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Gather round, everyone: Dorie Greenspan has quite a story to tell. It's a tale of intrigue, sweets and — just in time for Valentine's Day — the city of love.
Greenspan is the author of Around My French Table, and she's lived part time in Paris for 16 years, becoming familiar with how the French live and eat at home. And she spent a good deal of that time learning the arcane ways of her French hostesses, often by trial and error. For example, she says, "I discovered that, just like the fashionistas, hostesses never tell you which is the good stuff and which stuff comes from the Gap or the grocery. That's what friends are for — good friends."
Perhaps that's why it took her nearly a year to track down the recipe to what she's come to call the Top-Secret Mousse.
The mystery began innocently enough. At meal's end, a few of her friends would bring out a memorable dessert — a "rich, creamy, dark, dreamy, delicious chocolate mousse." Of course, she'd learned enough about French etiquette by then to know that getting the recipe would be all but impossible. That's why, when her good friend Martine served the mousse, she rejoiced. "At last, all would be revealed," she recalls thinking.
"But it wasn't! I couldn't believe it. When I asked her about it, she gave me a Gallic shrug and said, 'Oh, I'm so glad you liked it!' "
If even someone so close to her wouldn't give up the recipe, Greenspan decided her quest must be hopeless. So, when Martine served the dessert again, she abstained from asking and simply relished it instead. "This time I knew better than to say anything other than 'miam-miam,' which is the French equivalent of yum."
As Greenspan was preparing to leave, though, her friend surprised her at the door. "Martine handed me a small package, kissed me on both cheeks and gave me what could only be called a 'Mona Lisa smile.' What she'd given me was a Nestle chocolate bar! I was so puzzled that I could barely get 'thank you' out of my mouth when she turned the bar over."
And on the back of the bar was her answer: "There it was — the recipe for the mousse every savvy French cook makes."
It's simple, versatile and delicious. Most important, it's no longer secret. "Like my French friends," Greenspan says, "this is the dessert I turn to all the time. But unlike some of them, I'll give you my recipe. It's my Valentine's Day present to you."
Makes 4 servings
3 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
Whipped cream or creme fraiche, for serving (optional)
Gently melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water or in a microwave oven on medium power.
If necessary, transfer the chocolate to a bowl that can hold all the ingredients. Using a whisk, stir the egg yolks into the chocolate one at a time.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a bowl with a hand mixer, beat the egg whites with the salt until they start to form peaks. Beating all the while, gradually add the sugar. Continue to beat until the whites are shiny and hold medium-firm peaks.
Spoon about one-quarter of the whites over the melted chocolate and stir with the whisk until the mixture is almost smooth. (Stirring in a bit of the whites lightens the chocolate and makes the next step easier.) Spoon the rest of the whites over the chocolate and, using the whisk or a large rubber spatula, very carefully fold in the whites. Be as thorough as you can without overworking the mixture — it's better to have a few white streaks than to beat the bubbles out of the mousse by overmixing (actually, I find the streaks appealing).
Spoon the mousse into a serving bowl or individual bowls or serve it now, or cover it and keep it in the refrigerator until you're ready for dessert.
Before the mousse sets, spoon it into individual cups — I love the way the mousse looks in martini glasses — or put it in a pretty serving bowl. I like to top it with lightly whipped heavy cream or creme fraiche. You don't have to stop there — the mousse is delicious with fresh berries, chocolate shavings, crushed candied nuts, nut brittle or even pulverized Heath Bar bits.
Covered well, the mousse will keep overnight in the refrigerator, although it will get denser as it stands.
To give the mousse a mocha flavor, add 1 tablespoon strong coffee to the bowl with the chocolate to be melted. Alternatively, you can add another flavor when you whisk in the egg yolks; such as 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract, 1/8 teaspoon pure peppermint extract or a drop or two of pure orange oil.
A word on the eggs
The eggs in this recipe are not cooked, so it's important to use very fresh eggs, preferably organic and/or from a trusted local source.