Food: For The Love Of Chocolate

Morale among the nation's pastry chefs is at an all-time low - people simply aren't eating pudding anymore. Michael Bateman meets the woman who plans to put sweet nothings back on the menu
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VALENTINE'S DAY is a time for the exchange of sweets as well as sweet nothings. But sweet is hardly the word to describe the mood of the confectioners who spin those feathery fantasies.

In the past few years, the nation's patissiers report, consumption of sweets, desserts and puddings in restaurants has declined by a dramatic 20 per cent. And though there has been a boom in eating out, especially in the capital, this hasn't extended to the sweet trolley.

Morale among patissiers is as sunken as a deflated souffle. Indeed, the very art and craft of the patissier is under threat, according to Claire Clark (pictured below). She is secretary of the Association of Pastry Chefs, the 150-strong body dedicated to raising the profile of this noble profession.

"People are such in a hurry, they don't want to eat too much, especially at lunch," she says. "They don't want to weigh themselves down so they take a starter and main course and pass on the dessert. This makes it very difficult for chefs."

A classically-trained patissier, and at the modest age of 34, Claire is the only woman to hold the highest award in her profession, Meilleur Ouvrier de Grande Bretagne (MOGB). She is also one of only two women in the country to head the patisserie section of a major hotel or restaurant, as chef de patisserie of the 11-strong section at Claridge's in London.

"The dessert course should be the climax of the meal," says Claire enthusiastically. "It should arouse a sense of anticipation. You should be blown over by the taste of a dessert - and by its looks."

She comes from a line of chefs who trace their lineage to Antonin Careme, one of the founders of haute cuisine. Careme saw the dessert as the crowning glory of a magnificent banquet. To him, dessert was a symbol of elegance, distinction and importance, designed to stun the guests.

"The dessert should be a treat, something of very high quality, a luxury item," says Claire. And this demands the most expensive ingredients, the freshest eggs, the ripest fruit, the best chocolate.

But above all, she says, patisserie is a craft, and requires consummate skill and patient training. No other branch of cooking demands such exactness and precision. "You must put together the building blocks. If any one stage is wrong you can't go on," explains Claire. "Making a perfect sponge is chemistry; if your recipe requires two grammes of baking powder, you will ruin it if you use too much or too little. If you are told to beat the mixture for 10 minutes, you really have to do that. You warm the butter to cream it, so that you can beat in the right amount of air. Then you add a little flour to stabilise the emulsion. It's very precise. It's chemistry."

Claire Clark is, very unusually for a chef, a vicar's daughter. Her father is vicar of Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. As a child, Claire would help her mother produce cakes, meringues and eclairs for vicarage tea parties. "My mother never bought a shop-made cake or a packet of biscuits."

Claire went to catering college at Aylesbury, but wasn't prepared for the shock of her first job in the kitchens of the Randolph Hotel, Oxford. She literally couldn't stand the heat. And you know what they say ... yes, you get out of the kitchen. And it's an incontrovertible fact that the patisserie section of a hotel kitchen is the only cool retreat.

A series of jobs followed; first a curious role at the London gambling club Crockford's, making treats to console Arabs who had surrendered huge fortunes at the gaming tables (it was the head chef's role to poach sheep's eyes, which constituted one of the club's savoury delicacies).

A spell at the Ritz gave her essential training; the pastry rooms were cooler than the main kitchen, but never cool enough to start hand-rolling chocolate truffles before midnight. "It required real dedication," says Claire. "It was a very long day, from 8am to 2 or 3am. It was very hard work."

After that, she took jobs in a series of hotels and restaurants, and polished her skills with a course at Thames Valley University under the legendary professor John Huber, the most inspired teacher in the country (and a master of cooking with chocolate). For two years she taught patisserie at the Cordon Bleu cookery school, but eventually hankered after the magic of working in a great hotel. Now at Claridge's, she has built up a female force (seven members of her staff are women) unequalled in the country. Cooking with chocolate remains a passion, in spite of a hair-raising fact- finding expedition to Venezuela (sharing accommodation with large rats, returning with tropical fever).

Here is a flourless cake which, she tells us, is very easy to make. You will need dark chocolate with a high cocoa solid content, which is easy to get in supermarkets these days. The percentage of cocoa solid is marked on the wrapping.

CLAIRE'S FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE

Makes one 18cm (7in) cake

4 eggs, separated

1 whole egg

190g/612oz caster sugar

120g/5oz ground almonds

1 teaspoon ground coffee

225g/9oz dark chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids)

Whisk the egg yolks with the whole egg and half the sugar until pale in colour and doubled in volume.

Melt the chocolate in a bain-marie (or use a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water).

Whisk the egg whites with the remaining sugar until they form soft peaks, adding sugar to the egg whites in three stages. Fold half the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.

Fold in the melted chocolate very carefully, followed by the remaining beaten egg whites.

Gently fold in the sieved ground almonds and the ground coffee. Pour into a greased and floured 18cm (7in) cake tin lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake at 315F/160C/Gas Mark 3 for approximately 40 minutes. Then turn down the oven and finish baking at 275F/140C/Gas Mark 1 for a further 10 to 15 minutes, until completely dry in the centre. Test by piercing with a skewer. Leave to cool in the tin.

When cool, serve plain with creme fraiche or natural yoghurt, or coat with chocolate ganache (chocolate cream) and chocolate glacage (icing) - see recipes, right. Claire' cake keeps extremely well in a tin for up to 10 days.

GANACHE

100mI/312 floz double cream

200g/8oz dark chocolate, broken (70 per cent cocoa solids)

Boil the cream in a saucepan, remove from heat and stir in the chocolate. Mix till smooth. Transfer to a container and leave to cool to room temperature.

CHOCOLATE GLACAGE

150ml/6floz double cream

150g/6oz dark chocolate, broken (70 per cent cocoa solids)

50g/2oz unsalted butter

Boil the cream in a pan and remove from the heat. Add the chocolate and butter. Mix gently, avoiding vigorous beating, until completely smooth. While still warm, pour over the cake.

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