Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tengo Familia

With my chocolate chestnut cake coming out perfect from my other electric, temperature controlled, oven (No, not the turbo charged gas oven which is all guesswork when it comes to any temperature other than max. and min. Come to think of it, I don't even know what is max. or min.), I got ready for Sunday lunch at my parents-in-law's. It was the first invitation to their home since our wedding a year ago.

It was a small gathering of six adults and only two kids; we had picadas (cured ham, cooked ham, palm hearts and gherkins) to start, followed by my mother-in-law's amazingly moist, melt in the mouth, roast pork loin with apple sauce. She told me she had marinated the meat in a bottle of white wine for a couple of days. Then we had a rocket salad; while balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt were on the table, she told me she didn't dress it knowing I didn't like too much salt or oil in my food.

After we all helped clearing the dishes, we sat down to sample my cake made with Clement Faugier's chestnut puree. The cake was very moist but the chocolate overshadowed the subtle taste of chestnut completely. While they appreciated that I had spoiled them with an imported delicacy, they thought it was a waste of money; having said that, my father-in-law still found room for three slices. We had a great lunch and a relaxing afternoon sipping coffee, chatting and playing with the kids. No one seemed to recall how different things were only a few months ago.

Coming from a fairly laid back and westernised Chinese family, the concept of "La Familia" (the family being an insular unit within which nothing is out of bounds) is both innate and foreign. The innate part comes from years of watching Asian soap operas, usually costume dramas depicting life in 18th C.

The first week after we arrived in BA last year, I was shocked when my wardrobe was inspected by my then soon-to-be mother-in-law. Every von Furstenberg, Joseph or Brora was examined without expression. Then we renovated our apartment; I cried with incomprehension after my in-laws came for house inspection and sneered at my handiwork (which even our builders thought was good, and non of our friends noticed it wasn't paid work by a professional) while praising their son for hanging the curtains. Then they wanted to drop by for repeat performance every Saturday before we all meet up again, with the extended family, for Sunday tea.

Numerous SOS calls, screaming "May Day!", were connected to Sydney and Hong Kong. My parents kept telling me to try harder, to think more Chinese (meaning be stoic); they joked they might have been the same if they weren't brought up in the more liberal Hong Kong. So, it was all my responsibility as far as they were concerned.

My husband, the brave one, took the matter up with his parents. He told them not to visit us on their own for a while. His parents were deeply hurt, they cried. My mother-in-law ignored me on the first few occasions afterwards. I kept quiet and invited this clan of twenty, repeatedly, into our home for lavish meals.

Things started changing ever so slightly by the beginning of winter this year. They still did not engage me in conversation much, blaming my Spanish, despite watching me socialising with the abuelos (grandparents) and tios (uncles and aunts), all in their tongue, every Sunday. However, gone were the tears and the melodramatic self-pity, instead I got a gracias por todo (thank you for everything) when I kissed them goodbye. I wasn't greedy; from the darkest days, that was already a significant improvement.

My parents were right. It was up to me because I had disturbed status quo. If they were lucky enough to have another Argentine daughter-in law, maybe none of this would have happened. What kept me trying, besides my husband's encouragement, was my optimism that no one could be that mean; I believed that one day they would see my opinions and behaviour may be different but it doesn't make me a threat to their lives. Besides, their son is happy and well fed (despite still being "too thin" in their eyes).

I am already looking forward to our next family lunch and I think I would bring something more familiar to them while showing them how much better it can be when done with good quality ingredients, and without gelatin - I am thinking of the Concorde.

Parisian pastry chef, Gaston Lenôtre, invented the Concorde in the early 1970s. His idea was to use chocolate mousse instead of a pastry cream or buttercream as a filling and use chocolate meringue instead of a Genoese or sponge cake to create a layered dessert. The crisp meringue and the velvety mousse proved to be perfect companions, and today his creation is a classic that can be found in pastry shops throughout France and here in Buenos Aires.

Meringue:
½ cup good quality cocoa
1 cup icing sugar
9 eggwhites
1 cup caster sugar

Chocolate mousse:
240 gm dark chocolate, chopped
150 gm unsalted butter, chopped
4 egg yolks
6 eggwhites
2 tbsp caster sugar

Sift cocoa and icing sugar into a bowl. Using an electric mixer, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form, then add 1 tbsp of caster sugar and beat until dissolved. Add remaining caster sugar in batches, beating to dissolve each addition before adding the next, until mixture is thick and glossy. Add sifted mixture and gently fold in to combine.

Spoon three-quarters of meringue mixture into a piping bag fitted with a 2cm plain nozzle. Line three oven trays with baking paper, trace three 18cm rounds onto each tray, then pipe meringue in a spiral to cover. Spoon remaining meringue mixture into a piping bag fitted with a 5mm plain nozzle and pipe mixture in lines on oven tray beside meringue rounds. Bake them in a 150C oven for 1 hour or until meringues are firm to touch. Turn off oven and leave meringues to cool in oven with door slightly ajar.

For chocolate mousse, melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, then add butter and stir until combined. Remove bowl from pan and cool mixture to room temperature, then stir in egg yolks, one at a time.

Using an electric mixer, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form, add sugar and whisk until dissolved. Using a large metal spoon, fold one-third of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Then fold in the remaining egg whites until well-combined.

To assemble cake, place a meringue disc on a serving plate and spread with one-quarter of chocolate mousse, repeat with remaining meringue discs and mousse. Using a palette knife, spread remaining mousse over the cake. Break meringue strips into 2cm pieces and press into the top and sides of the cake. Refrigerate cake until ready to serve. To serve, cut in slices using a warmed serrated knife. Meringue can be made up to 3 days ahead and stored in an airtight container.

Cake will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

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