The rage over 1950s and 1960s style is still going strong. Midcentury architecture is back. Midcentury furniture is back. Midcentury fashions are back. So why not some midcentury food?
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you chocolate mousse.
Chocolate mousse has been gracing American tables at least since 1896. But it truly came to prominence around 1950, when a recipe for it — using canned chocolate syrup — appeared in the best-selling first edition of "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book."
For a couple of decades after that, fashionable dinner parties were more likely than not to end with a dish of chocolate mousse. It was part of the swinging '60s and the stylish '70s. And then, relatively quickly, chocolate mousse almost completely disappeared from American tables. Perhaps too many people made it with canned chocolate syrup.
The time has come to resurrect the popularity of this once beloved dessert. It's light and decadent and melts seductively on your tongue. It's not too sweet, it's not too fancy.
In many respects, it is the perfect dessert.
The Maisonette in Cincinnati was long considered one of the best restaurants in the country; it held a rare 5-star rating from what was then the Mobil Travel Guide for 41 years, longer than any other restaurant. My parents would go on occasion, and one night, as the restaurant was closing, the proprietor brought my father a big bowl of the night's remaining chocolate mousse. He ate every morsel.
Many years later, my father was diagnosed with diabetes even though he was fairly trim and exercised regularly. At the time, he said, "If this is because of that chocolate mousse at the Maisonette, it was worth it."
Chocolate mousse is the kind of dessert that can inspire that kind of passion. And why not? It begins with chocolate, cream, eggs and sugar — a combination that is timeless on its own — and then turns it transcendent by whipping it full of air. That's what turns a luscious and rich dessert into something creamy and light.
The only question is how to serve it. I'm a big fan of using it in a tart, or you can also use it to fill those little chocolate cups. But the classic way may be the purest and the best: in a glass bowl, topped with whipped cream.
At this point, it needs to be said that mousses are made with raw eggs, and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that no one should eat raw eggs (unless the eggs have been pasteurized in the shell). Raw eggs should especially be avoided by infants, young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
But chocolate mousse is just so good. Strictly for the purposes of science, you understand, I decided to make it in three ways: ridiculously easy, somewhat more involved and fancy.
The ridiculously easy way is also ridiculously fast — you can pull it together in about five minutes. This is the way I make it at home, partly because of the five-minutes thing and partly because it is so chocolaty and delicious. The recipe was created by Annemarie Huste, who was the personal chef to Jacqueline Kennedy after she left the White House, and I figure if it is good enough for Jackie O (or Jackie K at the time), it's good enough for me.
It's more than good enough; it's great. All you do is melt chocolate with Kahlua (a coffee liqueur) and orange juice, mix in egg yolks, vanilla and sugar, whip in some cream and cool until it sets. It's pure, smooth, rich goodness.
The more involved version comes from Julia Child. I decided to make it because mousse is a French dish, and with all French dishes one should always consult Mme. Child.
While Huste's version uses Kahlua and orange juice, Child's requires Grand Marnier (an orange liqueur) and coffee. Totally different thing.
But the method of making it is different too, and that yields a decidedly distinct result. Child's version uses heat to combine egg yolk and sugar, chills it to thicken it, and then stirs in chocolate melted with coffee and butter. Egg whites that have been beaten to soft peaks are then folded in, giving the mousse its texture. Though it is still light, this one is sturdier than the faster version. It lasts longer on your tongue, if not necessarily in your memory.
For the fancy version of a mousse, I turned to Dominique Ansel, the New York pastry chef who became instantly famous when he created the crazily trendy cronut, a cross between a croissant and a doughnut. His mousse is made by folding a thick chocolate ganache into a fairly stiff meringue, giving his version even more body than Julia Child's.
But then he goes the extra step, which makes his mousse as delightful to see as it is to eat. Just before serving, he swirls in a tablespoon of fresh whipped cream, creating a lovely and enticing pattern in the chocolate. You gobble it up with your eyes before you ever introduce it to your tongue.
It's a clever way of taking a midcentury classic and bringing it up to date.