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Chicken Liver Mousse Showdown

The two finsihed products

The two finished products

I find it very difficult (okay, next to impossible) to say “no” to a charcuterie plate when it shows up on a restaurant’s menu.  Variation is one of charcuterie’s appeals but across the board they all seem to feature a portion of chicken liver mousse.  I assume this is because it’s cheap and easy to make, placates those with mainstream tastes who dine with those of us who can’t get enough pig’s-head terrine or duck rillettes, and is really very delicious.

All of these seem like great reasons for me to learn how to make chicken liver mousse at home.  Problem is that there are two very different methods.  The traditional method sautes the livers in butter and then processes them in a blender with cream, brandy, spices, and melted butter.  When the butter cools and resets that’s what gives the mousse it’s spreadable texture.  The other method basically makes a custard (egg yolks and milk) that includes the raw livers, booze, and spices blended together and bakes the whole thing in the oven.  Like other custards the cooked yolks set the texture.  Chicken liver mousse recipes are easily scaled so I divided my pound of chicken livers in half and made two versions of the recipe.

In one corner we have the champion of French cooking (in American home kitchens at least) Julia Child and her traditional recipe (mousse de foies de volaille).  In the other corner is the almost equally well-known Ruth Reichl, final editor-in-chief of Gourmet and that magazine’s recipe for Chicken Liver Mousse from March 2006.  (I have no clue whether Ruth Reichl had any hand in developing Gourmet‘s recipe but she was the editor when it was published so she gets to lace up the gloves for that team.) Not surprisingly, Julia’s recipe uses the traditional high-butter method while Ruth’s employs the meat custard process.

All of the ingredients, the ones down the centre were divided equally between the two recipes

All of the ingredients, the ones down the centre (spices and shallots) were divided equally between the two recipes

The chicken liver mousses I have tried have varied in taste across three dimensions: how heavily they tasted of liver, the type and strength of alcohol flavour, and the type and strength of herb or spice flavours.  The two recipes battling it out here did vary in both booze and spice in relation to liver–Ruth’s calls for more of both and I wonder whether that’s because when Julia was writing her recipe chicken livers were of higher, tastier quality or whether American palettes were less accustomed to warm spices before dessert–but I want to control for taste and primarily examine texture so both will get the same amount of non-structural ingredients (spices, booze, salt and chicken liver).  In my view the better texture will be the one that is lighter or “mousse-ier”.

Alright ladies now that we have covered the rules for tonight’s bout put up your dukes.

The livers after a luxurious night of soaking in milk

The livers after a luxurious night of soaking in milk

Taking a page from my favourite homemade chicken liver pate I soaked the livers in milk overnight.  This is supposed to remove any harsh liver taste.

The cooked livers for Julias version

The cooked livers for Julia's version

From the cook’s perspective Julia’s version has definite advantages.  No need to pre-heat the oven or carefully fill a bain-marie, and because only the livers are cooked and hot the finished product cools to serving temperature much more quickly.  Perhaps most importantly, the traditional recipe can be “taste[d] carefully for seasoning” (in the words of Julia Child) but with the Gourmet recipe I’m not sure how that could be done because before cooking it is entirely liquid and contains raw chicken.  The first round definitely goes to the champ.

Ruths meat custard goes into the oven for about fifty-five minutes

Ruth's meat custard goes into the oven for about fifty-five minutes

To get as many perspectives on the later rounds I opened the judging up to the crowd at the Hallowe’en party I attended this year.  For logistical reasons I opted to serve both mousses on crackers instead of toasted baguette.

Comments were frustratingly contradictory.  Most agreed that Julia’s high-butter mousse was lighter but some felt it tasted so heavily of butter it made this version a guilty over-indulgence.  Interestingly most felt that Ruth’s version had a more livery taste–one even went as far as calling it “something I could eat after being on the frontier chopping wood.”  Thanks, Jon. They really did taste quite different–so much for trying to control this and only judge texture.

I am surprised that Ruth’s was considered more “livery” tasting because they both had the same amount of liver and with the eggs and greater amount of liquid the meat custard method spread the flavour over roughly two to three times more mousse by volume.  I can only speculate that this might have been a matter of technique.  Julia’s method calls for sauteing the livers for two to three minutes until they have stiffened but are still rosy on the inside.  That’s a pretty approximate target compared to my use of a probe thermometer to cook Ruth’s version to a specific desired temperature (the recipe didn’t call for this accuracy but I wanted to for safety’s sake).  It’s possible, I guess, that I slightly over-cooked the livers in the pan and thereby reduced their flavour.

Nobody else commented on the alcohol or spice flavours but I thought the former could have been stronger while the latter was just right.

Ruths mousse, note the colour and texture

Ruth's mousse, note the colour and texture

A dish, especially one like chicken liver mousse that is meant for entertaining absolutely must have visual appeal.  Off the bat I thought that the Gourmet version would have the edge here because it received an appetizing, slightly golden crust from its time in the oven while Julia’s looked just like creamy coffee with the texture of butter in a jar.  Unfortunately, scraping at the crust and a hour or two at room temperature revealed some definite weakness in the challenger.  First, cooking the custard to temperature leaves the inside with a rosy colour which didn’t concern me but I understand why others get a little suspicious when they hear “chicken” and see pink.  Unfortunately, that’s life.  Secondly, and more off-putting was the greenish tinge that the challenger’s mousse adopted after sitting at room temperature.  I assume this is just the natural oxidation of the liver’s iron but even after a few days in the fridge the high-butter version hasn’t fallen victim to this.

Julia Childs winning version, note the light texture and buttery shine

Julia Child's winning version, note the light texture and buttery shine

A hard fought battle that went to the judges.  The challenger threw some vicious punches that swayed the judges’ most carnivorous instincts but because her version wins on ease of preparation, texture, and appearance the champ retains her title.  This is the perfect mousse to provide a light contrast to a charcuterie plate’s heavier, denser selections.  In the future I’ll use Julia Child’s recipe but will try to tweek it to increase the meat and brandy flavours.

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3 Comments

  1. Fiesta Farms says:

    I loved this article, I think I’ll try it myself for a Christmas party.

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks, Ivy. It was a fun experiment. I wasn’t surprised that they had different textures but still pretty amazing how much taste is affected by technique.

  3. [...] the Art of French Cooking, Volume I.  Especially when you use the cook-first method I liked in a comparison post liver mousse is a surprisingly quick and easy preparation.  I added a unique twist to mine by [...]

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