FOOD & DRINK / Dark, rich and absolutely irresistible: If you are going to overindulge, do it on the very best. Michael Bateman probes the secrets of a chocoholic

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The Independent Culture
CHOCOLATE, butter, sugar, cream and eggs. Yes, eggs, cream, sugar, butter and chocolate. You probably don't have much truck with this crowd if you are a member of the healthy eating club. At Christmas, however, even the most health-conscious may relax a little. If you are going to overindulge, do it on the best, says Patricia Lousada, author of a clutch of books on cooking with chocolate.

She is an American, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, who has a slim figure despite a confessed addiction to chocolate. The secret, she says, is to eat only the best; by which she means bitter chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. She takes little pleasure in the fatty, rich, Belgian and Swiss chocolates which are in fashion.

Cooking with chocolate means one can determine how sweet or rich one's intake is. 'Buy very bitter, plain chocolate, and you can control both the quality and amount of sugar and butter and cream you want to put in.'

This used to be easier said than done. Those who tried to track down the French Chocolat Patissier Menier, with its distinctive green label, usually had to settle for the slightly too sweet bars of Bournville plain.

When Patricia first came to England she was distressed to find she couldn't buy the right chocolate to make her traditional chocolate brownies (Americans use the brand known as Baker's Chocolate). She managed to evolve a successful recipe using unsweetened cocoa powder (see below). It was a revelation to her English friends, who could not understand the American obsession with this bar, a cross between a biscuit and a cake. 'That's really because they had never tasted the real thing; it must be very chocolatey, very crisp on the outside, gooey and sticky in the middle.'

But now the scene is changing. The Chocolate Society, founded last year, has raised awareness of the grand cru style - of chocolate like Valrhona, made with the criollo bean from trees growing on cooler high ground, rather than the plebeian forestero bean.

And now, suddenly, all the supermarkets are selling decent plain chocolate; so the home cook can make really good mousses and petit pots au chocolat, roulades, truffles and chocolate marquise. The key to success is the volume of cocoa solids. Tesco's luxury plain cooking chocolate has 45 per cent, Sainsbury's de luxe dark chocolate 51; Safeway sells Terry's 1767 with 52 per cent, Waitrose offers continental plain chocolate with 72, and Sainsbury's de luxe continental chocolate comes top with 75 per cent. Wholefood shops sell the organic Green and Black's dark chocolate (70 per cent). Patricia Lousada uses Sainsbury's but must declare an interest - Sainsbury published her Chocolate Lover's Cookbook, which is being reprinted for April.

Cooking with chocolate, she says, is easy if you are meticulous, patient and calm. She is none of these things. 'I burn things, I am

absent-minded. But if I have a disaster I simply chuck it away and start again. I must admit, the thought of wasting these expensive ingredients is painful.'

It is essential, Patricia Lousada says, to melt chocolate slowly and gently; never over direct heat in a saucepan, but always in a double boiler. And it must never touch boiling water. Any liquid, such as alcohol, must be added before melting point is reached, or the chocolate will 'seize' - that is, become gritty and grainy.

These six recipes are absolutely delicious. A child can make truffles.

CHOCOLATE FUDGE PIE

A gorgeous moist chocolate filling set off by thin, crisp, nut pastry.

Serves 8

Pastry

2oz skinned hazelnuts, finely ground

5 1/2 oz sifted plain flour

4oz lightly salted butter, chilled and diced

1oz vanilla caster sugar

1 egg lightly beaten

1-3 tablespoons iced water

Filling

4oz plain or semi-sweet chocolate

2oz butter

2 large eggs

3 1/2 oz vanilla caster sugar

2 tablespoons flour, sifted

4 tablespoons double cream

1 1/2 tablespoons rum or brandy

To serve

grated chocolate or curls

(see next recipe)

6oz double cream

1 tablespoon icing sugar (optional)

1 tablespoon rum or brandy (optional)

Make pastry in the usual way. Refrigerate for 25 minutes, then roll out and line a 1 1/2 in-deep 9in flan tin with a removable base. Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5. Bake blind for about 25 minutes, removing the paper and weights for the last 10 minutes. Cool on a rack while you make the filling.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in the top of a double saucepan and allow to cool. Beat the eggs and sugar together in a large bowl set over hot water. Whisk for about 10 minutes until the mixture forms a ribbon trail when the whisk is lifted. Sift the flour over the top and fold in, then fold in the chocolate mixture. Lastly, fold in the cream and alcohol.

Pour into the pastry case and bake on a hot baking sheet for 20 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool. Don't worry if the filling has cracks in it. Remove from the tin and serve at room temperature, decorated with grated chocolate or chocolate curls (see below). Lightly whip the cream, add the sugar and alcohol and serve separately.

CHOCOLATE CURLS

8oz plain or semi-sweet chocolate

1 tablespoon sunflower or groundnut oil

Stir the chocolate and oil in a double saucepan over hot but not boiling water until smooth. Pour on to a marble or other non-porous surface and spread out with a palette knife into a thinnish layer. Before the chocolate becomes too hard, angle the blade of a straight knife and scrape across the chocolate to make curls for decorating the top of a cake, or to accompany chocolate fudge pie. The curls can be stored in an air-tight container.

