My favorite day of the year is fast approaching and I'm getting fairly giddy with excitement. You can have your Christmases, Kwanzaas, and New Year's; they're nothing compared to the most glorious night of the year in the Smithwell calendar: December 23rd - Chocolate Mousse Night.
The Legend of the Mousse That Was Chocolate:
The year was 1975. Make A Daft Noise For Christmas was making the radio rounds. My mom was in the middle of her third year of teacher and my dad had probably just bailed his best friend out of jail after yet another illegal BASE dive off of one of the more festive hotels in Los Angeles (such are the terms of friendship when your friend is a lunatic adrenaline junkie who thought skydiving wasn't life-threatening enough, so naturally invented an even scarier way to evade death was absolutely logical). The subject of Christmas dinner came up around this time (as it usually does around this time of year). My mom had taken over hosting from her mother and my dad likes a challenge, so it was off to the recipe books to figure out something spectacular.
Earlier in the year, my parents had attended a "gourmet night" with a few other couples in which the theme was French food and my parents picked "dessert" out of the hat of duties. They chose chocolate mousse on a whim because, really, how hard could it be?
Very, very hard.
That first attempt took six hours and nearly a divorce. So, naturally, it seemed like the perfect thing to make for Christmas Eve dinner.*
Because traditional mousse takes 24 hours to set, logically my parents made it on the 23rd. It went slightly better this time: 4 1/2 hours from start to finish and a few less tears and swears. They served it on Christmas Eve and were then issued THE CURSE OF THE SMITHWELLS™**: "This is so good. You should make this every year!"
A Tradition Is Born
Thus cursed, my parents have been making chocolate mousse from scratch every December 23rd since 1975. When my brother and I were little, "Mousse Night" was always the Official Start to celebrating Christmas and it was when we were allowed to start the countdown clock to Santa (yes, there was a countdown clock. Yes, we're a family of weirdos). Mousse night was always this vaguely mysterious and grownup thing my parents did after we were in bed: drinking wine, beating egg whites, and listening to stuff like Neil Diamond Croons Christmas (my mom) or Spike Jonze Goes Silly Santa (my dad).
I was so jealous when my brother was deemed old enough to stay up and help my parents with the mousse when he was 11. I wanted to be old enough to stay up past 10pm and melt butter into chocolate! Luckily, I didn't have to wait as long as my brother (one time when epic tantrum throwing worked in my favor). I became my mom's helper at age 9.
And thus has been the tradition ever since: I help my mom with getting the chocolate mixture ready, and my dad and brother work on the meringue and sugared egg yolks. We then come together as a family to unite chocolate and egg parts to create a Christmas miracle (now how's that for a metaphor?). We all drink wine. Luckily, we no longer have to listen to Neil Diamond.
Sadly, I cannot reprint the recipe (or I shall be ritualistically suffocated under a mound of my mom's stuffed Christmas animals), but I can tell you the recipe for my Spinach & Pepper Enchiladas, as our other tradition on Mousse night is to have food from south of the border (for years and years we had traditional El Salvadorian tamales that our wonderful housekeeper made for us, even after she retired, but she sadly passed away earlier this year from pancreatic cancer. Stupid God taking back his best stuff too soon).
This is a very long-ass way of answering the few people who asked me for the Spinach and Pepper Enchilada recipe when I posted that I was making them over the weekend. It's also a quite shameless bid to hear what other people's holiday traditions are.
