Memories of Christmas in a spoonful of mousse

December 24, 1997|By ROB KASPER

CHOCOLATE MOUSSE will be served at our house tonight. It is a Christmas Eve tradition that got off to a shaky start 17 years ago.

The recipe, lifted from a cookbook written by Maida Heatter, is a two-step affair. First, you make the chocolate mousse, then you add the whipped-cream topping.

My wife started the holiday tradition on a cold December night. She finished the first step, the mousse, but then was interrupted. She had to go to the hospital and give birth.

Eventually I got around to completing the second step and carried the finished dessert to Johns Hopkins Hospital where we gazed at our first-born -- a baby boy wearing a Santa cap -- and spooned down chocolate mousse.

Now, when the rich flavor of the mousse hits my tongue, the memories of prior Christmas Eves start rolling back. Some memories, like the chocolate in the mousse, are bittersweet. These make the whipped cream moments, of life and of the dessert, that much sweeter.

Since entering the parent business on that Christmas Eve 17 years ago, I have learned what generations before me knew. Namely, that being a parent is one of life's more difficult, but rewarding undertakings; and that much of the experience involves on-the-job training.

During dessert, I reflect on how some things have changed over the past 17 years, and how some things have not.

For instance, the color of the Christmas lights on the Washington Monument in downtown Baltimore has changed. Back in 1980, as I walked to the hospital parking lot I saw in the distance the red and green lights of the monument leap to life. It was, I told myself, a multicolored tribute to the birth of our son. Now the monument lights still glow at Christmastime, but they are a modern, memory-empty white.

Other facets of Baltimore holiday life, however, remain unchanged. A day or two after our first son was born, a water pipe beneath Mount Royal Avenue and West Lanvale Street erupted in honor of the occasion. And last week, as the kid's 17th birthday drew near, a crew wielding jackhammers returned to the neighborhood, this time to minister to gurgling pipes beneath Park Avenue and Mosher Street. To paraphrase a favorite Irish tune, Oh, sonny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.

My late-night Christmas season routine has changed over the years. Not so long ago I stayed up late to assemble a major Christmas gift, a wagon, for the kid. Now I sometimes find myself staying up late at night, making sure that the kid has returned home safely in a different kind of wagon, the family station wagon he has been driving.

At the dinner table, the son who once used to sit in a high chair and throw carrots now lingers at the table and tosses out opinions, some as irritating to his father as the airborne carrots of old.

In the kitchen, the kid who once was a babe in his mother's arms now, from time to time, wraps his mother in his thick arms and lifts her off the floor.

I am not sure if there is any big message in these chocolate-mousse recollections. It might be that time flies, or that memories live, or that bad water pipes will always be with us. But on Christmas Eve, I savor the chocolate mousse.

Chocolate Mousse

Serves 6

8 ounces semisweet, bittersweet, or extra-bittersweet chocolate

1 tablespoon instant dry coffee

1/3 cup boiling water

5 eggs (graded large or extra large), separated

pinch of salt

Coarsely chop chocolate and place in small, heavy saucepan. Dissolve the coffee in the boiling water and pour over chocolate. Place over low heat and stir occasionally with small wire whisk until smooth. Remove from heat and set aside to cool for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the small bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks at high speed for 3 or 4 minutes, until they are pale lemon color. Reduce the speed to low, gradually add the slightly warm chocolate and beat, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula. Beat only until smooth. Remove from mixer.

Add the salt to the egg whites and beat with clean beaters until they hold a definite shape but are not stiff and dry.

Gently fold about one-quarter of the beaten whites into the chocolate mixture, then fold in the second quarter, and finally fold the chocolate into the remaining whites, folding only until no whites show.

Gently transfer the mousse to a wide pitcher and pour into six wine glasses, about 9-ounce capacity. Leave generous headroom for topping. (Instead of glasses, mousse may be poured into one large serving bowl, again leaving headroom.)

Cover tightly with aluminum foil and refrigerate for 3 to 6 hours.

Mocha Cream Topping

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup confectioners sugar

1 tablespoon instant coffee

In a chilled bowl with chilled beaters, beat the above ingredients until the cream thickens to consistency of heavy custard, not stiff.

Pour or spoon the cream onto the mousse, completely covering the top.

Refrigerate until serving.

From "Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts" (Knopf, 1980, $15)

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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