The shops are filled with chocolate eggs, covered in every cartoon character or brand name and wrapped in over-sized plastic packaging. But this year, instead of shelling out on these, why not treat your nearest and dearest to the homemade version? "Putting a little bit of care and effort into making an Easter egg means so much more to someone than going out and buying one," says Andrew Maxwell, managing director of cordon bleu cookery school Tante Marie. "It's easy to do, good fun and there lots of things kids can get involved with."
Maxwell certainly makes it look easy. He moulds, squirts and pours with panache and the finished products – truffles, chocolate fudge, brittle and the exquisite colettes – are as much a feast for the eyes as they are for the palate.
Chocolate Easter eggs first appeared in England in 1873, when Cadbury launched its first Easter egg. The milk chocolate varieties were launched in the early 1900s across Europe and are now sold from January onwards, everywhere you look. But the process of crafting Easter treats is now starting to migrate back to the kitchen.
It's a trend that the kitchen mail order company Lakeland noticed in the run-up to Christmas, when "anything to do with making your own gifts was just walking off the shelves", the company says. Now their silcone easter egg mould, introduced this year, has already sold out. Also selling well is their silicone chocolate mould. You simply pour in the melted chocolate, add the flavouring of your choice and when it's cooled in the fridge, the chocolates can be popped out.
Part of the reason for our new-found enthusiasm for cooking with chocolate is the ingredient's fantastic versatility. It can be combined with mint, orange or nut for an after-dinner nibble, or melted and poured into moulds – the leftover plastic trays from chocolate boxes will do if you don't want to buy them. "If you are melting it up for a coating you can melt and re-use it a couple of times," Maxwell continues. "In the grand scheme of things it is not an expensive product, as cooking from scratch is the cheapest way of living."
When chocolate is melted and then cooled it often goes a dull colour and lacks its characteristic "snap". A way of remedying this is by "tempering" it – using a cooking process which controls the size of the crystals that make up the sugary foodstuff, making sure it is of a controlled consistency that gives the finished product a shiny, brittle structure. "It is easy to do with practice," says chocolatier Paul A Young. "There are machines that can temper chocolate or you can melt it and put it on a marble slab; the temperatures which you hold the chocolate at depend on its type. The great thing about manipulating chocolate is that it has infinite possibilities of blending, flavour matching and texture. There are so many varieties of cocoa beans; there's so much to create."
Making your own chocolate is also better for the environment. "If you look at the carbon footprint process, if you are dealing with sweets that come with all these plastic trays, always with a cardboard box, then sourcing something from local produce is always going to be better for the environment," adds Maxwell.
Avoid certain pitfalls. Chocolate can also be technically demanding. "It's very dry," the Maxwell continues. "It has a low water content so if you are melting it, even if you get an incredibly small amount of water in it, it will seize up. It requires a level of discipline." And obviously consume it sensibly. "If you eat too much of it it's not good for you," continues Maxwell. "But I am a firm believer in everything in moderation." In fact, the purer the chocolate, the higher the cocoa content, and the less room there is for impurities.
All recipes by Andrew Maxwell, managing director and principal of Tante Marie School of Cookery, Woking, Surrey. www.tante marie.co.uk
For rum truffles
225g plain chocolate
100ml whipping cream
50g chocolate vermicelli
Cut up the chocolate and place in a bowl with the rum over a pan of warm water. Allow to melt slowly, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat.
Place the cream in a small saucepan; bring to the boil and leave to cool until lukewarm. Stir into the chocolate and leave to cool completely.
Beat the mixture very well, using an electric mixer, until it becomes creamy and light in colour and texture. Place the mixture into a piping bag with a small, plain nozzle and pipe into about 30 pieces on greaseproof paper. Each piece should be about the size of a small marble. (If you do not have a piping bag, you can spoon the mixture out with a teaspoon, but will have to round the shapes off by hand.)
Place the chocolate vermicelli on a piece of greaseproof paper. When the truffle mixture is firm enough to handle, roll each of the pieces in chocolate vermicelli. Neaten the shape and chill until firm. Serve in paper cases.
Chocolate, caramel and walnut brittle
275g unsalted butter
225g caster sugar
75g light brown sugar
1tbsp dark molasses
2tsp instant coffee powder
tsp ground cinnamon
100g walnuts, toasted and chopped
120g dark chocolate
120g white chocolate
Lightly grease a Swiss roll tin with vegetable oil.
Melt the butter over a low heat. Add the sugars, molasses, coffee, cinnamon and salt along with 65ml water. Stir over a low heat until the sugars dissolve. Bring to the boil and cook, stirring constantly for 20 minutes or until a sugar thermometer reaches 143ºC. You can test it by dropping a small amount of the sugar syrup from a spoon into a bowl of cold water. It will become brittle but still sticks to the teeth when bitten. Remove from the heat and stir in the nuts. Pour into the tin immediately, do not scrape the pan. Tilt the tin to spread the toffee to cover. Quickly sprinkle the hot toffee with the finely chopped chocolate. It should be in alternate sections. Leave for one minute to melt then use the back of a spoon to smooth and swirl the chocolates, feather them together with a knife to give a marbled pattern. Chill until firm. Cut or break into pieces.
Plain chocolate petit four cases (these are mini chocolate cups and they're available from most good supermarkets)
For the filling:
50g plain chocolate
75g unsalted butter
To make the filling: melt the chocolate and beat together with the butter and cream. Place the mixture in a piping bag with a small rosette nozzle and fill the chocolate cases with this mixture. Chill the colettes well before serving.
These can be garnished with little crystallised violets, crystallised ginger or with white chocolate shapes.
Chocolate nut fudge
454g (1lb) icing sugar
50g (2oz) cocoa
pinch of salt
100g (4oz) butter
175g (6oz) brazil nuts, almonds or hazelnuts, roughly chopped
Line a square 18cm cake tin with silicone paper. Sift the icing sugar, cocoa and salt into a large heatproof bowl. Stir in the milk and add the butter in small pieces. Cook uncovered on high power for two minutes. Beat well until smooth. Sprinkle in the nuts, mix well and pour into the tin. Leave until almost set. Mark into 2.5cm squares and leave to set completely. This fudge may then be dipped into melted chocolate.Reuse content