Would chocolate mousse be one of the most popular desserts in the brief history of modern sweet cookery? I would hazard a guess that if it didn’t come in at number one, then at least a spot in the top five would be assured. And yet, it is precisely chocolate mousse’s wild popularity that makes me like it just a tiny bit less.
Don’t get me wrong – this is not due to food snobbery or the eternal search for something new, exciting and exclusive. To the contrary - I love classic and time perfected recipes like these. The problem you see, is that alongside the wonderful and delicately ethereal experience a perfect chocolate mousse can provide, there are also plenty of shoddy, heavy and indelicate versions that restaurants of certain ilk see fit to foist upon an unsuspecting dining public. What is worse, one may now find lurid plastic tubs of alarming brown paste in the dairy aisle of the local supermarket, masquerading under the name chocolate mousse. Sure, they may be cheap – but by the same token, you shouldn’t let yourself be cheapened. If you are careful to choose good chocolate, there is no simpler glam dessert you could make than this. I suggest you take a squiz at Siobhan’s recipe for chocolate mousse if you want to make the classic version, but if you are keen to hear about white chocolate mousse, allow me to spin you a little tale.
Every New Year's Eve, the restaurant I work at hosts a big knees up. The restaurant is about a 30 second gull’s flight from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which is the epicentre of Sydney’s fireworks display and celebrations. It's a pretty big deal, so we always take care to write a special celebratory menu for the night. The planning can take up to a month in advance, with lots of recipe testing and arguments between myself and the other chefs. I had an idea to make a kind of chocolate mousse ‘sandwich’, similar yet distinct from our old bitter chocolate mousse terrine. I planned to have a thin layer of rich chocolate cake, topped with regular chocolate mousse, then topped again with a thin layer of the cake, cut into slabs about as long as a regular space button on a computer keyboard and roughly twice as wide. On top was to be a single-file array of 4 perfectly ripe raspberries. It sounded good, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow, something was still missing.
A few weeks before the big night, on one of our regular post work beer sessions, my co-pan-rattler JD listened intently to these concerns. True to form, his solution was devastatingly simple and glibly delivered. “What about white chocolate mousse instead of dark?” It was a genuine eureka moment, and I uncomplainingly bought the next round of drinks. The white chocolate mousse would provide the visual and flavour counterpoint to the dark chocolate cake that this dessert was screaming out for. While we were smugly celebrating this elegant solution with the clinking of full ale glasses, the moment was rudely shattered when we remembered what a bitch white chocolate mousse can be to make. I had two weeks to get it right. As soon as we finished drinking, and as soon as my hangover had fled, I got to experimenting.
You see, white chocolate has some odd properties. As anthropod has covered in her write up, white chocolate contains no cocoa solids at all, simply the fat which is a by-product of chocolate manufacture, known as cocoa butter. This has led some wags and pedants to state that white chocolate is not ‘technically’ chocolate at all, but really – come on, who are they kidding. The lack of cocoa solids means that once melted and then reset, white chocolate can take on an unpleasantly grainy mouth feel. What is worse, if melted too rapidly, or if heated to too high a temperature, white chocolate will ‘seize’, or harden into a lumpy mess. Fortunately, the latter didn't happen to me, and after a few experiments I arrived at the following recipe. As it turns out, it wasn’t all that difficult at all. The secret lies with 2 crucial steps. Firstly, the chocolate must be melted very gently to prevent graininess. Add to this, most of the other ingredients must be heated to a similar temperature as the chocolate to prevent it from cooling down when they are combined, thus seizing the pale cocoa.
