The heart sinks at the very words "Black Forest gateau", especially if, like me, you don't particularly like chocolate. But this is to be no ordinary gateau, and certainly no piece of cake. I am chasing the perfect dessert.
In Heston Blumenthal's new book and accompanying TV series, In Search of Perfection, the young maestro has attempted to realise "the essential character" of a number of everyday dishes - spaghetti bolognese, fish and chips, steak, bangers and mash and pizza - seeking out the best possible ingredients and applying his knowledge of outré cooking techniques to these staples. I would quite like to make fish batter with a soda siphon, or cook pizza using a superheated barbecue, but I have settled instead on the ultimate challenge for any home chef: I have decided to follow the most complicated recipe in the book.
Sadly, I cannot spare the month that Blumenthal suggests as a reasonable period to complete this most Teutonic of desserts. "To assemble a whole cake in one day would undeniably be a fair amount of work," he warns. "Better to think of this as architecture and spread out the build-up task."
I have two days. One of these has already been taken up with assembling the equipment and ingredients required for this masterpiece. Having recruited a team to help me, we managed to track down a pressurised whipping-cream whipper (a kind of soda syphon with attitude) from the one highly specialised stockist in London that had such a thing. Made in Austria, the Kisag whipper costs £42.29 - on special offer. The whipper requires nitrous oxide chargers, which come in a box of 50 for £24.27.
Almost 70 quid may seem a little on the high side to make one pud, but I'll be able to use the Kisag whipper for all those froths and foams that are central to Blumenthal's molecular gastronomy, which has made his Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, one of only three establishments in the UK to receive three Michelin stars.
Though he looks like a cross between Harry Hill and the Mekon, Blumenthal knows his stuff. You don't get that kind of recognition by merely pretending to be a mad scientist ("Set the nuclear cyclotron to maximum and focus it on the walnut!"). Besides, I can hardly wait to tuck into a feast of coconut foam and Parmesan froth on Christmas Day.
After a failed trip to B&Q, the acquisition of a paint spray-gun very nearly necessitated a journey to a shop called Machine Mart, until I found one in Sainsbury's Homebase (£31.99). "Will it take molten chocolate?" I asked. "Dunno. Most people use emulsion paint."
However, the store could not oblige with a "wood-effect painting tool", possibly since no one in their right mind has desired wood-effect paint since 1973.
Unfortunately, the car battery decided to pack it in at this very moment. Waiting for the AA, I had my first qualms concerning this enterprise. Restored to mobility, I plunged into our local kitchen shop for the thermal probe I'd seen earlier that day, but someone had gazumped me. Cursing the newfound culinary obsession of the suburban middle-classes, I settled for a super-sized thermometer. It looked as if it might be used for shoving up a horse.
I also acquired three loaf tins, a piping bag and nozzles, a melon baller, a non-stick silicone baking sheet and several vacuum-seal storage bags with one-way valves. The bill topped £150 in equipment alone. Fortunately, I already had a vacuum cleaner, an atomiser (optional) and a cardboard box.
Though it was no trouble getting the 18 eggs, 515ml whipping cream, six plump vanilla pods and two sheets of leaf gelatin, other ingredients proved more problematical. Blumenthal specifies "50ml top quality kirsch (eg Franz Fies)" and includes a description of his visit to the Franz Fies production plant in the Black Forest. "I got a real hit of complex, intense cherry smell," trills the boy genius. "It was something I definitely wanted to capture in my Black Forest gateau." Unfortunately, Franz Fies kirsch is unavailable in the UK. At any rate, I couldn't find any. Tap "Franz Fies kirsch" into google.co.uk and all you get is Heston Blumenthal's recipe for Black Forest gateau.