BROWNIES

This recipe evolved because of the difficulty of finding Baker's unsweetened chocolate in Great Britain. Cocoa proved such a good substitute that the recipe is now a favourite of many American friends.

Makes 16 squares

4oz butter

1 1/2 oz cocoa powder

2 eggs

8oz caster sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

2oz flour

3oz chopped walnuts

Grease an 8in-square, shallow cake tin and line the bottom with greased greaseproof paper. Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Gently melt the butter in a small saucepan, stir in the cocoa until blended and set aside. In a medium-size bowl, beat the eggs and caster sugar until light, then add the cocoa mixture. Stir in the vanilla essence, then stir in the flour. Fold in the nuts and turn into the prepared tin. Bake in the centre of the oven for 30-35 minutes. Do not overcook. Brownies firm up as they cool. Allow to cool completely in the tin before cutting into 2in squares. The squares should be quite soft and moist inside.

CHOCOLATE ROULADE

Serves 8-10

6oz plain or semi-sweet chocolate

3 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons cognac

5 eggs

6oz caster sugar

icing sugar (for dusting)

1/2 pt whipping cream

Line a 13 1/2 by 9 1/2 in shallow tin with non-stick baking paper. Pre-heat the oven to 350F/-180C/Gas 4. Melt the chocolate, water and liqueur together in the top of a double saucepan over hot but not boiling water. Separate the eggs, cracking the yolks into a large bowl and the whites into another bowl. Add the sugar to the yolks and whisk until pale in colour. Stir in the melted chocolate. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold gently into the chocolate mixture, using a metal spoon.

Pour into the prepared tin, spreading evenly with a palette knife. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover with a sheet of greaseproof paper and a damp cloth and leave overnight or for several hours.

Turn the roulade out on to a sheet of greaseproof paper that has been well-dusted with icing sugar. Peel away the baking paper. Whip the cream and spread over the surface of the roulade. Roll up using the sugared paper to help. Before serving, dust with icing sugar and cut into slices with a hot sharp knife.

CHOCOLATE MARQUISE

Serves 10

6oz plain or semi-sweet chocolate

5oz unsalted or lightly salted butter,

cut into small pieces

1 1/2 oz cocoa powder

2 eggs

3oz caster sugar

2 tablespoons white rum

1/2 pt double cream, whipped

small cup of strong black coffee, unsweetened

lady fingers

Line a 6 1/2 in diameter charlotte mould with clingfilm, leaving an overlap around the edge to ease turning out. Melt the chocolate in the top of a double saucepan over hot but not boiling water. Whisk in the butter and then the cocoa and remove from the heat. Whisk the eggs and sugar over a bowl of hot water until the mixture is very thick and leaves a ribbon trail when the whisk is lifted. Using a metal spoon, fold the chocolate mixture into the eggs, then fold in the rum and whipped cream. Brush the lady fingers with the cold coffee and line the bottom and sides of the mould, cutting them to shape where necessary.

Spoon in the chocolate mixture, cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Turn out and leave at room temperature for an hour before serving. Slice with a thin, sharp knife dipped in hot water and then dried. The marquise will keep for 3-4 days if refrigerated.

CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES

Makes 30-40

7fl oz single cream

2 tablespoons butter

1 vanilla pod

1lb good plain or semi-sweet

chocolate, chopped

2 tablespoons rum or brandy or liqueur

of your choice (optional)

Coatings

4 tablespoons cocoa

2 tablespoons icing sugar

chocolate vermicelli

finely chopped nuts

Heat the cream with the butter and vanilla pod until it reaches a rolling boil. Remove from the heat and lift out the vanilla pod (this can be rinsed off, dried and put in a jar of sugar for flavouring). Meanwhile melt the chocolate in the top of a double saucepan over hot but not boiling water. Mix the chocolate into the cream and add the alcohol if you are using it. Pour into a shallow tin lined with baking parchment and spread out with a palette knife. Leave in a cool place, uncovered, for 24 hours.

Pull off small pieces of chocolate and roll into balls on the palms of your hands. Mix the cocoa and icing sugar. Roll the truffles in this mixture, or in the vermicelli, or in nuts. Keep the truffles refrigerated in a covered container layered with baking parchment.

A globe artichoke made with chocolate leaves is an amusing finale for a special occasion. Dissolve 1lb plain chocolate with 2 tablespoons sunflower or groundnut oil in a double boiler. When melted, allow heat to reduce slightly (if you want, add 4 drops of peppermint oil) and paint or dip the insides of the stripped leaves of a globe artichoke. Lay them on a non-stick baking sheet and leave to dry overnight. Unpeel, and reassemble using a pyramid of iced sponge cake as the base

Recipes from Patricia Lousada's 'The Chocolate Cookbook' (Appletree Press pounds 3.99)

(Photographs omitted)

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