The one main caveat for this recipe lies with the chocolate itself. You simply have to use high quality European white chocolate, or this recipe won’t work at all. Cheap and nasty white chocolate substitutes vegetable fat for the more sensuously textured cocoa butter and makes up the difference with various ‘flavourings’. This can cause problems with melting and when all is said and done, simply doesn’t do this dish justice at all. It is this kind of muck that has given white chocolate a bad name in the first place. I use Callebaut chocolate, but Valrhona, or any other top-flight Swiss, Belgian or French chocolate will do the trick. As an aside, the mousse cake itself was a hit on New Year's Eve, but ever the pedantic perfectionist, I wasn’t totally satisfied with the result. I felt the mousse needs a leaf of gelatine to hold the structure of the cake base and topping, and the cake itself was a little thick and soft-textured. Perhaps a chocolate flavoured sable biscuit or even a crisp chocolate wafer would be a better choice. In either case, I’m working on it, and when it is just perfect, I’ll node it up so that you guys will be the first in the know.
I must admit, I have always loved white chocolate. And when I got this mousse down, I think I came to love it just a little bit more. It was truly sensational – light and rich at the same time. Chocolatey and intense, yet not too sweet. Like any truly good mousse, it simply dissolved on the tongue leaving but a memory of the texture, while the white chocolate flavour lingered on and on. I made 6 small cups of this stuff and when the word got around our restaurant just which fridge they were hiding in, the staff demolished them in a matter of hours, which is always the real test of whether a recipe is spot on or not.
Ready to try it out? Here’s how.
Select a stainless steel, or glass bowl to melt the chocolate in. Choose a saucepan that will fit snugly under this bowl. Add a few centimetres of water to the saucepan, set on high heat and bring to the boil. When boiling, turn the heat to the lowest setting. The water should have the gentlest shudder on the surface at most, but not moving at all is even better. Place the chocolate in the bowl, then set the bowl on top of the saucepan.
While the chocolate melts, warm the milk to just above body temperature. Place your index finger in the milk – it should feel just warm, not at all hot. You can do this in a microwave oven, or in another small saucepan. Stir the chocolate to ensure it melts evenly. Once the chocolate has fully melted and is nice and smooth, remove from the heat, then slowly pour in the warm milk, whisking as you go. Whisk until the chocolate and milk are fully combined. The chocolate will take on a glossy translucent sheen and look slightly oily. Do not be alarmed, this is as it should be.
Working quickly, whip the cream in a large, clean bowl to soft peaks and set aside. Place the egg whites in another large clean bowl, and whisk for a few seconds until they are just lightly broken up, but still clear. Place the bowl directly over a low gas flame, or electric stove element, and whisk vigorously while gently warming. The egg whites should only come to blood temperature, so you only need heat them for a few seconds (or a little longer if they were fridge cold). Remove from the heat and continue whisking the whites until they too have reached soft peaks.
Lift 1/4 of the egg whites out, and thoroughly fold them into the chocolate mixture using a soft rubber spatula. This will lighten the chocolate so you can easily fold through the remaining whites. Tip the remaining egg whites onto the chocolate, and ever so gently fold through. Be very, very light handed here, as this will help the mousse to be light as a feather. Keep timidly folding the whites until they are fully incorporated into the chocolate, which should now have a visibly lighter texture.
Move back to the cream. If the cream has softened slightly, whisk for a few moments to bring it back to the soft peak stage. Now using the same method as the egg whites, fold the cream into the chocolate mix. Thoroughly fold 1/4 of the cream into the white chocolate mixture, then gently, gently fold trough the remaining cream. The cream will bring the chocolate’s temperature down considerably and the mousse will begin to firm up in front of your eyes.
Select some nice vessels to serve the mousse in. Martini glasses work a treat, as do non-fluted parfait glasses. I had neither of these the other day, so I used a bunch of small coffee cups instead. Be imaginative here – anything that looks funky, and holds 100 – 150 ml will do just fine. Pour the mousse into your chosen glasses or cups, place on a tray and cover lightly with cling film. Place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or overnight. As long as they are covered, they shouldn’t absorb any fridge odours, and thus will keep well for up to 5 days.
A good accompaniment would be something crisp, such as these light almond biscuits, and perhaps a few berries scattered alongside.
This recipe makes approximately 1.2 litres, or enough for 8 individual 150 ml serves, or 12 smaller 100 ml portions. If you need less (or more), you can adjust the recipe accordingly, but make sure to keep the proportions exact, or the silky texture we so desire may just vanish.