Food & Drink: I Should Cocoa

Chocolate is no longer just an after-dinner treat: it is now being used in rich, savoury sauces for meat dishes. Michael Bateman celebrates the bitter-sweet choc of the new
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The Independent Culture
I EVENTUALLY HAD to abandon my attempt to choose the best of the new seasonal chocolate treats, cakes, biscuits and desserts; death by chocolate seemed an al-too-real prospect. Belgian and Swiss truffles, fondants, caramels - they tempt, they tease, they titillate, and then they take you beyond the point of no return, to that sickly feeling of self-indulgence.The cheaper the chocolate, the higher the sugar and fat content, and this is what makes you queasy, not the chocolate itself. Chocolate, or at least its raw ingredient, the cocoa bean, isn't sweet at all. The word chocolate comes from chocatl, meaning "bitter water", which Cortes and his conquistadors found Montezuma drinking at the Aztec court in the 16th century.

In its natural form, chocolate is so bitter that in some countries it is used as seasoning. It goes particularly well with red wine sauces for venison, hare and pigeon (in Italy), in a Catalan sauce with squid and famously, in mole sauce with turkey in Mexico.

Eric Deblonde, executive chef at the Four Seasons for the past 12 years, is an innovator on the chocolate front. He has no liking for the oversweetness of bought chocolates, but is intrigued by the properties of the cocoa bean. So as well as using proprietary brands of couverture (such as Valrhona) for his superior truffles and mousses, he imports the raw material too.

Eric showed me a box of dried cocoa pods. Some eight inches long, they are the shape of small rugby balls. When split, each yields 40 or 50 little beans. Smash one with a hammer, and it breaks into crumbs. The taste is pleasant, with no hint of sweetness at all. To make chocolate, they are processed, a complex operation in which they are dried, fermented, roasted, made into a paste and conched (pressed).

Eric Deblonde is one of those unassuming chefs unknown to the public but eminent among his peers. He is president of the British arm of the Association Culinaire Francaise but, though working within the constraints of classic French cuisine, is still capable of performing amazing gastronomic somersaults.

Recently, to mark the 500th anniversary the cocoa bean's arrival in Europe, he put his imagination to work on chocolate's savoury potential and created an astonishing tea menu. Not only did he offer chocolate pastries, but savoury sandwiches too, using bitter chocolate as a condiment. He paired rum-flavoured bread with spicy duck, chocolate and kumquats; chestnut bread with a filling of braised pork, cabbage confit in red wine and chocolate; and strangely, a saffron brioche sandwich with wheat-grain risotto and white chocolate.

White chocolate is not bitter. It is made from the oil of the bean, which is known as cocoa butter. "In Italy, many chefs will finish a risotto with mascarpone. White chocolate gives the same creamy finish."

Revolutionary ideas, indeed, but food for thought which could free us from preconceptions about chocolate. To get into the mood, you might like to try a savoury, fairly traditional recipe for hare (or venison, or wild boar) from Helga Rubinstein's Chocolate Book.

And in keeping with the seasonal spirit, some recipes of a more comforting sort from Linda Collister, whose wickedly good Chocolate Baking (Ryland, Peters and Small, pounds 7.99) is a great stocking-filler.

Linda trained at the classical La Varenne cookery school in Paris and the Cordon Bleu school in London, before landing a job as cook to the Queen Mother. Now she writes cookery books and has virtually cornered the market with her books on baking. But it is the subject of cooking with chocolate that gives her most thrills.

"The majority is not worth buying," she advises. "Quality plain, dark chocolate should taste smooth, not greasy; bitter, not raw; intense, not oversweet; with a long finish, not a cloying aftertaste." Quality is determined by the cocoa-solid content: couverture, for filling and icing, has around 55 per cent; bitter chocolate, around 65 per cent; super amer and extra bitter, best for puddings, fine cakes (and eating), just over 70 per cent. "Cooking" chocolate may contain less than 30 per cent. Don't even think about using it; it's mostly sugar, fat and flavourings.

HARE WITH CHOCOLATE

Serves 2

1 saddle of hare

60g/2oz butter

For the marinade:

300ml/12pint dry white wine

2 carrots, finely sliced

2 medium onions, finely sliced

1 clove garlic

1 stick celery, sliced

1 bay leaf

3 cloves

sprigs of parsley and thyme

for the sauce:

30g/1oz caster sugar

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

60g/2oz pine nuts or blanched almonds

30g/1oz each stoned raisins and currants, soaked in a little water

60g/2oz bitter chocolate, finely grated

Marinate the saddle of hare for about 12 hours. When completed, turn the hare several times and spoon the vegetables and liquids over it.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Remove the hare and the vegetables from the marinade, and brown slightly in the butter. When brown, set on a low heat and gradually spoon the liquor on the hare and vegetables, a little every few minutes, covering it in between. Simmer slowly, covered, for 1-112 hours.

Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Put the sugar into a saucepan with a teaspoon of water and caramelise over heat. Add a tablespoon of wine vinegar and bring to the boil. Leave to cool.

When the hare is done, remove from the pan and keep hot. Into the sugar/ vinegar sauce, strain half of the liquid in which the hare was cooking. Add the pine nuts, raisins, currants and bitter chocolate. Stir for two minutes.

This sauce is wonderful with strong meat as the chocolate brings out the flavour without really being discernible. Plain rice or boiled potatoes are best with it and red wine, rough cider, or beer should be drunk. It calls for something more definite than water.

