Meme Redux: Wine for Chocolate
When I saw, via Toast, that there was a meme involving pairing wine and chocolate, I had mixed feelings. I like wine a whole lot, and I like chocolate a whole lot more, but when I think of alcoholic beverages and chocolate, I tend to think of using some Chambord as an ingredient in the dessert. I am a big fan of dessert wines, but, well, this post is going to ramble a considerable distance (one of the subtitles I considered and discarded was A la Recherce des Repas Perdus), so before I let myself wander, I'm going to post the chocolate dessert recipe I used.
Perfect Chocolate Mousse
4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup coffee
1/2 cup cognac
1 lb semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tsp. granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream
In a saucepan, whisk together the egg yolks and the coffee. Cook over low heat, whisking more or less constantly, until the custard coats the back of a spoon. Add the cognac and cook for a minute or two more. Remove the saucepan from the heat and dump in the chocolate. It will seize up at first, but if you continue to stir it, it will melt nicely. When the mixture is smooth, set it aside.
When the chocolate has cooled to close to room temperature (this should not take long), beat the egg whites until they are at about the soft-peak stage, then add the sugar and beat until they form stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate.
Beat the heavy cream until it is stiff. Fold the cream into the chocolate.
Refrigerate for at least four hours.
A few notes:
You can substitute your favorite liqueur for the cognac. I was trying to avoid a strong fruit flavor that might argue with the wine I was drinking with the mousse, but Chambord, Frangelico, Amaretto, Grand Marnier, or Cassis all work.
The perfect pan for making the custard is a two-quart Calphalon round-sided saucepan (they call it a chef's skillet). If you use a straight-sided saucepan, you may have some trouble getting the whisk into the corners, and your eggs might curdle. (You can, of course, use a double boiler, but I never do.)
How long you cook the custard after you add the cognac will affect how much alcohol remains in the mousse. Mine still had quite a bit of alcohol left in. The only thing you really need to worry about is making sure that there's enough heat left in the custard to melt the chocolate, but not so much that the eggs curdle.
When the chocolate seems fully melted, there will still be little tiny bits of unmelted chocolate. You will be ecstatic to run across these when you're eating the mousse. Just make sure there are no large unmelted lumps.
This recipe is far easier if you use a hand mixer to beat the egg whites and your stand mixer (whose bowl and whisk attachment you will have placed in the freezer for a while) to beat the heavy cream. I fold everything in with my big wire whisk. You can use a spatula, but that will take much longer, and the whisk doesn't deflate anything anyway.
This mousse is extremely tender, but, once it's refrigerated, it's also very stiff, in a soft sort of way. You could easily stand a spoon upright in it, or use it to fill a multi-layered cake without worrying about anything collapsing, so long as it's kept cold.
I will brook no argument about the "perfect" in the title. The picture, however, is not so good. The mousse is significantly darker in real life. Flash is not my friend.
Back to the ramble. I was, it seems, supposed to either make or procure a rich chocolate cake for this particular meme. I have a tremendously good chocolate gâteau recipe (and where I say that I have the recipe, I mean that I have a copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible and it's Chocolate Oblivion Truffle Torte recipe, which I have modified slightly). I did not, however, understand the cake requirement until after I'd already made the mousse, and, really, the mousse and the cake taste a whole lot alike. Besides, as much as I (and the many guests to whom I have served the cake) love that recipe, it is a bit nervewracking because setting the cake free of the pan takes some effort and raises a lot of tension, though it always comes free in the end.
Back to the wine. As I said, I adore dessert wines, and one sure way to make me happy is to hand me a glass of a nice Sauternes or Auslese or Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. But in most cases, I prefer to sip any of these wines by itself after the dessert and coffee have been cleared away because it often seems to me that a great dessert wine and a great dessert served together is less than the sum of its parts. Still, I was determined to try, and I figured that as I happened to have a very big gun in my pantry, I would go with it.
My experience with sweet wines began some twenty years ago when I was on leave of absence from my undergraduate studies and living in an apartment in the Allston-Brighton section of Boston with two graduate students from the Math department at MIT. One of them (Rob), who went on to become a professor in the Math department at Boston College, liked to cook almost as much as I did (the other one at least liked to eat, and he cooked occasionally), and he knew a great deal about wine at a time when I (having been raised in a teetotaling Southern Baptist family) knew next to nothing about anything alcoholic. When we'd have people over for dinner, I'd usually decide what to make and make it (with his help; I have found that it is rare for two friends to be able to work well together in the kitchen, but he and I made a good team, probably because he always let me be in charge, even when I made a mistake), and he and I would go together to one or another of the local wine stores to buy the wine for dinner. I was mostly along for the fun of watching him work and to help carry the bottles home. We didn't have a car, and we usually ended up with a case, to get the discount, even though we'd typically only drink half the case with dinner. (Rob's rule for wine was "one bottle per person plus one for the table," and I was expected to come up with enough courses to keep us all sitting down and eating long enough to get through that much wine.)
