Chocolate Mousse

_MG_5789 _MG_5786When I was growing up, Valentine's Day meant a special dinner with our family, and most importantly, CANDY. I still remember one V-day in particular where my sister and I each received a giant Hershey's Kiss, and I'm pretty certain that we both ate at least half that night (Solveig, you know what I'm talking about). _MG_5812Besides having an incorrigible sweet tooth, Valentine's Day was never really my favorite holiday – I never really thought it was necessary to have one day to let the people close to you know that you love them. Of course, I'm never going to say no to a good dinner, so when Ari and I were deciding what we were going to do (obviously, House of Cards was the first item on the agenda), I thought it would be fun to come up with some things I don't make on a regular basis. Surprisingly, I have never tried my hand at chocolate mousse, always one of my favorite desserts at French restaurants, but after this I will definitely be making it again. Seems fancy, and is deceptively simple  – plus you can make it hours ahead of time, which makes it perfect for a dinner party._MG_5792

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Chocolate Mousse (adapted from Bon Appétit)

1/2 cup chilled heavy cream, divided 2 large egg yolks 1/4 cup espresso or strong coffee, room temperature 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, divided 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt 3 ounces semisweet chocolate (60-72% cacao), chopped 2 large egg whites

Beat 1/4 cup cream in medium bowl until stiff peaks form; cover and chill.
Combine egg yolks, espresso, salt, and 1 Tbsp. sugar in a large metal bowl. Set over a saucepan of gently simmering water (do not allow bowl to touch water). Cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is lighter in color and almost doubled in volume and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the mixture registers 160 degrees, about 1 minute. Remove bowl from pan. Add chocolate; whisk until melted and smooth. Let stand, whisking occasionally, until room temperature.
Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites in another medium bowl on medium speed until foamy. With mixer running, gradually beat in remaining 1 Tbsp. sugar. Increase speed to high and beat until firm peaks form. Fold egg whites into chocolate in 2 additions; fold whipped cream into mixture just to blend.
Divide mousse among 4 teacups or 4-oz. ramekins. Chill until firm, at least 2 hours and up to one day.
Before serving, whisk remaining 1/4 cup cream in a small bowl until soft peaks form; dollop over mousse.

Pear Tart with Vanilla Pastry Cream

I'll admit it. I've been dreaming of peaches and tomatoes, of zucchini and plums in abundance. The farmer's market in the winter can be a little depressing, with heavy root vegetables and apples and pears week after week. Even though it hasn't been all that cold in New York, I'm looking forward to summer and its produce. However, while we are all waiting for spring, this creamy tart might help lift you out of the winter doldrums. I like how the salty, buttery crust contrasts with the sweetness of the pastry cream and the vanilla-scented pears. Also, this would make a lovely Valentine's day dessert if you have some time...you could even poach the pears in red wine instead of water for some festive color (although then I would recommend removing the vanilla). Pear Tart with Vanilla Pastry Cream (adapted from several Bon Appétit recipes)

For tart crust:

1 3/4 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chilled butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

3 tablespoons (or more) ice water

For vanilla pastry cream:

1 1/2 cups half and half

1/2 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 egg yolk

2 tablespoons flour

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For pears:

2 large Anjou or Bosc pears

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

Crust: in a food processor, combine flour, sugar, and salt until just blended. Add butter, and mix until it forms a coarse meal. Add water by the tablespoon, and blend until just moist enough to hold together. Press dough into a ball, then flatten into a disk. Refrigerate for at least an hour. (Can be made 1 day ahead)

Meanwhile, bring the half and half to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk eggs, egg yolk, sugar, and flour in a medium bowl. When half and half is hot, add to egg mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Return to pan, and whisk over medium heat until it thickens and comes to a boil, 4-5 minutes. Boil for one minute, then pour into medium bowl. Stir in vanilla, and press plastic wrap directly onto surface of pastry cream. Refrigerate for 3-4 hours, or until cold. (This makes two cups of pastry cream, which means you will have extra.)

Core pears and slice very thinly (1/4-1/2 inch wide). In a small saucepan, combine pears, vanilla, sugar, and water, and mix well so pears are completely coated. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then simmer, covered, until pears are soft, about 15 minutes. Cool.

Preheat oven to 350. When tart dough is cool, roll out into a 10-11-inch round, then press into a 9-inch tart pan, crimping sides and pricking all over with a fork. Place pie weights on top, and bake until golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Cool. Top with pastry cream, then arrange pears in a decorative fashion. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 8.

Creamed Spinach

This recipe is from one of my all-time favorite blogs, Smitten Kitchen -- in fact, this is one of the sites that made me want to start blogging in the first place. Deb's beautiful photography and excellent recipes get me excited every time she has a new post (and she has a cookbook coming out this year! Needless to say, I am very excited). I bought a bunch of spinach at the farmer's market last week and instead of doing the same old sauté with garlic and olive oil, decided it was time for something new. Namely, creamy, creamy cream sauce. This recipe makes a very rich side dish or you could easily top it with an egg and call it dinner. Creamed Spinach (just slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

2 pounds baby spinach or 2 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, tough stems discarded 1 3/4 cups heavy cream or whole milk, or a mix thereof (I used a mix) 2 shallots, finely chopped 1 small clove garlic, minced 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Wash your spinach well and shake dry. Place spinach in a large pot over high heat. Cook, covered, with just the water clinging to leaves, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 2 to 4 minutes for baby spinach and 4 to 6 minutes for regular spinach.

Press or squeeze out the excess liquid any number of ways, either by wringing it out in cheesecloth, putting it in a mesh strainer and pressing the moisture out with a spatula or large spoon or letting it cool long enough to grab small handfuls and squeezing them to remove as much water as possible. Coarsely chop the wrung-out spinach.

Wipe out large pot so you can use it again.

Heat milk or cream in a small saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until warm. Keep warm. Meanwhile, cook shallots and garlic, in butter in the large pot over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about six minutes. Whisk in flour and cook roux, whisking, about three minutes. Add warm milk or cream in a slow stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps, and simmer, whisking, until thickened, three to four minutes. Stir in nutmeg, spinach, and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, until heated through.

Crème Brûlée

I seem to be on a bit of a Barefoot Contessa spree, but really, this is the only crème brûlée recipe my family uses. While it actually isn't terribly difficult, it does take a bit of practice and due to the amount of heavy cream it probably isn't something you want to make on a daily basis. It is, however, an excellent dessert to make if you really want to make someone feel special (without going to all of the effort of making a three-layer cake). Crème brûlée has maintained its position as the epidemy of French dessert for all of these years for a reason -- it is classic, silky, and an utterly perfect contrast in texture and taste. Since the recipe is copyrighted, you can find it here. My only notes are these: use a vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract for stronger flavor. Additionally, if you don't have a gas torch (as I do not, although that may need to be my next kitchen investment), you can just as easily caramelize the sugar under the broiler on high. Just be sure to keep an eye on it, as it burns easily.