Chunky Monkey un-granola

As a freelance translator with most of my clients based in France, I normally have very quiet Augusts due to the fact that every French person leaves on vacation for the entire month, reducing Paris to a ghost town of sorts populated largely by tourists and a skeleton crew of hoteliers and restaurateurs. But this year, just before leaving, a few of my clients decided to send me huge files to translate by the end of the month. That suited me as I’d already done a bit of traveling in July (to the Netherlands and England) and wanted to make some money.

When accepting these large files, I assumed that I wouldn’t be getting much of the usual work (smaller files with shorter deadlines), but it turned out that several of my regular clients had not completely closed up shop for August and still needed some things translated, and specifically by me. So I ended up having a very busy August indeed. At times such as these, my energy and patience for making elaborate recipes just isn’t there, and I find myself eating bowl after bowl of the same basic pasta with random vegetables thrown in.

One morning, fairly short on groceries and wondering what to have for breakfast, I noticed a box of rolled oats I’d bought to make muffins with and decided to put some of that in a bowl with some soy milk. Rooting around my kitchen a bit more, I found some walnuts and added them too. It turned out I also had a banana. After then, wanting to have an interesting photo for Instagram, I put some of the chocolate sprinkles I’d bought in Rotterdam on top.

I realized that what I’d made was basically un-granola.

Although it may sound strange, dry uncooked rolled oats with soy milk is actually not bad. If you give it a minute or two, the soy milk absorbs into the oats a bit, softening them, so there isn’t strictly any need to cook them. Oats in this form are also healthier than granola—if you’ve ever tried making your own granola at home, you know how much sugar and oil goes into getting the oats and things to stick together and be crunchy. And of course, plain rolled oats are much less expensive than granola of any kind, store-bought or homemade.

This particular un-granola also reminded me of something. Walnuts, banana, chocolate… where had I seen that combination before? Of course, in Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream! Which to my great delight had recently come to Paris in the new dairy-free version. It’s a great combination of flavors, and what could be better than eating Chunky Monkey (of sorts) for breakfast?

I also put some chia seeds into this un-granola, not for their gelling property—although you could easily make this into overnight oats if you, unlike me, have the presence of mind to get started the night before—but for their amazing health benefits. Walnuts too are bursting with good things. Even the chocolate provides magnesium and protein, so this is a breakfast nobody can argue with.

Of all the recipes I’ve posted on this blog, this is by far the easiest. It’s not really even a recipe at all but a suggestion for things to put into a bowl and eat. I’ve provided approximate amounts below, but you can really just combine these things without measuring. Just use whatever amount of each thing that seems good to you.

Chunky Monkey un-granola

Feeds one hungry translator (or other type of person).

  • 3/4 cup (75 g) dry uncooked rolled oats (small oats if possible)
  • 1 tablespoon dry chia seeds (optional)
  • 1 cup (236 ml) soy milk (or other milk of choice)
  • handful (approx. 1/3 cup) walnuts
  • half of a banana
  • 1-2 teaspoons dark chocolate sprinkles/mini-chips

 

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Let’s get started!

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Combine the oats and chia seeds in your cereal bowl.

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Add the milk and give everything a good stir. You’ll see that the milk gets absorbed into the oats after a few minutes, so you may want to add a bit more milk later.

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Break the walnut halves with your hands (or roughly chop them with a knife if you want to be fancy) and slice some banana over the top.

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Finally, add your chocolate sprinkles. If you don’t have or can’t find sprinkles, mini-chocolate chips will do, or you can even roughly chop up some squares from a bar of dark chocolate.

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You’re all set! After enjoying this hearty, healthful and delicious un-granola, you’ll be ready to seize the day.

Variations: If you’re not as exhausted or busy as I was when I came up with this recipe, you may want to take the time to actually cook the oats and make this into a warm oatmeal. Alternatively, as suggested above, you can stir the oats, chia seeds (not optional in this case) and soy milk together and put them in the fridge overnight to make overnight oats. And you can always experiment with different nuts, different fruit, or different milks (vanilla-flavored rice milk for example, which is naturally sweet) for different results.