The same applies to "565g top quality dark chocolate (such as Amadei's Toscano Black 66 per cent)." I settled for Lesgrevil kirsch from Waitrose and Val-rhona chocolate from the Chocolate Society. I managed to get the last phial of liquid glucose from Boots. As the recommended Amarena Fabbri top-quality sour cherries in syrup proved a bit thin on the ground in south-east London, I came up with a clever substitute: Harvin brand Morello cherries in syrup from our local Lidl. What could be more German? Moreover, the label declared "Premium Quality".
With a giant plate haloing his egg-like cranium, Blumenthal looks like a saint on the cover of his book, which accompanies a BBC TV series. Eight hours into cooking the dish, I now realise he is a devil. He has taken a fairly straightforward recipe and endowed it with every possible fiendish element of complexity he could devise. Every square centimetre is the result of hours of hard, finicky work.
After a day's grind, the basic construction of the dish is complete. Back aching, temper frayed, I tot up how much longer it will take, according to Blumenthal's instructions.Another three hours! My spirits plummet. Dante's demons could not have devised a more ingenious torment. Blumenthal breezily insists: "No food need be beneath contempt; do it right and it becomes something wonderful... Food should be fun." That glib motto echoes in my head as I pass hour upon hour engaged in pointless, fiddly, irksome, brain-numbing, insanely complex grind.
At this point, I must admit that I am not alone in my assault on this gastronomic Eiger. Due to a combination of the aftereffects of flu and (more importantly) an alarming degree of physical ineptitude, I have been obliged to call on the services of my wife at numerous stages of this wholly preposterous task. For example, no force on earth is going to make me slit dried vanilla pods to make "decorative stalks" for the cherries that embellish the finished gateau. "It's a bit of a bind," groaned my wife. "I don't think our vanilla pods are plump enough.
"Excluding illustrations, the recipe runs to eight pages and consists of six stages (I exclude the dried vanilla pod stalks). For all the detail, ambiguities remain. When combining the various strata that constitute the heart of the gateau, there was no explanation of a white layer that not only formed one of the strata, but also, according to a photograph, the sides of this construction. It appeared to be gelatinised kirsch cream, but the recipe merely said: "Manoeuvre it on top of the chocolate sponge using a palette knife or fish slice." Where the hell did the white sides come from? And what do you use to put them there? A brickie's trowel?
Deciding to cross this bridge when we came to it, we make the madeleine biscuit base and the flourless chocolate sponge. Or at least my wife does. I have a Lemsip and gaze awestruck at the Kisag Cream Whipper (" Restaurant Grade Metal") and its 50 little gas torpedoes.
We then make the gelatinised kirsch cream, a white jelly that has to chill in the freezer for an hour. In the meantime, I tackle the "wood-effect base". Despite lacking a wood-effect painting tool, I use a spatula to contrive a wood effect of cocoa mix on madeleine sponge. It turned out to be a triumph whose verisimilitude would have deceived even the most experienced Black Forest axeman.
Buoyed by my success, I move on to the more serious matter of the aerated chocolate. This is where the Kisag Cream Whipper comes into play. After pouring 500g of melted Valrhona milk chocolate into the flask, I screw the top on and charge up the device with three cylinders of nitrous oxide. Clutching the hot cylinder, I point its nozzle into a large plastic food-box and depress the stainless-steel lever. The contents erupt into the box (and beyond). A highly satisfactory moment, though it cost £66.56 for a two-second splurt.
But there is no time to admire my handiwork, as I instantly have to fix the top on the plastic box, put it in a vacuum bag and evacuate the air from the bag and the box using the (scrupulously washed) nozzle of our vacuum cleaner, which sucks the air through a one-way valve in the bag. You may be wondering how I can get the air out of a closed box? Simple; I have already bored a hole in the plastic top using a corkscrew. "But it's my best box!" complained my wife, in the manner of the partners of great inventors from time immemorial.
Though the air is sucked out of the bag and, presumably, the box, the result does not quite conform to Blumenthal's description: "The chocolate should rise and be riddled with small bubbles." Despite applying the vacuum twice, the molten chocolate does not rise. It just sits there. A bit miffed, I bung it in the fridge. The next job is to make some chocolate ganache (cream, chocolate and gelatin) and put that in a piping bag that goes in the fridge.
