I can't celebrate today without also paying tribute to someone else who shares the same birthday. The late M.F.K. Fisher, arguably the best American food writer of the 20th century, would have turned 100 today. If you haven't read anything by her already, do it, starting with The Gastronomical Me. Her enthusiasm for food and eloquence with words have no parallel.
The last book of hers I finished was A Stew or a Story, a collection of short magazine pieces. In one essay about picnics, her al fresco dessert suggestion was a chilled chocolate mousse. I liked the recipe for two reasons: 1) No heavy cream, which is hard to find within walking distance, and 2) Because the recipe was written before the ubiquity of electric mixers, it assumes that you will mix and whip everything by hand.
I hadn't whipped egg whites in far too long, so my forearm got a workout getting the whites to soft peak. The old-fashioned simplicity of the recipe did seemed nice, I thought. I just melted the chocolate, stirred in the egg yolks and rum and vanilla, and folded in the egg whites. The puddings were all set to pop into the fridge to chill for 12 hours.
Then I had a panic attack. I realized Mary Frances lived in an age of farm-fresh eggs that were probably okay to consume raw, whereas I live in an era of salmonella scares and recent avian flu outbreaks. In that moment I recalled an essay in A Stew or a Story, in which Fisher wrote of serving oyster-stuffed turkey to her family on Christmas and giving everyone massive food poisoning. "It was a perfect prescription for murder, mass murder..." I didn't want to die on my birthday, so paranoia won.
After a bit of Googling, I came across an old New York Times article that suggested baking, then chilling the chocolate pudding. "The results, a kind of sponge pudding," says Florence Fabricant, "comes surprisingly close to the traditional recipe with raw eggs." Sold.
The pudding also takes less time to chill. A few hours later, after a trip to IKEA for household supplies and Swedish foodstuffs, I served the pudding. It did turn out spongy, almost brownie-like in texture, but still delicious. (If you want a runnier pudding, you could bake it for 5 to 10 minutes less.) Ice cream took the place of the "very strong coffee" accompaniment called for in the recipe. What can I say...ice cream seemed more festive, more fitting for celebrating the centennial birthday of a great writer.
Chilled Chocolate Pudding for the Modern Age Adapted from A Stew or a Story by M.F.K. Fisher
Serves 3 to 4
4 egg whites 5 ounces (about 150 grams) dark chocolate 4 egg yolks 1 tablespoon dark rum, or 1 1/2 tablespoons light rum 1 teaspoon vanilla extract A pinch of salt
Preheat oven t0 300 degrees F / 150 degrees Celsius.
Whip egg whites to soft peak. (Bonus points for doing this with your hands!) Set aside.
Over a broiler or pot of boiling water, melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Remove from heat, and stir in egg yolks, rum, vanilla, and salt. Fold in the whipped egg whites.
Pour the mixture into ramekins or cups. (If you plan on unmolding these before eating, first grease the insides of the containers with butter.) Bake for 20 minutes, until tops feel firm. Remove from the oven, let cool, and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours. (This is good warm or at room temperature.) When ready to serve, top with wafer crumbles and ice cream.