One night in Paris, two friends of mine took me to a tiny, modest cafe in the Sixth Arrondissement. It was one of countless dimly lighted establishments with battered chairs, tiny tables and a chalkboard menu.
Wine and water arrived in unmarked glass decanters, and the waiter got up from his own aperitif to grudgingly take our orders. We'd had a large midday meal with family, so we ordered only salads, which were nothing exceptional, except that in France the lettuce actually has flavor.
Afterward, one friend said, "Now, we must order this dessert. It is why we came to this cafe." She pointed to the chalkboard. "I dream about that dessert." Chocolate and orange was what she wanted: Fantasie du Chocolat et l'Orange.
What arrived at our table was a short stack of terrines in a pool of slightly sweetened cream. The bottom level was a sturdy slice of gelatin densely packed with fresh chunks of orange; it looked like a beautifully polished cross-section of orange crystals. On top of the gelatin was a slab of chocolate terrine, very dark and profoundly bittersweet. Juicy oranges, intense chocolate, sweet cream.
While this was indeed an inspired, brilliant dessert - sweet and bitter, firm and creamy, rich and juicy - the oranges were watery and low on flavor and the gelatin so firm that it was borderline bouncy. And the chocolate terrine, however dark and intense, could have benefited from a higher grade of chocolate.
I gave a lot of thought to this dessert. In fact, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
Later, I gave a dinner party for 15 people and made my first version of Fantasie du Chocolat et l'Orange. I made the orange layer with freshly squeezed orange juice, but didn't use enough gelatin. The terrine unmolded beautifully, yet collapsed somewhat as I tried to cut picture-perfect slices. (An electric knife could have done the job, if I'd had one.) I tried a bittersweet mousse for the chocolate terrine and that wasn't quite right.
Nevertheless, this first attempt was a hit - a big hit. I've now made this dessert for a half-dozen gatherings, ranging in size from five to 25 people, and each time the recipe becomes easier. Although there is some preparation - the most time-consuming part is skinning and chopping seven to nine oranges - it's a fail-safe dessert.
Fantasie du Chocolat et l'Orange, in fact, is one of those rare, brilliant ideas that's so good, it's infallible, and virtually any version smacks of genius.
Fantasie du Chocolat et l'Orange Makes 10 to 12 servings
2 packets (4 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
2 1/2 cups orange juice
7 large ripe navel oranges, peeled
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon orange oil
2 teaspoons finely minced orange zest
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
8 ounces creme fraiche
2 tablespoons good unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon minced orange zest
1 cup whipping cream or 10 egg whites
8 ounces plain yogurt (low-fat is fine)
8 ounces creme fraiche
2 tablespoons sugar (optional)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
milk for thinning
To prepare orange terrine, sprinkle gelatin on 1/2 cup of the orange juice. Set aside.
Prepare peeled oranges by cutting away any white part of the skin and the tough membranes. Cut oranges into juicy chunks (about 12 per orange). Arrange orange evenly and closely together in 6-cup loaf pan until oranges are within 1 1/2 inches of the top.
Combine remaining 2 cups orange juice and sugar in saucepan and bring to boil. Remove from heat. Stir in gelatin mixture. Add orange oil and zest. Pour mixture over oranges in loaf pan until they are completely covered. Chill in refrigerator until set, at least 4 hours.
To prepare chocolate mousse, place milk in measuring cup and sprinkle gelatin on top. Set aside.
Heat chocolate in double boiler until almost melted. Bring creme fraiche to boil. Add cocoa powder and mix until smooth. Reheat and remove from heat. Add gelatin-milk mixture to hot crM-hme-fraiche mixture. Combine both with melted chocolate. Stir in orange zest. Set aside to cool.
Whip cream or egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold gently into chocolate mixture. Pour into separate loaf pan and chill in refrigerator until set, at least 4 hours.
To prepare creme, combine yogurt, creme fraiche, sugar, if using, and vanilla in small pitcher. Thin with milk until mixture is pourable.
When ready to serve the dessert, unmold loaf pans onto separate plates. Pour a couple of tablespoons of creme mixture onto each serving plate to create a pool. First add a slice of orange terrine, then a slice of chocolate mousse.