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.

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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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Banana, Hazelnut and Chocolate Cake

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When Paris and I cook together, we make a lot of wholesome, healthy things. Like, a lot. There has been beetroot falafel, chargrilled apricots with chard and cous-cous, quinoa porridge…and those are just the ones we blog about. There has been many a grain salad Tuesday (#gst) in which we discuss our upcoming blog collaboration over various disgustingly virtuous, vegetable-based creations.

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But just occasionally, a hankering for something a bit less holy raises its head. More specifically, something that contains (stage whisper) sugar. Not even brown sugar, which for some reason seems healthier than white. No, this cake was made with the sin of all sins that is white refined sugar. The hashtag #refinedsugarfree will most definitely not apply. So there.

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This recipe is vegan, so all is not lost. Mashed banana and oil seem to do the trick of binding all the ingredients together, giving a convincing cake texture. It is denser than a cake made by beating the hell out of butter and sugar, but with a banana cake I feel that a bit of density goes with the territory. This is a great way of using up those bruised, blackened bananas lurking at the bottom of the fruit bowl (although a few were so far gone that we had to admit defeat and consign them to the compost).

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Have a gander at Avocado Please.

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Raspberry Cheesecake Brownies

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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.

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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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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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Cranberry and Orange Florentines

florentinesI have started feeling very festive all of a sudden. I guess it must be due, in part, to decorating the tree today. This was accompanied by the crashing overtones of Handel’s Messiah, not directly Christmas-y, but, being choral, it puts me in the festive mood nonetheless.  Having resisted the descending season with some effort for the last few weeks– even with the repetitious Christmas playlist pounding its way into my head at work – it now seems time to embrace the inevitable.

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I made the optimistic, blasé resolution way back in October to make edible Christmas presents this year. I already have the Rhubarb and Ginger Gin in the bag, along with some Quince Cheese, but need to supplement it with something else. I decided to take the plunge with Florentines, which I have never attempted before. More to the point, I’ve only ever eaten a nice on one occasion. I managed to eat a total of about ten in small little ‘tastes’, which I assured myself were for quality control purposes.

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I underestimated just how many I would need (due to, unfortunately, having lots of friends and family to give them to) and the amount of time it would take to make around 100 Florentines. They are basically simple, but anything made in a large quantity gets a bit stressful, and you end up staring around slightly manically, covered in bits of whatever it is you’re making. I kept leaving trays of cooked Florentines around the house to cool, then forgetting about them. The tipping point came for me when I’d thought I’d finished, only to find a rogue batch on top of the washing machine a few hours later.

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Chocolate Biscuit Bars

chocolate biscuit squaresMy friend Clare and I were talking today about becoming grown ups. When do you become a grown up? When you ‘wear a suit and kitten heels to the office’ as Clare put it? When you have a folder marked ‘tax’? Lots of people insist that they have never grown up – I met many a thirty-something in Thailand having a ‘gap life’.

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When I was at university, my housemates and I had a student food blog. It was all about how to eat nice things on a budget. One of the most memorable recipes for me was Rocky Road, made as a result of an essay-related sugar craving. In this recipe, I opted for the definitely childish combination of marshmallows, biscuits, glace cherries and the like.

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However, now I have left university and am supposed to be a full-blown adult. Therefore, I chose, maturely, to include more healthy ingredients this time. Such as pistachios, walnuts and slow-release energy oat biscuits. And I renamed the recipe ‘Chocolate Biscuit Bars’, to sound more adult. This was also a more expensive alternative, one of many economic realities to hit during adulthood, I imagine. But the result was just as yummy, and we didn’t feel so guilty when scoffing it down.

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Chocolate and Chestnut Bars

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Many of my friends seem to have some sort of ‘dietary requirement’, whether it is a matter of ethics, such as being vegan or vegetarian, or an allergy to certain foods – I have one friend who is allergic to dairy, cinnamon and tomatoes. My friend Clare fits into the latter category, as she is lactose intolerant. This allergy cuts out a surprising range of things – even some brands of the contraceptive pill.

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There is a vegetarian café in Exeter called Herbies, which is something of an institution. It has been running since my parents lived in Exeter some twenty years ago. It became a favourite back in the day (at school), as it was easy to find something nice that didn’t contain meat or dairy.

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So when we met up a few weeks ago for a reunion of sorts, deciding where to meet for lunch didn’t take long. The main courses were of the usual salad and falafel variety, but it was the puddings that really stood out. We shared several and galloped them down, fighting over the last pieces, with cries of ‘it can’t POSSIBLY be vegan!’.

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One pudding that I vowed to try and replicate was the chocolate chestnut terrine. When I asked what was in it, they cagily mumbled something about chestnut puree being the secret. So, lo and behold, here is my take on a chocolate chestnut terrine. I made mine with a biscuit base to add a bit of textural variation, and added eggs and baked it, to make it more like a brownie. It’s not vegan, but it is Clare-friendly, and she seemed to like it.

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Vegan Chocolate and Almond Torte

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My friend Sally is a committed vegan. Although I would never want to adopt it as a lifestyle choice, I have recently begun to relish the challenge of vegan cookery. It’s fair to say that some experiments have come out better than others-  this one was more successful, and more edible, than the green tea tofu ‘cheesecake’ disaster.

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Main courses are relatively straightforward – we made a lovely Japanese vegetable curry with coconut milk – but it’s desserts and cakes that present more of a challenge. It makes you realise what a vital role eggs play in binding ingredients together and helping things to rise. The strategy I opted for here was to use almond milk to bind, and baking powder to help with rising, but it is still quite dense.

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This torte is quite intensely chocolatey (chocolate being the primary ingredient), so needs to be served in modest slices. Some soya cream would be a good accompaniment to lighten things up a bit. The caramelised almond topping adds a pleasing crunch as a contrast to all the gooey chocolate beneath – you can use either honey or agave syrup depending on how much of a hardcore vegan you are.

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