RIGHT TO THE BITTER END

It's time to stop demonising chocolate and start enjoying it, says Michael Bateman, who suggests a variety of ways to deal with the cocoa bean
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The Independent Culture
It comes as a surprise to find that chocoholics, for the most part, are not overweight. Real chocoholics, that is, not those who live off Mars bars and Yorkies. Gerard Ronay, who was for seven years Britain's most acclaimed chocolate-maker, selling at Harrod's and Fortnum & Mason, eats chocolate every day and there's less fat on him than a greyhound; Patricia Lousada, author of books on cooking with chocolate, eats chocolate every day and is as slim as you'd expect an ex-ballerina frow New York to be; Chantal Coady, owner of the chocolate shop Rococo in Chelsea tastes her wares every day but remains remarkably svelte; the chairman of Chocoholics Unanimous, Caroline Sarll, eats chocolate all the time and she's the skinniest of the lot.

This is food for thought as we approach the annual Chocolate Week junketing which begins on Saturday. Chocoholism must be the most misunderstood phenomenon in the food world. Every book blurb, all the chocolate bar adverts, every woman's magazine article, appeals to the spirit of self- indulgence and excess, emphasising how "wicked" and "sinful" it is to eat chocolate.

It infuriates true aficionados of chocolate. Food writer Linda Collister, who bakes with chocolate, thinks it's time we grew up. "Chocolate-eating is an indulgence which has been legitimised, but I hate it when they say it is wicked." She does, however, sense a shift in attitude as the country moves away from overly sugary chocolate to the grown-up taste of more bitter varieties.

Caroline Sarll is more catholic in her tastes. "Our members enjoy every sort of chocolate, from Cadbury's Dairy Milk to Belgian Cote d'Or, from Suchard to Sainsbury's." She resents the fact that chocolate-eaters are often pilloried by the healthy eating establishment. "They suggest chocolate is somehow naughty, it's an insidious substance that rots you from inside, it's generally immoral. But how is it immoral? A chocolate bar is not expensive like cigarettes or alcohol. Even at its humblest it's no more of a monster than most other snacks, such as biscuits and crisps."

If Caroline Sarll and her band are happy with Dairy Milk and Mars bars, the New Wave purists are not. They insist there is a huge gulf between choccy bars and gourmet chocolates, as their prices reflect. Popular chocolate bars are inevitably cheaper, being made with sugar, milk powder, hard vege-table oil and chocolate flavouring. The real thing is made with tempered cocoa mass (the cocoa bean, crushed) and cocoa butter (this is the cocoa bean's natural oil which literally melts in the mouth, at blood temperature) together with some sugar.

The binge element in cheap chocolate is provided by the sugar, says Chantal Coady. "The high-street bar is 50 per cent sugar, so an hour after the addict has satisfied their craving by eating a bar, their blood sugar levels drop. They feel low and are compelled to have another fix."

It's now generally understood that the higher the cocoa solids (declared on the packet as a percentage, from 55 per cent upwards), the higher the quality. Alan Porter, who founded the Chocolate Society seven years ago, which now claims 4,000 members, points out that you are unlikely to binge on real chocolate. He imports Valrhona, the French chocolate with very high levels of cocoa solids that go right up to 100 per cent. That is very bitter, though cooks don't mind. They add sugar to taste.

Supermarkets have not been slow to catch on in this new age of chocolate enlightenment and standards of unsweetened chocolate have never been higher (Tesco's deluxe bitter is excellent). There has also never been a better time to attempt your own confectionery and own home cake-making, especially with such seasonal advisors as Gerard Ronay, Patricia Lousada and Linda Collister, all leading exponents of the art. Gerard Ronay has even produced a user-friendly confectioner's manual to working with chocolate, Chocolate Kit (Boxtree pounds 12.99).

Ronay became Britain's leading chocolatier, as they call them in France, after apprenticeship to two top French chocolate houses. It gave him the confidence to develop the most unusual flavours to be combined in chocolate fillings since the Spanish court (in the 17th century) added cinnamon, cloves and vanilla to modify the bitter Aztec drink originally taken unsweetened with chilli. As well as traditional flavourings for the ganache fillings (a ganache is the chocolate cream centre) such as raspberry, praline, ginger, orange and walnut, Ronay has added jasmine tea, geranium, calvados, garden mint and smoked lemon.