SPINACH & PEPPER ENCHILADAS (with Avocado/Sour Cream Sauce)
15 - 20 White corn tortillas (I find these to be a bit softer and sweeter than yellow corn, but either is fine)
1/3 reserved mixed cheeses (see below in filling ingredients)
3 green onions, thinly sliced
For the filling:
16 oz fresh spinach leaves
1 each: red, green, and yellow bell pepper, diced
1 medium red onion, diced
3 tbsp red pepper chili olive oil + 2 tsp
6 - 8 cloves of garlic, peeled (for roasting)
6 ounces Manchego cheese (aka the best cheese in the universe)
6 ounces extra sharp or (if you can find it) chipotle cheddar
6 ounces pepper jack (if you like spicy) or cotija (if you like milder/creamier)†
2 tbsp tequila
2 tbsp hot sauce
1 tsp cayenne
salt & pepper to taste
For the sauce:
1 large (RIPE) avocado, smashed
1 2/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup vegetable broth
2 tbsp lime juice
2 jalapenos, minus stems and seeds (because no one likes stems and seeds), finely minced
1/4 cup finely minced fresh cilantro leaves
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp paprika (smoked, if you got it)
COOKING AND CONSTRUCTION:
1. Preheat your oven to 400º
2. Easy Roasting Garlic: Peel the cloves, and lay on a folded square of aluminum foil. Cover with 2 tsp of oil (red pepper infused olive oil is great, or straight chili, if you have asbestos tongue) and 1 tsp ground pepper. Wrap it up so it forms a foil pouch. Throw in the oven for about 25 - 30 minutes. Remove and let cool for 10 minutes before picking out and slicing the roasted cloves for the spinach mixture. Turn down the oven to 350º.
3. While the garlic is roasting, dice your peppers and onions. In a large skillet, heat 2 tbsp of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and dust with salt (to draw out some of the moisture); let cook - without turning - 2-3 minutes. Turn over with a spatula and add peppers and cayenne pepper (stir the vegetables to coat with cayenne). Sauté over medium heat, stirring occasionally until soft but still a little crunchy, about 8 minutes.
4. Rough chop your spinach leaves and set aside.
5. Prepare your sauce: (A) In a medium mixing bowl, scoop and smash one large avocado. Add sour cream, lime juice, chili powder, and paprika. (B) If you have a food processor: pulse your cilantro and jalapeno together until finely minced (I love my MiniPrep more than should be legally allowed). If you don't have a food processor: make someone else finely mince that shit while you're working on the vegetables, so it's ready by the time you get to the sauce. (C) Add minced herbs and peppers to the sour cream/avocado mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. It will be thick. (D) Pour in vegetable broth to thin out the sauce and make it easier for pouring. Set aside.
6. Back to the cooking veggies: Reduce heat to medium low and add spinach. In a small bowl, combine tequila and hot sauce; pour the mixture over the top of the spinach and peppers, cover with a lid to wilt quickly, 1-2 minutes. Remove lid and stir vegetables to combine until the spinach is mostly wilted, a further minute or so.
7. Take the vegetables off the heat, drain the excess liquid, and pour into a large mixing bowl with 2/3 of the combined cheeses from the ingredients list (reserve 1/3 of the cheese for the top of the enchiladas). Add sliced roasted garlic and stir to thoroughly combine, allowing the cheese to melt.
8. Assembly Instructions: It is essential to work through this part quickly, because corn tortillas dry out and crack really fast. (A) Spread 3-4 tablespoons of the sauce on the bottom of a 13x9 baking dish. (B) Scoop a heaping tablespoon(ish or more) onto the bottom third of your tortilla and roll loosely. Place in the dish. Repeat until the pan is covered in delicious, rolled goodness.§ (C) Pour the remainder of the sauce over the top of the tortillas and spread evenly with a spatula. (D) Sprinkle with remaining cheese and thinly sliced green onions.
9. Bake for 25 minutes in a 350º oven, loosely covered in foil. Remove foil and cook a further 15 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly.
10. Let rest 5-10 minutes before serving.
11. NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM.
† Flavor note: I've found that mixing chipotle and pepper jack aren't the greatest in terms of flavor combos; the taste gets a little muddy. Opt for cotija, if you use the chipotle cheddar, or go with pepper jack if you use extra sharp cheddar.
§ Alternative assembly instructions: After spreading the sauce on the bottom, you can layer flat tortillas to cover, add spinach mixture, 3-4 more dollops of the sauce, and repeat in layers, like a Mexican lasagna. Make sure the top layer is tortillas and sauce, then continue with directions in #8.
* Point of order: In the German tradition of my mom's side of the family, we have always celebrated on Christmas Eve. I will not brook any argument on the subject. If you think it's sacrilege to open gifts on the 24th, you're just jealous I get to tear into my loot earlier than you. So nyahhhhhh. :P
** Curse is non-transferable and is only terminated upon death. If something of particular deliciousity has been cursed, next of kin inherits the curse and is screwed forever. (eg: my grandmother's stuffing that has to be made by my mom every year on pain of death. I'm sure I'll inherit the curse eventually).