Chocolate is inextricably linked with the Easter celebration, so in this weekendâ€™s column Iâ€™ll focus on chocolate, one of the most exciting ingredients in the chef and cookâ€™s repertoire.
Gone are the days when â€˜scotchocâ€™ was our only option, unlike many other ingredients the quality and availability of chocolate seems to get better and better. As the consumer gets rapidly more sophisticated, the demand for dark chocolate has for the first time outstripped milk chocolate. Specialist chocolatiers are sourcing quality cocoa beans from around the world, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Chocolate is now talked about in the same way as fine wines.
The botanical name for the cocoa tree is Theobroma Cacao meaning â€˜food of the godsâ€™.
It grows in a narrow band around the world, 20Âº on either side of the Equator. The cocoa pods begin life as tiny white flowers emerging directly from the trunk and lower branches of the tree.
They gradually swell and ripen to form beautiful large pods which contain 30-40 seeds or beans nestled into white pulp.
Criollo, Forastro and Trinitario are the main varieties, each has its own unique and distinctive flavour. Virtually no other food has such a variety of complex flavours â€“ a mind blowing 300 chemical compounds and 400 aromas have been identified in the cocoa bean.
Apart from its addictive flavour, the health-giving benefits of chocolate have been recognized for centuries and more recent research has proved beyond doubt that really good quality chocolate not only alters the mood and evokes happiness, but also gives an adrenalin rush more potent than coffee or tea. Not only is chocolate high in minerals â€“ magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, iron and calcium, but it is high in antioxidants which we are told help to reduce heart disease and cancer.
Seek out a good brand of chocolate and preferably Fair Trade also â€“ there are lots of names- Valrhona, Green & Black, Menier, Suchard, Lindt, Callebaut, Leonidasâ€¦.. Choose chocolate with a high cocoa butter content. Milk: at least 10% cocoa mass and at least 12% milk solids. Dark: 50-70% cocoa solids. White Chocolate is not strictly speaking a chocolate, it contains no cocoa mass and is merely a mixture of cocoa butter, sugar and flavouring, buy the best quality otherwise it will be difficult to melt.
Good chocolate melts beautifully but be careful not to overheat.
Chocolate needs to be melted with great care. It burns easily and is then irretrievable. White chocolate is particularly sensitive.
Below is the method that we use: Break the chocolate into even-size pieces. Put into a pyrex bowl over a saucepan of water and bring slowly to almost simmerÂing point. Turn off the heat immediately and allow the bowl to sit over the saucepan. The water must not boil as the chocolate softens. Stir occasionally. Do not allow even a drop of water to get into the chocolate or chocolate will block or seize. If this happens no amount of stirring will remedy the situation however if a few drops of vegetable oil or clarified butter are added it will loosen the mixture to the extent that it can be blended with other ingredients.
Note: If you need a large quantity of chocolate, do it in batches.
Chocolate may also be melted in the microwave in a pyrex or plastic bowl. Different brands melt at different rates.
A new book for chocolate lovers called â€˜101 Best Loved Chocolate Recipesâ€™ has just been published by Hotel Chocolat â€“ it includes favourite recipes from some well known chefs worldwide. Here is a selection from the book.
No-bake Chocolate Slice â€“ Australian Womenâ€™s Weekly
90g butter, in pieces, plus extra to grease
200g white marshmallows
1 tbsp water
200g dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
125g digestives or rich tea biscuits, coarsely chopped
125g glacÃ© cherries, halved
75g roasted hazelnuts, halved
50g walnut halves, broken into pieces
200g dark chocolate
Grease two shallow 8cm x 25cm oblong baking tins (or plastic containers with similar dimensions).
Line the bases and sides with baking parchment, allowing the paper to extend 2cm above the long edges.
Put the marshmallows, water and butter into a medium saucepan and stir constantly over a low heat until the marshmallows have melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the chocolate and stir until melted. Add the biscuits, cherries and nuts, and stir gently until evenly combined.
Divide the mixture between the baking tins and spread evenly (do not crush the biscuits). Cover and chill for 1 hour.
For the topping, melt the chocolate and butter together in a pan over simmering water. Stir until smooth and let cool slightly. Spread the mixture evenly over the no-bake slices and chill for 1 hour or until firm.
Lift the chocolate slices out of the tins, using the paper, then peel off the lining paper. Cut each slice into 12 pieces.
Jane Sutheringâ€™s Chocolate Mud Pie
125g plain flour
15g cocoa powder
40g icing sugar
75g unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
175g dark chocolate
175g unsalted butter
175g light or dark muscovado sugar
2 tsp instant coffee powder
3 eggs, plus 1 egg white
142ml carton whipping cream
100g pecan nuts, roughly chopped
Whiz all the ingredients for the pastry in a food processor to make a firm dough. Roll out thinly and use to line a 25cm fluted flan tin â€“ use all the pastry and donâ€™t worry if you have to patch it! Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas5
Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper and baking beans and bake blind for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and paper and cook for a further 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, for the filling, slowly melt the chocolate and butter in a pan over a very low heat. Take off the heat and beat in the remaining ingredients.
Pour the filling into the pastry case and bake for about 25 minutes until lightly risen and just firm. Leave to go cold before serving, sliced into wedges.