Pure chocolate, he suggests, is a complex substance capable of forming the most extraordinary liaisons. Among the happier flavour combinations have been rhubarb, gooseberry, port and cloves, dill and rose, lemon and tarragon, and basil. Successful, if bizarre, have been tiny additions of paprika, Dijon mustard, yeast extract and malt vinegar. Weird? Not if you consider that unsweetened chocolate is an ingredient in savoury cooking both in Mexico and in Catalonia in Spain.

Patricia Lousada, researching savoury recipes for a section in her new book Ultimate Chocolate (Dorling Kindersley pounds 15.99), liked best the agrodulce sauces (sweet-sour) from Italy - a base of caramelised sugar dissolved in mild vinegar, with a little grated chocolate. This is added to the cooking liquid of meaty and game dishes. She has to admit, though, almost every other use of chocolate, in biscuits, cakes, puddings, brownies, sauces and ice-creams, is preferable. Her recipes for rabbit with chocolate, truffles and Florentine biscuits appear overleaf.

Linda Collister's miniature book Chocolate Baking (Ryland Peters and Small pounds 7.99) contains some 27 recipes and is a gem. Collister's own fondness is for unsweetened chocolate. Her chocolate cheesecake (featured opposite with four more recipes from her book), is the least sickly of its kind.

The Chocolate Society Shop, 36 Elizabeth Street, London SW1W 9NZ, tel 0171 259 9222. For mail order write to: Chocolate Society, Clay Pit Lane, Roecliffe, North Yorkshire YO5 9LS, tel 01423 322230; Chocoholics Unanimous, tel 01656 786992; Rococo, 321 Kings Road, London SW3 5EP (0171 352 5857); Confectionery making equipment, Nisbets (mail order), 1110 Aztec West, Bristol BS2 4HR, tel 01454 855555.

FUDGY NUT CAKE

350g/12oz plain chocolate, chopped

175g/6oz unsalted butter, diced

55g/2oz cocoa powder, sifted

5 large eggs

1 teaspoon real vanilla essence

250g/9oz golden caster sugar

100g/312oz mixture of nuts, roughly chopped

icing sugar and cocoa, for dusting

Put the chocolate and butter into a heatproof bowl set over a pan of steaming water. Stir frequently until melted and smooth. Remove from the heat, stir in the cocoa, then leave to cool.

Meanwhile, in a large heatproof bowl, whisk the eggs, vanilla and sugar briefly until frothy. Set the bowl over a pan of steaming water - the water should not touch the base of the bowl. Using an electric hand-whisk, whisk the mixture until it is very pale and thick - when the whisk is lifted it should leave a visible ribbon-like trail.

Remove the bowl from the heat, and whisk for a couple of minutes so that the mixture cools. Using a large metal spoon carefully fold in the chocolate mixture, followed by the nuts.

When thoroughly combined, spoon into a greased and base-lined 22cm (10in) springform pan and smooth surface.

Bake in a preheated oven at 350F/ 180C/Gas 4 for about 55 minutes or until firm to the touch but moist inside.

Let the cake cool down in the tin, then turn out and serve, dusted with cocoa and icing sugar. Store in an airtight container and eat within a week. This cake does not freeze well.

AMARETTI CHOCOLATE CHEESECAKE

Serves 12

60g/2oz unsalted butter, melted

100g/312oz amaretti biscuits, crushed

For the chocolate filling:

200g/7oz plain dark chocolate

400g/14oz Philadelphia cream cheese

2 medium eggs

60g/2oz caster sugar

200ml/7fl oz double cream

50ml/2fl oz Amaretto liqueur (optional)

To finish:

6 amaretti biscuits, broken

40g/112oz plain dark chocolate, melted

To make the crust, mix the butter and amaretti crumbs then press on to the base of a greased 22cm (10in) tin in an even layer. Chill while making the filling.

To make filling, chop chocolate and melt it gently in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of steaming water. Remove from heat, stir until smooth, then let cool.

