Chef and food writer Claire Thomson takes us through two dark chocolate recipes for Easter - one a Dark Chocolate, Pistachio and Dried Cherry Torte, the other a Dark Chocolate Rocky Road. You can watch Claire making the Torte in her kitchen on TOAST Instagram TV on Easter Sunday (April 12th).
Where do you hide your chocolate?' someone asked me a few years ago now. I don't hide chocolate,' I answered, a little mystified. Oh,' she said, but how do you stop yourself eating it if you know where to find it?' But why would I hide it? Surely I wouldn't then know where to find it?' Full circle and I still find this a curious conversation. I am not a woman who hides chocolate (although I do have three children, and come a certain time in the year...).
Chocolate, it would seem, does funny things to people. Cue indulgent groans when a chocolate cake arrives on the table at a party (5-year-olds and 65-year-olds alike; it's never quite the same with a plain old vanilla sponge), or when a broken-hearted friend says all she needs is some chocolate and a good cry (although I think I might need wine and chocolate). Food magazine sales soar when the front cover features anything chocolate. Chocolate makes people weak at the knees. It makes adults, writers even, use words like gooey', as if chocolate has disabled the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for complex thought and reasoning. Gooey' is not a nice word, all thick and sticky. The language of food is rife and rich and thrillingly unfettered, so I think the word gooey' has to go. There is one other word, and it's the white elephant on this page (let's get this done): chocoholic', the chocolate addict. Embargoed from here on out.
Let's begin again, without the guilt, goo and giggles. Chocolate as an ingredient has a fascinating past reaching as far back as the first millennium BC. Classic Mayan dignitaries would be buried with bowls of chocolate so that they could carry it with them through to the afterlife. The Aztecs would anoint newborn babies with chocolate on the forehead, face, fingers and toes in a ceremony resembling baptism. Aztec warriors would also be given a fortifying hot-chocolate drink before battle (curious now, when you think of all those toddlers given their cocoa-dusted babyccino fixes). Over many years, chocolate prompted prodigious trade and warfare for South American civilizations, as documented in art and literature, both indigenous and colonial. Later on, Christopher Columbus got involved and in 1502, voyaging at the behest of King Ferdinand of Spain, he captured a Mayan trading vessel full to the brim with lucrative cocoa beans. Savvy exploration, coupled with greed, it wasn't long after this that much of Europe caught on to this most illustrious ingredient. The popularity of chocolate rocketed and the celebrity of Columbus and his seafaring soared.
Which brings me roundly, albeit swiftly given the timespan and topic, to these recipes for dark chocolate, which can be found in the last chapter of my book, the New Kitchen Basics. The introduction of cocoa, among other plants (tomatoes, chillies, corn, potatoes and more) to Europe heralded a new modern age. Fervent was the appreciation and the landscape of world food was changed forevermore. Chocolate is an ingredient that enjoys gargantuan (hysterical?) popularity. And what could be better than a square of good chocolate, high in cocoa solids, all dark and brooding? I love how it melts so obligingly on your tongue. It is an intensely sensory experience and there's nothing quite like it....
DARK CHOCOLATE, PISTACHIO & DRIED CHERRY TORTE
Dried cherries are one of my favourite dried fruits; sour, sweet and wilfully chewy, their inclusion here along with pistachios, cardamon and chocolate is spot on. What makes this cake especially clever is how the cake batter behaves as it bakes. On the bottom you get a good crunchy base, and the remaining half of the base is then mixed through with the sour cream and egg to bake as a soft and cake-y top, all studded with nuts, cherries and chocolate. Serve with crme frache or sour cream.
Preheat the oven to 180C/fan 160C/350F/Gas 4.
Line a 20cm round cake tin with baking paper.
Combine the sugar, spices and flour with the pinch of salt in a large mixing bowl. Rub in the butter using your fingertips, until you have a sandy texture. (Alternatively, you can do this bit in a food processor, pulsing until you have the right texture.) Tip half the mixture into a separate bowl and stir in the cocoa.
Transfer the mixture to the prepared cake tin and press down slightly to form an even base.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the sour cream, baking powder and egg. Add this to the remaining flour mixture, then stir in the chocolate, pistachios and dried cherries, and pour the whole lot over the pressed base.
Sprinkle the mixture with the 2 tablespoons of sugar.
Bake for 40 minutes, until golden on top and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and allow the torte to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out and slice.
130g (4oz) light brown soft sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for sprinkling
teaspoon ground cinnamon
teaspoon ground cardamon
100g (3oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
pinch of salt
50g (1oz) cold unsalted butter, diced
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
120ml (4fl oz) sour cream, plus extra to serve
teaspoon baking powder
80g (2oz) dark (bittersweet) chocolate, finely chopped, or use the same weight of dark chocolate buttons
40g (1oz) shelled pistachios or
40g (1oz) dried cherries
DARK CHOCOLATE ROCKY ROAD
Rocky road, rather like flapjack, is a popular slab of confectionery. Never all that sophisticated, the traditional rocky road combination appears here, lightened as it is with a mixture of cream and crme frache so you can freeze it as an altogether more elegant pudding option. Try to distribute the dark (bittersweet) chocolate, meringue and hazelnuts evenly you'll want each slice to have a good smattering.
Line a 900g (2lb) loaf tin with cling film (plastic wrap), foil or baking paper.
Put the cream in a large mixing bowl and use a whisk to beat to form soft peaks. Then mix in the crme frache or sour cream. Put to one side.
Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, or use a microwave on its lowest setting. Stir in the alcohol, if using, and the tiny pinch of salt.
Put 150g (5oz) of the melted chocolate to one side and keep warm.
Beat the egg yolks with half the sugar, until thick and pale, and stir into the remaining melted chocolate. Fold in the whisked cream mixture.
In a clean bowl with a clean whisk, whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Whisk in the remaining sugar. Carefully fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture until fully combined.
Layer the mixture (roughly / each time) in the lined tin, with the reserved melted chocolate, the nuts and the meringue scattered between each layer, making sure you have enough for a generous scattering for the top.
Place the tin in the freezer for at least 4 hours, or overnight, and remove for about 30 minutes to slightly soften, before serving.
200ml (7fl oz) double (heavy)
200g (7oz) crme frache or sour
350g (12oz) dark (bittersweet)
chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Amaretto,
frangelico, brandy or dark rum
tiny pinch of salt
4 eggs, separated
40g (1oz) caster (superfine)
150g (5oz) toasted skinned
100g (3oz) meringue
(scrunched-up if large)
Words by Claire Thomson. Images by Sam Folan. You can find these recipes and many more in Claire's book, New Kitchen Basics.
We asked Claire if she could record herself making the torte, during the lockdown that we are all currently experiencing. She happily obliged, whilst wearing her Riya Check Cotton Dress, and here is the result: