x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Catastrophes in chocolate and other dark secrets of the mole

It should come as no surprise that chocolate desserts are often named after natural disasters.

Certain things, such as natural disasters, gossip, war and We Are Family by Sister Sledge, can ruin any party. Less universally agreed-upon calamities might include the evil that is karaoke and the offence of double dipping, which can lead to downers like grossness … or a cold.

Since I'm more into party dishes than Petri dishes, such things as the flu, food-borne illness and fondue suggest the very opposite of fun. Oozing into obsolescence like the graceless dodo, what fondue parties lacked in grit, they made up for in grease. But as long as there are people like me walking around, willing to sacrifice our intestinal fortitude to prove that Darwin was right, others must be left to chicken-dance their way freely into the sunset, waving their fondue forks as they go.

It was recently pointed out to me that fountains "tend to be unnecessarily baroque and surrounded by mischievous children". By my first exposure to a chocolate fountain, at Zurich airport in the mid-1980s, I was already suspicious of anything that could turn placid adults into tittering adolescents. You've heard of Botox parties: social gatherings where a doctor administers the injections to guests in a relaxed home environment (although I like to pretend that the doctor bursts out of a cake wielding an armload of syringes). I've seen the fountain of youth enough times now to be able to recognise it anywhere: it spouts chocolate, makes you smile and act really silly and is almost certainly available to rent for your next Botox party.

Cocoa powder has long been used in sauces, dry rubs and marinades. Carr Valley Cheese's award-winning Cocoa Cardona is an irresistible aged goat's cheese whose rind gets rubbed with cocoa powder. If you can find Dutch-process cocoa or organic raw cacao powder, use either one in place of regular cocoa powder; you won't be sorry.

Mole is probably today's most popular savoury preparation involving chocolate, and it calls for chocolate in bar form. I use the same bittersweet chocolate for it that I use in my braised short ribs and in Pierre Hermé's Korova cookies: dark, sweet, salty, sandy-textured little mouthfuls, so addictive in their pre-baked state that after one reluctant taste, I was swayed from my hatred of raw cookie dough.

When Dorie Greenspan published the cookie recipe (under the name World Peace Cookies) she wrote: "Perhaps most memorably, they're salty. Not just a little salty, but remarkably and sensationally salty. It's the salt - Pierre uses fleur de sel, a moist, off-white sea salt - that surprises, delights and makes the chocolate flavours in the cookies seem preternaturally profound."

Originally, it was believed that mole was made with turkey, although nowadays chicken is usually substituted. Lance Gordon is a committed home cook who has been making turkey mole for Thanksgiving for close to 30 years, with sides of red Mexican rice, beans and fresh tortillas. The Rick Bayless recipe he uses calls for stale tortillas and bread, nuts, raisins, spices, herbs, onions and garlic. "Mole Poblano the way we make it takes most of a full day in the kitchen, but we think it's worth every minute," writes Gordon.

During our exchange, I was reminded of a grating experience at a defunct restaurant that served its tolerable but inconsistent speciality with the insufferable disclaimer, "Chef uses over 70 ingredients in his mole", as though its complexity corroborated its quality.

In spite of its reputation, a proper mole has about as much to do with chocolate as a milkshake has to do with eggs. Without them, you wouldn't have the ice cream to pull it all together. Chocolate should be the silent partner here; crucial for body and richness, but not identifiable as the confection we know. It plays a similar role in Cincinnati-style chilli, a classic regional style of beef chilli commonly served over spaghetti and flavoured with chocolate and warm spices such as cinnamon, cloves and allspice.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that chocolate desserts are often named after catastrophes, either geographic or biological: earthquakes, heart attacks, mudslides, death etc. I feel honoured to have witnessed (by way of grainy cell phone shot) the ultimate volcanic event involving chocolate, which occurred last week during the construction of my birthday dinner's chocolate-gilded pièce de resistance: not a cake, but the finest and unlikeliest of pies.

Frito pie is a layered dish of Fritos corn chips and rich, spicy chilli con carne with a serious kick, piled with crisp lettuce, tomato and onion, and then, if you're not into fooling around, garnished to the nines with rosy pickled onions, cool sour cream, crumbled cornbread and chopped coriander.

Peter, a Texan, was responsible for the chilli, a cross between beefy Texas-style chilli and velvety mole Poblano, which would cook for a couple of days before being ladled on to several dozen plates, sublimely sultry and with just enough chocolate to lend it an earthy, mellow sweetness. An exquisite mole is transcendental; as mesmerising and mysterious as mythic beauty, and similarly able to inspire the kind of fervent reverence that has historically sparked new religions and started wars.

So it seemed a particularly cruel fate for this batch of mole to end up spattered across the entire floor so violently that it splashed up into the beams, as remote as dark matter and as gruesome as the aftermath of a tragedy. The accidental clang of cast iron against brick floor had sealed the fate of Frito pie and sprayed it all around like an embarrassing joke meant to hang in the air forever. In the end, we still got pie - it was just delivery pizza pie. The moral of the story is, nothing will ruin a party unless you let it. Even fondue.

 

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico

 

artslife@thenational.ae

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