rites of passage
February 23, 2008

My sophomore year in college some girlfriends and I decided to have a Women's Dinner—a tantalizing event as dinner parties usually consisted of pizza on the floor of the computer lab at two in the morning. I opted for my favorite of my mother's desserts, a decadent chocolate mousse pie with Oreo cookie crust. A trip to K-Mart procured my first Tiny Kitchen accoutrements: a glass mixing bowl, a springform pan and the cheapest hand mixer available (I still have all three).

The day before our dinner, however, was the first round of the housing lottery, in which I fared rather poorly. My older companions sympathized by buying me a six-pack of Woodchuck cider; I think I drank two and was already too drunk to make chocolate mousse. My kitchen toil was punctuated for those in the next room by cries of, "Uh-oh," followed by metal objects falling to the floor. I think I lost my patience for the cream- and egg-beating phases because the mousse never congealed. When sliced, it ran right out of the crust and all over the plate (but still tasted good).

I have since mastered the art of mousse (I made a rather good one before graduating to celebrate the completion of my English comps). But as I begin to make mini chocolate mousse tartlets for our party tonight, I might as well be back in that ill-eqipped campus kitchen (except that my vocabulary for kitchen mishaps has broadened considerably). I'm already—as usual—cursing tiny food (the "winter bites" menu translates into a lot of ball-shaped items), and pressing Oreos into mini muffin tins makes a pretty big mess. I'm also not convinced that they'll hold together without crisping, so I try popping them in the oven for 10 minutes. Around 8 I start to smell burning, and whisk them out to find the tops of two trays' worth charred. I ignore singed fingertips to taste, and it's not good. What's more, they crumble into pulverized bits when I try to pop them out with a knife. I contemplate crying. I contemplate going to the store for another package of Oreos. But instead I just whip up some mousse and hope it can solve all evils (my whipping and beating, in fact, are both done with that 10-year-old K-Mart mixer).

In the end I think it's okay; the mousse congeals beautifully, which seems to help out the falling-apart issue, and I've rounded the filling as high as I can so it will overwhelm the crust flavor, which turns out not to be too ashy—just a bit like a cookie that was baked a few minutes too long. I arrange them on the table along with a never-ending parade of lamb meatballs, risotto balls and mini crab cakes, and the party commences with only a minor additional setbacks (the pilot light in the oven goes out, which means my plan for refreshing plates with warm food throughout the evening is pretty much foiled; a few guests wonder about the lingering smell of gas).

The tartlets are a hit. No one complains of scorched crust. In fact, somewhere toward the end of the night one guest says to another, "Try the chocolate mousse. It's life changing." Shortly after that I finish my last glass of wine and curl up in the big chair to fall asleep.