Chocolate has been used to lift one’s spirits from time immemorial. It is also associated with love and romance. The best comes from Venezuela, where the noble Criollo bean grows. It is to chocolate what Arabica is to coffee. The bean used to make 90 percent of chocolate today, however, is the common Forastero bean. A hybrid, called Trinitario, is used in some finer chocolate.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), that famous French lawyer and politician who was equally known as an epicure and a gastronome, praised chocolate’s restorative powers when he wrote: “Let any man … who shall find the accustomed polish of his wit turned to dullness, feel damp oppression in the air and time hanging heavily, or be tortured by a fixed idea which robs him of all liberty and thought; let all such, we say, administer to themselves a good pint of ambered chocolate … and they will see marvels.”
Here are three classic French desserts featuring chocolate.
Mousse au Chocolat
Makes 4 to 5 servings
• 125 g (1/4 lb) semisweet chocolate
• 50 ml (1/4 cup) water or strong coffee
• 3 eggs, separated (pasteurized)
• 50 ml (1/4 cup) sugar
• Pinch of salt
• 1 ½ tbsp) dark rum or cognac or 5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla
• 125 ml (1/2 cup) heavy cream, whipped
Melt chocolate in the water or coffee over low heat. Cool a little. Beat egg yolks with the sugar until thick and pale. Mix in the chocolate and flavouring. Beat egg white with the salt until stiff. Fold in the whipped cream and then fold in the egg whites. Pour into a glass serving dish and chill for at least six hours before serving.
Gateau de Chocolat Nancy
This chocolate cake is a favourite in the town of Nancy, in northeastern France.
• 150 ml (2/3 cup) butter, softened
• 113 g (4 oz) bittersweet chocolate
• 4 egg yolks
• 15 ml (1 tbsp) flour
• 50 ml (1/4 cup) grated almonds
• 5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla
• 4 egg white, beaten stiff
Put the butter in a bowl and work to soften it even more with a wooden spoon. Melt the chocolate in top of a double boiler and add to the butter. Blend well. Add the egg yolks and stir. Blend in the flour, then the almonds and the vanilla. When all the ingredients are blended and have a uniform colour, mix in the stiffly beaten egg whites. Stir until well incorporated. Butter a shallow baking pan and pour in the thick batter. Bake in a 180º C (350º F) oven for around 30 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.
Pears belle Hélène
This dessert was created by Auguste Escoffier around 1864 in honour of an operetta by Jacques Offenbach called La belle Hélène. The original recipe calls for candied violets, obtainable in Canada through Amazon.com at an outrageous price. Slivered almonds may be substituted, as may canned or preserved pears instead of poaching them in the sugar syrup.
• 4 pears
• 500 ml (2 cups) sugar syrup
• 5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla
• Vanilla ice cream
• Candied violets or almonds
• 625 ml (2 1/2 cups) hot chocolate sauce
Peel pears, keeping the stems intact. Poach in sugar syrup until barely tender, about eight minutes. Drain and cool them, then chill. Put the ice cream in the bottom of a serving dish, stand pears in it, decorate with violets or almonds, and serve hot chocolate sauce on the side.
• 750 ml (3 cups) sugar
• 375 ml (1 1/2 cup) water
Stir the sugar into the water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then raise the heat and boil without stirring for about 10 minutes. Can be used when cool or stored in a covered glass jar.
Hot chocolate sauce
• 250 g (8 oz) sweet cooking chocolate
• 250 ml (1 cup) water
• 50 ml (1/4 cup) crème fraiche or 35 percent cream
• 50 ml (1/4 cup) sweet butter
• 15 ml (1 tbsp) sugar
• 10 ml (2 tsp) vanilla
Melt the chocolate and water over hot water and add the cream and butter, then the sugar and vanilla. Stir well until the butter is completely blended and the sauce is very smooth.
Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings, and Doctor’s Review, among others. She is currently the European editor of Taste & Travel International. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org