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The very definition

I am bad at weekend mornings. I hear that some people, maybe even a lot of people, have weekend mornings that involve a hot breakfast, hot coffee, the Sunday Times, and hours that pass slowly, quietly, as though on tiptoe, but I am not familiar with that kind of weekend morning. I like mornings a lot, but I am not good at planned relaxation, and I married someone who is similarly impaired. We went to visit his grandparents in Florida over New Year’s, and we were very tired and verging on sick, but instead of reading books, lying on the beach, or whatever one does on vacation in Florida, we wound up kayaking in the Everglades. With alligators. (To be fair, it was my father-in-law’s idea. Relaxation impairment is a genetic trait.)

Anyway, my weekend mornings are, by and large, identical to my weekday mornings. They involve cold cereal, a glass of water, and hours that pass quickly, unceremoniously, while I am busy doing whatever I happen to be doing. I know that this is just how I am, but I don’t like it. I feel somehow that it is deeply wrong. I want to do better. I want to make more oatmeal pancakes.

I first ate these particular oatmeal pancakes when I was seven, I want to say, when one of my uncles got married in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. We stayed at the Inn at Fordhook Farm, a hotel on the private property of the Burpee family, of the Burpee Seed Company. I remember little of the wedding, except for the fact that my uncle’s fiancée was an incredible woman, beautiful, a Presbyterian minister with poufy blond hair and a great laugh, and that her sister was beautiful too, and that they fascinated me. I thought they were perfect in every way. My uncle’s fiancée, the woman who became my aunt, passed away about a dozen years later, and when I think of her, I remember her just like that, like she was at her wedding. I also remember that the Inn at Fordhood Farm served oatmeal pancakes for breakfast, and that my entire family went crazy for them.

My mother must have asked for the recipe, because somehow we came home with a copy of it, and my mother isn’t the stealing type. She made them a couple of times, but I was unmoved. I liked them at the inn, but at home, I wanted our usual family pancake, by which I mean Bisquick. I was a kid, you know? But a couple of years ago, I thought of them again, and I asked her for the recipe. I made them, and I liked them quite a bit, although, to be dead honest, I found them a little bland. They also had what can only be described as an odd amount of cinnamon: not enough to bring a real flavor, but too much to ignore. Anyway, I was not sold. But, a month ago, on a whim and I don’t know why, I decided to try AGAIN. This time, I left out the cinnamon, doubled the salt, and lo and behold, I too am now crazy. (For the pancakes.) (Just to clarify.)

In the weekends since, I’ve already made these pancakes three times. I also made coffee! We even had a friend over to eat with us, which is the very definition of Fine Weekend Morning, even though that particular friend, our friend Ryan, happened to be staying in our basement at the time, so we didn’t exactly have him over, but still. I’m tempted to say that I’m on a weekend morning roll. Though that might be optimistic.

Either way, these pancakes have won a spot in my repertoire. Not only do I like to eat them, but I love the process of making them. It starts the night before, when you measure out some oats, pile them into a bowl, and then pour a decent amount of buttermilk on top. This mixture sits in the fridge overnight, during which time the oats plump and swell and go soft, the perfect base for a winter pancake. (This overnight step means that you do have to plan ahead, which takes spontaneity out of the equation, but if you’re me, it’s nice, because once you’ve got your oats soaking, you’re locked in, and you won’t wake up lazy and eat cereal instead.) To the soaked oats you add melted butter and a couple of beaten eggs, and then you stir in some flour, leavening, a little sugar, and salt, and what you get is a great, great pancake: gently sweet the way oats are, impossibly moist, hearty but not heavy, not light but not leaden, lovely. They fry up to a handsome shade of gold, and fresh out of the pan, their outer edges have a thin, lacy crunch that dissipates in a matter of minutes, so get on it.

