I can make a grocery list without the phone ringing off the hook. I can shop for food without having to abandon my half-full grocery cart in the middle of the store to attend to a client's media crisis. I have food in the house, and I have time to cook it. My days are still busy, but much more manageable, now. My nights even more so. I am getting more than 5 hours of sleep. I feel like I can breathe again.
Over the past week, late at night I've found myself standing in the front yard, looking southward in the sky staring at the waxing-then-full-now-waning moon, with Jupiter just below. This past weekend, my neighbors and I had a roaring fire going in my copper fire pit, and we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows for s'mores. We started at 6 o'clock on Saturday night and didn't turn in until well past midnight. We listened to the pair of barred owls in the woods hoot and call to each other, and saw one of them swoop down my street, just under the street light at the end of the block, before flying to its tree in the woods. We stuffed our faces with s'mores and drank wine. We listened to the kids debate who was more annoying: Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez (it was a tie). We took turns with the binoculars to look at Jupiter's moons ... something we'll not be able to see again in our lifetime.
It's things like this that bring me back to center and recharge my batteries.
* * * * *
My nephew and his grandpa (my dad) have something very important in common: an undying, almost-addictive love of chocolate popsicles. I grew up in a house with a freezer full of chocolate ice cream (from which great milkshakes were born) and Fudgesicles galore, because my dad loved the stuff (and it was the '70s: where there was always dessert after dinner). Now that my dad is a little older, he's changed his snack and dessert portion sizes to that of a popsicle. We will not go into my theory that eating seven popsicles is probably worse than a scoop or two of ice cream. But that is neither here nor there. Ahem.
Every time my parents babysat their grandson this summer, the little guy would run and jump and act like a crazy dude around noon -- not just because it was the time my dad came home from the office for lunch, but because it meant there would be chocolate popsicles for dessert. Grandpa is #1 in this kid's heart, but chocolate popsicles? Not even a #2. More like a #1.5.
After they ate lunch, my laptop would bbbrrrrrrrriiinnnnggggg with an incoming Skype call, and my nephew could hardly wait to tell me about his dessert: cha-LOCK-a-lit possickles. To hear that two-year-old little monkey butt say "cha-LOCK-a-lit" was hilarious. So, of course, I asked every conceivable question that could result in him using that word/pronunciation in his answer. It never got old.
So when I scanned the Alinea cookbook and my now-outdated cooking planning calendar (thanks a lot, job) to figure out what I wanted to cook next, I read this recipe to myself as Cholocolate, warmed to 94 degrees.
And away we go...
I spent some time among some glorious, bountiful fig trees in northern California in early August, but the fruit was still green and hadn't yet ripened. I hear they're now out in full force, and it was all I could do to not hop on a plane back out there to pluck them off the tree myself. Instead, I drove to Whole Foods and picked up a few boxes of figs—a fruit I really didn't "get" for years and years, and now can't imagine living without:
The first element of this dish I needed to work on was drying figs for bergamot tea. So, the day before I knew I was going to serve this dish, I halved a whole mess o' figs and dehydrated them overnight at 150F degrees:
I did two racks of them, which came out to just under the 125g of dried figs I needed. Not bad for a guesstimate.
I put the dried figs into a bowl until I needed to use them, and got started on the chocolate mousse, which also needed to be dehydrated. Here's my mise en place (egg whites, sugar, salt, egg yolks, chocolate):
I melted the chocolate in a bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water:
And, as it was melting, I whipped the egg whites (and salt) until they became frothy and were just starting to get foamy:
I added the sugar and kept whipping until just before the stiff-peak phase:
See? Just soft peaks:
I removed the chocolate from the burner, took the bowl out of the saucepan, and stirred to make sure the chocolate (which in my head as I type this looks and sounds like cha-LOCK-a-lit) was completely melted. I also whisked in the egg yolks. Then, I folded in a third of the whipped egg whites:
And after that was pretty full incorporated, I added the rest of the egg whites, folding them in gently until it was a creamy, smooth mousse:
I spooned the mousse onto a Pam-sprayed, acetate-lined dehydrator tray (I filled 3 of them):
And, I set the dehydrator on 150F degrees, and let it dehydrate for 8 hours. The book said it would need 6 hours, but I know my dehydrator well enough (and the humid day I was cooking) to know I'd need longer.
While the chocolate mousse was in the dehydrator, I made the cassia ice cream. Since I couldn't find cassia buds, I used cinnamon sticks instead, which I simmered and let steep in some milk:
After the cinnamon steepage, I poured the liquid through a fine mesh strainer and into a bowl where I added some already-soaked gelatin sheets, sugar, milk powder, glucose, and condensed milk and mixed it all with my immersion blender:
I processed it in my ice-cream maker and put the ice cream in the freezer to harden further. You'll see the ice cream in the final plating photo (but man, did it ever smell goooooood while I was making it). Oh, and ***TANGENT ALERT*** while the ice cream was processing, and the figs (below) were simmering, I used the leftover sweetened condensed milk to make what I think might be the best thing in the whole world: dulce de leche:
Alright, let's get back to the recipe.
