At lunch recently, I was sitting with two innovative chefs--New Yorkers Larry Forgione of An American Place restaurant and Gerard Pangaud of Aurora restaurant.
Both chefs make a point of changing their menus as much as possible, but there is one section they dare not touch: desserts.
"People get really upset," Forgione said, and Pangaud concurred. "I've altered my desserts once in two years, and that was to add a dish."
So we began talking about our own personal "desert island" desserts. Mine would always include the chocolate mousse made by chef Chambrette of La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. The first time I tasted it, I could not believe how good it was.
He simply melts chocolate and folds in egg whites with a bit of sugar. With no cream or butter to interfere with the taste of the chocolate, the pure flavor comes straight through. Equally elementary is the decoration of powdered cocoa and powdered sugar.
A Lustrous Sheen
Creme caramel has always been a bit sweet for my taste, so this Portuguese version, made with fresh orange juice instead of milk, is just my style. The cream, set with whole eggs, is wonderfully soft and smooth. The only tricky point is not to overcook it. A lightly cooked caramel lends a lustrous pale gold sheen to the top and dissolves to form a sauce.
An array of desserts would not be complete without a fruit pie, and this seasonal recipe combines pears with a rich almond cream. The pears are thinly sliced and arranged in a pie shell to resemble the petals of a flower. Then it is half covered with an almond mixture and baked until brown. A classic from Normandy, the pie can be made with apples, too.
Singly, any one of these desserts makes a festive end to dinner. Together they offer a festive welcome to an evening gathering, particularly if served with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.
DEFINITIVE DESSERTS FOR 8 Chef Chambrette's Chocolate Mousse Orange-Caramel Cream Normandy Pear Pie Suggested drink: Sweet white wine like Sauternes or Muscat, or coffee Advance cooking leaves a minimum to do before the party.
Up to three days ahead, make the chocolate mousses and chill. Bake the orange creams and chill.
Up to one day ahead, bake the almond-pear pie. Store in an airtight container. Chill the white wine. Set the table.
Up to two hours before serving, decorate the chocolate mousses, then refrigerate. Glaze the pie and keep at room temperature.
About 30 minutes before serving, unmold the orange cream.
About 10 minutes before serving, brew the coffee.
CHEF CHAMBRETTE'S CHOCOLATE MOUSSE
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup strong black coffee
8 egg whites
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Melt chocolate in coffee in heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring gently. Boil mixture, stirring constantly, until consistency of thick cream. Let cool to tepid.
Whip egg whites until stiff. Add granulated sugar. Continue beating until whites are glossy, about 30 seconds. Stir about 1/4 of egg whites into chocolate until well mixed. Add chocolate mixture to remaining whites. Fold together as lightly as possible.
Spoon mousse into 8 mousse pots or stemmed glasses with 3/4-cup capacity each, filling each completely. Smooth tops. Cover and chill at least 6 hours, until set. Mousses can be kept, covered, up to 3 days in refrigerator.
Not more than 2 hours before serving, half cover top of mousse with wax paper so semicircle of mousse is left exposed. Dust semicircle thickly with powdered sugar. Cover powdered sugar side of mousse with wax paper and dust remaining semicircle thickly with cocoa. Chill until serving time. Makes 8 servings.
Note : The fewer the ingredients, the better they must be. Choose best dessert chocolate for this recipe.
1/2 cup water
1 quart orange juice
To make caramel, heat 3/4 cup sugar with water in small heavy saucepan until sugar is dissolved. Boil rapidly, without stirring, until sugar caramelizes to golden brown. When mixture starts to color, it will darken rapidly. Remove from heat before it burns. Let bubbles subside.
Working 1 at a time, pour some of caramel over bottom of 1-cup ramekin. Immediately turn ramekin so base and sides are coated. Continue procedure on 7 other ramekins. Let caramel cool and set.
Whisk eggs with 2/3 cup sugar until thoroughly mixed. Stir in orange juice. Strain mixture into caramel-lined ramekins, filling each almost full. Set ramekins in larger shallow pan and add boiling water to come halfway up sides of ramekins.
Bake ramekins at 350 degrees until almost set and knife inserted in center comes out clean, 17 to 20 minutes.
Do not overcook or cream will curdle. Remove ramekins from water bath. Let cool. Creams can be kept, tightly covered, up to 3 days in refrigerator.
Not more than 30 minutes before serving, run knife around edge of ramekins. Turn creams upside down onto individual plates. Caramel will have dissolved to form sauce. Makes 8 servings.
NORMANDY PEAR PIE
3/4 cup butter
2 egg yolks