The secret to an airy, just-rich-enough dessert? Learning to let go, Genevieve Ko writes.
I didn’t fully understand the appeal of chocolate mousse until a decade ago, when I had it at the home of my friends Cecile and Tom Renna. They hosted brunch on a July afternoon so oppressively humid, I couldn’t imagine eating much at all.
But then Cecile brought out two big metal bowls — one piled with chocolate mousse, the other with whipped cream — so chilled from the refrigerator that they immediately began sweating as much as we were.
Cool, silky and so light, the mousse was perfect for the hot weather. It disappeared in your mouth like cotton candy but delivered a deep chocolaty flavor. And the casual way Cecile served her dessert — family-style for us to scoop straight out of the mixing bowls — made it feel as fun and welcoming as birthday cake.
Chocolate mousse can seem intimidating because it’s often layered into martini glasses and crowned with chocolate curls in formal dining rooms. But in France, where Cecile grew up, it carries the low-key familiarity of our chocolate chip cookies. She’s been making mousse since childhood and now loosely follows the instructions on the back of a “cheap” French Nestle dark chocolate bar. “It’s the recipe that everyone makes in France,” she said.
Someone ladled out seconds, revealing a bright cloud of whipped egg whites that hadn’t been incorporated into the chocolate. Instinctively, I tensed. At the restaurant kitchens where I had worked, the chefs would have whisper-screamed about how unacceptable it was (in more colorful language).
Instead, Cecile glanced at the pupil of egg white surrounded by its chocolate iris and laughed. She preferred it this way, she said with a nonchalant confidence, adding that it was better to have pockets of egg whites than to fold them in so thoroughly that the mousse deflates.
When I asked her about her perfect-is-the-enemy-of-good approach to mousse all these years later, she said, “The moment you’re afraid of doing something, it paralyzes you.”
But there’s nothing to fear about making mousse, especially since there are endless variations on it. The word loosely translates to “foam,” and that’s the one thing it needs. “Larousse Gastronomique,” the culinary tome, describes it broadly as a “light, soft preparation.” That lightness can come from eggs, cream or, simply, air, as is the case with the chocolate-only version from the molecular gastronomist Hervé This.
What Makes an Unfussy Mousse?
Most mousse recipes follow some basic steps: melting chocolate, then folding in foamy egg yolks, whites or both and sometimes whipped cream. Many enhance the mix with coffee, alcohol, spices or other seasonings. In “Mastering the Art of French Cuisine,” Julia Child calls for beating egg yolks at room temperature, then over steaming water, then over cold water, before also beating egg whites. She also melts an astonishing amount of butter into the chocolate, as does Ina Garten, a generation later. In The Times, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey shared their “ne plus ultra” formula, which involves a folding a sabayon (a custardy dessert sauce of egg yolks and liquor), then sweetened whipped cream, then stiff egg whites into chocolate.
The thing with chocolate mousse is that any type is going to be delicious as long as it’s smooth and airy. I wanted to create a version that captured the laid-back spirit of Cecile’s — both in the cooking and in the sharing. To taste the effects of different ingredients in varying proportions and understand potential pitfalls, I experimented with nearly 20 variations to land on a formula that combines simple pleasures and easy preparation. There are some key steps to achieving it.
Extra-Airy Egg Whites: Mountains of peaked egg whites were a given, as egg whites provide the airiest foam and are easy to beat with an electric mixer, ideally a standing one. To ensure that they stiffen, the mixer bowl needs to be clean, and the whites can’t have a trace of yolk. If you’re worried about your egg-separating skills, drop each egg white into a separate small bowl first before slipping it into the mixer bowl. This way, if you have, say, five perfect whites in the mixer bowl and you mess up the sixth one, you won’t have to start all over.
The whites can then be beaten — at medium speed for the most stable foam — until they’re so stiff that peaks form and hold in the bowl and at the end of the whisk. There shouldn’t be any liquid at the bottom of the bowl, but the whites also shouldn’t be dried out from overbeating. Whisking in some sugar helps keep them glossy, too.
Just-Right Richness: After testing versions with yolks beaten until voluminous, I found that whisking them added lift, but not enough to justify the time and extra dishwashing. Not to mention, the taste of eggs came through too strongly when the yolks were beaten first. Simply stirring them in resulted in a richness that didn’t interfere with the flavor of the chocolate.
Butter also offered richness, but it was a little too much for a summer dessert, making the mousse denser, like a chocolate truffle. For a just-right creaminess, heavy cream softens the bitter edge of chocolate. Whipping it before adding also lends a touch of fluffiness, but nailing the temperature is tricky. Too cold, and it can cause the chocolate to solidify in tiny lumps; not cold enough, and it will just liquefy.
Following a tip from a French chef’s grandmother, I melted the chocolate with the cream. This not only lent a gentle milky flavor, but it also helped prevent the chocolate from seizing and becoming gritty. So did adding the yolks while the chocolate was still warm. The fat in both the cream and the yolks may cause the mixture to look broken, but whisking it gently off the heat can bring it back together. A splash of cold cream can, too. If the blend still looks a bit separated, it will smooth with the addition of the whites, and the end result will be silky.
Smart, Gentle Folding: A dollop of the whites is stirred into the chocolate first to loosen the mix, which means you can fold in the rest of the whites with the gentlest touch to ensure the foamiest mousse. As for folding, it’s just what it sounds like: You want to pick up and fold the heavier chocolate at the bottom of the bowl over the weightless whites on top. And you want the two to blend in the fewest folds possible to keep all the air trapped in the whites intact.
It also helps to rotate the bowl in the opposite direction of your spatula as you swipe the chocolate up and over the whites. So, for example, if you’re running your spatula from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock, you then want to turn your bowl counterclockwise. It’s not necessary, but it’s a worth trying if only because of how meditative it feels and looks, the zebra swirls fading into a beautiful brown.
Whether you consider chocolate mousse easy depends on your experience and comfort level with making dessert, but these small tweaks and tips can guarantee a bowl of goodness. Once you get the hang of it, you can whip it up in less than 20 minutes. It won’t be a proper mousse until it’s chilled, and it’s far better after 24 hours in the refrigerator, but that’s what makes it the most stress-free party dessert. Prepare it the day before guests arrive, and pull it out when it’s time to eat.
But what really makes this a relaxing dish is the approach Cecile recommends: Try it without fear, and don’t worry if it’s not flawless. About mousse — and maybe more — she said: “You cannot control everything. The moment you let it go, it makes life so much easier.”
Recipe: Chocolate Mousse