After I made that lemon mousse the other day, I kind of got mousse on the brain. It’s comfortable there. Right at home, you might say. Among other things, I have always been perfectly content to eat a bowl of whipped cream when I had the chance; as a child, the task of licking the beaters and the bowl were my exclusive domain, and my college roommate used to take me right smartly downtown for a large creampuff when I showed signs of extreme distress, so clearly I failed to grow out of the fondness.
Having tackled the lemon, I set my sights on a coffee mousse. Drinking coffee is one youthful habit I have surrendered; though I love the flavor of it, I abused its powers so severely during the last two years of high school that I hung up my mug of my own volition, alarmed by the jitters and headaches that went along with the admittedly delightful aspects of the ritual. I consigned the use of the cup of joe to medically necessary situations--sole driver on a late-night drive, for instance--and otherwise abstained, sniffing longingly at other people’s cups.
On a trip to Italy years ago (during which voyage, incidentally, I knocked out a temporary crown on a rear molar eating a creampuff) with my already coffee-craving pre-school-age daughter, a kindly barista prepared her a “caffe bimba”—a steamed milk laced with a grain ‘coffee’ that he called caffe orzo. She lapped it up. Fine for her, but no coffee-lover over the age of four and in their right mind would maintain their resistance in Italy, right? Only the fact that I was hugely pregnant shored up my resolve, and motivated me to try the kindercoffee. It was delicious: roasty and rich and very convincing. We bought some to bring home, where numerous attempts by various methods of grinding and brewing produced everything from dishwater to compost tea.
So began a survey of various grain-based coffee substitutes. I found one that tasted kind of acceptable to me, but when I served it to my mother (a gold-standard Coffee Achiever of the highest order) she gagged and said it tasted “like burnt salmon.” You can bet it was hard to finish that can, once that association had been made. Now we use (but do not serve to Nana) something called Dandy Blend, which to my tastebuds has all I miss of coffee.
I made the mousse with it and was quite happy. But the mousse was a little sweet, and I also wondered if others would want to use the real deal, not some hippie grain substitute, and thought I had better test it out that way. The formerly pre-school-age, still coffee-obsessed daughter, now my height, agreed heartily that this was called for, having inherited my feelings for whipped cream and coffee both.
Life can only be lived forward, but understood in reverse—didn’t someone say that? And then there is my favorite adage: “if you can’t set a good example, at least you can serve as a horrible warning.” (If I ever get a tattoo, that will be it.)
The short version of the story: both less sugar than I used in the first attempt AND using true coffee work well. Proportions and directions are given below. The longer, YouTube-ready answer: on a night when your cousin and her two small children, one running a fever, are in town for a few days and staying for dinner, and you face both a firm 7pm commitment for your teenager and a windfall of tomatoes, and it is 86 degrees in the kitchen, do NOT give in to the temptation to make two versions of mousse while preparing dinner, fielding requests for snacks, and roasting three trays of tomatoes. Do NOT listen to the kindly cousin, who along with your time-anxious teenager is helpfully halving tomatoes and trimming broccoli while other foodstuffs fly through the air around her presumably-vacationing head, when she says “are you sure the cream will whip at that speed? I always have to turn it up to get anywhere.” Do NOT think, well, when I do that, it splatters but I guess if I drape a kitchen towel over the mixer I’ll be fine.
Are you worried that I am about to tell you that the kitchen towel got caught in the beaters and there is whipped cream in my light fixtures and a burned-out motor in my KitchenAid? No, I am a good towel-draper. And had the tented stand-mixer been my only responsibility, it all would have ended peacefully. But I had a frittata and some garlic bread finishing under the broiler, and four children traipsing through the house merrily playing hide and go seek, and the great company of the daughter and the cousin, and (oh, who could have seen this coming?), I made some FIRM whipped cream. Think ‘spackle.’ The cousin was right: whips up faster when you crank up the motor! Just as the garlic bread burned and one child could be heard laughing hysterically (“Alejandra fell asleep in the hamper!”), I pulled the cream back from the very brink and made something out of it that really could not be photographed, but whose data can serve us all well.
½ c sugar
2 T Dandy Blend, or 1-2 T instant coffee (depending on your passion for coffee intensity)
¼ c cornstarch
1 ½ c whole milk
1 pint (2c) heavy cream
dash of vanilla
In a small saucepan, mix the sugar, coffee and cornstarch until lumpless and well-combined. Slowly add the milk, stirring all the while, and mix until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring without stopping no matter who is asleep in the hamper, and continue cooking until it thickens obviously, about three minutes total. Pour into a medium bowl (one that is a bit too large for this quantity), and press a piece of waxed or parchment paper right onto the surface to prevent a skim from forming as it cools. Cool it down at least to room temperature, and possibly also refrigerate if you have time.
Whip the cream and vanilla using vigilance and attention to soft peaks. SOFT. Reserve about a quarter of the cream in a separate bowl (or drop it into a pastry bag if you are feeling fancy). Using a balloon whisk, combine a dollop of the unreserved cream with the coffee mixture, to lighten it, then scrape this mixture into the cream bowl and lightly but thoroughly combine the two. Scrape into one large or several individual dishes, and garnish each with the reserved plain cream. Refrigerate for as long as you can stand to wait; a couple of hours is ideal.
Crumbled chocolate snaps or chocolate shavings would gild the lily nicely, if you feel it calls for gilding.