Dinners tended to be casual but bountiful affairs. Every once in a while, we'd pull out all the stops, and that usually meant that Rob would spend more on the wine to go with something special I was making for dinner. I think it was at one of those dinners that I was first introduced to Port.
I should probably email Rob and ask him exactly what bottle of Port that was, because he doubtless still remembers it, and because I owe him an email (and have owed it him for a few years now, yikes), but I think I'll just hope that I'm right when I say that it was a fairly expensive late bottled vintage Port (but I really should go ahead and email him, as well). I do remember that it came in one of those very dark bottles with lettering stenciled on in white paint. I cannot, to this day, recall a bottle of wine that I've liked better.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Heathrow, at the end of my vacation, desultorily looking through the duty-free shop at a lot of bottles of hard liquor that I didn't want. I was about to give up, when an employee asked me if he could help me find something, and I said, "I'm not sure. Do you have any Port?" and he pointed me to a corner of the store I hadn't previously noticed, and there were a few dark green bottles with lettering stenciled on in white paint. (It was not, obviously, the exact same wine. Ten years or so ago Rob told me that that particular wine could no longer be found, but that any similar and similarly expensive bottle would be something I would like a lot.) The price was twenty pounds ($36 at the current exchange rate) for a bottle, and that is three (or at least two) times what I would normally pay for a bottle of any sort of wine, but I decided that I would take the chance and rationalized it by saying that the same bottle would surely be much more expensive back home. I also remembered that for V.'s birthday, I had dropped about $50 (so much easier to justify when it's a present, don't you know) on a bottle of Port that was good but that did not measure up to memory.
I made the chocolate mousse Sunday afternoon, and when we had finished the main course of dinner (and had some time to recover), I fetched the Port from the pantry with some trepidation. I very much wanted it to live up to memory, and I very much wanted it to go well with the mousse. There is, alas, many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip, and there is also, apparently, many a slip 'twixt the bottle and the cup, because the cork of this particular bottle was adamant in its desire not to be liberated. It defended itself against two good corkscrews, first by disintegrating, and then by moving in when it was meant to be moving out. Finally, when it realized that all was lost, it flung itself all the way into the bottle (O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!), which explains the Smirnoff Vodka bottle in the picture: I was forced (swearing all the while) to decant the wine into another container, and that's what I had on hand (the vodka itself having gone, some weeks ago, into a clementine ratafia that should be ready to drink in a week or two now). I suppose that the appropriate way to view the whole episode is that the cork won the battle, but I won the war.
And the spoils were sweet. If my mind holds up that Port I drank back in 1984 (or so) as the Platonic ideal, the Port I sipped Sunday evening was in no way lacking. An absolute steal at $36 a bottle. (And, really, it is not so expensive when you consider that it will stay wonderful for a good while, unlike most wines, which must be drunk in their entirety shortly after having been opened; the Port will delight us for another four or five meals, I reckon.)
I am, alas, not well-versed in the vocabulary of wine, nor am I terribly good at discerning the various flavors, though I can usually tell you about how many different things I'm tasting. I recall (again, in the early 80s, with the same roommates) a dinner at which we held a Beaujolais tasting, during which we compared a Beaujolais Villages, a Juliénas, and a Fleurie. They were all nice, and two of them were significantly nicer than the third, but I was struck more with how much they tasted alike than with their differences.
I'll do the best I can with the Port, but one of the best things about it was that it had a wonderfully complex flavor that was, all the same, unified. It was similar to hearing an a cappella quartet singing, wonderfully, a piece with complex harmonies but being unable to tell who is singing what: this Port had a terrific sense of ensemble. And, yes, it was sweet, but sweet in such a way that when you drink it, you don't think "sweet." All you really think is "this is what good tastes like."
And it held up very well to the chocolate mousse, which was also simultaneously complex and simple. I would not really say that the taste of either enhanced the other, but equally I would not say that the taste of either detracted from the other. In the final analysis, I would probably elect to serve them separately, but only because that would allow me to wow my guests for two courses instead of one.