You don't need to be a foodie to appreciate the superior taste of top-quality chocolate over its cheaper cousins, and that's true in cooking too. Fortunately we are spoilt for choice these days; when I buy chocolate from a supermarket I often find myself picking up several different brands to see which will work best for the job in hand.
I'm judging the Godiva Chocolate Challenge again this year and will be looking for creations that are original without being too over the top – and of course make good use of the chocolate itself to retain maximum flavour. Sometimes contestants try a tad too hard to impress and overcomplicate things, when the real trick is to let the flavours speak for themselves.
Chocolate brioche toasties
This recipe appeared in my first book, Eat Up, back in the day. It's a great treat to give your kids instead of cheap chocolate bars that contain all sorts of stuff you don't want to know about.
150-200g good-quality dark chocolate, broken or chopped into small pieces
4 slices of brioche loaf
A couple of knobs of butter for frying
Distribute the chocolate over two of the slices of brioche and place the other two slices on top. Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan until it begins to foam, then add the sandwiches and cook on a fairly low heat, ensuring the butter doesn't burn. Cook for a couple minutes on each side. The chocolate should have melted by now and will be beginning to ooze out. To serve, just cut into halves or quarters.
Beef shin and chocolate chilli
The use of chilli and chocolate together is common in Latin American cuisine. The combination works beautifully, but you need to use chocolate with the highest percentage of cocoa you can find. Best of all is something like Willie Harcourt-Cooze's 100 per cent cacao blocks.
For the paste
1tbsp vegetable or corn oil
2 dried chipotle chillies, stem removed
1 dried ancho chilli, stem removed
1tbsp fresh oregano or thyme leaves
3tsp ground cumin
½tsp ground cinnamon
1tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1kg beef shin, cut into 2cm cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Plain flour for dusting
2-3tbsp vegetable or corn oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2tbsp tomato purée
1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
1ltr beef stock
1 x 400g tin of pinto or red kidney beans
60g chocolate with the highest possible percentage of cocoa, grated
First make the paste, heat the oil in a heavy saucepan and cook the chillies on a medium heat for a couple minutes until lightly coloured. Add a cup of water to the pan then transfer to a bowl. Leave to sit for 20 minutes. Drain half of the water away and discard, then put the chillies, the remaining water and the rest of the paste ingredients in a liquidiser and blend to a smooth paste, then put to one side.
Season and lightly flour the pieces of meat, heat a heavy frying pan with a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil, and cook the meat in a few batches on a high heat for a few minutes until nicely coloured. Meanwhile, heat the rest of the oil in a heavy-based saucepan and cook the onions and garlic on a medium heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring every so often until they begin to colour.
Add the tomato purée, chopped tomatoes, beef stock and the set-aside chilli paste. Bring to the boil, season, add the meat, and simmer very gently for an hour and a half or so, or until the meat is tender and the sauce has reduced and thickened; add the beans about 15 minutes before the end. Stir in the grated chocolate, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Chocolate and butternut squash cannoli
Cannoli are an Italian pastry dessert in which tubular pastry shells encase a sweet, creamy filling. You can buy the shells ready made. The combo of the squash and chocolate works a treat without adding any extra sugar.
1 small or half a butternut squash, peeled and deseeded
150g good-quality dark chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa, broken into small pieces
150ml double cream
2tbsp pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted and finely chopped
4 cannoli shells
Cut the butternut squash into rough chunks, place them in a saucepan and just cover with water. Add a little salt, bring to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer gently for about 15 minutes or until tender. Drain well, then blend until smooth in a liquidiser. Transfer back to the pan, cover and keep warm. Meanwhile put the chocolate and cream in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water for about 10 minutes, stirring every so often until melted.
To serve, take enough squash purée to fill the four cannoli and carefully stir in half of the chocolate sauce and seeds to give the mixture a rippled effect.
Fill a piping bag and pipe the mixture into the cannoli, or use a teaspoon. Place the cannoli on serving plates and spoon over the rest of the sauce.
Cocoa-rubbed baby back ribs
Use good-quality, unsweetened cocoa powder for this. You could serve this with coleslaw or a warm potato salad, or just as they are as a starter.
For the marinade
60g unsweetened cocoa powder
2-3tbsp smoked sweet paprika
1tbsp sea salt
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1tbsp English mustard powder
2tsp ginger powder
2tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp ground allspice
3tbsp vegetable or corn oil
3tbsp clear honey
2 racks of baby back pork ribs
Mix all of the ingredients for the marinade together in a bowl, then rub the ribs well with it. Place in a suitable, non reactive container, cover and leave in the fridge overnight.
A couple of hours before cooking, remove the ribs from the fridge. Preheat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4. Line a roasting tray with a double layer of foil, place the ribs on top, leaving any extra marinade for basting. Cook for about an hour, brushing or spooning over some extra marinade every so often. Turn the oven up to 200C/gas mark 6 and cook for another 20 minutes, still basting as they are cooking.
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