It was a dark and stormy night.
Although this blog has been savory-focused until now, among my circle of ravenous office-mates I’ve primarily been known as a maker of sweets. I haven’t had the time or occasion to do a ginormous layer cake, my dessert specialty. So when I saw that the theme this month at Waiter, there’s something in my… was terrines, I thought I could transfer my love of sweet, layered things into the terrine format.
I decided to do a sweet terrine riffing on the layers of flavor in a good Thai peanut sauce – peanuts, a little heat, some coconut, some ginger, maybe a little lime and sesame – and create layers of mousse, panna cotta and curd that would bloom on the tongue at different rates, gradually introducing all the flavors and letting them mingle. I settled on a peanut butter-chili mousse, a coconut panna cotta, white chocolate mousse infused with ginger and sesame, and mango-lime curd.
That was my intention. It sounds like a good one, doesn’t it? Apparently, the road to hell will be paved with my terrines. Watch out, because the mango-lime curd is slippery.
It all started so innocently.
Luckily, none of the components was terribly difficult or time consuming. I started out with the curd, which I will be able to make in my sleep once I master the lost art of somnambulatory egg separation. Mangoes (frozen and thawed) and lime juice went into the blender, were whizzed and strained and then joined up with some whole eggs, egg yolks and a few pats of butter to thicken lazily over low heat. I also bloomed and added a smidgen of gelatin as insurance against an oozy curd that would seep out the sides of the terrine under pressure, and strained the final product to get out a few cooked eggy bits that had started to form. (Note to curd novices: you can totally overcook your curd a little and then strain out the eggy bits, and no one will be the wiser. You didn’t hear that from me.)
Curd is usually beautiful – think, glossy, a bright, saturated yellow, and the addition of the mango puree added even more depth to the color of this one, like the preternaturally cheerful orange-yellow of a real farm fresh egg yolk. Huzzah! My confidence is high. Next step!
Oh God, the call is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE.
Next up, coconut panna cotta: my first official foray into the world of gelatin-thickened foodstuffs (gelatin insurance above notwithstanding). There’s something about gelatin that feels like cheating to me; also, it brings up an unpleasant mental image of tomato aspic, which, although I have never eaten it or even encountered it in person, haunts me.
I decided to go with the recipe from Elizabeth Faulkner’s Demolition Desserts. Her panna cotta appeared to set up firmly enough to be cut into shapes and maintain its structural integrity, so I thought it would be a good candidate for my terrine foundation, which would need to support the whole without collapsing. It’s also milk- rather than cream-based, and I thought the lightness would be a nice contrast to the heavy mousses I’d planned. It has all of 5 ingredients, and was mixed up and nestled into the fridge to set in minutes. Two down, 4 to go! No problem!
Oh God, the call is coming from the BACKSEAT OF THE CAR.
Peanut butter mousse, why is there not more of you in the world? You are simple to make, have only 4 main ingredients (peanut butter, cream cheese, heavy cream and sugar), and taste like the inside of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup on crack.
To this version, I added a few pinches of cayenne pepper – not enough to make the mousse spicy (which, yuck), but just to produce some gentle heat at the back of the throat to suggest the spice in a good peanut sauce. Initial testing on Brian suggested that this was a success. Initial testing on me indicated that I would eat all the mousse directly out of the mixing bowl with a ladle and leave the curd and panna cotta languishing terrine-less, so I stowed it in the fridge.
75% complete! I cannot fail!
Oh God, that CLOWN HAS A KNIFE.
I grated up some fresh ginger for the white chocolate mousse while some white chocolate and heavy cream were melting together over low heat along with a dash of sesame oil. In went the ginger, the ganache chilled, some cream was whipped, ingredients were folded, and a mousse was produced. And I am a poet, and yes, I do know it. A poetess of pastry, turning out a series of fanciful, terrine-worthy fillings in a matter of moments, without breaking a sweat. I am the walrus! Koo koo ka-choo.