Chocolate cake with azuki filling

In recent weeks, I’ve been experimenting with more and more Asian-inspired flavors and ingredients. It all began when my friend Yukiko introduced me to a Japanese dish that has become one of my top favorite recipes of all time. My discovery then furthered when I got my hands on Elizabeth Andoh’s outstanding recipe book Kansha. In it, she focuses on shojin ryori, or “temple cooking”, which in line with the Buddhist principle of non-harm is plant-based. I now realize how much more there is to Japanese cuisine than the usual sushi, maki rolls and mochi that we’re all familiar with. I’ve tried about seven or eight recipes from this book so far, including cold buckwheat noodles with a tangy umeboshi sauce and herbaceous shiso, creamy/crispy kabocha squash croquettes, candied sweet potatoes and pancakes filled with red-bean jam (check my Instagram from a few weeks ago for photos of all these).

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In Japanese cuisine, an effort is made to combine a range of colors, textures and flavors in each dish. Pasta with a creamy sauce is paired with a crunchy, tangy salad made of colorful carrot, cucumber or red pepper. White rice is cooked together with a few spoonfuls of black rice to become lavender, and is then studded with bright green edamame beans. Sweet preparations may include a few drops of soy sauce or a touch of miso to temper the sugary taste. Such combinations result in works of art that are pleasing to both the palate and the eyes.

It was in this context, then, that I began imagining ways of integrating these principles and ingredients into familiar Western dishes. After my discovery of red-bean (azuki) jam, I wondered how it would taste paired with chocolate. This fusion recipe is the result: a traditional chocolate layer cake with a sweet azuki filling, topped with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and kinako (toasted soybean flour).

I’m quite pleased with the way this experiment turned out. The dark, rich chocolate goes very well with the sweet paste, which gains a caramel-like dimension from the soy sauce. The kinako adds an interesting color contrast as well as a nutty, toasted flavor. And with the traditional layer cake form, it would be the perfect birthday cake for anyone who (like me!) enjoys Asian cuisines and is not a huge fan of cakes slathered in frosting. 😉

This recipe is also a good example of mindful, contemplative shojin cooking (“slow food” in contrast with today’s trends), since the azuki paste takes time and watchfulness to make. I recommend making it the day before the actual cake.

So, what exactly are azuki beans? They’re smallish red legumes with a white stripe and must not be confused with kidney beans (see below). I get mine from my local organic shop, but they should also be available online.

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You may already have heard of azuki (sometimes spelled adzuki) beans, or red beans, being used in Asian desserts. When I lived in San Francisco, I would sometimes buy something called a mooncake, which has a red-bean filling, when I passed through Chinatown. If you live near an Asian supermarket, you may be able to get pre-made red-bean paste there. But if you’re a do-it-yourself type, like I am, or want your filling to be free from preservatives and coloring agents, or just less sweet than the ones found at stores, you can make your own with the recipe below. In making this jam, I drew inspiration from two recipes: Andoh’s and this one from the blog Just Hungry (but any errors in the following are purely my own fault).

This azuki preparation (tsubu-an in Japanese) can also be spread on toast or pancakes like jam, used as a topping for oatmeal or rice pudding, or even served with cheese in lieu of a fruit chutney. The blogger behind Just Hungry recommends enjoying it with ice cream and strawberries, which does sound pretty good.

Azuki filling

Makes about 2¼ cups of filling. Can be made a day or two before the cake.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (200 g) dry azuki beans
  • ¾ cup to 1 cup (150 to 200 g) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) soy sauce, or more to taste

Equipment needed: food processor or high-power blender (alternatively, a potato masher  or fork and some patience).

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Place the dry beans in a bowl and add enough water to cover them. Allow to soak for 24 hours (keep in the fridge for best results). The beans will lose their red color as they soak. If you don’t have time for this soaking step, you can skip it, but the cooking process will take longer.

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At the end of the soaking stage, rinse the beans and transfer them to a large stock pot. Fill  it with enough water to cover the beans (never add salt when cooking legumes, except at the very end) and bring to a boil. Allow to boil for one minute, then drain and rinse the beans with cold water.