Time to braise some figs. I halved 12 figs and simmered them in some ruby port and dry red wine (along with a little glucose and sugar) for about 30 minutes:
I strained the figs and let them cool, and reduced the fig braising liquid to a glaze:
I let both of them come to room temperature before combining the figs and the glaze in a small deli container for storage until I needed them to serve the dish.
Next to last: I made the bergamot tea. This couldn't have been easier. In a small-ish saucepan, I combined the figs I'd dried the night before, sugar, water, and salt and brought it to a boil. I turned off the burner and added some Earl Grey tea leaves, covered the pot, and let it steep for 5 minutes. [Now, I'm not a tea lover, but there's something about the smell of bergamot in Early Grey tea that makes me feel all cozy inside.] After it had steeped, I poured the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and let it come to room temperature. Then, I added some Ultra-Tex 3 and blended it with my immersion blender for 3 minutes, per the book's instructions. I let it rest on the counter until it was time to plate.
The last step was, perhaps, the trickiest. Bringing chocolate -- chunks of a plain old bar of chocolate -- to 94 degrees. It's melty, but not melted. It's soft, but not gooey. It's silky and shiny, but not gloppy. It needed to retain its shape, but be soft enough to to push a pin through it with no resistance. And, it had to be done while the chocolate pieces were already resting atop the pieces of dehydrated chocolate mousse.
The book suggested leaving it on the stovetop with the oven turned on, and hinted that it might take 20 minutes to reach 94 degrees. I know myself (and my lack of experience, especially when it comes to being successful at making desserts), so I allotted 45 minutes for this step. Which, it turns out I needed.
I placed the pieces of 64 percent cacao chocolate onto the squares of dehydrated mousse, and laid them on a Silpat-lined baking sheet. I didn't want to put them directly in the oven, because I knew it would be harder to control the heat.
So, I placed them on the stovetop, right near the oven vent... where it gets really warm. So, how warm should the oven be to generate the kind of heat I needed to bring the chocolate to 94 degrees, without getting too hot that it would melt?
Close. But still no increase in the chocolate's temperature.
I turned my oven to 425, and checked the chocolate's temperature every minute. Slowly it climbed from 74 degrees... to 76, then 77, then 82... and then stayed there for a few minutes. It inched up a degree at a time, until it got to 94 degrees (94.3 actually) and I turned off the oven and removed the chocolate from the stovetop and started plating.
First in the bowl? Four braised fig halves, in their glaze. Next to that went the cinnamon ice cream. On top went the 94-degree chocolate-topped dehydrated chocolate mousse, which was topped with bee balm flowers (bergamot flowers are out of season right now). My friends carried their bowls out to the table, and I poured in the tea around the base of the dessert:
Pretty, isn't it? But how did it taste?
She's gonna kill me for posting that photo, but I don't care.
This dessert was really, really good. Even better than I thought it was going to be. Almost as good as being able to see most of Jupiter's moons. Seriously.
These ingredients were so wonderful together. I also loved how the soft warmth of the chocolate tempered the ice cream. The figs were sweet, but not overly sweet, and the wines were noticeable but not at all overpowering or domineering. The tea added a really nice aromatic quality to the dessert in addition to tasting really good. The texture of the dehydrated mousse was crunchy and chewy, and tasted like a compressed brownie. In fact, I have some leftover dehydrated chocolate mousse and leftover cinnamon ice cream, so as soon as I hit the Publish button on this bad boy, I'mma make myself an ice cream sandwich.
But you guys? This dessert? Worth it. Maybe it's because I've been so stressed out for the past month, but this, combined with fire pits, planet-gazing, hot dogs, s'mores, and wine, has made for a pretty memorable September.
Up Next: Tomato, balloons of mozzarella, many complementary flavors (I don't want to wait until next summer to do this dish, and this is the last week for tomatoes here in DC)
Resources: Figs from Whole Foods; Sandeman ruby port; The Squid's Fist wine; glucose from L'Epicerie; Domino sugar; Twinings Earl Grey tea; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice; cinnamon from HMart; Natural by Nature whole milk; gelatin sheets from King Arthur Flour; Organic Valley nonfat powdered milk; Borden sweetened condensed milk; Green & Black's 72% cacao chocolate; Ghirardelli 64% chocolate; eggs from Smith Meadows Farm; David's kosher salt; bee balm from my garden.
Music to Cook By: XTC; Oranges and Lemons. I think "The Loving" might be in my top 20 favorite songs of all time.
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