Crepes suzettes and rhum baba may have come and gone, and profiteroles long outstayed their welcome, but chocolate mousse is one sixties favourite that's immune to the vagaries of fashion. Richly flavoured, yet light as air, there are few more perfect ways to end a meal. But, as with so many of its contemporaries time has not been kind to this once proud dessert – people have added olive oil, basil, and even – dear God – avocado, soy sauce and balsamic vinegar, all in the name of clever modern twists. Frankly, chocolate mousse needs bringing up to date like Rubber Soul needs a remix from Lady Gaga.
The classic recipe
When it comes to continental classics, I'm duty bound to consult Elizabeth David. Her simple chocolate mousse, in French Provincial Cooking, is just that – an egg, and an ounce of chocolate (or, less neatly 30g) per person, turned into something quite, quite magical. I break the chocolate into bits, and melt over a pan of simmering water, then stir in the egg yolks. Whisk the whites to soft peaks, and then gently – ever so gently – fold in the chocolate mixture and refrigerate until set. Although I'm slightly over cautious with my first attempt, and end up with a slightly streaky mousse, it tastes divine: deeply flavoured, yet wonderfully fluffy and light, it almost melts on the tongue.
The American version
Elizabeth David wasn't the only greedy harpie whooping it up across the Channel in the 1960s though – Julia Child published her infamous Mastering the Art of French Cookery with two Parisennes at the beginning of the decade, a book which, of course, includes a recipe for chocolate mousse.
With characteristic flamboyance, Julia's mousse calls for all sorts of exotic ingredients, including coffee ('dark-brewed'), dark rum, and as much butter as chocolate – Elizabeth David's mousse looks positively pinched and Puritan in comparison. I melt the butter and chocolate together over a pan of water, add a spoonful of bog-standard coffee, and then set the bowl aside and replace it with four egg yolks, which must be whisked over the simmering water, along with 170g sugar and 2 tbsp rum, until thick. I then fold the egg mixture into the chocolate. The whites are beaten with a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of sugar until shiny, and then folded gradually into the chocolate mixture. It smells enticingly alcoholic, and sets much firmer than David's mousse, but it's overpoweringly sweet and slightly dense – more like the centre of a rather decadent truffle than something one would want to eat a whole bowl of.
In comparison, Gordon Ramsay's recipe seems like a lighter option – it contains no egg yolks or butter for a start, although there is a goodly quantity of double cream; 300ml to 100g of chocolate. I bring half the cream to the boil, and stir in the pieces of chocolate before adding the rest of the cream, and transferring the mixture into a bowl set in a large pan of iced water. Once I've whisked it into soft peaks, I beat one large egg white until stiff, adding 50g caster sugar a tablespoon at a time, until I have a soft meringue which I can fold into the chocolate. Inevitably, the cream weighs the mousse down, and dilutes the flavour of the chocolate – it's delicious, but not, in my opinion, a patch on David's classic version.
The complicated one
Next up there's the most complicated recipe of all, from Daniel Boulud, French chef turned American business phenomenon, which calls for a quite absurd number of eggs (nine, in all – for six people).
I whip a pint of double cream to soft peaks, and melt 225g dark chocolate. Meanwhile, I heat 60ml water and 150g caster sugar in a pan until it reaches 115C, the 'soft ball' stage, and beat together 6 egg yolks and 3 whole eggs until thick and pale. By this point, I've used every bowl in the kitchen, and when the digital thermometer beeps to alert me to the fact the syrup has reached temperature, I react with a wildness unwise in someone dealing with molten sugar. Nevertheless, I manage to pour it into the eggs, while whisking them at high speed, without incident.
Having washed up a bowl at lightening speed, I whisk the 6 egg whites with 115g sugar, place it over the pan of still simmering water, and stir until the mixture is warm, before taking it off the heat and whipping until they hold stiff peaks. The process reaches its climax with frightening rapidity – I must fold a third of the yolk mixture into the meringue, fold the whipped cream into the melted chocolate, and then fold in the rest of the yolk mixture (keep up) and the meringue until 'just blended' without drawing breath. The mixture billows promisingly – this is the lightest mousse of the lot, although it's also the palest. I can't help feeling it's an awful lot of work for something so very … pleasant – this would be a good addition to a chocolate pudding, but frankly it doesn't hold its own as the star attraction.
The egg-white only option
Last of all, I have two very simple recipes, which, combined, take about half the time, and the a third of the equipment, of Boulud's. Raymond Blanc's mousse, which he learnt from Maman, employs just chocolate, egg whites, and sugar – I melt 180g chocolate, and whisk 8 egg whites with 30g sugar until they form soft peaks. I then whisk a third of the egg whites into the sugar, and immediately fold in the rest, a tip which is extremely useful – folding it all together can give a streaky result if you're not careful. The mousse is almost as light as Boulud's, and although I feel more charitable towards it for not sending me spiralling towards a nervous breakdown, it's undeniably less satisfying than one with egg yolks.
The magic mousse
When it comes to paring the mousse down, however, Maman Blanc has nothing on Herve This and his Chocolate Chantilly. Despite the name, there's no cream involved – in fact, it doesn't contain any other fat but cocoa butter. I put 150g chocolate into a pan with 200ml water, and then balance it awkwardly in a bigger pan full of water, over a low heat, and stir occasionally until the mixture has a 'uniform texture'.
It takes me a couple of goes to get this right, as the chocolate has a tendency to go grainy if left a second too long. I then move the pan to a bowl of iced water, and whisk the mousse until it thickens to the texture of whipped cream. The results are incredible – dense, and intensely chocolatey, and, when refrigerated, rather like a remarkably clean-tasting chocolate pot. But it's not a mousse, unless you're vegan.
Tasting them all again, Elizabeth David's mousse is a clear winner, with the perfect balance of lightness and flavour, although I decide to add a teaspoon of sugar per person to suit my own taste. I also test Raymond Blanc's suggestion, on this very website, that a touch of lemon juice acts as a 'catalyst' for the flavour of the chocolate, but I feel it enhances the slightly sour, bitter notes of the cocoa, so I decide to leave it out.
The beauty of this recipe is that you can play around with flavourings to suit your own taste – add more sugar, or leave it out completely, pop in a teaspoon of coffee, or booze (whisky, rum, Grand Marnier – whatever you fancy), a sprinkle of chilli flakes or a few cardamom seeds, just make sure you work quickly, and with a light hand, and you have one of the easiest, and most satisfying puddings around.
Felicity's perfect chocolate mousse
2 medium eggs
60g chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
2 tsp sugar (or to taste)
1. Break the chocolate into pieces and put in a bowl over, but not touching, a pan of simmering water. When the chocolate begins to melt, turn the heat off. Separate the eggs.
2. Whisk the egg whites into soft peaks, add the sugar, and whisk briefly.
3. Mix the egg yolks quickly into the melted chocolate and then whisk in a third of the egg white. Fold the rest very gently into the mixture until just combined (be careful not to overmix), and then put into bowls and refrigerate for at least four hours until set.
What's your favourite chocolate mousse recipe – and how do you like to serve it? Should mousse always mean dark chocolate – or can a milk or white one hold its own for grown-ups?