Return the beans to the pot, refill with fresh water and bring to a boil a second time. Allow to boil for one minute as before, then drain and rinse the beans again. Rinse and wipe the inside of the pot with a sponge to remove all residue. Although lengthy, this process ensures that all impurities are removed. If you have plants, you can save the cooking water to water them with once it’s cool.

Now you’re ready to cook the beans for real! Return them to the pot and refill with fresh water to about 1 inch (2 cm) above the beans.

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Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the beans are soft enough to crush between your thumb and pinky finger (45-60 minutes). If you did not soak the beans before cooking, this step may take longer. Check them every once in a while during this time, adding more water if the level goes down too low and they aren’t done yet. If you have a table in your kitchen, this is a good time to take a seat and delve into a good book.

When the beans pass the thumb-and-pinky test, drain them but reserve about a cup of the cooking water.

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Return the beans to the pan and add about ½ cup of the reserved cooking water back in, or more as needed—the idea is to have just enough to keep the beans from getting too dry and sticking.

Add the sugar and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until you have a thick syrupy sauce (about 15 minutes). The beans will darken in color once the sugar is added. If at any point they become too dry, add more of the reserved cooking water in small amounts (¼ cup at a time).

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Now add the soy sauce, stir to incorporate, and taste. If it seems too salty to you, add a bit more sugar. If it seems too sweet, add a bit more soy sauce, or ¼ teaspoon salt if you need more saltiness but want to limit the soy sauce flavor. Simmer for a minute or two more, then remove from heat and allow to cool.

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Transfer the beans to a food processor or high-power blender and pulse or purée until you have a smooth, paste-like consistency.

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Mine ended up looking like this because the little food processor I use is not super powerful. You could also opt to mash it with a potato masher or similar. It’s fine if a few chunky bits remain.

Store the azuki filling in the refrigerator and use within 5 to 7 days.

Chocolate cake

Makes two cake layers.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups (375 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1¼ cup (250 g) white or raw cane granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (7 g) salt
  • 2 teaspoons (9 g) baking soda
  • ½ cup (40 g) unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
  • 3 teaspoons (15 ml) vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup (177 ml) neutral-flavored oil, like sunflower or canola
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) white vinegar
  • 2 cups (500 ml) cold water

Decoration

  • a few tablespoons powdered sugar
  • a few tablespoons kinako (roasted soy flour), optional

Equipment needed: two 8-inch (20-cm) round cake pans (or bake them in two stages using one pan—be careful to divide the batter evenly). You can use pans with a larger diameter if you like, but the layers will be lower and the cake shorter than what you see in these photos.

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First, preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C). Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. I used a raw cane sugar in this case, but regular white granulated sugar is fine.

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Combine the liquid ingredients in a smaller bowl and whisk to combine.

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Prepare your cake pans by lining them with some baking paper. Apply a bit of oil to the pan first to make the paper stick. I like to leave little “handles” like these on the sides to be able to dislodge the baked cakes more easily.

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Whisk the dry ingredients together and then add the liquid ingredients to the bowl with the dry mixture. Whisk everything together just until combined, being careful not to over mix as this would make the cake stiff.

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Transfer the batter to your prepared baking pans, diving it evenly between the two, and place in the oven. Bake at 350°F (180°C) for about 20 minutes.

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Check for doneness at this point by inserting a toothpick or fork into the center of the cakes. If it comes out clean, the cakes are done. If not, put them back in the oven for another five minutes and check again. When fully baked, place them on a baking rack or stovetop to cool. Allow the cakes to cool completely before attempting to remove them from the pans.

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You will notice that each cake layer has a domed shape. The tops will need to be leveled before you can assemble the two layers.

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Using a large knife, carefully slice off the top of each cake, depositing the pieces you cut off into a bowl. Crouch down to look at the cake from the side, at tabletop height, to check whether it’s even enough.

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It will look something like this. Remove the baking paper from underneath it and transfer it, cut side facing up, to a clean plate.

