Chocolate Poem

I have a friend, who shall remain nameless (although those of you who are good with word games may realise what her name is), who recently had a birthday party. As a gift, I turned up with a box of chocolates made up of chocolates forming an acrostic spelling of her name.

Irish Coffee

Mango, Lime and Sea Salt Caramel

Olive and Strawberry

Elsewhere on my blog you can find exact instructions on how to make ganache and caramels etc. But here are a few tips on constructing flavour combinations and using fruit in your chocolates.

When I put together a box of chocolates there are three things I always consider. 1) how I can use a balance of white, dark and milk (I feel this means you cover most people’s taste preferences), 2) having a mixture of textures and flavours in each bite (never just one per chocolate), and 3) how all the chocolates relate to one other in the box. Like creating a dish, I like chocolates in a collection to compliment each other. Other things I like to start with are classic combinations, such as sea salt and caramel, and then think about ways to pimp them up. The idea is that not only is each box better than buying one from a shop, as being homemade no two are the same; but also that they are simply more exciting then something you would buy at Thorntons. (Having said this, as a devotee of Lindt Sea Salt Dark Chocolate bars, I do agree that sometimes a little bit of simplicity just hits the spot.) I know some people feel that homemade chocolates should be made with high quality chocolate, but I think if the flavours are vibrant then any chocolate works fine. So long as the dark chocolate is at least 75% cocoa content, it doesn’t really matter about the other two. A little cost-saving tip!

I think I may have been inspired by my recent trip to a Brazilian fruit market (see Brazil Baby, I’m in Miami Bitch) because my first thought for the letter M was Mango and Lime. As followers of my blog know, I have recently moved to a house virtually next-door to an Aldi. This means I have the luxury of using exotic fruits in my food whilst still working to a budget. I think one of the things that makes homemade chocolates special is the fact that they can use real fruit rather than extracts. To make the caramel, I pulverised mango and simmered the pulp with lime and chilli, before straining and adding to sugar and continuing to make my usual salted caramel. It meant that it was a thinner consistency than my usual caramel, and was lighter in colour. This would probably work for most fruit caramels. I poured the caramel into a white chocolate shell: usually I wouldn’t put these two together as I find the combination too sickly-sweet, but the chilli and lime here off-sets the sweetness.

For the Irish coffee, I went with a whisky gel and an espresso ganache. Already powerful flavours, so I put them with milk chocolate, providing the sugar that completes the ‘drug triumvirate’ (alcohol, caffeine and sugar) in all the best things: affogatos, Irish coffees, jäger bombs….

The third flavour achieved something which I’ve wanted to try for ages: savoury with chocolate. Black olive caramel (again pulverised, like fruit, with a pinch of salt) and a sweet strawberry ganache. Using strawberry purée helped the chocolates pack a flavourful punch. These were then smothered in dark chocolate, and dipped in crumbled almonds to add texture.

I don’t like to say these chocolates encapsulate their namesake as I feel it would be rude to insinuate she was either over caffeinated, spicy or alternative. But I feel she appreciated the comedic effort in the word-play of the names.

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Brazil baby, I’m in Miami bitch

Where to start. I am very lucky as a singer to be given the opportunity to go on the most exciting tours to the most exciting places. Sometimes you can’t quite believe that you get to visit these places for free. Admittedly you have to sing for your supper but I’m sure any singer would tell you that if you don’t love to sing you probably shouldn’t be in a choir. As oppose to being an instrumentalist, as a singer, tour can really hit your instrument hard, what with the late nights, alcohol, air conditioning, travelling, and in this case sightreading. I’m certainly not complaining that my first task as a member of Cauis College Choir, Cambridge was a trip to Brazil, although I won’t deny it was pretty daunting plunging head first into a choir that was already fully formed as the one new member. However if you’re going to get to know people there is no better way than a small contained space flying through the air for 18hours where people are getting less and less aware of which time zone they’re in let alone sleeping. At least you’re all as disorientated at this point as each other. In fact my whole experience was made a lot easier by the fact that I was probably constantly bouncing around during the tour, dosed up with caffeine in a bid to stay awake. This was not just because Brazilians (and In São PAolo in particular) make the best coffee, but also we needed it what with the 2 overnight coach rides to and from Rio, the fact we never got a chance to recover from the first set of flights until we hit the second and necessity to stay up each night drinking Caipirinhas.