Alastair Hendyâ€™s Swiss Chocolate Cake
180g butter, plus extra to grease
210g shelled, skinned hazelnuts
20g plain flour
280g, dark, bitter chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids), in pieces
200g caster sugar
6 medium eggs, separated
Whipped whipping cream
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas 6. Grease a 24cm springform cake tin. Scatter the hazelnuts on a baking tray and roast in the oven for about 8 minutes until they smell lightly toasted. Tip onto a plate and allow to cool, then grind the nuts to fine crumbs and mix with the flour.
Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water (making sure the water isnâ€™t in contact with the bowl) and leave until melted, then take off the heat.
Beat 130g of the sugar with the butter and egg yolks until pale and creamy. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites with the remaining sugar until stiff. Mix the melted chocolate with the egg yolk and sugar mixture, then gently mix the hazelnut flour mixture through this. Finally fold through the beaten egg whites.
Spoon the cake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for around 60-70 minutes. Allow to cool in the tin a little, then transfer to a wire rack and dust with icing sugar â€“ donâ€™t fret if the cake sinks a little and cracks, its all part of the charm. Eat slices tidal-waved with whipped cream.
Anne Willanâ€™s Chocolate Tartlets
With candied orange
Candied orange zest and a luscious dark chocolate ganache form the filling for these stunning tartlets. Serve them within a few hours of making â€“ for afternoon tea or as in indulgent dessert.
175g plain flour, plus extra to dust
Â½ tsp salt
100g caster sugar
3 medium egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g butter, in pieces, slightly softened
250g dark chocolate (about 60% cocoa solids), chopped
125ml double cream
2 tbsp Grand Marnier
To make the pastry, sift the flour into a mound on the work surface and make a well in the centre. Put the salt, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla extract and butter into the well and work these ingredients together with the fingertips of one hand until thoroughly mixed and the sugar is partially dissolved. Gradually draw in the flour until the dough comes together, then knead lightly until smooth. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film and chill until firm, at least 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Pare the zest from the oranges with a swivel peeler and cut into fine julienne strips, using a large knife. Put the orange zest strips in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then drain.
Squeeze the juice from the oranges and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar and heat gently until dissolved, then bring to the boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the julienne zest and lower the heat. Simmer very gently, without stirring, until the zests are translucent and very tender, and almost all the liquid has evaporated; this will take 30-40 minutes. If the pan appears to be becoming a little dry before they are done, add a little water. Lift out the julienne with a slotted spoon, spread them on a sheet of baking parchment and leave to cool and dry. Strain the syrup and set 2 tbsp aside in a small pan.
Heat the oven to 190C/gas 5 and butter eight 8cm tartlet tins. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Shape each one into a ball, roll out to a 10cm round and trim the edges with a 10cm pastry cutter. Line the tartlet tins with the pastry rounds, pressing well into the base. Prick the bases with a fork and chill until firm, about 15 minutes.
If you have more tartlet tins, place a second one in each pastry case, so it keeps its shape during baking. Otherwise, line the cases with greaseproof paper and dried beans or rice to weight it down. Set the tins on a baking sheet and bake for 6-8 minutes until the cases are golden brown and cooked. Leave to cool in the tins, then carefully remove.
To assemble, reserve about 2 tbsp of the orange zest julienne for decoration. Chop the rest, and spread evenly in the tartlet cases.
For the ganache filling, tip the chocolate into a small bowl. Put the cream, butter and reserved 2 tbsp orange syrup into a pan and heat gently until the butter is melted. Bring just to the boil, then pour onto the chocolate and let it stand for 1 minute until melted. Stir the mixture until smooth, then stir in the Grand Marnier.
Pour this ganache into the tartlet cases, covering the orange zest completely and filling the cases almost to the rim. Tap gently on the work surface to level the ganache. Leave the tartlets at room temperature until set, about 30 minutes, but donâ€™t refrigerate. Just before serving, top with the reserved candied orange zest.
Rose Elliotâ€™s Berry Skewers with White Chocolate Sauce
200g mixed berries (such as small strawberries, large blueberries, raspberries)
White Chocolate Sauce:
100g white chocolate, in pieces
120ml double cream
To make the sauce, melt the chocolate, then remove from the heat and stir in the cream. Put into a small serving bowl and set aside to cool.
Spear one or two berries onto each of 20 small wooden skewers or cocktail sticks â€“ enough for a mouthful. Arrange the skewers around the bowl of dip and serve.
Joy Larkcom, renowned vegetable gardener, horticulturist and garden writer will be the Guest Speaker at the next meeting of Ladysbridge & District Flower & Garden Club at Garryvoe Hotel, Garryvoe, Co Cork on Monday 31st March at 8pm â€“ all welcome, non-members â‚¬10 â€“ come and see how to grow vegetables and salad crops creatively â€“ slides will be shown.
EUROPAIN 2008, the International trade show for the bakery, patisserie and ice cream industry, will open its doors from March 29th to April 2nd at PARIS PORTE NORD VILLEPINTE. With an overall exhibition area of 80 000 m2, EUROPAIN 2008 will bring together more than 600 exhibitors from 32 countries. Register on-line www.europain.com
Feale Valley Slow Food Convivium
A celebration of Food through Literature on Sunday April 6th from 2-5pm at the Seanchai Centre in The Square, Listowel, where the lives of North Kerryâ€™s most famous writers are celebrated. Drinks reception and tour of the centre followed by a buffet lunch featuring locally-sourced food and the best of local entertainment in song and story. Tickets Members â‚¬30, non members â‚¬35