julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

Soup du Jour, Aspicable Me, and a Sweet Ending

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“We decided to ‘try’ (read: get over with) the eggs in aspic.  I shook the molds out onto plates.  The things looked like very pretty paperweights…but not particularly like something you’d like to put in your mouth.  And so they weren’t.” – Julie Powell 

I had grand visions of waking up Saturday morning and whipping up some of Julia’s cream cheese, spinach and mushroom crepes and serving them with a tall glass of orange juice by a toasty fire in the fireplace. Instead, I wound up sleeping in until noon (I didn’t actually get out of bed until after 1. Hey, I’m just keeping it real here.) and spent a couple of hours running errands with Ben. By the time we got home, we were pretty hungry, so we had the sirloin and potatoes au gratin leftovers from the other night. (Delicious even two days later!) Then we finally took down our Christmas decorations (I think the neighbors who drove by while we were packing up our outdoor lights were muttering, “It’s about time!”, but I can’t be sure). We couldn’t bear to take down the tree yet, so it stands for one more day. *dreamy sigh* I love Christmas.

It was about 5:30 when Ben finally said, “So…what’s for dinner?” Which I think really means, “Why aren’t you in the kitchen? Don’t you have, like, a billion recipes to finish before August?” So into the kitchen I went and flipped to the page for the crepes. While I’m sure the recipe is fairly easy, there were a lot of steps – for the crepe batter and the fillings and all – and frankly, it kind of wore me out just thinking about it. So instead, I decided to make Potage Creme de Cresson (cream of water-cress soup), Oeufs en Gelee (poached eggs in aspic), and Mousseline au Chocolat (chocolate mousse) with Creme Chantilly (lightly beaten cream).

Looks kinda like...weeds.

The soup was pretty simple, which I love. I heated minced green onions in butter until they were soft but not browned. I stirred in about 3 cups of watercress with a pinch of salt and covered the pot until the leaves were tender and wilted. About five minutes later, I added some flour and stirred it together for a few minutes. (At this point, I realized that the smell of the cooked watercress reminded me of summertime, and I didn’t know why…until it occurred to me that it smelled like a freshly cut lawn, and I grew slightly skeptical about how this was going to turn out.) Meanwhile, I brought some chicken stock to a boil and then poured it into the pot with the watercress. After it simmered for a bit, I needed to puree the mixture, which was basically just a bunch of stringy leaves in some stock. And here’s where I had to get a little creative.

Not feeling too confident about this plan.

Julia says to run the soup through a food mill, which I don’t have. I do have a food processor, however, so I poured the soup into that and locked it into place. Already I could see this may not work, as I noticed some of the liquid dripping out from the bottom. So I put the whole thing on a plate to catch any spills and gave the “grind” button a quick press. Sure enough, soup spouted up through the top of the processor…nothing like the other night’s steak juice explosion, but a definite geyser nonetheless. So I covered the top with a towel and gave it another try. Nope. Still got sprayed. So maybe a food processor isn’t meant for liquids? Think. Think.

Then I realized that my trusty Magic Bullet would do the trick! So I poured everything from the food processor into the bullet and tried it again. While the results weren’t perfect – by no means could this pass for a true puree – it was as close as I was going to get, so I settled for that plan and poured the “puree” back into the pot. In a separate bowl, I mixed two egg yolks with a half cup of whipping cream and gradually added in the soup. I gave it a quick stir, noticing how it was all starting to thicken up at this point, and poured it all back into the pot and heated it up on the stove. Finally, I took the pot off of the heat and added a couple tablespoons of butter. By now the soup was a nice creamy thickness, had turned a lovely shade of green, and smelled really good (that lawn smell was gone, thank goodness). I set the soup aside so I could focus on the poached egg aspic.

So here’s the idea of an aspic: You line a mold with liquid gelatin, then layer a variety of food items on top of it (the bottom of the mold will actually be the top of the aspic, so you put the pretty foods in first) and cover the creation with another layer of liquid gelatin. Once it’s chilled and set, you flip it out onto a serving dish and you have a lovely edible… paperweight. At least, that’s what they look like (Julie Powell agrees).  Now, I have never eaten an aspic, and while I hate to be judgmental, even the word “aspic” kind of grosses me out. I don’t really understand the idea of eating gelatin, but hey, if Julia says it’s good, who am I to question? I started by poaching a couple of eggs, which is something that I’m doing pretty well these days. When they were done, I set them aside on a plate and turned to the gelatin.  

Hm...something doesn't seem quite right.

The closest thing I’ve ever made to pure gelatin is
Jell-o. While there’s a recipe in MTAOFC for home-made gelatin, it involves ingredients such as cow hooves, so I opted for the more reasonable option and went with gelatin “leaves”. The leaves come 12 to a package, and look like thin plastic rectangle sheets. I followed the directions and set a few of the sheets into a bowl of cold water for a few minutes. When they were ready, I pulled out rubbery film … and couldn’t understand how this was supposed to work. I set a few sheets into the bottom of a couple of small pyrex bowls and sprinkled tarragon leaves on top. I set a poached egg on top of the leaves (ugly side up because, remember, the bottom of the mold will be the top of the dish when it’s all said and done) and then took a step back. This wasn’t looking right. I re-read the instructions on the gelatin, and realized I had misunderstood them. So I removed the eggs and tarragon leaves, and put all the gelatin film into a bowl which I heated in the microwave for a few seconds. When it came out, the gelatin was liquefied and much easier to work with. I spooned a bit into the bottom of the bowls, then replaced the tarragon and eggs, then topped the dishes with the rest of the gelatin. Ah, yes, NOW we were getting somewhere! I set the bowls in the fridge, where they needed to rest for an hour.