Incidentally Caipirinhas were my first Brazilian discovery. Caipirinhas are a cocktail made from crushed limes, sugar and the local alcoholic spirit, Cachaca, a spirit made from distilled sugar cane in a similar way to rum. The main difference between rum and cachaca is that cachaca is made from sugarcane juice whereas rum is made from the by product of sugarcane, molasses, so tends to be stronger usually and ages better. There is no better thing to drink in Brazil, this cocktail encapsulates the Rio laid back lifestyle. The best way to drink it is on Ipanema beach as the sun goes down while switching between dancing in a free Zumba class and swimming in the sea, which incidentally we did. However Caipirinhas are not just a one trick pony. On our first night in Brazil we were thrown a huge barbecue ( this may have also contributed to the necessity for caffeine consumption) where a batman would make us any type of Caipirinha that we liked, ranging from tangerine and chilli to passion fruit and ginger, made not just from cachaca (which I stuck to) but also gin, sake, vodka, anything we liked.

It was at this barbecue that we gained our first experience of the abundance of salty goodness that is Brazilian cuisine. I may have had a huge lunch complete with chocolate. Are but that wasn’t going to stop me digging into the griddled halloumi, blackened and bubbling, the melting slices of rare beef, dipped in an addictive breadcrumb like farofa (fried cassava flour), the crime de Milho (sweetcorn cream stuff) or the bite size salty morsels, chicken hearts (I kid you not these delicious). Then of course there were the puddings which I am ashamed to say I barely made a dent in. While I tried the stuff of heaven, coconut ice cream, and the suffocatingly sweet brigadoo (condensed milk and chocolate truffles) I failed to try any of the array of cakes or passion fruit tart. I believe I missed out on half the savoury dishes I didn’t even see, take me back!

This wasn’t the only time we would be presented with an array of new and exciting foods which somehow seem to surpass all British food in flavour. On our first day sightseeing in São Paolo we were taken to Mercado Municipal, a food market on supreme scale
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I had not even heard of half the fruit on the stalls, let alone tasted or seen them before
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I’m not entirely sure how they make money considering every time we passed a store we were given pieces of fruit, salted cod, Viagra (wasabi covered peanuts) for free but presumably they were trying to entice us even if we didn’t buy anything. Having said that one of the Irish men on the way into the centre had bought dates that tasted something along the lines of cake mix, I kid you not. I recommend travelling to São Paolo for those dates.

The next foodie experience (other than the time out choirmaster turned on a mostly unbreakfasted crowd to suggest we skip lunch, whereupon we started debating who we would eat first if it came down to it) was the staple meal for the next three days of tour. We turned up at the university (which had already been on strike for 3 months) and were given rice, beans, salad, chicken or beef. We guzzled it down gratefully having not slept the night before and were expected to go straight into an interactive Brazilian workshop. Little were we to know we be give this meal for once a day for the subsequent meals for the remainder of tour, oh well, it was free food. Having said this, grey beans, salad, salty chicken and chips are not necessarily a food of choice, the frozen yoghurt at the canteen, however, was above par and served with fruit almost forcing you to be healthy.

Our trip could not have ended in a stranger way. We ended up on Miami beach…. For the day….
Having said that, the Americans know how to cook. We arrived and most of us( ok mostly just me) were excited for a 3 course brunch however Miami was apparently deserted, or maybe that was just the area we were in. But I am Not kidding when we eventually found brunch, it was GREAT . Not only do Americans understand the importance of an iPhone charger at every venue, but the pancakes,eggs, Mexican eggs, smoothies, coffee and acai( a type of berry) were amazing, I won’t even get started on the maxi version of a sundae (small if you are American). Miami is not just for the food I hear though. I didn’t have a bad time at the beach, it may even be worth it for the white beaches and bath temperature waters, but then I’m a foodie, what would I know.
I cannot wait to get back to Brazil, although maybe to try a slightly more varied version of the food. The extremes of amazing food and mediocre food (never bad) is worth exploring. Plus I notice a niche in the market for condensed milk chocolates and more coffee in England. So much strong coffee. Five Cups a day in England don’t even cut it.

Dinner with the man upstairs

My family, as you may have realised, are not like other families. Not many families live in a school. We have access to many exciting sports facilities….for those under the height of 5ft, a large library complete with spinning wheel (no idea why)… containing books suitable for those aged 5-13 and of course access to kitchens enabling catering for large numbers….but they would have to eat in the school canteen. Of course it’s not just the school that makes my family ‘special’, the inability to sit still, workaholicism and constant need for all four of us to simultaneously talk over one another is probably our defining feature. So I shouldn’t really have been surprised that upon being welcomed home from a 2week tour and a journey home that totalled roughly 13hours I would not be encouraged to rest, but instead be informed that I would be attending dinner in the man who lives upstairs’ apartment for a meet and greet with some new colleagues of my father’s. I cannot believe how successful I was in staying awake during this meal, but it probably had something to do with how tasty the food was. Whilst I try not to review my friend’s cooking for fear of either offending them or inflating their ego too much, I was so impressed with the balance of the meal (and the very nice wine with it) I thought I’d describe what we ate.