Put the cream cheese, eggs and sugar into a food processor and process until thoroughly combined. Add the cream and process again until just mixed. With the machine running add the melted chocolate and Amaretto, if using, through the feed tube, and process until smooth. Spoon the filling into the prepared tin and smooth the surface. Bake in a preheated oven at 325F/170C/ Gas 5 for 40 minutes until firm. Let it cool in the oven with the door ajar. When completely cold, chill overnight.

Unclip tin and remove the cheesecake. Decorate the top with the broken amaretti biscuits. Drizzle with melted chocolate, using either a greaseproof paper icing bag with the end snipped off, or a fork dipped in the chocolate.

Store the cheesecake in a covered container in the fridge then remove 30 minutes before serving. Eat within five days or freeze for up to one month.

RICH CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE

Serves 4

170g/6oz plain chocolate, broken into small squares

140ml/412fl oz double cream

3 medium eggs, separated, plus 2 egg whites

4 tablespoons brandy or Amaretto liqueur

3 tablespoons caster sugar

4 amaretti biscuits

icing sugar, for sprinkling

Brush melted butter inside four 300ml (10fl oz) ovenproof ramekins, and sprinkle with caster sugar. Stand on a baking sheet or in a roasting tin.

Put the chocolate and cream into a heavy-based pan. Set over very low heat and stir occasionally until melted. Remove from heat and stir gently until smooth. Gently stir in the egg yolks one at a time, then half the brandy or liqueur.

Put the five egg whites into a spotlessly clean, grease-free bowl and whisk until stiff peaks form. Sprinkle with the sugar and briefly whisk again to make a smooth, stiff meringue. If you over-whisk the meringue it will do more harm than good and the end result will be less smooth. The chocolate mixture should be just warm, so gently reheat it if necessary. Using a large metal spoon, mix in a little of the meringue to loosen the consistency. Pour the chocolate mixture on top of the meringue and gently fold together until thoroughly combined but not over-mixed.

Half-fill the ramekins. Spoon remaining brandy or liqueur over the biscuits then put one in the centre of each ramekin. Add remaining mixture until the ramekins are full almost to the rim. Bake in a preheated oven at 425F/ 220C/ Gas 7 for eight to 10 minutes. Remove from oven when they are barely set (the centres should be soft and wobble when gently shaken). Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve immediately.

FUDGE BROWNIES

Makes 16

140g/5oz unsalted butter

4 large eggs, beaten

340g/12oz light brown muscovado sugar

1 teaspoon real vanilla essence

a good pinch of salt

75g/212oz cocoa powder

140g/5oz plain flour

100g/312oz walnut or pecan pieces, chopped white or plain chocolate or a combination

Gently melt the butter in a pan and let cool while preparing the rest of the mix.

Using a wooden spoon, beat the eggs very gently with the sugar until just blended and free of lumps. Stir in the cooled butter and vanilla. Sift salt, cocoa and flour together into the bowl and gently stir in. When combined, fold in nuts or chocolate. Pour into a 25cm (11in) square cake tin, 5cm (2in) deep, which has been completely lined with foil and smooth the surface.

Bake in a preheated oven at 325F/ 170C/Gas 3 for about 35 to 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted midway between the centre and the side of the tin comes out clean. The centre should be just firm - do not over cook or they will be dry. Put the tin on a damp tea towel to cool completely. Lift the brownies out of the tin still in the foil, remove the foil and cut into 16 squares.

Store in an airtight container and eat within a week or freeze for up to a month.

CHOCOLATE TERRINE

Serves 8

400g/14oz plain dark chocolate, roughly chopped

40g/1oz cocoa powder

3 tablespoons strong espresso coffee

2 tablespoons brandy

6 large eggs, at room temperature

100g/312oz golden caster sugar

250ml/8fl oz double cream, chilled

Put the chopped chocolate into a heatproof bowl with the cocoa and coffee. Set over a pan of barely simmering water and melt gently, stirring frequently. Remove the bowl from the heat, stir in the brandy and let cool.

Meanwhile put eggs into the bowl of an electric mixer and whisk until frothy. Add the sugar and whisk until mixture is pale and very thick - the whisk should leave a ribbon-like tail when lifted.