Watercress soup...mm mm good!

It was at about this time when Ben wandered into the kitchen and started nosing around my pots and pans. “So…” he said hesitantly, “…is there any meat in any of these dishes tonight?” To which I had to say no. Unfortunately, when you take on a food challenge, there are going to be some days that just aren’t your favorite. But I pointed out that we had some pork tenderloin leftovers in the fridge, along with the rest of the potatoes au gratin, and that seemed to offer a silver lining. Since the eggs were going to take an hour to set, we went ahead with the soup (and leftovers). I thought the soup was great! Granted, it would have been much better had I actually succeeded in pureeing the leaves, as there were still some stringy bits in the bowl. But even so, not even Ben could argue that the dish had great flavor. (It kind of reminded me of spinach artichoke dip…if spinach artichoke dip were a soup.) I tossed a few saltines into my bowl and it made a great meal.

Awhile later, we were ready to give the aspic a try. I took the bowls from the fridge and used a spoon to carefully pop the gelatin out of the bowls. It came out really easily (too easily?) and I inverted the dishes onto a plate. All things considered, they looked pretty good, except I couldn’t help noticing their strong resemblance to silicone. I’ll admit it…we were both a little leery. I set the plate between us on the table and Ben made me try it first. I cut into one with my fork, breaking the egg inside and spilling creamy egg yolk onto the plate. The eggs were perfect. I took a bite, and immediately wondered….

WHY WOULD ANYONE EVER DO THIS TO FOOD?!?!

Aspic or decorative soaps? You decide.

The taste of the egg was amazing, and really the gelatin didn’t taste bad, except that it was like chewing on a piece of hard rubber. I. Don’t. Get. It. What did food ever do to deserve this kind of imprisonment?  It’s like a bad fairy tale story – the eggs ticked off the evil queen, and now only the kiss from a prince could free them from their rubbery doom. (I know, my imagination is a strange place.) We tried to keep an open mind, but neither Ben nor I could finish the aspic. It was too weird. In fact, we took half of his to the kitchen for a scientific experiment…we dropped it from a 6′ height to see if it would bounce. Much to my relief (I think), it did not. I just couldn’t see the benefit of putting the gelatin in my stomach. And to think…we’ve got at least seven more aspic recipes to go. *shudder*

The only thing that got us through the aspic debacle was the promise of chocolate mousse. This recipe was also surprisingly simple. In a glass bowl, I beat four egg yolks together with 3/4 cups of sugar until the mixture was a pale yellow, then poured in a quarter cup of orange liqueur. Once it was all mixed together, I set the bowl on top of a pan of nearly simmering water on the stove. I whipped the mixture until it became foamy, then put the bowl over a basin of cold water and whipped it some more. (You’ll know it’s ready when it has the consistency of mayonnaise. Pale yellow mayonnaise.)

Hello, orange liqueur. Where have you been all my life?

Then, I dropped six squares of baking chocolate into another glass bowl along with four tablespoons of coffee. Now, at this point Ben and I got into a heated discussion about the rules of this challenge…I don’t like coffee. I love chocolate mousse. Why put something I hate into something I love? So I asked if I could omit the coffee. Ben said no. Ultimately, he was right…rules are rules. But ick. Coffee? *sigh* Okay, back to cooking.

I put the glass bowl over the pan of hot water on the stove and stirred the contents until the chocolate was melted. It was pretty thick, but the stick of butter I stirred in next (off the heat) made the mixture super creamy and lovely. (But don’t be fooled…baking chocolate tastes nothing like regular chocolate. Give it a taste and you’ll be sorry!) I beat the chocolate into the egg yolk/sugar bowl, and then used my hand mixer to combine the whites from the original four eggs (remember them? back at the beginning of this recipe?) with a pinch of salt until soft peaks formed. I then added a tablespoon of sugar to the bowl and used the mixer to beat the eggs until stiff peaks formed. I used to do this step by hand with a wire whisk. Never. Again. Only electric hand mixers from now on. Got it?

I stirred a fourth of the egg whites into the mousse, then folded the remainder of the bowl in as well. Once everything was combined, I turned the mousse into a pie plate and put it in the fridge for a couple of hours. Given the amount of butter and sugar that went into this recipe, our plan was to each have a small serving, then deliver the rest to our next-door neighbors. Share the love, right?

Chocolate mousse...or, as I like to call it, Heaven On a Plate

When the mousse was ready, I poured some whipping cream into a bowl and added a couple tablespoons of powdered sugar and used the electric hand mixer to make some whipped cream topping. I scooped a little mouse onto dessert plates, added a dollop of whipped cream and we dug in. Let me just say this. The mousse TOTALLY made up for the icky aspic. Holy. Crap. This is by far the best dessert – if not best recipe – that I’ve made so far, and it’s amazing on several different levels. First of all, the home-made whipped cream is amazing. Light, fluffy, and just sweet enough without being overwhelming. I’m a big fan of Cool Whip and toppings that come in cans, but I think from now on I’ll just make this. Then, the chocolate itself was incredible. (I believe my exact words were, “I want to bathe in this!”) Creamy and rich, I could pick up on the orange from the liqueur and the coffee tones, yet the flavors worked great with the chocolate. (Is it bad form to lick one’s plate? What if nobody’s watching?) So much for will power…we both went back for seconds. (Although, between you and me, the mousse is so rich that seconds was almost a bad idea. Almost.)

I’m telling you…if you want to impress someone with a sweet tooth, make this mousse and serve it in a wine glass, topped with the home-made whipped cream and a sprinkling of mini chocolate chips. Valentine’s Day is just a month away…

Tonight I’m tackling a leg of lamb. How’s that for a mental picture?

Bon appetit!
– Jessica

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