Rarely does a day go by without at least the tiniest piece of chocolate passing my lips. It may be no more than a single square, its crisp surface so burnished you can almost see your face in it, or it could be an entire bar studded with roasted almonds or crushed praline. It may be a wafer-thin disc scented with green cardamom or a neat little lozenge filled with a dark ganache and the essence of rose, peppercorns or orange blossom. On the other hand it could be a finger of KitKat, but that would be more for the need of sugar and fun. We have long added cinnamon to chocolate, and mint and orange and the dark notes of coffee, but it is only recently that we have explored more exquisite possibilities. Anise, violet and the essence of lemon verbena, dried lime and jasmine are all among my favourites now, something to experience slowly, letting the chocolate melt slowly on the tongue, while the gentle flavours gradually fill your mouth. Crisp and almost fleeting, nothing could be further from the claggy goo of a rum-flavoured truffle.
Sometimes I buy chocolate from my favourite shops, minute emporiums where they place each piece by gloved hand into a small box and tie it with ribbon. Where the choosing and wrapping is almost as big a treat as eating the delicate little morsels. If ever anyone questions how shopping for food can be a delight, take them to L'Artisan du Chocolat in London's Lower Sloane Street, or ask them to gaze into the polished glass counter at Rococo in Marylebone High Street or King's Road. Let them hesitate over a square flavoured with tonka bean or fresh ginger, or muse the pastel delight of a violet cream coated in the darkest chocolate. Then let them tell you shopping for food isn't fun.
Whenever I am in need of a present, I melt blocks or buttons of the finest chocolate and then spoon the sensuous result on to non-stick baking parchment, letting them set into delicate round wafers. I embellish them to suit my mood - occasionally, cooking has to be about playing rather than just getting something on the table. Dried rose petals, sugared violets, stars of anise, little curls of cinnamon all get used as impromptu decoration. Some you eat, some you hope the recipients will have the nous to peel off and discard after they have done their bit to delight. Removed gingerly from the paper, your chocolate discs will steal the show simply because they have been hand-made with love. While flavourings amuse me in chocolate,
I am not one to add much to a cake or a mousse. Mint in a mousse is tolerable, as is good coffee, but somehow it feels like gilding the lily. I have included bay leaves in a mousse of white chocolate to good effect, and stirred ground cardamom into truffles, but generally I leave such chemistry to the professional chocolatiers. And occasionally I long for a milky chocolate pudding, one without the modern credentials of high-percentage cocoa solids, but instead a creamy old-fashioned flavour to remind me of chocolate from a time gone by.
Chocolate Panna Cotta
In these days when any chocolate dessert must be so intensely chocolatey as to be almost black, this gentle pudding may come as a pleasant surprise. It is a reminder of times when creamy chocolate desserts weren't looked down upon. Makes 4 small puddings.
400ml double cream
a vanilla pod
1 sheet gelatine
100g dark chocolate (60-70 per cent cocoa solids)
30g caster sugar
In a small saucepan, mix the milk and 300ml of the cream. Split the vanilla pod in half and scrape out the sticky black seeds with the point of a knife. Add this to the saucepan and put over a low heat. Let it simmer, with the occasional stir, for 5-6 minutes. The mixture will reduce a little.
Soak the sheet of gelatine in a bowl of cold water. After five minutes or so, the crisp sheets will have melted into a soggy, fragile blob. Break the chocolate into small pieces and place in a bowl set over a small saucepan of simmering water. Turn the heat off as soon as the chocolate starts to melt.
Tip the remaining cream into a bowl with the sugar and beat with a small whisk until the cream starts to thicken. It should barely keep its shape. Remove the cream from the heat and stir in the sheet of softened gelatine. Now pour half of this cream and milk mixture into the melted chocolate, stirring to mix the two, then return it to the remaining warm cream, stirring gently but thoroughly. Fold in the sweetened cream then pour the mixture through a small sieve balanced over a jug. You will need to use a spoon to help it through, otherwise it will take an age.
Pour the mixture into six small coffee cups or moulds and leave to cool. Cover with cling-film and refrigerate for two or three hours till set. Eat them from their cups, together with a long curl or disc of the darkest chocolate.
Chocolate Cardomom Truffles
For fine chocolate suitable for cooking try bars by or from Valrhona, The Chocolate Society or Montgomery Moore. The cardamom here is not essential and only meant to be slightly more than a whiff. If you like your truffles light in texture, then beat the mixture once it has cooled with an electric whisk. Rather than roll them, just drop teaspoons of the mixture into the cocoa powder.
8 plump green cardamom pods
275ml whipping cream
450g fine chocolate (60-80 per cent cocoa solids)
good-quality cocoa powder for dusting
Break open the cardamom pods and crush the seeds to a powder. Put in a small saucepan with the cream over a moderate heat. As it approaches boiling point, switch off the heat. Leave for 15 minutes for the cardamom to scent the cream.
Chop the chocolate into gravel-sized pieces then put into a bowl set above a pan of simmering water. Avoid the temptation to stir it, except to push the unmelted pieces down into the liquid chocolate.
Pour the cream through a sieve into the melted chocolate, beating gently with a wooden spoon. Place in the fridge for 10-20 minutes to stiffen.
Using 2 teaspoons, scoop out balls of truffle mix and drop them into the cocoa powder. The size is a matter of choice. Shape them into rounds if you wish or leave them as rough textured lumps. Roll them in the cocoa then leave in a cool place for an hour or so to set.