Oatmeal Pancakes
Adapted from the Inn at Fordhook Farm

If you want to add blueberries here, you can use fresh or frozen. (And if you’re using frozen, there’s no need to thaw them. The hot pan will do that for you.) I don’t like to stir the berries into the batter, because then you wind up with weird purple streaks, so I press them into the individual pancakes as they cook. You can use however many berries you want, but be sure to add them after the pancakes have cooked on their first side for a minute or two, so that the batter has time to start to set. When you flip the pancakes, the heat of the pan will make the berries sizzle and soften nicely.

Also, if you find yourself with any leftover pancakes, as I often do, know that they are delicious. This past Saturday, I had three left over, so I put them in a plastic bag on the kitchen counter, and I ate them cold that night, after going out for a drink, a completely undrinkable drink, with a girlfriend. I love gin, and I love Lillet, and I have nothing against Scotch, but apparently I do not care for the union of gin, Lillet, and Scotch. Cold pancakes saved the day.

2 cups rolled oats
2 cups buttermilk
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. table salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted but not hot
Vegetable oil or spray, for greasing the pan
Maple syrup, for serving

The night before:
Combine the oats and buttermilk in a medium bowl. Stir to mix. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

The morning of:
Take the bowl of buttermilk and oats out of the fridge. Set aside.

In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

Add the eggs and melted butter to the oat mixture, and stir well. Add the flour mixture, and stir to blend. The batter will be very thick.

Warm a large nonstick skillet or griddle over medium-high heat, and brush (or spray) with vegetable oil. To make sure it’s hot enough, wet your fingers under the tap and sprinkle a few droplets of water onto the pan. If they sizzle, it’s ready. Scoop the batter, about a scant ¼ cup at a time, onto the pan, taking care not to crowd them. When the underside is nicely browned and the top looks set around the edges, flip the pancakes. Cook until the second side has browned.

Re-grease the skillet, and repeat with more batter. If you find that the pancakes are browning too quickly, dial the heat back to medium.

Serve hot, with maple syrup.

Yield: about 12 pancakes, or 3 to 4 servings


A nasty habit

I have many important things to tell you.

1. I’m doing a podcast! I intended to tell you about this a week ago, but there’s been an illness in my family, and I’ve been away, and it hasn’t been a lot of fun, so, you know, let’s talk about that podcast. It’s called Spilled Milk, and I co-host it with my friend Matthew Amster-Burton. Every time we record an episode, Matthew makes me laugh until I snort, cry, hyperventilate, and/or hoot like an owl, and I hope our show does the same for you. The first episode is on the topic of fried eggs, and you can listen or download it – free! – through the Spilled Milk website, or through iTunes. The second episode, on winter squash, will be released a week from today, on January 21.

2. Yes! That’s a new banner up there! It had been the same for three years, and those orangettes were stale. So, in honor of winter, I give you a head of cabbage instead. When spring comes, we can switch to artichokes, I’m thinking, or asparagus. Maybe rhubarb. It’s going to be exciting.

3. I love this chocolate mousse. Loved it, rather.

I seem to have a nasty habit of writing about rich foods in January, right on the heels of the holidays. I’m sorry about that. Even I don’t want to hear about chocolate mousse right now. But I love this recipe, so I’m going to write about it anyway, and even if you are totally chocolated-out, or desserted-out, or avoiding sweets as a New Year’s resolution, or whatever, I strongly recommend that you bookmark it for future use. It’s my go-to chocolate mousse. I think everyone should have a go-to chocolate mousse. It’s not hip, nor has it been for about a million years, but it never goes out of style, either. It’s the Audrey Hepburn of desserts. Only fatter. Or fattier? You know what I mean.

