Valentine’s day has got me thinking about the nature of love. I’ve always scoffed at the suggestion of love as a natural force like gravity (it was an eye-rolling moment for me in “Interstellar”). But then again, isn’t love the result of chemicals produced and exchanged between our brains’ neurons? Aren’t there hormones involved, and sweat and saliva (among other things)? These are very much real things that require the consumption (and creation) of energy, albeit in small quantities. So, who am I to say that love isn’t a natural force? It certainly is a force of nature.
Or maybe love is a parasite, that infects humans in order to ensure its continued existence.
There is a fungus called ophiocordyceps unilateralis that propagates itself by infecting carpenter ants with its spores. The spores burrow their way into the ants’ brains and take over their behavior (which is why the fungus is also known as the “zombie fungus”). They force the ant to climb up a leaf and bite at the underside of the leaf, unable to unlock their jaw and therefore unable to move or walk away. The ants eventually die, still gripping the leaf. Soon, from the back of the ant’s head grows a long stalk that begins to release spores that land on the ants walking around below, thus ensuring the next cycle of zombie ants.
Creepy, you say? Nothing to do with beautiful love as we know it? To you I say: have you ever seen the irrational, crazy things love makes people do? I wouldn’t throw out the parasite theory just yet.
But for you romantics out there (and I count myself amongst you), here is a third possibility. Maybe love is just a lovely mystery, something greater than the sum of its parts.I like this idea of love as a peculiar process that enriches and transforms us. A little like the way in which when air is introduced into slimy, pale egg whites, it turns them into dazzlingly white, ethereal clouds, ready to be baked into crispy meringues, transformed into angel food cake, or folded into melted chocolate to make a silky smooth chocolate mousse.
Mocha Mousse with Sichuan Peppercorns – Slightly adapted from Epicurious.com
Note: If you can’t find sichuan (or szechuan) peppercorns you can simply omit them. But they do add a nice, subtle zing to the mousse.
Makes 8 servings
3/4 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons ground coffee beans
12 ounces 70%-cacao bittersweet chocolate, chopped
9 large egg whites
3 tablespoons sugar
Coarsley grind peppercorns in mortar and pestle or using a bowl and back of a spoon.
Bring cream, coffee, and peppercorns to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and let steep, covered, 30 minutes. Strain cream through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids.
Melt chocolate in a large bowl. Stir in cream and mix with spoon until completely combined. Cool slightly.
Beat egg whites with sugar using an electric mixer until they just hold stiff peaks. Fold egg whites into chocolate mixture gently but thoroughly (no white streaks remaining).
Spoon mousse into 4oz-5oz serving glasses (it will be runny; it will firm up once chilled). Cover and chill at least 3 hours before serving. Mousse can be prepared ahead and kept in the fridge covered for up to 2 days.