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Apply the azuki filling thickly, spreading it with a spoon or large knife to ensure that it covers the surface evenly. Reserve a small amount to fill in any gaps that remain in the sides once you’ve placed the other cake layer on top.

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Now carefully place the other cake layer, cut side facing down, on top of the filling. The cake will have a nicely defined edge along the top. With a frosting knife or flat spatula, fill in any gaps between the two layers with more azuki filling and smooth out the sides. Cover the cake with a cover or an upside-down salad bowl until just before serving. Powdered sugar tents to “melt” into the surface of a cake, so if you apply it ahead of time you will most likely have to do it again and the results will not be as nice. If you will be serving the cake the next day, keep it in the refrigerator until about an hour beforehand.

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A few minutes before serving the cake, apply the powdered sugar. I recommend using a sieve such as this one, or a sifter of some kind, to prevent any large clumps of sugar from falling on the surface and ruining the powdered effect.

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You can use more sugar than this if you like. It depends how opaque you want the surface to be.

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After the powdered sugar, use the same method to sprinkle some kinako on top. Or if you prefer, you can apply the kinako first and then the powdered sugar. It depends which color you would like to be more prominent.

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And now you’re done!

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After serving, cover the remaining cake and place it in the refrigerator (without preservatives apart from sugar, the homemade azuki paste can go bad if left too long at room temperature).

Variations: Use the azuki paste as cupcake filling: after filling the cupcake cups half-way full with batter, deposit a small dollop of azuki paste in the center and push it down until it’s submerged by the batter. Also try it as a frosting for the top of a single-layer cake, or as a spread for toast, etc. as mentioned in the azuki filling recipe above.

Chocolate mendiants

It’s easy to get overly ambitious around Christmastime and to plan a number of grand meals and complicated desserts, only to wake up one day and realize it’s already the 23rd or 24th and you don’t have the right ingredients or enough time to make everything you wanted. This is especially likely to happen, for some reason, with dishes that you hope to bring to holiday parties, escalating your anxiety levels further. But never fear, your favorite blogger is here to the rescue! Today I bring you a very easy-to-make traditional French confectionery creation that will nevertheless impress just about everyone. And since the toppings can vary greatly, you might already have everything you need in your kitchen cupboards.

These little Yuletide delicacies hail from the south of France and the fruits and nuts traditionally used represent the colors of the robes worn by the friars in four mendicant orders during the Middle Ages. These are gray (raisins) for the Dominicans, brown (hazelnuts) for the Augustinians, white (almonds cut in half) for the Caramelites and purple (fig or cranberry) for the Franciscans. As these friars subsisted on charitable offerings, they were referred to as mendiants (beggars), and the confections took on the same name. These items are also among the 13 desserts served at the end of the traditional Christmas meal in Provence.

Today, many types and combinations of nuts and fruits are used, so feel free to use whatever you have on hand! I used walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, cranberries, physalis and pineapple.

Chocolate mendiants

Makes 12 to 15 mendiants

Ingredients

  • about 6 oz (180 g) dark chocolate in bar form (or chocolate chips)
  • toasted nuts (walnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, macadamia, etc.)
  • dried fruit (cranberries, cherries, raisins, apricot, citrus segments, etc.)
  • other items such as pumpkin seeds, candied ginger, white chocolate chips, toasted coconut chips, colorful Christmas sprinkles, fleur de sel, gold leaf

Equipment needed: double-boiler or metal mixing bowl plus saucepan, parchment or waxed paper

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Begin by assembling all the fruits and nuts you will use, so that you’re ready once the chocolate has melted.

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Break or chop your chocolate bar into more or less evenly sized pieces.

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Next, heat some water in a medium-sized saucepan and place a metal bowl on top of it (or a second, smaller saucepan for a double-boiler). Be sure that the water in the saucepan does not touch the bottom of the bowl or second saucepan. Place the chopped chocolate in it and heat, stirring occasionally with a heat-proof spatula.

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Once all of the chocolate has melted, turn off the heat but keep the bowl on top of the saucepan full of hot water.