A short while later, everything has cooled, and it is now time to start assembly. Remember Heston's injunction: "Think of this as architecture." The first job is to line the loaf tin with clingfilm. Not as easy as it sounds. Then you have to spread apricot glaze on the bottom of the clingfilm, which is a lot less easy than it sounds and the cause of the only significant family disruption of the day. "You're going up the sides," yelps my wife.
Then I have to trim the madeleine base so there is a half-centimetre gap round the edges of the loaf tin. Using this as a template, I cut out a rectangle of the aerated chocolate. (This turns out to be quite a success - crunchy and granular, with a fair number of bubbles.) The aerated chocolate is carefully placed on the madeleine base.
Then I pipe the ganache (not quite chilled enough but what the hell) in two lines on the aerated chocolate. Around the two lines of ganache go three rows of Lidl's cherries. Chocolate sponge soaked in cherry juice and kirsch forms the penultimate layer. After that, I cut out a rectangle of gelatinised kirsch cream and somehow manage to ease this on top of Blumenthal's Folly, a process akin to nailing jelly to a wall. After more chilling, the structure is "topped off " with chocolate mousse. When this has set, I use the melon baler to scoop out recesses for the cherries (with vanilla stalks). After chilling again, I put the gateau in the cardboard box.
Now, the paint-sprayer. Spraying with a mixture of molten chocolate and groundnut oil (ugh! - you don't want to know the secrets of the professional kitchen) is a rare moment of pleasure in 10 hours of slog, but even this is undermined. After observing, our photographer says: "I'm so sorry for you guys. You've been working your arses off all day and the result looks like, well, shit. It's funny, really." There was some truth to this. The cake was shiny and brown but far from appetising.
Like an obscure religious rite, Blumenthal's recipe goes on and on. The cake has to go back in the freezer for 20 minutes. When it comes out, the gateau has gained a far more appealing matt finish. At this point, I should bore holes and fill them with cherry syrup. But, frankly, I cannot be arsed. The worm has turned.
The result of our efforts is three small, rectangular cakes, 4in by 7in by 2in. I poke six cherries (with vanilla stalks) into the recesses on top of one of the cakes and, as instructed by the young master of Bray, spray kirsch around the room: "It will magically bring a little of the Black Forest to the dinner table."Inexplicably, the magic fails to materialise.
Later that night, we steel ourselves to share a small slice of the gateau, and it is very good. If you like chocolate.
Heston Blumenthal: In search of perfection is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy for £18 (inc P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897
The simpler alternative by Mark Hix
I've almost forgotten what a Black Forest gateau tastes like, let alone what goes into it, so I had to trawl through a few books, including Simon Hopkinson's, for this. The quality of the cherries is important - and if you can find the ones marinaded in kirsch, then even better.
1x25cm good quality, rich chocolate sponge, cut into 3 discs
250ml double cream
50g caster sugar
250g good quality dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
For the filling
Approx 500g good quality bottled or canned morello cherries, drained and juice reserved
400ml double cream
Bring the double cream to the boil then remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until dissolved. Leave to cool - but not harden.
Whip the cream with the caster sugar to form soft peaks. Lay the three discs of sponge on to a large tray or three plates. Mix the cherry juice with the kirsch and brush generously on to the discs of sponge. Put one disc on a flat cake tray or cake board then spread with half the cream and cover it with half the cherries then lay the second disc on top and repeat with the rest of the cream and cherries. Place the third disc on top and smooth any excess cream around the edges with a spatula.
While the chocolate mixture is of a workable consistency, spread smoothly on the tops and sides of the gateau with a spatula, then scatter over chocolate shavings.
Leave in a cool place to set, but not the fridge, as the chocolate may pick up a little condensation and it will ruin the presentation. Serve within a few hours.