Christmas Chocolate

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I think I have to finally admit that Christmas is actually happening. Soon. Like, in a few days. Pretty soon I’ll be putting the out of office email reply on and heading down to Devon. It’s taken me a while to get in the festive spirit this year. Especially since the weather has been so warm (apparently there were colder days in May than in December – my current favourite weather anecdote). But after consuming more mulled wine than was probably good for me and listening to Annie Lennox’s rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen on repeat, I’ve finally got on board with the whole thing.

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I usually make something edible as Christmas gifts. Last year it was honeycomb, and the year before that, florentines. Both of which featured relatively stressful processes involving sugar thermometers. Last year, I almost reached breaking point when making the honeycomb, covered in bits of glue-like caramel frantically trying to unstick the stubborn buggers from each other. So this year, I opted for something simple. I melted chocolate, spread it out on a tray and and covered it in stuff. Easy.

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Sweet Potato Brownies

Sweet Potato brownies

I am firmly in the camp that believes as much butter and sugar as humanely possible should be shoved into brownies. My favorite brownie recipe – from the one and only Nigel Slater – requires a whole block of butter and an eye-watering amount of sugar. The resulting brownies can only be eaten one at a time (unless things really are getting tough) as they are so rich.

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I thought this was my brownie recipe of choice for life, until I stumbled across this these sweet potato brownies. This recipe is from the queen of vegan smugness, Ella Woodward, who writes the blog Deliciously Ella. Once you get past her insufferable writing style, waxing lyrical about how ‘awesome’ quinoa is, the recipes on her blog are actually pretty inspired. This recipe uses sweet potato and dates to give the sweetness to the brownies, and, to add to their virtuousness, they don’t contain any butter. Ella calls them ‘gooey bites of heaven’. But she would.

Brownie

The texture is not quite what you’d expect from a brownie, and they don’t have that melting ooziness that copious amounts of butter provides. But they are pretty convincingly brownie-like in taste, and if you need an excuse to eat a whole batch of brownies in one go, these might just be the ones.

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Honeycomb Toffee

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I always try and make edible Christmas gifts. This decision, made in November, always seems like the easy, simple and relaxing option. Instead of braving the hordes of Christmas shoppers, I envision that I will be smugly ensconced at home, effortlessly whipping up batch after batch of delicacies. The reality, however, is always far from this. I end up leaving it until the last minute, then spend a couple of days covered in smudges of chocolate, trying to hold back the stress-induced tears.

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This year was no exception. I chose to make honeycomb, having read several recipes that insist it’s a piece of cake, only requiring three ingredients and a casual fifteen minutes. Having seen the process on Masterchef, including the rather showy moment when the bicarbonate of soda is whisked into the caramel and froths up spectacularly, I thought that this would provide the elusive balance of ease and impressiveness.

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Oh how wrong I was. I ended up trying several different recipes, no one of which quite provided the desired effect of crisp, crackling honeycomb. One batch made nowhere near the quantity I had expected, requiring a dash to Sainsbury’s midway through to replenish my stocks of golden syrup and sugar. Another batch set too soft, rendering a hasty re-labelling of the finished product as ‘burnt sugar toffee’ (so you’ll know if you’re a recipient of batch one). Finally I found a recipe that seemed to set close to the imagined crispness, but still took a fraught three hours to firm up, in which I couldn’t resist wandering over and prodding it every five minutes.

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The resultant stickiness of the soft, toffee-like honeycomb was slightly maddening, as it stuck to the kitchen cabinets, my socks, hair and pretty much everything else. I was prising bits out from between the sofa for the rest of the day. I slathered the end product, hastily titled ‘honeycomb toffee’ to account for said stickiness, in a generous amount of dark chocolate, the tied it up in cellophane bags. Finally, I sat down with a cup of tea, surveying the carnage that covered every surface of the kitchen, and wondering, as I do every year, whether simply ambling around the shops would be all that bad.

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Raspberry Cheesecake Brownies

brownies

I made these when my friend Jenny came round. She is gluten intolerant, so brownies seemed like an obvious choice. Wheat flour can easily be substituted for another flour, such as rice flour, or ground almonds, as I’ve used here. Adopting a gluten free lifestyle seems to be all the rage nowadays, whether or not you actually have coeliac disease. Two of my favourite food blogs are by people who don’t eat gluten – Tartlette and La Tartine Gourmande.