I can’t remember how or where I was introduced to chocolate mousse, but I remember eating an alarming amount of it when my parents took me to Paris as a kid. There was a restaurant called Claude Sainlouis, I think, around the corner from our hotel, and though we were only in town for ten days, we went there twice, mainly because I was obsessed with their chocolate mousse. The first night, the host sat us in the back dining room, hidden behind a partition. The main dining room bustled, but ours was empty, quiet as a church. I remember my parents saying that we’d been put there because we were foreigners: we’d been sniffed out, ghettoized, hurried away from the French-speaking diners. It was a terrible feeling. I’m not sure why we went back, but I must have begged convincingly for the mousse, because we did. And the second night, miracle of miracles, the host smiled at us, a tiny smile of recognition. He showed us to a table in the main dining room. My father beamed. It was a great night. I ate steak frites and mousse au chocolat. I don’t know that the mousse was anything special, but I loved it. I was 10 years old, and my feelings about chocolate mousse were much like my feelings about ice cream: good or bad, it was AWESOME. The restaurant is still there, I think, although I haven’t been back. I looked it up on Google Street View, and the awning looks much classier than I remember. Who knows.

Anyway, I do love chocolate mousse. And this year, when we were planning a Christmas Eve dinner with a few friends, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve tried a few chocolate mousse recipes over the years, some better and some worse, and this time, I decided to use one that had been skulking around my clippings folder untried, a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. (I also made Dorie Greenspan’s extraordinary lemon tart, because I am apparently into total excess, and because it really is extraordinary.)

The thing about this mousse recipe, to put it simply, is that it’s perfect. Some mousses are dense and sticky, like a ganache truffle. Others are foamy, almost frothy, with the mouthfeel of a marshmallow. This one sits squarely, happily, in the middle. It’s soft and creamy, light but substantial. It’s also not too sweet. It’s deep and dark and complex, spiked with enough coffee and booze to complement the chocolate, but not compete with it. As I recently heard Brandon’s aunt say of her son’s new girlfriend, I think it’s The One. It’s a keeper.

Just a single caution: see this teacup? It’s a standard size, as teacups go, but people, that was a LOT of mousse. Do not fill your teacups like I filled my teacups. Do not. The amount of whipped cream on top, however, was spot-on.

Chocolate Mousse
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, 2006

The original recipe calls for brandy, not whiskey, but I never seem to have brandy around. We’re whiskey people. You can use whichever you want.

About the chocolate: the good people at Cook’s Illustrated use Ghirardelli bittersweet (60% cacao) chocolate for this recipe, and I do too. You could use a fancier brand, if you want, but whatever you use, it should contain about 60% cacao. Chocolates with a higher cacao percentage have less sugar and a starchier consistency, and they won’t work well in this recipe.

Also, about serving size: chocolate mousse is, by definition, serious stuff. I am pretty much a total pig about dessert, but I recommend that you offer this in small servings. The recipe makes six to eight servings, and I lean in favor of eight. Especially since I like to serve it with a whack of whipped cream on top.

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, ideally 60% cacao, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 tsp. instant espresso powder
5 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. whiskey or brandy
2 large eggs, separated
1 Tbsp. sugar, divided
1/8 tsp. salt
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. cold heavy cream

For serving:
Very lightly sweetened whipped cream

Combine the chocolate, cocoa powder, espresso powder, water, and whiskey in a medium heatproof bowl. Place over a saucepan filled with 1 inch of gently simmering water, and stir frequently until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from the heat.

In another medium bowl, combine the egg yolks, 1 ½ teaspoons sugar, and salt. Whisk until the mixture lightens to a pale yellow color and thickens slightly, about 30 seconds. Pour the melted chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, and whisk until combined. Set aside for about 5 minutes, until just warmer than room temperature.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium-low speed until frothy. Add the remaining 1 ½ teaspoons sugar, increase the mixer speed to medium-high, and beat until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted. Detach the whisk and bowl from the mixer, and whisk the last few strokes by hand, making sure to scrape up any unbeaten whites from the bottom of the bowl. Using the whisk, stir about ¼ of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture, to lighten it. Then, using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the remaining egg whites until only a few white streaks remain.

In the now-empty mixer bowl, whip the heavy cream at medium speed until it begins to thicken. Increase the speed to high, and whip until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted. Using a rubber spatula, fold the whipped cream into the mousse until no white streaks remain. Spoon into 6 to 8 individual serving dishes - I like to use teacups - or, if you’re feeling casual, mound it up in a single serving bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.

For best texture, let the mousse sit at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving. Serve with very lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings