Our Cook the Books December/January selection is A Place at the Table, a novel by Susan Rebecca White, hosted by Debra of Eliot's Eats. I confess that I ordered the book and received it in early December but put it down after I read the prologue, set in 1929 North Carolina, where racial tension and discrimination result in a teen boy being sent away from his family. I found it depressing and was trying to keep up my spirits during the holidays so I avoided reading it until mid-way through January when I picked it up determined to be more planful this year and not post my entries on the day of the CTB deadline. Once I got into the book and especially the story of Bobby, a young gay man growing up in Georgia who moves to New York and becomes a chef, I found that I really enjoyed it. Much of the story is told by Bobby, with two other characters--Alice, a well-known African-American chef modeled after the famous Edna Lewis, and Amelia, a woman facing the breakup of her marriage. The characters intersect in the book, brought together in part by Café Andres, a quirky restaurant set in a townhouse in Manhattan. Bobby's time at the café and in New York City in the 1980-90s was my favorite part of the book and the most engaging with the many mouthwatering food descriptions. Less satisfying are Alice's story, as we hear little from her viewpoint and Amelia who comes in at the end--a bit to late to the party for me to connect much with her. As I was reading Amelia's chapters I found myself wanting to hear from Alice instead. There are some tough subjects in the book such as prejudice--both racial and sexual orientation, the AIDs crisis of the 80's, death, and divorce, but they don't overwhelm the book and there is solace and healing to be found, often through food and cooking. Overall, a warm and satisfying foodie read.
There were plenty of food scenes and references to inspire a dish from the book. I was torn between the sweet and buttery Carmelita bars and Meemaw's pound cakes from Bobby's childhood, some of the dishes from his mother's 'Lacy Lovehart luncheon (crab dip, jello salad with bing cherries and pecans, crudites with curry dipping sauce, and a "fluffy frozen" lemon dessert), the sunchokes roasted in butter that Bobby makes in his apartment in NYC, roast duck with green olives and crawfish spread on toast points from the Café Andres menu, Bobby's luncheon for Alice with fried catfish and tarter sauce, red beans and rice, red cabbage coleslaw and hush puppies, and especially his banana pudding with toasted pound cake and vanilla custard. But, in the end it was the famous chocolate mousse at Café Andres that called to me the most: "...so light I can see the air pockets when I spoon into it, and yet the taste is as intense as a cup of espresso."
Café Andres sounded like exactly the kind of place I would love to hang out in. I became entranced by the chocolate mousse and a mention of how when the cafe first opened they served the mousse "French-style in big bowls, passed around the table along with softly whipped cream. You simply scooped out what you wanted. It was divine." I needed some chocolate mousse!
My challenge to making chocolate mousse is that I am thick in the middle of eliminating wheat/gluten, dairy, and added processed sugar in an attempt to help clear my lungs and reset my system. A more traditional chocolate mousse with cream or butter was out, but I had been wanting to try whipping coconut milk in place of cream and had a vegan chocolate mousse recipe tagged in Chloe's Vegan Desserts that I hadn't gotten around to making yet. I figured I could make a couple of small changes to the recipe and get it to (mostly) fit into my current eating plan.
The changes I made are pretty subtle--since the recipe called for 1/2 cup powdered sugar, I decided to use a small amount of the more natural stevia instead, up the espresso powder slightly and add some vanilla. My changes to the recipe are noted in red below. Chloe serves her mousse in homemade chocolate cups with raspberry sauce and Café Andres serves their version with whipped cream. I decided to keep mine in a larger bowl for scooping, top it with mini vegan chocolate chips, cacao nibs, and shaved coconut, and serve it with berries.
Slightly Adapted from Chloe's Vegan Desserts by Chloe Coscarelli
Chloe notes that "The Chocolate Mousse will need to chill in the refrigerator for 8 hours or overnight before serving."
1/2 cup soy, almond or other non-dairy milk (I used cashew milk)
1 1/2 tsp instant espresso powder
(I added 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract)
1 cup semi-sweet vegan chocolate chips
1 (13.5 oz) can of coconut milk (not lite), preferably Thai Kitchen or Whole Foods 365 brand, chilled, not stirred
1/3 cup powdered sugar (I subbed 2g--about 1 tsp of stevia)
(Shaved coconut, vegan mini chocolate chips & cacao nibs to serve)
Chill the bowl and whisk of a stand mixer in the freezer for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk nondairy milk and espresso powder (+stevia) in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once espresso is incorporated, add chocolate chips (+ vanilla) and whisk over low heat until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Pour the mixture into a large bowl, let cool, then chill in the refrigerator until cool to the touch, about 15 minutes. (The chocolate should still be soft and pliable, if it has chilled and hardened, let it sit at room temperature for a few minutes until softened.)
Skim the solidified coconut cream from the chilled coconut milk and transfer the solids to the bowl of the stand mixture. Do not include any of the coconut water, even if you have to leave behind a little margin of coconut cream (even a little bit of coconut water can harm your results).
Notes/Results: This mousse was fabulous! Ultra creamy, rich, and not too sweet--perfect with the berries. Now granted I have had no chocolate or sweets for three weeks, but I LOVED this--it was hard not to sit down with the larger bowl. ;-) Although it requires forethought and patience, as you have to chill the coconut milk thoroughly in order to get a good layer of solidified coconut cream to whip and then you need to wait 8 hours or more for the mousse to firm up, it is surprisingly easy to make. Chloe recommends either Thai Kitchen or Whole Foods 365 Brand coconut milk and I tried a can of each just to see (aka: in case I messed one up). The 365 brand had a larger layer of cream--at least another inch-and-a-half so I preferred it to Thai Kitchen, but I am sure I will play around with it some more and try them both again. The leftover coconut water at the bottom can be used in smoothies or curries so it isn't a waste. I may try this mousse again with some cocoa powder added in for a darker chocolate version (as it seemed the Café Andres mousse was) but this was perfectly satisfying as it was. I will happily make it again.
A Place at the Table is my third entry for the Foodies Read 2016 event. You can check out the January Foodies Read linkup, hosted by Heather at Based on a True Story, to see what everyone is reading this month.
The deadline for this Cook the Books round is January 31, and Debra will be rounding up the entries at the CTB site shortly after. If you missed out on this round and like books, food, and foodie books, consider joining us for February/March when our pick is The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life, by Angelo Pellegrini, hosted by Simona, of briciole. Hope you join us.