CHOCOLATE SHORTBREAD

Makes 12 triangles

200g/7oz unsalted butter, at room temperature

100g/312oz golden caster sugar

260g/914oz plain flour

40g/113oz cocoa powder

a good pinch of salt

extra caster sugar or icing sugar, for sprinkling

Using a wooden spoon or electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy and light. Add the sugar and beat again until fluffy. Sift the flour with the cocoa and salt. Using a wooden spoon or your hands, work them into the mixture until it comes together. Knead gently for couple of seconds, then press the dough into a round greased 23cm (9in) cake tin to make an even layer.

Cover and chill for 15 minutes. Prick the dough well and score into 12 sections with a round-bladed knife. Bake the shortbread in a preheated oven at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 for about 15- 20 minutes - don't let it brown or it will taste bitter. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with caster sugar, or icing sugar and cocoa, then cut into sections along the marked lines. Cool before removing from the tin. Store in an airtight tin and eat within a week. This shortbread is perfect with vanilla ice-cream.

CHOCOLATE BRULEE

Serves 8

600ml/20fl oz thick single cream or thin pouring double cream

1 vanilla pod, split

300g/10oz plain dark chocolate, finely chopped

4 medium egg yolks

60g/2oz icing sugar, sifted

about 3 tablespoons caster sugar, for sprinkling

In a heavy pan, heat the cream with the split vanilla pod until scalding hot but not boiling. Remove from the heat, cover, and leave to infuse for 15 minutes. Lift out the pod and scrape the seeds into the cream with the tip of a knife.

Stir the chocolate into the cream until melted and smooth. Put the egg yolks and icing sugar into a medium-sized bowl, beat with a wooden spoon until well blended, then stir in the warm chocolate cream. When thoroughly combined, pour into eight 150ml (5fl oz) ramekin dishes.

Stand the dishes in a bain-marie and bake in a preheated oven at 180C/350F/ Gas Mark 4 for about 30 minutes until just firm. Remove from the bain- marie and allow to cool. Cover and chill overnight or for up to 48 hours.

Sprinkle a little sugar over the tops, then put under a very hot grill for just a few minutes to caramelise. Serve within 1 hour. This pudding is extremely rich, so serve it in small portions.

SOUTHERN DEEP-DISH PECAN PIE

Serves 8-10

180g/614oz plain flour

pinch of salt

110g/334oz unsalted butter, chilled and diced

35g/114oz caster sugar

1 egg yolk

about 1 tablespoon iced water, to bind

for the pecan filling:

220g/734oz light brown muscovado sugar

300ml/10fl oz double cream

70g/213oz plain dark chocolate, chopped

2 medium egg yolks

half a teaspoon real vanilla essence

1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)

150g/5oz pecan halves

shaved or grated white chocolate curls, to finish

Place the flour and the salt into a food processor. Add the butter and process until fine crumbs form. Add the sugar and process briefly. With the machine running, add the egg yolk and water and process until the dough comes together. Wrap and chill for 20 minutes, until quite firm.

Roll out the dough to a large circle about 29cm (1112 in) across and use to line a deep, flat, loose-based 25cm (10in) tin. Prick well and chill for 15 minutes. To bake the pastry blind, fill with a round of baking parchment and baking beans and cook in a preheat- ed oven at 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6 for about 15 minutes until firm. Remove the paper and beans and return the pastry case, still in its tin, to the oven for 5-10 minutes until crisp and golden. Allow to cool.

To prepare the filling, put the sugar and cream into a heavy pan and stir over a medium heat until the sugar has melted and the mixture is almost boiling. Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate.

When smooth, add the egg yolks and mix well. Stir over a very low heat until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla, bourbon and nuts. Pour into the prepared pastry case and chill until firm.

Serve decorated with white chocolate curls - make these with a vegetable peeler or grater. Eat within three days. Not suitable for freezing.

CINNAMON CHOCOLATE STARS

Makes about 30

180g/614oz unsalted butter, at room temperature

90g/3oz golden caster sugar

230g/814oz plain flour

a good pinch of salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

40g/113oz rice flour, ground rice or cornflour

50g/123oz plain dark chocolate, to finish

Using a wooden spoon or electric mixer, beat the butter till creamy. Gradually beat in the sugar. When the mixture is pale and fluffy, sift the flour, salt, cinnamon and rice flour into the bowl and mix.

When the mixture comes together, turn it on to a lightly floured surface and knead lightly and briefly to make a smooth (but not sticky) dough. In hot weather or if the dough feels sticky, wrap it and chill until firm.

Roll out the dough about 5mm (14in) thick and cut out shapes with a medium star-shaped cutter. Knead the trimmings together, then re-roll them and cut into more stars.

Arrange the stars slightly apart on greased baking sheets. Prick with a fork and chill for about 15 minutes.

Bake the biscuits in a preheated oven at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 for 12- 15 mins or until firm and barely coloured. Cool on the baking sheets for a couple of minutes until firm enough to transfer to a wire cooling rack.

When cold, gently melt the chocolate in a small heatproof bowl set over a pan of steaming water. Stir until smooth, then remove the bowl from the heat. Dip the points of the stars in the melted chocolate, then leave to set on waxed paper or a wire rack.

When firm, store in an airtight tin; eat within 3 days. Undecorated biscuits can be frozen for up to a month.

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