesori

Agnolotti duck confit, foie gras, truffle butter
Rustic lasagna wild mushrooms, tomato, smoked mozzarella
Goat cheese cheesecake fig jam, meyer lemon, pine nuts, fresh mint gelato
Rhubarb Tiramisu mascarpone, rhubarb mousse, roasted rhubarb, candied fennel

Two white porcelain bowls are set down quietly before us.  The faint clatter of glasses against tabletops, and twittering of women’s voices a few tables away from us, sparkle in the background while we converse softly.  In the darkening grey light, floating in from the windows that stretch high above us up to the ceiling, the bowls seem to become grey themselves, and almost transparent.  The softness of the lighting renders a kind of mirage at the edges, blurring the distinctions between bowl and tablecloth, tablecloth and napkin. 
Gingerly my fingertips unfold the napkin, with its perfect creases pressed into the fabric, and lay it across my lap.  I brush the hair from my face and tuck the loose strands behind my ear, twisting one section round and round my index finger until it bounces away, and my hand falls into my lap again.  I pick up the pristine fork and pierce the first layers of the vegetable lasagna in my bowl – sauce, pasta, mushrooms, ricotta cheese – and sink the tines further into the flesh. 
Each stratum is delicate, so thin like sheets of paper, and seemingly held to its neighbors by the mere chance that some breeze would sweep them up, and nestle them together this way.  The forkful is light and lush at once, with the silken ricotta cheese whipped into ethereal clouds among the toothsome layers.  The ricotta’s simple, pure flavor of cream rounds out the tangy sweetness of the tomatoes and the deep earth tones of the mushrooms, barely caramelized at the edges and redolent with oregano and sage. 
He offers me a bite from his bowl.  I take up one of the tiny, plump pillows of agnolotti and place it carefully in my mouth.  The sauce of black truffle butter that clings to the pasta slips away and onto my tongue, with an overarching earthiness bolstered by sweet, herbaceous undertones.  My teeth tear open the pasta and plunge into the smooth filling of foie gras and duck confit.  This is the height of richness: specially fattened liver, tasting faintly like butter, folded into duck meat that’s been poached in its own fat until it falls apart under the lightest pressure.  Despite the very nature of the dish’s principle elements, my bite is impossibly light, and the flavors dynamic, not simply a single note of richness. 
I wish I had a whole big bucket of this.  He extends his arms out widely and laughs.  I’m sure that if they’d brought him a vat of these agnolotti, he would’ve eaten them all, too.  He was practically beaming – I haven’t seen him this happy about a meal in a while.  I cook for us often, and well I think, but never a dish so decadent as this.  It’s a pleasure to eat a meal that I don’t have the resources to make myself, since it takes away some of the joy of eating out. 
Still, I start to imagine how I could recreate this dish for him if I could afford all of the ingredients, how I could make a whole big bucket of them for him to munch on.  The truffle butter spurs my memory of the pretty little jar of black truffles that he bought me for my birthday last year, and how overjoyed I was.  I remember the first upscale restaurant we went to together, in Boston last summer, but I can’t recall its name.  We hadn’t been dating for very long, and being in a place like that had made me a little nervous to be impressive and funny and not to spill food all over myself.  I didn’t need to be nervous. 
I gaze at him across the table.  We hadn’t planned to eat somewhere fancy like this, so he’s wearing a grey sweatshirt and jeans.  He’s pushed the sleeves up to his elbows, which are planted against the table to support his chin that’s resting on his folded hands.  He gets lost in thought like this, and I hate myself for breaking the quiet of it – but I become curious, I want to know what’s holding his attention, and I selfishly want to know if it’s me.  Or else, I want him to share it with me. 
Tiny pricking butterflies tumble around in my stomach when he looks up at me again.  Even though we spend so much of our lives together, the butterflies still wake up sometimes like this when I look at him.  What are you thinking about?  The answer is often the same, nothing, and I often wonder if it’s true.  But I inevitably decide that it doesn’t matter, really – it’s his mind and I don’t have any right to know, and I love him anyway.

Little Goat Diner

Hash Browns shredded on the griddle, grumpy goat cheese
Reuben smoked corned beef, kimchi, kraut, cheese, special sauce, pretzel rye
Pork Belly Pancake scallion pancake, house hoisin, bok choy salad, ginger maple dressing
Blood Orange Meringue Pie

I lap up the remaining streaks of hoisin sauce and slivers of bok choy salad before leaning back and patting my tummy satisfactorily.  The dish had arrived at our booth minutes ago, with the crunchy scallion pancake flayed out across the wide plate and piled high with succulent strips of pork belly and an impressive pile of confettied salad.  The pancake was just the right thickness to add a toothsome, but not heavy, textural element, and its golden brown exterior crunched pleasantly between my teeth.  The surface was slathered with sticky-sweet hoisin that boldly balanced the fatty pork belly with its fermented tanginess, and intertwined with the bright sparkling flavor of the salad’s ginger maple vinaigrette.  Balancing the deep, rich flavors below it, the nettle of bok choy, carrots, and scallions was a cold contrast to hot pancake. 



