Wednesday, June 3, 2009

White Chocolate Mousse and Ladyfingers: Dream vs. Reality

About three decades ago, on a trip to Sweden, I met a man who told me that he felt the two most valuable qualities a person could cultivate are flexibility and a sense of humor. At sixteen years old, I suppose I'd never heard that before and his words, apparently, lodged in my psyche. As useful qualities for life in general, I know now that that's pretty good advice. As critical qualities for a baker, though, it couldn't be more true.

Why bring this up? Well, my culinary efforts ran aground this morning. One might say I hit a bit of an iceberg. (A white chocolate iceberg, to be specific, while sailing in a sea of whipped egg whites.) But because uncertainty is all part of the thrill of baking, that's to be expected now and then . . . right? I mean, one just never knows what's really going to happen. Sometimes victory can be snatched from the jaws of impending defeat. Then again, sometimes it's all you can do to snatch back your tattered dignity . . . never mind victory. In any case, you have to maintain a flexible outlook and, like it or not, just laugh it off and hopefully learn from it.

You see, I had high hopes of making a beautiful batch of traditional ladyfingers. Never mind that I'd never made them before. Never mind that I don't think I've ever met anyone who has reported having successfully made them. In my dreamlike state I thought that they would provide a charming accompaniment to luscious trifle dishes filled with silky white-chocolate mousse, which I--of course--would also concoct with great success on the same day (oh, the hubris . . . for shame!). I used a ladyfinger/madeleine recipe from the Baking with Julia cookbook--a wonderful book by all accounts. And, for the mousse, I turned to the Chez Panisse Desserts cookbook. Another truly classic dessert book, yes? (Affirmative.) Was I just a tiny bit apprehensive? Sure. But I recalled Eleanor Roosevelt's famous quotation about doing the thing you think you can't do. In other words, force yourself to do what scares you silly. It's one of my favorite inspirational quotes. (That Eleanor, she really wrote the book on getting out of your comfort zone, didn't she?)

I did everything right. . . um . . . well . . . as far as I could tell. I read and reread the recipes. I was very organized (you might say I mise-en-placed all over the place). I made sure I would have no interruptions. But ultimately my ladyfingers fell flat, and the white chocolate in my mousse must have cooled off in the final folding stage and that left zillions of little dibs and dabs of firm white chocolate suspended within the mousse.

Where did it all go wrong, you ask? Perhaps I have a naturally adversarial relationship with all recipes containing whipped egg whites as a central ingredient? No. I've made some fabulous cakes without destroying fluffy egg whites in the process. Do I handle beaten egg whites like a stevedore tossing empty crates aside, you wonder? No. I respect the fluffy egg whites. I treat them tenderly. I swear. Some of my best friends are frothy egg whites.

Oh, woe is me.

But enough whining. Enough!

Good bakers suck it up and soldier on.

So, how did I salvage the flat ladyfingers and the lumpy mousse? Well, once I'd confirmed that both items were truly palatable and even actually tasted good, despite being--ahem--unconventionally structured, I ceased the self flagellation and used a sieve to sprinkle confectioners' sugar over the pancake-like ladyfingers. Then I hunted in my cookie cutter collection for a cute flower-shaped cutter. The flower-fingers, if you will, turned out to look rather nice, I thought, and they were actually quite tasty. Delicately sweet, kind of soft, but firm enough not to fall over like a little floppy pancake.

As for the mousse, despite the little bits of firmed-up chocolate throughout, it too still tasted pretty darn good. It was completely obvious this stuff was still well in the mousse ballpark. The worst aspect was the mildly lumpy texture. (Hey, what's so bad about having to chew your mousse? Cows chew cud, don't they?) So what do we do when we want to disguise little lumps in mousse? Garnish the top of it, of course. With what? With raspberries, or blackberries, or a nice strawberry, or maybe with grated or curled chocolate, or with grated chocolate and raspberries, or even with something adorable like sugared violets. (Sugared violets . . . yeah. Easy for me to suggest. I've never made those before either! Hah!)

Well, you get the idea. Even something that veers dramatically from its original intention can still be worth saving . . . and, if you're lucky, even be worth serving. But I'm no fool. Next post, I think I'm baking something less stressful. And in the meantime, I'm gonna postmortem my process; a recipe autopsy is definitely called for!

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