Erica Wagner

Mistaken Mousse

IMG_0986There are certain friendships — they’re very rare, in my experience — where, no matter how much time has passed between meetings, no matter how far away from each other you live, you can pick up right where you left off at every encounter. It’s as if you live next door to each other, really; or as if you speak on the phone every day. And yet you don’t. There is simply empathy, sympathy, understanding, which transcends the miles and the years. So it is with my friend T., who descends on our house every so often from Australia, where he lives now; we’ve known each other for nigh on 30 years (heavens!).

However, it must be admitted that when T. and I first met, he was different in one significant way (I, of course, remain completely unchanged): he was not, in those olden days, gluten or lactose-intolerant. But he is now. When he visits, my cooking skills get a pleasing ramp-up as I attempt to rise to the challenge of these boundaries. He can, however, take a pill of some sort to address the lactose issue, so, with that in mind and feeling freed of the no-milk-no-cream restriction, I had planned a delicious chocolate mousse to follow supper, adapted from Mary Berry’s recipe. And yet: the Fates — and some really great conversation — intervened to ensure that T. would be able to eat my mousse without resort to any drug… except the drug of a really, really fantastic mousse.

Mary’s “Wicked chocolate mousse” calls for:

225g plain chocolate “such as Bourneville”

a knob of butter

1 tbsp brandy “optional” — I agree

3 large eggs, separated

150 ml double cream, lightly whipped

… now, I’m going to replace that brandy with 2 tsp good instant espresso powder, and half a teaspoon of good sea salt; why not try Halen Mȏn, from Wales?

But first of all — I’m sorry, Mary, but Bourneville? Really? I give up. We can do better than that. At the moment I’m pretty keen on Lidl’s J. D. Gross Amazonas 60% (Bourneville dark is only 36% cocoa, btw). (And yes, I know that link goes to the 70%; but if you can find the right link, hats off to you. Lidl: bless.)

Now you’ve got the right chocolate, break it up, and put in a bowl set over simmering water until it melts; add the butter, the salt and the espresso powder. Keep on a very low heat.

Stir in the egg yolks one at a time, and then take off the heat and allow to cool a little.

Now whip the egg whites. At this point you are supposed to fold in the lightly whipped cream to the whites, before folding the chocolate into the egg white/cream mixture. BUT! I got so carried away in my conversation with T. that I SIMPLY FORGOT TO ADD THE CREAM.

I only realised this when I looked at the amount in the bowl I’d just put in the fridge — it needs a few hours to set — and thought, hmm, that’s not very much for four people. And then I spotted the as-yet-even-unwhipped cream on my counter!

Well, let me tell you — this is one fantastic, cream-free mousse. As for the quantity, or lack of it: you don’t need very much — an espresso-cup-ful is plenty — because it’s so rich and dense. How much nicer, too, I thought, for the lactose-tolerant to dollop lovely spoonfuls of cream over their fine dark mousse, if they so choose; while the slightly-less tolerant (at least as far as comestibles are concerned; T.’s a frightfully tolerant fellow in other respects) can slather the mousse over a Mrs Crimble’s coconut macaroon?

So here’s to an engrossing chat with a darling pal — the legacy of our discussion will live on in my Mistaken Mousse, no matter how many miles of ocean lie between us.


An eerie resonance

“Universal suffrage can only mean in plain English the government of ignorance and vice — it means a European, and especially Celtic, proletariat on the Atlantic coast, an African proletariat on the shores of the Gulf [of Mexico], and a Chinese proletariat on the Pacific.” Boston’s Charles Francis Adams Jr., grandson of John Quincy Adams, in 1877. From Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics by Terry Golway

An interview with Ali Smith: “We are a selfish generation”

Ali Smith’s house is tucked into a neat cul-de-sac about ten minutes’ walk from Cambridge station. It had been a couple of years since I’d last visited her, and so I’d had to ask for directions again. Better take a wrong turning once you’re in Ali’s company rather than before: she would ensure that any error became an adventure. But when I arrive at her door, a neatly written sign with my name on it, and an arrow pointing off to the left, is tucked into the frame, instructing me not to knock but rather to head to the next door but one. So I knock at No 2, instead of No 6, and there she is, the beaming, wise, sprightly presence that is Ali Smith, in a neat little house that is a mirror of the one I’ve been in before.

“Commander!” I say in greeting – she’s just been made a CBE in the New Year Honours List. “Oh, just call me Comma,” is the riposte. And that is Ali Smith all over, for in person she is as she appears in her books: modest and funny but fiercely intelligent and unfailingly able to find the right word – but not the one that you would ever find.

Not your mother’s matzo balls

matzoMy mother was always anxious about her matzo balls. She was proud of them — and yet she was, too, on a never-ending quest for perfection, a quest dogged by the fear of failure, a fear balanced between the search for lightness and the need to hold things together, a balancing act which echoes almost every dilemma in life. 

Some folks, of course, knew no such worries. At Kaplan’s Delicatessen, on 59th Street — where my grandmother would order a tongue sandwich sliced from a disturbingly human-looking (if hugely engorged) organ that sat perched, raspy taste-buds and all, above the counter — the matzo balls were Sinkers, dense and compact, the size of billiard balls, tasting of almost nothing, carrying within them the memory of food you ate to fill you up because you had no other choice. 

My mother scorned such matzo balls: she was after vigor and vibrancy, spring and surprise. For a while her matzo balls were so light they threatened to disintegrate in the soup that bathed them; “matzo klops”, she called them, laughing, but they were delicious all the same. I didn’t help her make them. She was too nervous to let me help. Now she’s been gone for just five years I thought — finally — I would experiment again with making my own. A few of my innovations would cause her horror, but I like to think the end result would make her proud. All I’d like is to be able to share a bowl of chicken soup with her, so I will share this with you, instead.

An interview with Margaret Atwood

An autumn morning in Ilkley, North Yorkshire. Summer has finally slunk away, and not long after breakfast I find myself tramping, in the chill grey air, down the hill to the train station with Margaret Atwood. She is dressed in sensible travelling black, but for a colourful scarf and pink-and-purple sneakers. Last night she filled a hall of more than 500 people at the Ilkley Literature Festival, nearly all of whom, it seemed, then stood in line to have their books signed. Some of them had just bought a copy of Stone Mattress, her new story collection – but most were bringing not only her new book but stacks of well-worn and clearly beloved paperbacks, from The Handmaid’s Tale to Cat’s Eye, from her first novel, The Edible Woman, to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. The final three are a remarkable trilogy that began to appear a decade ago; a vivid, frightening, and fully realised world that is all too believably a consequence of our present existence.

Germany: Memories of a Nation

A History of the World in 100 Objects” marked a transformative moment for the British Museum. A groundbreaking project devised in 2010 with BBC Radio 4, it included a 100-part radio series voiced by the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor. Now “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, a similar collaboration developed to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, sees Mr MacGregor’s erudite, entertaining voice returning to the airwaves. He narrates another project that again hopes to make its audience reassess stories they thought they knew and consider those they never knew at all. This combination of radio series, book and exhibition seems particularly deserving of attention in a year that also marks the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, an anniversary that has not necessarily encouraged a thoughtful examination of German history.

An interview with Ken Burns

Perhaps you can’t imagine why you would commit yourself to a 14-hour film about the Roosevelts. Yes, Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, has his face up on Mount Rushmore; sure, we know that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were hugely significant political figures. But 14 hours, over seven episodes? The film’s creator, the American documentarian Ken Burns, has a snappy one-liner to pull you in. He grins at me conspiratorially over his Caesar salad. “This is the American Downton Abbey,” he says. “Except it’s all true.”