He sliced it in half down the middle and slid my portion toward me.  We both picked up our half-moons like tacos, folding the side inward to contain the other components, and we held them down low to our plates to prevent the juices from running down our arms.  When the waiter came over to check on us, he seemed surprised that we’d eaten them this way: Wow, I’ve never seen anyone hold it like that before!  That’s a really good idea.  We chuckled with him as he whirled away from us to the next table.  How else were we supposed to eat it?
Now our forks descend upon the miniature blood orange meringue pie between us.  Its crust is a rich brown that compliments the peachy-pink curd, flushed with orange, and finished with a flourish of white meringue.  The thin edges of the cookie crumb crust crumble as I cut away a small wedge and raise it to my lips.  Its incredibly bright tartness rushes over my taste buds, my mouth puckering in surprise before the sweeter citrus tones emerge to assuage it. 
The honey notes of the crust and its crunchy texture break through the luscious, thick filling; then the springy meringue comes through, too, with a sensation of airiness.  A pleasant chewiness from the meringue creates an interesting textural effect, highlighted by its toasty peaks that attracted too much of the blowtorch’s flame.  We mutter some praise about how good the pie is as we both dig in for another bite, but we don’t talk much more until only cookie crumbs are left.


I get my weakness for dessert from him.  In the back corner of the local grocery store, next to the swinging doors marked For Employees Only, there’s a section of shelves for reduced price bakery items.  Oftentimes he’d return home from grocery shopping with one of the reduced price lemon meringue pies, or with a blueberry one if he were lucky.  I’ve never been sure why he only bought these things from the reduced price shelves – we could afford the extra dollar or whatever for a fresh one, or I could certainly make one if we got the ingredients.  Maybe it was the initial enticement of the bargain, a justification to buy the pie at all. 
Now, when I see lemon meringue pie, I think of him setting his prize out on the corner of the counter where we all could see it.  But putting it in the corner made it seem as if it were hidden, so the rest of us knew to leave it alone.  Although, I won’t say there weren’t occasional finger marks visible across the bottom of the pie tin.
It’s hard not to reminisce when we have meals like this, just the two of us.  But there’s a lot of talking about the future, too: where I should be applying for internships, the kinds of work experience I should be getting now as an undergrad, how we’re going to need to pack up the house once someone finally buys it.  I don’t particularly enjoy planning for near-future events – I like to dream about the things way off into the future, because it’s not really planning, it’s just imagining – so these kinds of conversations generally stress me out. 
So we don’t stray very far from the topic of food, the recipes I’ve made recently that I didn’t write posts about, or restaurants we should go to some other time.  While he’s more of a meat and potatoes person than I am, he’s had a pretty significant effect on my food preferences, especially comfort food-wise.  He’s also the one who taught me how to cook. 
            When I was little, I used to sit at the counter while he cooked for Russian Easter. He plucked the Joy of Cooking from our bookshelf and leafed through its pages, in which Grandma Z’s recipe cards were tucked away.  Sometimes he explained his methods to me while he cooked.  Heating the milk and butter together keeps the batter from getting lumpy. 
I nodded and furrowed my eyebrows.  Most times he didn’t say anything at all, and I would just watch him moving about the kitchen.  The blintz, crepes stuffed with a sweet cottage cheese mixture, involved the most interesting and tedious process.  The pan he makes them in, too, is something of a family heirloom, handed down from my grandmother. 
One night, he brought me over to the stove.  The first four crepes always turn out wrong.  The pan has to come to temp, and you have to get the amount of batter just right – just enough to coat the bottom, but not so thin that the crepe rips.  Make sure you have plenty of butter.
I dropped a pat of butter into the bottom.  He handed me the bowl of batter and a measuring cup, saying, Use this.  It needs a little less than a quarter cup.
I poured batter into the blintz pan.  He held my other wrist, teaching me how to tilt the handle just right.  We coated the aluminum with a thin, even layer of batter.  It’ll only take a minute or so.  You can’t walk away.   You have to watch it.  See how it doesn’t stick?  He swirled the crepe round and round.  They don’t make pans like this anymore.  He picked up a corner of the crepe and peaked at its golden brown bottom.  You have to feel when it’s done.  There’s no more loose batter, and it didn’t get too brown.  You’ll know from experience.
I’ve since taken over some Russian Easter duties, when I’m able to make it home for the celebration.  Someday, I’ll host it, when he doesn’t want to do it himself anymore.  But until then, I’ll be around to take fingerfuls of his lemon meringue pie when he’s not watching.