In which practice actually does make perfect
Flicking through the recipe books in search of something special for a friend’s birthday dinner the other week, I happened upon Damien Pignolet’s crab soufflé. But I soon grew daunted by the gazillion steps, and then breathed a big sigh of relief when I remembered one of our guests can’t eat gluten, as the soufflé had flour in it. Then another idea struck: crab mousse! Retro enough to be surprising – or possibly raise a laugh – but I figured it would also involve just enough velvety lusciousness and feel-the-love effort to make a birthday girl feel special.
Next step, hello internets. My friends, there are so many bad recipes online, have you noticed? Obviously there are squillions of brilliant ones too (*bats eyelashes*), but lordy me. Google ‘crab mousse’ and you will find yourself immersed in more lists of cream cheese, powdered onion soup, gelatine, emulsifiers and other icky goop than you can poke a whisk at.
Happy was I, then, to find this baked crab mousse recipe from Tamasin Day-Lewis. But never having baked such a thing as mousse before I decided, most uncharacteristically, to give it a practice whirl a few days before the birthday do. Usually I don’t bother practising, being blessed with forgiving friends who are usually happy to be experimented upon and whose manners are impeccable even when served less-than-fabulous meals (Ms A, I’m thinking particularly of you and the grass-clippings chicken a short while ago – you were a model of composure).
Anyhoo – in this instance practice was a good idea. The first time I made the recipe I kept the oven at its standard fan setting, but it was too hot. I also used the recipe’s method of covering each mousse with greaseproof paper but that was a total dud idea for us, as the paper simply curled up, and given the hot oven the thing began to brown round the edges, which is not what you want on a delicate, pale, crabby moussy thing like this. Also, served after five minutes as recommended was way too hot. And finally, presentation-wise it tended to look a little wan and needed a bit of bling. However, the texture was not bad and the flavour was good. So good. So very good.
On the second attempt – birthday dinner day – everything went swimmingly. I used foil to completely cover the ramekins instead of the paper; I turned the fan function off on the oven; I cooked the mousse a little longer and let them cool for longer in the pots. And as a garnish I added a blob of creme fraiche with torn dill and a teeny dollop of caviar. And I am here to tell you it was good. The birthday girl loved it and so did we.
Baked crab mousse with dill & caviar
Adapted from Tamasin’s Great British Classics
- meat picked from body & claws of 4 cooked blue swimmer crabs, or about 250g crab meat
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 400ml thickened cream
- 4 tsp dry sherry
- 2 tsp Dijon mustard
- biggish pinch cayenne pepper (be careful – taste at half a pinch first)
- 2 tbsp finely grated Parmesan
- 6 dollops of creme fraiche
- a few fronds of dill
- caviar or salmon pearls
- salt & pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 170C. If you have an adjustable fan setting, turn it off or to lowest setting.
2. Lightly grease 6 small ramekins.
2. Puree crab meat, eggs, cream, pepper, mustard and sherry until smooth.
3. Stir in the Parmesan and season to taste.
4. Spoon the mixture into the prepared ramekins and cover each with a round of aluminium foil.
5. Sit the ramekins in a roasting pan and pour enough near-boiling water into it to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
6. Bake for 25 minutes and check. If they are still very wobbly in the centre, keep cooking for another five or ten minutes. The centre should be just lightly set.
7. Remove pan from oven and leave on the stove top, leaving ramekins covered in the water bath until ready to serve. I left them sitting for a little over an hour, and the temperature was perfect – just slightly warm is the perfect temperature.
8. Remove foil lids, wipe away any condensation from the rims and top each one with a dollop of creme fraiche, a tiny spoonful of salmon pearls or caviar and a teensy frond of dill.
9. Serve with champagne & teaspoons.
In this case, practice made (almost) perfect, and I’m glad I did the test run. I doubt I’ll take up testing recipes first on a regular basis – who can be bothered? – but would love to know if you do. Are you a routine practiser or do you use your friends as guinea pigs? Any fabulous disaster stories? Do tell.