Fondue and Mousse Au Chocolat

I turn my dinner guests into guinea pigs. My first attempts at a new meal are often when we invite friends over. So far, no one has complained. Fondue is an old stand by, but this was my first attempt at chocolate mousse.

May isn’t the best month for fondue, but it was requested by my friends back in March, then the dinner kept getting pushed down the calendar… did I mention I live in California? This is what we do. Luckily, last week was cold and rainy, so fondue turned out to be the perfect remedy.



Two things broke me out of my Kraft Mac and Cheese habit from college. One – a good girlfriend who was a brilliant cook. I started hanging out at her house, learning what I could. Thank you, Shawna! The second – my husband. On our first “Come on over for dinner” dates, I served him quesadillas and spaghetti with packaged sauce mix. He was gracious and complimentary. So I tried something a little more complicated. He was more complimentary, even excited, and cleaned his plate. So I kept trying. I stopped using packages and started using fresh ingredients. I got bolder, more experimental. Today, my friends know me as a really good cook, and I’m convinced it’s the reason our parties are always so crowded. And to this day, my husband has never once said a bad thing about anything I’ve cooked. At worst, he’s been silent, and when I say something like, “That was horrible, I’m sorry,” he’ll pat my hand and say, “it wasn’t your best effort.” So I keep at it.

The chocolate mousse was a recipe that, six or seven years ago, I would have taken one look at and decided to buy a gallon of ice cream instead. Lots of steps, constant stirring, and temperature dependant… but it came out fantastic.


A Tale From Christmas Past

My parents and my husband’s parents first met the Christmas before our wedding at my family’s home. The Parisians made the trek to Southern Arizona, oohing and ahhing over the desert that was so different from anything they’d seen before. Upon their arrival, my family welcomed them with enthusiasm, bumbled charmingly over the kiss on each cheek vs. the big American hug, showed them the best sights around my hometown, and left them a gift basket at their hotel.

Ah, yes, the gift basket. My mom put it together and it was such a sweet gesture. Bottled water, chapstick (never go without it where I’m from!), maps of southern Arizona, apples, crackers, and…

Yep. Cheese in a can, for my French soon-to-be-in-laws. French. As in lovers of fine cheeses; experts on the subject of all things cheese. We never told Mom the fate of that canned cheese. I suppose she’ll know now. My mother-in-law-to-be plucked it out of the basket and asked, “What’s this?” Cue horrified look from my husband, who then said, “It’s nothing, here, I’ll take it.” A power struggle ensued: “Non! Non! C’est pour nous! Qu’est ce que c’est?” “Maman, donne-le moi!” “Non!” “Oui!” (“No! it’s for us! What is it?” “Mom, just give it to me!” “No!” “Yes!”)

So my husband told her what it was.

“Du fromage? Comme ça? The Americans eat this? How bizarre! Disgusting! Is it good?” She insisted on trying some, as did my future father-in-law and future brother-in-law. Cue horrified looks and much gagging.

Then there was the wine at Christmas dinner. My parents are, for the most part, barring the occasional margarita, teetotalers. I, in contrast, am most definitely not. I like to take full advantage of what my husband calls my Irish liver. (I’m not really Irish. Though my liver might be.) So when my mom suggested I retrieve the bottle of wine my uncle had given us, I gladly pulled that bottle out of the pantry and brought it to the table. She told me it had been opened but that there was still plenty left. My husband poured a bit into his father’s glass and my father-in-law-to-be took a small sip. He swallowed hard and seemed to be hiding the urge to clench his teeth as he shook his head and said, “C’est pas possible.”

“It’s not possible.”

I assumed the bottle was one we’d opened the night before.

“Mom? When was this bottle opened?”

“Christmas Eve.”

“Last night?”

“No. Last year, Christmas Eve.”

“Mom! You can’t leave a bottle that long after it’s uncorked!”

“But I thought wine was supposed to improve with age?” said my mom, looking distraught and confused.