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Line a tray with parchment paper and, using a teaspoon (the kind you use to stir your coffee, not the measuring kind), form small, round disks. After creating them, go back and add a bit more on the top of each one to ensure that they are thick enough. Make only six at a time so that you have time to add all the toppings before the chocolate firms.

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Add your toppings. I like to start with the larger items and then add the other ones around them.

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Once you’ve finished the first batch, put the tray in the fridge and continue making mendiants until you have used up the rest of your chocolate. The mendiants will be set after an hour or two of chilling (allow two to three hours to be on the safe side).

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Serve your mendiants on a platter at a party, or box them up as a gift!

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These mendiants were my Christmas gift to the concierge of my building, who brings our mail to our doors and takes time out of her morning to give Sésame (who is in love with her) a thorough scratching and petting on the days when my mail includes a package. This year, I included some photos of the furry little guy, which she was delighted to receive (they now adorn her refrigerator door, I was told). 🙂

Variations: change things up with this white chocolate version!

Chocolate & peanut butter pies

10159After living in France for almost eight years now, and having traveled a lot before that, my sense of nationality and culture is somewhat fluid. I’m not French, but I also don’t really feel American anymore. Yet I still have a taste for certain American foods that are not always met with enthusiasm by people from other places. One of these is peanut butter. Often relegated to obscure shelves of mainstream French supermarkets, including the “world cuisines” section, peanut butter is not a guaranteed find at the average grocery store. And when you do encounter it, it’s sometimes quite expensive or not very good. But about a year ago I discovered a nice one from the Ethiquable brand in the fairtrade section of my local Franprix. It comes from a woman-inclusive cooperative in Nicaragua and isn’t any more expensive than most of its non-fairtrade (unfairtrade?) counterparts. And so, safe in the knowledge that I have this steady supply available, I have been freely experimenting with peanut-based recipes like Thai satay sauce, peanut-butter cheesecake (yep!) and of course, desserts with the magical peanut butter and chocolate combination, of which we will see an example below!

First, some history, and the answer to a pressing question. Is peanut butter actually from the United States? A widespread legend has it that it was invented by George Washington Carver (1864-1943), an American botanist and inventor who was born into slavery. But in 1884, before Carver had even begun studying botany, pharmacist Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Canada patented a process to make peanut paste. And much, much before that, as far back as the first century of the Common Era, the Aztecs also mashed roasted peanuts into a paste. So, it’s actually a Mexican-Canadian creation.

But Americans are still very fond of it. We are the world’s leading exporter and, according to this source, we eat around 700 million pounds (317 million kg) of peanut butter per year (about 3 pounds/1.4 kg per person). That’s not too hard to believe. When I was growing up, children brought their lunch to school, and very often it was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I carried mine proudly in my metal Pigs in Space lunchbox alongside carrot sticks and a Hostess cupcake. Now, peanut butter has apparently been banned from most schools due to the high number of kids with peanut allergies. I don’t understand how this allergy can have become so common, but that’s a matter for the experts to solve.

So the other week, I began experimenting with chocolate-avocado mousse, and the idea came to me to pair it with peanut butter in some way. I looked around my kitchen and spotted my set of mini-pie plates, and was on my way. The crust proved a bit tricky. My first version was made of ground almonds with peanut butter as a binder, but it wasn’t peanut-buttery enough for me. A second attempt with the addition of toasted millet (for crunch) wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Finally, a third try with a combination of ground roasted peanuts and ground almonds was just right. The rich-but-light texture and slight fruitiness of the mousse is nicely complimented by the earthy, salted peanut crunch of the crust.

As desserts go, this easy, no-bake recipe is definitely on the healthy side. It does contain fat (from the peanuts, avocado and coconut), but has no cholesterol or refined sweetener. And it packs a punch as far as protein goes, so the next time someone asks you where you get your protein, you know what to answer!

Chocolate & peanut butter pies

Makes two mini-pies (5 in./12 cm in diameter at widest point) 

Note: several hours before making this recipe, place the coconut cream/milk and your metal mixing bowl plus the beaters of your mixer in the refrigerator to chill. The lower temperature helps ensure a nice firm whip.

