Dark delights: To cook a truly exquisite chocolate pudding you've got to know your cocoa

Skye Gyngell raises the bar with her chocolate treats
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Chocolate is invariably the biggest seller on the menu here at Petersham. It exceeds ice cream, jellies and even steamed puddings in the winter. In the four years that I have worked at the restaurant I have only excluded chocolate from the menu once – and never made the mistake again.

But I am confused by its overwhelming popularity because I adore the versatility and flavours of ice cream, sorbets and granitas. The English, however, are far less fond of ice cream than the Italians, who eat it even during the bleakest winter months – unless, of course, I make chocolate ice cream. But it is not easy to make a really rich, chocolatey ice cream and a custard base will take only so much chocolate before it refuses to set (which is when 100 per cent cocoa comes in handy).

But chocolate is still an old friend – it must be the finest quality: dark, glossy, bitter, with only the smallest amount of sugar to make it palatable. Commercial chocolate is too often sickly sweet and too soft. It gives little more than a cheap sugar rush followed very swiftly, in my case, by a thumping headache.

At Petersham we use two chocolates, known as couvertures. The first is Valrhona (both the 67 per cent variety and the 100 per cent – the latter for ice cream) the other is the Italian brand Amedei.

To use in cooking, you need a chocolate that tempers well and doesn't have a bloom (when it appears dull and cloudy). It should be at least 67 per cent cocoa and be cooked carefully over a low heat, ideally protected by a double boiler. The bowl must sit above, not in, the boiling water, and you must not stir chocolate as it melts, as it takes away its gloss and can ruin its delicate texture. The most important advice is to use the best chocolate you can afford. *

Skye Gygnell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627. Her book 'A Year in My Kitchen', Quadrille, is the 2007 Guild of Food Writers' Cookery Book of the Year

Chocolate slab with burnt ginger caramel

Serves 4

50ml/2fl oz Pedro Ximenez sherry
100g/3oz dried raisins
100g/3 oz dried figs
400g/13oz unsalted butter, cubed
900g/1¾ lb dark chocolate
10 eggs, separated
1 non-stick loaf tin lined with cling film

For the burnt ginger caramel

250g/8oz caster sugar
750ml/1¼ pints water
1 good pinch of sea salt
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and sliced

Gently warm the sherry to just above blood temperature and pour over the chopped dried figs and raisins. Leave to soak.

Break up the chocolate and place it in a bowl with the cubed butter and suspend over a half-filled pan of water over a simmering heat. Leave to melt, which will take about 10 minutes. Do not stir too often as this makes the chocolate lose its gloss.

Whisk the eggs whites until soft peaks form. Set aside. Remove the butter and chocolate from the heat and give it a quick stir. Add the yolks one at a time and mix in the fruit (soaking liquid included). Gently fold in the egg whites in batches. Pour into the loaf tin and place in th e freezer for four hours or overnight.

For the ginger caramel, place the sugar and 250ml (8fl oz) of water over a low heat and without stirring, allow the sugar to dissolve. Once dissolved, turn up the heat and allow the caramel to cook until it begins to colour – at least 10 minutes. Once the caramel is almost burnt, pour in the rest of the water, salt and ginger. Stir and cook two more minutes. Allow to cool completely before placing in the fridge to chill.

To serve, remove the slab from freezer, allow to sit for 10 minutes. Slice into one-inch slices and serve with quality thick cream and the ginger caramel.

This is a simple chocolate tart without a pastry case. It is baked in a tart tin with a removable base so that it is thin and flat. It is rich and one small slice is enough. I serve it just with a dollop of thick, yellow Jersey cream.

Bitter chocolate tart

Serves 4

285g/9 oz quality dark chocolate
565ml/18fl oz double cream
6 free-range egg yolks
170g/6oz caster sugar

Heat the oven to 150C/330F/Gas2.

Chop the chocolate into small pieces using a sharp knife. Place the pieces in a double boiler (do this by placing a bowl over a pan of simmering water). Add the cream and melt over a medium heat. Place the yolks and sugar together in a separate bowl and beat vigorously with a whisk for a good couple of minutes, so that the mixture becomes light in texture and pale in colour. This will take a good couple of minutes.