This was also the year that my brother and I decided there weren’t enough presents, so we wrapped a few of mom’s favorite things from around the house and used them to fill things out under the Christmas tree. It took two or three “gifts” of treasures she already owned for her to stop exclaiming her excitement and start realizing that they weren’t gifts, after all. It’s been years, but my family’s quirky sense of humor still doesn’t translate. Gag gifts, pranks, teasing each other, sarcasm… we crack each other up but my in-laws spend most of their time watching us with furrowed brows. Amazingly, my husband’s parents remained enthusiastic about our marriage. Though we haven’t spent many Christmases together since then….


Christmas Recap

Our first Christmas as hosts went well, I think. Best part? Playing Santa Claus and creating Christmas magic for our kids. My daughter helped me prep a plate of my Santa’s favorite cookies and some carrots for his reindeer, which we left near the fireplace. On Christmas morning, she ran around the house in circles giggling manically, so excited when she saw her choo choo train. We ate fresh baked scones, sipped coffee, and watched the kids play wearing big, happy grins on our faces.

Christmas Eve we ate Oysters Rockefeller, foie gras (a gift from my husband’s parents), and salmon with a balsamic and bacon sauce. Christmas day was prime rib with traditional sides of green beans and carrots, spruced up and fancified. Surprise of the holiday: my dad tried the oysters. Then said he liked them. Then took a second helping, so I actually believed him. My family stayed away from the foie gras. My daughter, true to her French roots, took several servings of that.

California banned foie gras in 2012. Huge bummer for the French and Francophiles here. I fell in love with it during a trip to France in 2003, before I knew what it was. I was at a fancy wedding outside of Paris and a French friend tried to explain to me what it was, pointing at his abdomen and telling me it was “from right here, from a really big bird.” “An ostrich?” I asked, saying the first really big bird that came to mind. Not considering the likelihood of a traditional French delicacy coming from an African bird. “Yes, yes, this bird.” I found out later, between guffaws of ridiculing French laughter, that is was not an ostrich but a goose, and it was fatty liver. I also discovered how it is produced. Force feeding a goose with a funnel and a tool to pack the grain tightly and allow for more to be ingested. Horrible, awful, I know. But I’d already fallen in love with the dish. It’s so embarrassingly So Cal of me: “What? This lovely little rectangle of protein delicately topped with a port reduction sauce was once part of a living breathing being? That’s terrible, why do people do such things! Oh, the humanity!” pronounced between savoring bites. Like that scene in The New Normal (LOVING this show) where Bryan and Shania go to a turkey farm to get their turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, and when the farmer tells them to pick out their live turkey, Bryan says – no, no, I want one of those prepackaged ones in the back. You know, the one where I can’t tell it’s an animal.

Yes, I enjoy my meat with a dash of hypocrisy. I have so many vegetarian and vegan friends here in southern California that I’ve become self-conscious of my love for meat. One of the great things about having French dinner guests: I’ve never met a French vegetarian (though I hear they exist) and they are way less picky than my American friends. I have American friends with texture issues, color issues, vegetarian, vegan, on the caveman diet, on a fat free diet, avoiding anything white on weekdays, gluten intolerant (this one I empathize with: no pasta? No bread? Depressing)…. My French friends will eat most anything. Well, not crap like Cheetos or Twinkies. These horrify them. Me too, honestly.

Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas dinner turned out great, I think. Though I ended up spending way more time in the kitchen than I’d planned to. I love to cook, but I missed out on visiting with family and playing with the kids and their new toys (I like creating miniature villages for the choo choo train to pass through). It’s inevitable; the host will be in the kitchen when a meal must be served. I was trying new recipes so it was hard to figure out where people could help me. Plus, there’s, maybe, perhaps, the possibility that I’m a…  control freak in the kitchen. I like to think I’m closer to Martha Stewart organized and precise than kitchenzilla, but I don’t like to subject anyone to my brand of crazy, so when it’s a new recipe, I tend to go it alone. Next year I’m thinking a fancy Christmas Eve dinner, because I like fancy, then cheese fondue on Christmas. I picture a cold afternoon of sledding and hot chocolate, and then home for a hearty meal of bread, potatoes, and smoked meats smothered in Swiss cheeses. It’s an easy, quick, social meal. And really freaking delicious.

Snow, you ask? In Southern California?

That’s a question for another time.