After letting everything chill for several hours, I lined a loaf pan with plastic wrap and got to buildin’. The panna cotta hadn’t quite set yet, but I assumed it would finish while the terrine chilled overnight (foreshadowing!). The white chocolate mousse had developed an unpleasantly whipped butter-like texture, so I re-beat it to smoothness (foreshadowing!).
And, SCENE! Good work, everyone. Except you, terrine. You’re fired.
You may want to have the youngsters avert their innocent eyes before you look upon this, the Seward’s Folly of my kitchen. What is this? Is it a soft-boiled egg with some no-frills pate? No, it’s my terrine. Or, as I like to call it, the ultimate symbol of my culinary hubris (of which there was very little to begin with, making this failure all the more spectacular).
First, the good: The peanut butter mousse was tasty as always, and the amount of pepper turned out to be just right to produce the slightest hint of back-of-the-throat heat. The curd was glossy and gorgeous and the gelatin insurance paid off; it was pliant but held its shape in the terrine. The white chocolate mousse (textural concerns aside) had great flavor; the white chocolate/ginger/sesame is definitely something I’ll return to in some other format.
The bad: Good flavor aside, the texture of the white chocolate mousse was tragic. Dense, grainy, not at all silky. It took so long to melt in the mouth that the sesame and ginger hit strongly after the other flavors in the terrine were starting to fade away. The curd was tasty but not as mango-y as I’d hoped, and the lime juice didn’t produce the punch I’d been after. It was good, but failed to serve its purpose as foil and palate-cleanser to the other layers.
The ugly: panna cotta, what did I ever do to you? Did you know about my gelatin bias? Is that why you dedicated yourself to completely refusing to set up, even a little? I hope you got satisfaction from leaking out of the top and bottom of my plated terrine.
The bottom line: like lobster stuffed with tacos, sometimes things that taste good themselves don’t taste good together. I will try all four of these elements again in some other place and time. I will spare you the unfortunate recipes for the panna cotta and white chocolate mousse, but I do urge you to try the peanut butter mousse (great on its own, or as a filling for chocolate cake) and mango-lime curd (which would be wonderful with a properly-made coconut panna cotta, baked in a tart, or as a simple dessert with some pound cake).
Peanut Butter Mousse
1 12oz. jar peanut butter (not the all-natural kind, go with Skippy here)
1 8oz. block cream cheese
1 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. confectioners sugar, plus more to taste if needed
Let the cream cheese soften at room temperature. Beat the cream cheese, sugar and peanut butter until smooth (don’t do this by hand if you can avoid it; I prefer a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment). Remove to a large bowl. Taste. If you like your mousse sweeter, add some more sugar in the next step.
Beat the heavy cream until whipped and soft peaks hold their shape, adding sugar if desired. Fold 1/3 of the whipped cream into the peanut butter mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remainder. Refrigerate for at least 3-4 hours. Keeps in the fridge for 2-3 days.
This can be flavored in any way you’d like (cayenne, cinnamon and curry are all interesting) by adding the spice to the peanut butter/cream cheese mixture when you beat it.
8 oz. mango flesh, fresh or frozen
2 whole eggs
5 egg yolks
1/2 c. granulated sugar
3 tbsp. butter
Juice and zest the limes (if your limes are on the dry side, add a fifth), set the zest aside. Add the lime juice and mango to a blender and puree until smooth, then pass through a fine mesh strainer.
In a heavy, non-reactive pot, whisk the eggs, sugar and salt until well-combined. Add the mango puree and lime zest and the butter. Cook slowly over low heat, stirring constantly. When the mixture thickens enough that your stirring implement leaves a trail in the bottom of the pot, remove from the heat. Strain again to get the zest and any cooked eggy bits out. If using in a pie or tart, pour into the shell and bake. If not, cool to room temperature, then put plastic wrap on the surface of the curd to keep a skin from forming and chill overnight. Keeps in the fridge for about a week.
Bonus picture! My baby: