Don’t be mistaken. This is not Gwyneth Paltrow’s “go-to nosh” after a detoxing, beachside pilates sesh’. It is, however, a full-fat, full-flavored hors d’oeuvre of which Julia Child would be proud to serve—at least I’d like to think so.
“I’ve always loved the taste of liver!” That’s not something you’ll hear too often. On the other hand, chicken liver pâté plays this role of ambassador; a shining star that’s somehow managed to bridge the divide between the liver lover and those with less sophistication. Cream is a key component in this recipe, producing a lightly-colored, less livery tasting mousse; making this a perfect introduction for the less initiated—and we all have one of those in our family.
Mousse or Pâté?
Is it a mousse or is it a pâté? The texture falls nicely between; the gelatin providing body, yet retaining a spreadable consistency. It’s likely the classification of mousse is most felicitous, as cream and gelatin are key components, and the resulting texture is more refined than one might typically associate with a “pâté”. As to what it’s called, I’ll let you decide.
Etymology of Pâté
The English word pastry, Italian pasta, and French pâté all go back to a suggestive group of ancient Greek words having to do with small particles and fine textures, according to Harold McGee.1
“Pâté is a medieval French word that was given originally to a chopped meat preparation enclosed in dough, but eventually came to name the meat preparation itself, with or without enclosure. Pie was the near equivalent of the original pâté in medieval English, and meant a dish of any sort—meat, fish, vegetable, fruit—enclosed in pastry. The word has less to do with the doughs than with the odds and ends; it came from magpie, a bird with variegated coloring that collects miscellaneous objects for its nest.” — Harold McGee1
Chicken Liver Mousse: Two Methods
There are two methods by which you can make this mousse: By sauté or bain-marie.
The chicken livers can be sautéed, puréed with other ingredients, and chilled. Or you can purée raw livers with other ingredients, cook au bain-marie (water bath), and chill. The latter results in a more refined, silky texture; the former, generally considered easier, less so.
The trade-off: Sautéing the livers will develop a more robust flavor by way of maillard reaction, but with that comes a slightly grittier texture. If you do have a high-powered blender, you can get excellent results puréeing the sautéed mixture, though it will never be as refined as that produced au bain-marie.
Color and appearance is another point for consideration when choosing a method. Liver oxidizes quickly, turning a less-than-appealing gray-brown color when exposed to air. A mousse cooked by bain-marie prevents this, retaining it’s slightly pink color. Insta Cure #1, an optional ingredient, is also an antioxidant and slows oxidation, retaining more color in both methods.
Finally, either method benefits from straining the cooked liver mixture through a fine sieve or chinois.
The Sauté Method:
The sauté method is detailed within the recipe at the bottom of the page.
The Bain-Marie Method:
You’ll need an accurate digital thermometer—but you already have one of those, right? Cooking time is wholly dependent upon the size of the vessel you use, so you’re going to need to keep an eye on it.
- Preheat your oven to 300ºF/150ºC
- Follow the directions for the sauté method until you reach the point of cooking the livers. Do not cook the livers.
- Add the cream, bacon and shallot mixture to the blender or food processor.
- Purée, adding the raw livers in batches until everything is very well emulsified.
- Pour the puréed mixture into your container(s).
- Prepare your water bath. Use an oven-proof vessel, like a baking dish or dutch oven; big enough to hold your mousse container and allow for a good amount of water to surround it.
- Place your container, filled with mousse purée, into the baking vessel.
- Fill the baking vessel with water to within an inch or so of the top of the mousse container.
- Transfer to preheated oven.
- Cook until center of mousse registers 158ºF/70ºC; begin checking temperature after 10-15min. (to monitor progress, I use the wireless iGrill thermometer)
- Remove from water bath and allow to cool.
- Cover surface with port gelée.
- Transfer to refrigerator and chill overnight.
158ºF, not “Rosy”
Let me preface with this: I’m not one to shy away from a bloody-blue steak. Hell, I’d drink the blood from a still-beating heart as long as it was bacterially safe. But undercooked livers? Not a good idea. And the majority of chicken liver recipes out there call for under-cooking—including that ubiquitous recipe by Julia Child2, which instructs cooking “until just stiffened, but still rosy inside.”
There are two major issues with this:
- Color is not an accurate gauge of doneness—especially in poultry. Meathead at Amazingribs.com has an excellent article on the topic of meat color in realtion to temperature and pH (acidity).
- Chicken livers should be cooked to at least 158ºF/70ºC and held for two minutes to be safe for consumption3.
“… studies have shown that 77% of retail chicken livers are contaminated with Campylobacter and that, when contamination is present, it is usually in internal tissues, as well as on the surface … in order for chicken livers to be free of Campylobacter they must be heated to internal temperatures in excess of 158ºF/70ºC and held at that temperature for 2–3 minutes. In this investigation, the livers were found to be intentionally cooked lightly to maintain a desired texture and taste. This practice might be common, particularly when preparing chicken livers for use in a mousse or pâté. …”
1. McGee, On Food and Cooking, 562
2. Child and Bertholle, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, 560
3. Multistate Outbreak of Campylobacter jejuni Infections Associated with Undercooked Chicken Livers, 2012
- 350 mL heavy cream
- 15 g fresh thyme
- 40 mL cold water
- 4 grams granulated gelatin (half a packet)
- 1 g (0.02% of liver weight) Insta cure #1 (aka pink salt or curing salt) (optional)
- 112 g butter (1 stick), divided in half
- 75 g bacon, diced
- 75 g shallots, thinly sliced
- 10 g garlic (about 3-4 cloves), peeled and chopped
- 100 mL port wine, or other sweet dessert wine
- 500 g chicken or duck livers, trimmed of any thick sinew or green/black spots
- Kosher salt and fresh finely-ground white pepper, to taste
- 1 g, allspice, finely ground
- 50 mL lemon juice
- 5 g Ajinomoto MSG (optional)
- 250 mL port wine, or other sweet dessert wine
- 4 g granulated gelatin (half a packet)
- Combine cream with thyme in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes; remove from heat, cover and steep for 30 minutes or more.
- While cream is steeping, add 2 tablespoons of ice-cold water to a small ramekin. Sprinkle gelatin over water and allow to bloom (fully hydrate); about 10 minutes.
- After cream has finished steeping; strain through fine sieve, discard thyme.
- Combine Insta Cure #1, bloomed gelatin and allspice into warm cream, whisking to dissolve; set aside.
- In a large pan, heat half the butter. Add bacon and cook gently over medium-low heat. It's important that the bacon remains soft, not browning or crisping.
- Add shallots; cook until translucent and just starting to color. Add garlic; cook until fragrant.
- Deglaze pan with half (50mL) of the port, bringing to a simmer. Remove from heat and transfer bacon and shallot mixture to the cream.
- Clean the pan. Heat remaining butter in pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the livers in small batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Season generously with salt and cracked white pepper. Cook until golden brown and 160F/71C .
- Purée the livers, combining with cream mixture, in a blender or food processor. Add remaining port and lemon juice. Season with salt and very finely ground white pepper. Add allspice. If using MSG, add it as well. Purée for several minutes until very smooth.
- For a refined texture, strain the mixture through a fine sieve or chinois.
- Pour the mixture into serving vessel of choice. Chill in refrigerator for several hours to set. The mixture will resemble very thin batter but will thicken as it cools and the gelatin sets.
- Sprinkle remaining gelatin packet (1/2 packet at 4g) over water and allow to bloom (fully hydrate); about 10 minutes.
- Over low heat, bring port to just to simmer; remove from heat.
- Mix bloomed gelatin into warm port; cool to room temperature.
- After port gelée is cooled pour over chilled mousse and return to refrigerator; allow to chill overnight.
- For a more refined, silky texture, use the bain marie method specified in the post.
- This should keep for around a week refrigerated.