Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Obligatory Cooking Post or Curse You, Alice B. Toklas!

In the summer of 2003, I became obsessed with Gertrude Stein.

I’ve been a man of obsessions my entire life and some previous fanatical leanings have been everything from Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” to Joan Baez to “As the World Turns” to Anne Rice to the musical “Gypsy.” With that last one, I ended up buying three different cast albums in the space of one month and then, not completely happy, I had to buy the original recording on vinyl to be a completist. Most of these former loves have never really left me and I still have the CDs in my collection, I still have “Alice in Wonderland” items in my room and I still listen to Joan Baez on occasion.

The Gertrude Stein obsession was brought about by an article Janet Malcolm had written for The New Yorker (and an eventual book) entitled “Gertrude Stein’s War.” The article detailed the story of how Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, were able to survive the French Occupation despite being two Jewish lesbians. There was more to Malcolm’s article than that: it was a glimpse into Stein’s life in Paris in the early twentieth century. I was so taken with the article that I ran right out and bought a used copy of “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” I’d never given much thought to the whole Parisian expatriate community, but suddenly I wanted to know everything about it and especially these two women.

And what true obsession about Stein and Toklas could be satisfied without owning a copy of “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook?” The book is still in print and I bought it more for the thrill of it rather than trying any of the recipes which I had heard are notoriously difficult. “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” is more useful as a memoir of her life in France than as a recipe book, but there was one recipe that caught my eye. No, it wasn’t the infamous “Toklas Brownies” that, as it turns out, wasn't even a brownie recipe but for Haschisch Fudge that was added into the cookbook by a friend without Toklas really knowing much about the most potent ingredient.

The recipe that caught my eye had one of the simplest names: Very Good Chocolate Mousse. There were only two ingredients: 6 eggs and half a pound of sweet chocolate. Now how hard could that be, I wondered? I’m not a cook even though I used to love browning the ground meat for my mother whenever she was adding it to a recipe. It was just one of those simple pleasures…

My first attempt at Very Good Chocolate Mousse took place one summer night. My roommate's two new kittens were in the kitchen with me, both fascinated and terrified by the swinging electric cord for the mixer. And for a recipe that only had two ingredients, I made every mistake a person could make. I calculated amounts wrong and put in a pound of chocolate (I was an English major, okay?), ended up beating the chocolate and eggs together when then recipe does not tell you to do that (No excuse here - I was an English major) and then, at the height of everything, I lifted the beater (still whirring) out of the bowl and chocolate went everywhere. All over me, the walls, the kittens. The evening was a failure, enough of a failure that I did not attempt the recipe again for six more years.

This year, I finally went to Paris and had the time of my life. I brought a rose with me to the Pere LaChaise cemetery to lay onto the grave of Gertrude Stein- after all, had it not been for her, I’d never have started my interest in Paris to begin with. I wanted to thank her that I finally made it. Once, I got back to New York, I took out “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” again, blew off the dust and once again attempted Very Good Chocolate Mousse.

In a fairy tale ending to this post, I could tell you that everything went swimmingly this time out. But that would be a lie.

I do give myself credit this time for perfectly separating the yolks from the whites and correctly measuring the amount of chocolate (which, I must add, you need to shred in a cheese grater, bit by bit, until you have chocolate dust in your nose and under your fingernails.) But the mistake I did make this time was stirring the chocolate and frothy egg whites together when I should have folded them. This does make a difference (who knew?) and Toklas' promise for a spongy texture eluded me; I had mousse that was maybe a quarter of an inch deep in its bowl. It looked very sad. At least this time out, the result was edible and gave me enough confidence to not wait another six years to attempt the recipe again and get it just right next time.

After all, mousse shouldn’t be chewy.

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