Once the chocolate has melted, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Gently fold it into the egg yolk mixture.

Line the base of the tart tin with a circle of parchment paper and pour the mixture in using a spatula. Smooth out the surface and place the tart on a flat baking tray, which will make it easier to remove from the oven once it is hot. Place on the middle shelf of the hot oven and cook for 40 minutes. The tart should be just set with a smooth, silken texture. Allow to cool on a wire rack and place in the fridge and serve well chilled.

This is one of my very favourite ice creams we serve at Petersham. It has a lovely texture and a lovely nutty flavour. The chocolate sauce that is poured over the ice cream is the same as the one spooned over the blackcurrant fool in the next recipe. I like to serve it still warm so that it almost sets when it hits the cold ice cream.

Hazlenut ice cream in warm chocolate sauce

Serves 4

1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise with the seeds scraped out
500ml/17fl oz milk
80ml/3fl oz double cream
4 egg yolks
100g/3oz caster sugar

For the praline

120g/4oz hazelnuts
250g/8oz caster sugar
125ml/4fl oz water
1tbsp vegetable oil (corn oil is fine)

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4.

Place the vanilla pods in a pan with the milk and cream. Boil, remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 20 minutes.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a separate bowl. Remove the pod from the warmed milk and pour it over the yolks, and whisk to combine. Transfer this custard mix back to the pan and over a very, very low heat cook, while stirring consistently until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. This will take about seven minutes. Do not let it boil or it will curdle. Remove from the heat. Pour into a bowl and allow it to cool while you make the praline.

Spread the nuts on a baking tray and place them in the hot oven. Toast them until golden and remove from the oven.

Pour the sugar and water in a pan and place over a gentle heat. Once dissolved, turn up the heat and cook, without stirring, until you have a caramel. While this is cooking, brush a baking tray with the oil and scatter the nuts on. Remove the caramel from the heat and pour immediately over the nuts. The caramel will set as it cools and you will be left with a hazelnut brittle.

Once the caramel has set, remove the nuts and blitz in a blender until you have a chunky powder. Don't take it too far though, as the crunchiness of this ice cream is part of its beauty. Fold the nuts into the ice cream base. Pour into an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. When set, serve in bowls with warmed chocolate sauce (see next recipe) spooned over.

Blackcurrant fool with chocolate sauce

Serves 4

2 punnets/400g/13oz blackcurrants
200g/ 7oz caster sugar
1 litre/1¾ pints water
200ml/7fl oz double cream

For the chocolate sauce

125ml/4fl oz double cream
115g/3¾oz dark chocolate
30g/1oz unsalted butter

Carefully remove the blackcurrant stalks, and wash gently under cool water. Place in a saucepan with the sugar and water; cook over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Turn up the heat and cook until currants begin to burst. Remove from the heat and divide the mixture in half. Strain one half through a strainer, pressing the fruit with the back of a spoon. Stir in the rest of the fruit, cool before chilling in the fridge.

To make the chocolate sauce, place the cream in a pan and bring to the boil. Chop the chocolate into pieces. Turn down the heat and stir it in to the cream. Add the butter and whisk. Remove from the heat. Whisk the cream to soft peaks and fold in the blackcurrants. Divide into bowls and spoon over the sauce. Serve immediately.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer reveals the best places to find quality chocolate...

Two of the best known suppliers of couverture chocolate are Valhrona and Amedei. Both brands can be found at www.seventypercent.com

Gianluca Domori's mission is to revive the rare Criollo cacao beans, www.domori.com

Sir Hans Sloane of London was an English botanist and explorer who is credited with first combining chocolate with milk. His name has been used by chocolatier Bill McCarrick for chocolates he makes from scratch, www.sirhanssloane.com

Chloe Doutre-Roussel's legacy as the former chocolate buyer for Fortnum & Mason is its Finest Selection, www.fortnumandmason.com

William Curley is last year's Academy of Chocolate's Chocolatier of the Year, www.williamcurley.com

Master chocolatier Keith Hurdman at Melt on London's Ledbury Road makes the finest chocolate in his shop/kitchen, www.meltchocolates.com

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