In another bowl, whip the cream until it holds a soft peak. Using a large metal spoon, gently fold the chocolate mixture into the eggs. When combined, fold in the whipped cream. Spoon this into the prepared loaf tin (22x11x7cm/ 10x5x3in deep, greased and base-lined). Stand tin in a bain-marie (a roasting tin half-filled with warm water). Bake in a pre-heated oven at 335F/170C/Gas 5 for about one to one-and-a-quarter hours or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Remove from oven, let cool in the bain-marie for about 45 minutes, then lift the tin out and leave until cold.

Chill terrine overnight then turn out. Serve dusted with icing sugar. Store in the refrigerator for up to five days.

CONEJO CON CHOCOLATE

RABBIT WITH CHOCOLATE

Serves 4

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves

1 rabbit, jointed

seasoned flour for coating

1 onion and 1 carrot, sliced

sprig of thyme

1 bayleaf

small piece cinnamon stick

500ml/12 pint red wine and 1 small glass dry sherry

45g/112oz each of blanched almonds and pine nuts

30g/1oz continental plain chocolate, chopped

2 tablespoons brandy

pinch of sugar (optional)

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a casserole and fry garlic until lightly coloured. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a mortar and set aside.

Toss the rabbit in the flour and fry until browned. Add onion, carrot, bayleaf, thyme and cinnamon. Stir briefly then pour in wine and sherry. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer gently, covered, for 40 minutes.

Pound the garlic with the almonds, pine nuts and chocolate, and a few tablespoons of pan juices, if necessary, to make a paste. Dilute with the brandy. Add to the rabbit and simmer for a few minutes more. Taste for seasoning.

FLORENTINES

Makes 24

45g/112oz lightly salted butter

5 tablespoons double cream

60g/2oz caster sugar

30g/1oz each of hazelnuts and flaked almonds

45g/112oz mixed peel and chopped glace cherries, mixed

30g/1oz plain flour

pinch of salt

60g/2oz each of plain and white chocolate for topping

Melt the butter, cream and sugar together in a saucepan and slowly bring to boiling point. Remove pan from the heat and add the nuts, mixed peel and glace cherries. When well mixed in, stir in the flour and salt.

Drop rounded teaspoons of the mixture 7cm (3in) apart on to two flat baking sheets that have been greased. Flatten with a wet fork.

Bake in an oven preheated to 350F/ 180C/Gas 4 for about 10 minutes, or until edges are golden brown. Leave the biscuits to cool on the baking sheets for five minutes till firm, then carefully remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Melt the chocolates for the topping separately. Spread the undersides of the biscuits with one of the chocolates and leave to set, chocolate- side up, on a wire rack. Before the chocolate has fully set, mark wavy lines on it with a fork or confectioner's comb. Drizzle lines of leftover chocolate over the biscuits.

CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES

Makes 625g/1lb 4oz

200ml/7fl oz single cream

50g/112oz butter

250g/8oz continental plain chocolate, broken into pieces

250g/8oz plain chocolate, broken into pieces

2 tablespoons rum, Cognac or other liqueur (optional)

To coat the truffles:

4 tablespoons cocoa powder, sifted with 1 tablespoon icing sugar

chocolate vermicelli

Heat the cream and the butter together in a heavy-based saucepan until the mixture reaches a rolling boil. Remove it from the heat and stir in both the continental plain and plain chocolates, stirring until the mixture is smooth.

Add the liqueur, if using, then pour the mixture into a shallow cake tin lined with silicon paper and spread out with a palette knife. Leave in a cool place, uncovered for 24 hours to firm up.

To make the truffles, pull marble-size pieces from the mixture in the tin and roll them in the palms of your hands to shape into balls. You could add candied orange zest or dried marrons glaces to some of the truffles.

Prepare the chosen coatings. Sift the cocoa and icing sugar on to greaseproof paper; sprinkle the other coatings, such as chocolate vermicelli or chopped, roasted almonds on to flat plates. Roll a few truffles in each coating, using different coatings for different flavours.

An alternative way of completing the truffles is to pipe the mixture into foil sweet cases, painted on the inside with a coating of melted chocolate. Put the mixture, while still creamy, into a nylon piping bag fitted with a small star nozzle and pipe it into the cases. Leave to firm up before peeling away the cases.

Another way of finishing the truffles is to coat them in melted chocolate (see pictures above).

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