Ingredients

For the peanut crust

  • 1/2 cup (75 g) salted peanuts, whole (snack/party kind)
  • 2 tablespoons (12 g) ground almonds
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter, either creamy or chunky
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup

For the chocolate mousse filling

  • 1 large avocado (9 oz./250 g weighed when whole)
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2-3 tablespoons maple syrup, or more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • small pinch salt

For the whipped coconut cream

  • 3/4 cup (200 ml) coconut milk (full-fat) or coconut cream, chilled
  • 1-2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the garnish: roughly chopped bar chocolate, cocoa powder, finely chopped peanuts or gomasio

Equipment needed: food processor for the nuts, electric mixer with beaters to whip the cream, plastic wrap, mini-pie plates (or small bowls/ramekins)

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First, grind the peanuts by pulsing them just a few times. Be careful not to grind them too much, or (depending on the power of your processor) you could end up with something closer to peanut butter and the structure of the crust will not hold up as well. I stopped when my peanut chunks looked about like this (see next photo):

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Now add the ground almonds, peanut butter and maple syrup. Don’t be tempted to add more maple syrup, as it could make the crust too soggy. It’s okay if the crust is not especially sweet, since the filling and whipped cream will be.

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Combine the ingredients, mixing and pressing the mixture against the sides of the bowl with a large spoon or spatula (alternatively, knead with your hands) until you have a sort of sticky dough. Taste it at this point and if it seems to be lacking salt, for example if you have used a natural peanut butter that contains no salt, consider adding a small pinch.

Rip off a piece of plastic wrap that is the length of two mini-pie plates. Cover the inside of the pie plate with one end of it and press half of the crust dough into the plate as shown above. Be sure to fill the tops of the ridges well to get a nice result when the crust is unmolded. Then double the plastic wrap back over the top to cover the crust. Repeat with the second pie plate.  If you’re making the crusts well ahead of time, you can place them in the refrigerator to chill at this point, stacked together if space is a problem, but if you will be finishing and serving the dessert right away this step is not necessary.

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Cut the avocado in half, scoop out its flesh and transfer to your food processor. Add the cocoa powder, maple syrup, vanilla extract and salt. Process until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides once or twice.

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Now you have your mousse! Taste it and add more maple syrup if you want it to be sweeter, and more vanilla or cocoa powder if it seems to need it (the results of different cocoa brands can vary). Process further if you have added something, and be sure that no chunks of avocado remain.

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Fill the crust with the mousse. The crust should still be in the pie plate at this point, as the filling process could make it crack if it were unsupported. Next, holding onto both sides of the plastic wrap, carefully lift the crust out of the pie plate and transfer it to a small dessert plate, removing the plastic.

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Take the pre-chilled coconut milk or cream, metal bowl and beaters out of the refrigerator. Transfer the milk or cream to the bowl. If using a can of coconut milk, stir the cream and liquid part together before measuring. Add the maple syrup and vanilla extract and beat on high speed until soft peaks appear (this will take a few minutes). Continue until you have reached the desired thickness, but be careful not to overbeat as it can become too thick. If this happens, do not despair as it can be salvaged—just continue beating and it will eventually revert to a more liquid state (unlike overwhipped dairy cream, which turns into butter!).

When ready to serve the dessert, top each pie with a dollop of the cream and decorate the top with a garnish of roughly chopped bar chocolate, a sprinkle of cocoa powder, some finely chopped peanuts or a pinch of gomasio.

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Note that the avocado will begin to oxidize and darken upon contact with the air, so it is best to fill the crusts not long before they will be served. Alternatively, if the top has already darkened, you could opt to cover the entire top with the whipped cream. The lighter color of the mousse inside would then not be noticeablely different from the color of the top, and you would also have an interesting tiramisu effect.

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Variations:

  • Make the crust with ground almonds and almond butter (no peanuts) for a chocolate & almond version.
  • Add banana to the mousse for a tropical flavor.
  • Serve parfait-style in clear glasses so that the various layers show, alternating with additional layers of whipped cream and chocolate mousse.