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Gluten seems to be hidden in a remarkable amount of things. According to a quick Wikipedia glance (the extent of any ‘research’ I do for this blog) gluten is found in cosmetics and hair products. Baking powder often contains gluten – although I’m skeptical of how useful baking powder is. Especially in brownies, as I’ve made them with or without, and can’t see any discernable difference, so I was happy to leave it out here. I’m still a little uncertain as to what gluten actually is – in my local healthfood shop you can buy large packets of a flour-like substance that is simply, and a little bizarrely, just called ‘gluten’.

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This recipe was inspired by something I had from the Hummingbird Bakery in London. They produce an amazing concoction: a layer of brownie, topped with a layer of cheesecake, then a layer of vibrantly pink raspberry-flavoured cream. I did away with the separate layers, and swirled a mixture of cream cheese, egg and crushed raspberries into the top of the brownie batter before it goes in the oven. Doing my bit to make coping without bread and pasta a little bit easier.

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Chocolate and Hazelnut Mousse

Food, for me, is about so much more than something we need to consume to stay alive. It has the power to evoke memory: to immediately transport us back to a particular time or place. Nutella, for example, instantly takes me back to childhood summers spent in France. My friend and I would secretly stuff ourselves with as much fresh baguette smothered with far too much Nutella as we could before our parents caught us.

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So Nutella was the inspiration for this mousse. As any Nutella addict will tell you, chocolate and hazelnuts make a good team. I have made many a chocolate mousse in my time, but never tried adding hazelnuts. It makes sense: the earthy sweetness of the roasted hazelnuts complements the dark bitterness of the chocolate. And the occasional crunch from the nuts alongside the velvety smoothness of the mousse is a winner.

choc mousse

I made this to serve at a dinner party for my birthday. It’s ideal for this, as it can be made the day before and left in the fridge to firm up – just remember to take it out of the fridge a little before serving, so that it’s not too cold. We had a mushroom and pesto lasagne, followed by rather ridiculously large helpings of the mousse. We had such a lovely time, so from now on the taste of chocolate mousse will instantly bring me back to that evening.

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Tiramisu

 

tiramisu in bowl

If I had to pick a country’s cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would have to be Italian. Disregarding the resulting enormity of my thighs, of course. There just seems to be infinite possibilities surrounding a love of simple ingredients. Endless varieties of pasta and risottos to keep me entertained for a long while. And Italian puddings are often so decadently creamy, and don’t have the fiddly precision of French desserts – both epitomised by this recipe.

tiramisu

As is often quoted, ‘tiramisu’ means ‘pick me up’ in Italian. This is due to the fact that it is laced with coffee and a more than generous (in this recipe, anyway) amount of booze. This is one of my go to recipes when I bring a pudding to a party, and has, on more occasions than I’m willing to admit, made a perfect hangover breakfast the next day.

tiramisu in bowl

The combination of alcohol suggested seems to vary a bit in between recipes. One most have in common is Marsala wine, a sweet fortified wine originally from Scicily. So I used this, along with amaretto liqueur, as I have a long-abiding love of the stuff.

tiramisu and chocolate

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Chocolate and Salted Caramel Puddings

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Salted caramel seems to be all the rage at the moment. Particularly using a posh variety of salt such as Maldon Sea Salt. It’s drizzled over the top of banana cakes, ladled into pastry cases, and poured over ice cream. A sprinkling of salt offsets the cloying sweetness of the rich, buttery caramel rather nicely.

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Calling these ‘puddings’ is a little vague, and I apologise. They are a cross between a chocolate fondant and a collapsed soufflé. However, they do encapsulate the very definition of a pudding – rich, indulgent and very, very bad for you. The salted caramel is swirled into the chocolate mixture before it goes in the oven, so it oozes down the side of the ramekin (and drips onto the bottom of your oven, so you might want to put them on a tray).

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I served these as the final hurrah to a Come Dine With Me style dinner party I threw for a few friends before Christmas. We had the filo wrapped carrots for a starter, followed by duck, followed by these. Unusually, I managed to not go to overboard on portion sizes, so the general consensus was that we were full but not uncomfortably so. I wish I could say the same for Christmas Day…

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