Chocolate and the essential art of sloth

I love working from home. I take phone calls with the Gilmore Girls temporarily on mute, check emails while singing along enthusiastically if tunelessly to 42nd Street and type with a dog to warm my feet and a pair of kittens snoozing in my in tray. My one shiver of envy for office workers comes when we have so much snow, trains don’t run, offices close and they get the day off. Frustratingly – as my office is a gentle 60 second stroll from my bed – it would take quite the snow storm to make it impossible for me to clock in.

IMG_2406 This picture was taken by my friend Stephen Morallee.

Ty Snow1 Ty tastes his first snow.

Stephen 1 Stephen trying to take pictures. Thwarted.

Jess scarf Jess, all wrapped up.

I was thinking about this as I walked Barney in the park, my boots crunching through the dazzling layer of crisp snow. Our usual dog walking number was swelled by a few office refuseniks, excited at the prospect of a day off. So – in the spirit of solidarity – I declared a snow day myself. No work, just pottering. If I’m honest, to the naked eye this wouldn’t have looked very different to a normal day. Show tunes, yes, messing about in the kitchen, certainly, but deadline stress, tricky emails and scaling of the accounts mountain so large its about to be granted its own postcode, were banned.

I’d been sent a bag of Trish Deseine’s new milk chocolate buttons to try. I needed to cook them – what they’re intended for – before I ate the whole bag. I flipped through the pages of Trish’s Best of Chocolat (in French, just so you know) which I bought when we were in Agde in the summer and decided the milk chocolate, date and almond cake was a suitable fate for my precious and rapidly diminishing bounty.


I love Trish Deseine’s food. It’s cosy, sexy, sophisticated and her books are shot through with her natural warmth and humour. She is from Northern Ireland and has lived in France for the past twenty years or so, where she has enjoyed un succès fou showing the French how to create simple and delicious meals which require neither a sous chef nor a trust fund. Luckily for us, she has published several books in English. Try them. You will like.

Chocolate by Trish

Trish’s chocolate is available from Selfridges or by mail order in the UK from

Rich chocolate cake with dates and almonds

This flourless chocolate cake has an intense, almost wine-y depth of flavour. It’s grown up, rich, fudgy and, yes, intensely chocolate-y. It keeps very well for a few days too, if you’re the sort of person who can sleep while there’s chocolate cake in a tin on your kitchen shelf.


DSCN3374 Really, how could it not be good?

Serves 8 to 10 people

250g milk chocolate, Trish’s magic buttons are 38%
3 egg yolks
3 eggs
125g light muscovado sugar
175g ground almonds
100g whole almonds, toasted* and finely chopped
175g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing
150g Medjool dates, stoned and chopped, if you can’t get hold of Medjool dates, poach ordinary dates for three minutes in a little water and sugar

Lightly grease a 25cm loose-bottomed cake tin, line it with a circle of baking parchment and butter the parchment. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.

Put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and melt in a microwave or over a bowl of barely-simmering water (the bottom of the bowl shouldn’t touch the water). Cool slightly.

DSCN3383 Pretty.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, egg yolks and sugar until light and creamy – the beaters should leave a ribbon trail across the surface when you lift them out of the batter. Add the ground and chopped almonds and the dates and stir until well combined. Lightly but thoroughly fold in the melted chocolate and butter with a spatula. Pour into the cake tin and bake for about 50 minutes – the centre should still wobble a bit as it will firm up as it cools. Let it cool in the tin before turning it out.

* Place them in an even layer on a baking sheet and bake them at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for about 6 minutes. Cook them for a minute or two longer if they still look a bit pale but keep checking them as they can burn very easily.

IMG_2434 I took some of the cake to the park the next day – I’m kind like that. This picture was taken by Stephen Morallee.

Chestnut chocolate cake: Nailed

Chestnut and chocolate cake
I spent most of February in a clatter of pans and a blizzard of chopping, stirring and whisking as I devised recipes for my friend Mark’s new book, A Taste of the Unexpected. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Mark and I did seem to spend a lot of time on the phone gossiping about important stuff like 80s music, biscuits and football. We both support red teams, though not the same ones, so it made for lively, deadline-diverting, conversations.

One of our recipes is for a chestnut jam. It’s bloody good. It better be. It requires the peeling of 2kg of chestnuts. (Mark, don’t think I’ve forgotten. I am invoicing you for a manicure.) It was worth it though as the result is a fudgy, creamy, seductive combination of nuts, muscovado sugar, vanilla and a splash of apple cider brandy at the end because, well, how can that ever be a bad thing? I wish I could share it with you here, but I can’t. Not quite yet. You’ll have to wait until its publication in September. Just in time for chestnut season, in fact.

I have four jars of this heavenly concoction in the cupboard and I was dying to use some in a recipe. The obvious candidate was the flourless chestnut and chocolate cake in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Year. I’ve made it dozens of times, every time I want an easy, delicious slightly grown up chocolate cake in fact. It has a wonderfully light texture – it’s like a rich, silky mousse in cake form – perfect for afternoon tea or a divinely seductive ending to a great dinner. And another bonus? If you’re the self-controlled sort, it last really well in an airtight tin for four or five days.

