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Last month, when we moved into our new house in Burlington, our landlord gave us a bottle of Champagne as a housewarming gift. Now, as no one in my family drinks Champagne, I promptly collared the bottle, exclaiming, “Well then, I’ll make something with it!”

I have never made anything with Champagne before, nor have I ever drunk it—I’m still under twenty-one, so until we moved up to Canada I wasn’t old enough. Furthermore, I’ve never really wanted to drink it: carbonated beverages provoke nothing from me except intense grimacing. But that is what this blog is about: being adventurous in the kitchen.

Besides, Champagne is such an appropriate theme for a first post: people smash bottles of it on the prows of newly-launched ships to christen them, they toast with it at their weddings to celebrate the start of a new life, and surely a first post might flourish with a sprinkle of the festive beverage as well.

And as I remembered having seen a recipe for Champagne mousse in one of my favorite pastry books, Dessert University, I plucked it from the bookshelf and headed for the kitchen.

This mousse, like many others, is quite simple to make. It requires a bare minimum of ingredients: just Champagne, gelatin, heavy cream, and confectioers’ sugar; and no special equipment, not even a mixer—or at least it didn’t for me, because I happen to love whipping cream by hand. If the idea of whipping cream by hand sounds a bit too enthusiastic for you, by all means use a mixer; but please, watch it closely. I know from sad experience that a mixer can take almost-perfectly-there whipped cream to butterfied clumps in a second—and it’s always that one second when you happen to turn your back.

Although simple, the recipe does require a bit of forethought in the kitchen because there are so many bowls involved. It may seem impossible for a four-ingredient recipe to use four bowls, but it does.

In the first one, heavy cream and confectioners’ sugar are whipped to pillowy softness—I don’t understand why the cookbooks always say ‘soft peaks’: cream that has been properly whipped for mousse is much more like snowdrifts. The second one was filled with ice water, the third held half of the Champagne called for in the recipe, and the fourth was used to melt the gelatin over a pan of simmering water.

The melted gelatin gets stirred into the bowl of Champagne, and then that bowl is placed inside the one of ice water in order to speed up the setting of the gelatin, while you stir the mixture gently but constantly to keep it from gelling unevenly. This was the only nerve-racking part of the process, because the instructions to ‘stir slowly until mixture begins to set’ force you to distinguish between gelatin that is starting to set and gelatin that is set, which is not so great a difference as I could wish. My personal suggestion is to take the bowl out of the ice water bath as soon as the liquid is beginning to thicken, and then just let the coolness of the bowl take the gelatin the rest of the way to ‘starting to set’. That way it doesn’t happen so quickly, and you have more time to judge.

Once this step is happily over, you pour in the rest of the Champagne, and then you get the fun of folding in the whipped cream. I like to stir in a third or so of the cream first to thicken up the base, and then add the rest. Otherwise, trying to fold in the cream can feel frustratingly similar to chasing a piece of floating eggshell in a bowl of cracked eggs with a spoon.

After all the cream is folded in, the mousse is technically ‘finished’, but it’s not really. The gelatin still needs time to complete its work, so you pour the mousse—which has a consistency about the same as runny yogurt at this point—into some kind of a mold and then refrigerate it for several hours; or overnight, if it’s more convenient for your schedule.

I only made half a recipe of the mousse, and poured it into two smallish glass bowls; the full recipe would probably divide up nicely between eight or so 6-oz ramekins.

Once my mousse was set, I garnished it with a few of the Coronation grapes that I had bought at the farmer’s market. I couldn’t resist. Garnishing Champagne mousse with grapes seemed almost a necessity. But I also added some strawberry halves, which elevated the mousse into an elegant match of two very famous strawberry combinations: strawberries and Champagne and strawberries and cream. And to make a thoroughly complete dessert, perfectly suited for a late summer dinner party, I think some ladyfingers or slices of pound cake would have been quite exquisite.

And voila! The Lass In The Apron is christened.

Champagne Mousse

from Roland Mesnier’s Dessert University

Ingredients:

2 cups heavy cream, at room temperature

¾ cup confectioners’ sugar

2 cups dry Champagne (I used Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin because that’s what was given to us, but Chef Mesnier actually suggests using a cheaper Champagne with large bubbles: Cook’s is his choice.)

2 tablespoons cold water

1 envelope unflavored gelatin (or six sheets, if you prefer using them to the powdered kind.)

Technique:

  1. Whip the cream, either by hand or with an electric mixer, until the whisk is leaving trails in the cream. Then gradually whisk in the confectioners’ sugar and keep beating until the cream is thick enough to pile up in the bowl. Set aside.
  2. Pour enough water into a saucepan to come one inch up the side, and put it on the stovetop to come to a simmer. In the meantime, measure out one cup of the Champagne into a large bowl, and then fill another bowl, large enough for the first one to fit inside comfortably, with ice water.
  3. Once the water in the pan is simmering, pour the two tablespoons of water listed in the ingredients into a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over it. Once the gelatin has dissolved, place the bowl over the simmering water and stir until the gelatin melts.
  4. Pour the melted gelatin slowly into the cup of Champagne, stirring gently with a rubber spatula so you don’t deflate the bubbles. Place this bowl inside the one of ice water for 10 minutes or so, stirring all the while, until the mixture is beginning to set. It should be viscous, rather like maple syrup or honey, but you don’t want clumps of gelatin to have started forming.
  5. Take the bowl of Champagne out of the ice water and dry off the bottom with a towel. Stir in the second cup of Champagne and a third of the whipped cream; then gently fold in the remaining whipped cream.
  6. Pour the mousse into your chosen molds, either a 4- or 5-cup mold or eight individual ramekins (or glasses or whatever you wish: Champagne flutes, of course, would be ideal if you have spoons long and narrow enough to get inside them).
  7. Cover the mold(s) with plastic wrap and refrigerate the mousse for three hours, or up to overnight, before serving. The mousse also can be frozen, although the original recipe does not mention this delightful fact. At pastry school, we always were told that mousse could be frozen for three weeks, but this is no hard-and-fast rule. I’ve kept mousse in the freezer for a longer time than that. In the end, the decision should come down to your personal taste: if it still tastes good after a month, eat it! I love eating mousse straight from the freezer: there’s something about the combination of its airy creaminess and the refreshing chilliness that is utterly sublime.
  8. If you want to unmold the mousse before serving it, dip the mold in hot water for 15 or so seconds, place a plate over the mold, and flip them over together. A few gentle shakes, and the mousse should slide out easily. If it doesn’t, don’t panic: just dip it back in the hot water for a few more seconds.

Serves eight

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