I used 400g of our jam in the recipe. Until I’m allowed to share, you could use 400g of bought chestnut jam or just follow the instructions for making the chestnut puree below, perhaps adding half a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a teaspoon of brandy too if you like. At least you’ll get to enjoy the cake without pursuing Mark to sort out your tab at the nail bar. You’d have to explain what a nail bar was to him first anyway, and that could get tiresome.

River Cottage chestnut and chocolate cake

250g dark chocolate
250g unsalted butter
250g peeled and cooked chestnuts (I like Merchant Gourmet)
250ml milk
4 eggs
125g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas mark 3. Butter a 25cm cake tin and line with baking parchment.

Break the chocolate into pieces and place them in a heatproof bowl with the butter, cut into chunks. Place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water until melted and stir until smooth. Cool slightly.

In another pan, heat the chestnuts with the milk until just boiling, then mash thoroughly with a potato masher or puree in a blender.

Separate the eggs and put the yolks in a bowl with the sugar. Mix until well combined then stir in the chocolate and the chestnut puree until you have a smooth, blended batter.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff and then fold them into the chocolate mixture, starting by mixing in a third of the whites to loosen the batter and then gently folding in the rest of the whites. Pour and scrape into the cake tin then bake for 25-30 minutes, until it is just set but still has a slight wobble.

If you want to serve the cake warm, leave it to cool a little, then release the tin and slice carefully – it will be very soft and moussey. Or leave it to go cold, when it will have set firm. Serve with a trickle of double cream, especially when warm, but it also delicious unadulterated.

For Fawkes’ Sake

Chocolate Gingerbread

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

My seasonal sparkler of a friend, Sarah, is having a Bonfire Night party tomorrow. Séan’s shopping for the biggest firework he can find (it’s what men do to keep themselves busy once the barbecue season’s over) and I’ve been thinking about a sweet offering which will appeal to the grown ups as well as Sarah and Robert’s gorgeous kids, Louis, Rose and Sonny.

I’ve been dying to make Dorie Greenspan’s Fresh Ginger and Chocolate Gingerbread ever since Karen declared it the best she’d ever tasted. She is a woman whose judgment I trust in all things. And besides, it contains both of the major food groups, chocolate and ginger (fresh, ground and stem, oh glorious triumvirate). Just the thing to keep the cold out and the spirits up on a chilly November evening in North London.

You can find this recipe in Dorie’s bowl-lickingly wonderful book, Baking From My Home To Yours or online here, at Serious Eats.

P1170829I have 18 cute-orama mini tins, oval and rectangular, so I decided to use those rather than bake the gingerbread in one, big square. If you want to try this, bake them for 15-17 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tins for four or five minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. You’ll need twice as much icing, too.


Cranberry & White chocolate muffins

When I was walking the hound in the park this morning, my friend Howard called with a delicious enquiry. He’s got a stand at a conference tomorrow and wanted to make his display stand out. He is a very wise man. He knows that baked goods refresh the parts Powerpoint cannot reach.

As Barney played ‘now you see me now you don’t’ in the fallen leaves, Howard and I decided on mini muffins. White chocolate and cranberry mini muffins, to be precise. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of white chocolate – toooo sweet – but I thought tart little cranberries would provide the perfect counterpoint. Once home, a quick Google brought up this easy treat of a recipe from the Waitrose site. I hope Howard’s clients enjoy them. I hope you do too.

White chocolate and cranberry mini muffins

100g plain flour
1 tsp mixed spice
50g Demerara sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
75g white chocolate chips

75g dried cranberries
1 medium egg, beaten
150ml milk
50g butter, melted and cooled

To finish
100g white chocolate
25g dried cranberries, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas mark 6. Line two 12-hole mini muffin tins with mini muffin or petit four cases.

Mix the dry ingredients, chocolate and cranberries in a bowl. Make a well in the centre. Mix the wet ingredients, pour into the dry and stir for about 20 seconds until you have a lumpy batter. Don’t overmix. Spoon into the cases and bake for 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.

To finish, melt the chocolate in the microwave or in a bain marie, scrape into a polythene bag and cool so it thickens a little. Cut a tiny hole in the corner of the bag. Drizzle the chocolate over the muffins and top with dried cranberries. I had chocolate left over, so I criss-crossed the tops with skinny little lines to add a final flourish. The secret to doing this is to start piping your lines about an inch or so to the side of the cooling rack so by the time they hit the muffins, your lines are skinny rather than gloopy. It’s gloriously messy.

Chocolate, cherries and secrets

Cherry Clafoutis

My gorgeous nephew is coming to stay for a few days. We have a busy itinerary – a football match, a comedy show (Tom, we’re expecting big laughs. No pressure.), restaurants of course, and a day strolling around some of Oxford’s beautiful colleges. Naturally, there will be food, lots of it, given that this is the 4,000 calorie a day boy. Angus loves chocolate, so I’m planning on revisiting a pudding we made together in France. It’s decadent, delicious and easy. If you’re not on a 4,000 calorie a day diet, then my tip is not to eat the whole thing at once.

Chocolate and cherry clafoutis

I’ve tweaked this recipe from one I discovered in a heavenly book I bought on our trip to France, Le B.A-ba du Chocolat by France’s own Nigella, Julie Andrieu. I overcooked it slightly as I was waiting for the slivered almonds to brown a little. When I make it again, I’ll either leave them out altogether or toast them a bit before sprinkling them over the top.

Serves 4-6

The ingredients

80g of plain chocolate, about 70%
200ml single cream or crème fraîche
50g caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
30g plain flour
100g ground almonds
40 cherries
1tbsp Amaretto, kirsch or crème de cacao (optional)
20g slivered almonds, very lightly toasted (optional)
A little butter, softened, for greasing
A good pinch of salt

Whisking Whisking…

Stirring Stirring…

Folding Folding…

Pouring Pouring…

Serving Serving.

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas mark 2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water.

Beat together the cream and sugar in a bowl, then stir in the eggs and liqueur if using. Fold in the flour, salt and ground almonds, then the melted chocolate. Butter four ramequins or one baking dish and distribute the cherries evenly in the dish/es. Do not stone them, unless you are serving them to children or the very absent minded – the cherries are much more juicy and flavoursome cooked whole. You could even leave the stalks in, as they look quite marvellous sticking out of the batter, though I’d only do this if I weren’t adding the slivered almonds. Pour over the chocolate batter, sprinkle on the lightly toasted almonds if using, and cook for 18-20 minutes, until just set but still a bit wobbly. Allow to cool slightly before serving.

And now for the secrets. Two of my favourite bloggers, Catherine at The Unconfidential Cook , and Lady P at Madly Creative recently passed onto me these two lovely awards, the Kreativ Blogger Award and the Honest Scrap Award. I’m supposed to share seven things about myself and then pass on the award to seven bloggers I admire.

Kreativ Blogger Awardhonest_award-300x290 I hope you all enjoy my nominees as much as I do. They are:

Cookie Pie, because her blog is a warm, friendly place to land on a frantic day.
Gratinée, because she writes exquisitely and her deep understanding of and love for food shines from every paragraph.
Nora the Kitchen ‘Splorer, because I love her recipes and am near addicted to her Wednesday Round Up of Deliciousness.
Real Food Lover, because she makes you think, she makes you cook, what could be better?
Syrian Foodie in London, because I want to make every single one of his recipes.
Through My Kitchen Window, because Mariana is just wonderful, even though every trip to her blog gives me a severe case of lifestyle envy.
Writing Junkie, because Avril writes so inspirationally, so clearly, so beautifully about the writing life.

As I received two awards at around about the same time which require me to do the same thing, please take your pick of the one you would like to receive. If you don’t participate in awards, then do accept this as a very small thank you for the pleasure your blogs have given me over the past few months. If you would like to participate, then post the award, link back to me and send it on to seven more people. Finally, and most interestingly, list seven curious, crazy, interesting things about yourself…

Here are mine…

1. In 1990 and 1991, I lived in Moscow. I watched tanks roll down the street, heard Pavarotti sing in a sports hall, bribed policemen with cartons of red Marlborough and learned that -20C in dry-aired Moscow feels less cold than -1C in damp old London town. I went to tea parties at embassies and met jittery young anarchists in Gorky Park. I watched Soviet statues being pulled down and Tesco supermarkets going up. And this is where I really, really learned how to cook.

2. My secret vice is vice. If I hadn’t followed the ink-splattered path into journalism, I would have loved to be a detective. Instead, I’m addicted to cop shows, crime shows, and have an unsavoury weakness for anything billed ‘based on a true story’. If I go to bed before my husband, it’s testament to his courage that he’ll curl up beside me as I fall asleep watching Snapped: Women Who Kill.

3. I have a difficult relationship with change. Hot, angry tears pricked at my eyes when the balsa-headed philistines at Hackney Council replaced the lovely old lampposts in our high street with hideous modern ones. I realise this attitude has its drawbacks. If all humankind were like me, we’d still be living in caves. But what wonderfully appointed and well catered caves they would be.

4. Sean and I met and married so quickly, when I went to apply for our marriage licence, I had no idea what his middle name was.

5. After a lifetime of owning cats, two years ago we got a dog. When he snuggled onto my lap, I found myself questioning whether he was happy or not. Subconsciously I was waiting for him to purrrrrr.

6. I’m a pretty easy-going person but I feel primal, violent, seething rage when I see people dropping litter. Come the Licked Spoon Revolution, they’ll all be buried in a pit of their own filth.

7. As a young graduate working in the slave-wage environment of book publishing, my idea of wealth was being able to afford black taxis, good cheese, cut flowers and hardback books whenever I wanted them. Twenty years on, this is still my definition of luxury. I pinch myself every time I jump into a cab with a slab of Colston Bassett, a bunch of billowy roses and some artfully jacketed tome tucked into my market basket.