The reason the dinner party worked so well was that the man who lives upstairs let the ingredients speak for themselves, always advocated in my book. We started with toasted sourdough bread, topped with broad beans, muddled with mint, a hint of garlic and lemon. This dish really let the broad beans shine, in fact my only criticism would be that it lacked a little seasoning but that may be because I have a palate for strong flavours. To be honest the only change is I would have served it sprinkled with a few crumbs of goats cheese, this would have dulled the occasional strong raw garlic flavour, but otherwise very fresh tasting and delicious.

The main was so good. I could not refuse seconds. One of my biggest weaknesses is chorizo. I always feel you can’t go wrong when slow roasting. But as someone who wouldn’t choose pork on a menu, this slow roasted pork with beans and chorizo was exceptional. Not spicy or overpowering just rich in meaty, salty, flavours with the meat that melted in the mouth and comforting butter bean texture. (The biggest compliment I could give was eating second portions of this as I had practically lived off a diet of beans for the past two weeks in Brazil and was pretty sick of them by then). This was served with pots of dauphinoise, always a winner, but I was deeply satisfied that the texture was right and the dauphinoise were full of flavour. People can always forget to flavour side dishes. I had to forgo second portions of the potatoes as I wasn’t really sure what meal I was eating, having had what felt like 4 dinners and 2 breakfasts in the past 48hours.

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The dessert was thankfully fairly light after the hearty main. A sort of blackberry marscapone custard served with Andretti biscuits. The best thing about this dish was that the sweetness and richness of the custard was off set by the tangibles and freshness of the whole blackberries studding the dish. Blackberries picked fresh…..from waitrose. This final dish really sent me to sleep and I excused myself to try and regain about 4days of lost sleep. Full marks for a well balanced and flavoursome meal!

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Salmon Risotto, Aldi’s finest

So Mark Francis and I are finally in the house together for the first time, me just back from Brazil (more on that later) him just back. The plan is to welcome him back from a long day at the office with a GandT and a home cooked meal of what Aldi has to offer. As I am technically unemployed at the moment I can’t really afford to splash the cash, so it is half a salmon fillet each (found in the freezer) and a pineapple I picked up for 59p from Aldi around which I create the menu. As we sit in the garden having a drink while dinner is cooking on the stove you’d almost think we were grown ups…..almost.

Salmon Risotto with peas and Swiss chard
(serves 2)

1 salmon fillet
100g risotto rice
1 bay leaf
Few sprigs of thyme
1tsp sesame oil
1 onion, chopped in to dice size pieces
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Swig of white alcohol (white wine, vermouth, sherry – I used an ancient bottle of Becherovka (look it up) donated to me by my parents)
600ml stock
4-5tbsp lemon juice
Vanilla extract
Peppercorns
Juniper berries
Salt
Large handful of Swiss chard
Large handful of frozen peas

1. Sauté the onions and garlic in the sesame oil and a large pinch of salt over a medium heat, stirring till they become translucent. Add the wine and let bubble. Add the rice, thyme and peppercorns. Let sit for 1 min, then add a little stock. Stir till stock is combined and then add more, repeat till the rice is al dente. Keep stirring it, try not to leave unattended, it will stick to the pan otherwise.
2. Meanwhile put 250ml water, the bay leaf, a few peppercorns, juniper berries and a few sprigs of thyme in a pan. Add the salmon fillet and bring to the boil slowly over a medium heat. Boil for 2 min, remove from the heat and set aside. When ready to serve remove the salmon leaving it in the water for at least 5mins. Remove the skin and cut in half, the salmon should be on the cusp of turning light pink, the innermost centre still darkish pink.
3. Empty out all but 2cm of the water, add the chard and a pinch of salt, cook over a medium heat for 2mins until dark green.
4. Add the vanilla, lemon juice and peas to the risotto, cook for a further 3mins till the peas have defrosted.
5. Serve with the risotto as a base on the plate, topped with the Swiss chard and finally the salmon.

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Home Sweet Home

Recently I’ve been feeling very grown up as I have officially moved out of the family home. This of course means I have to pay bills, learn the colours of the recycling bins, keep the place clean….but more importantly stock the kitchen. After living for two days without a fridge (it was incredibly depressing) our kitchen is now so well stocked, it’s hard to believe there are three novice renters living in it. We have an extraordinarily large collection of glasses and sharp knives (all three of us seem to own them somehow..), very few saucepans and crockery and of course my contributions, the kitchen aid, magimix, and chocolate moulds. There’s the three piece tea set, the wine rack, the canapé spoons, in fact all the essentials for a first time home really… Some might say that I don’t have my priorities straight, they certainly won’t be invited round to dinner any time soon! To christen this little haven, I headed round to my new favourite place, our local Aldi, to gather supplies for a meal for the new inmates. It was only when I’d cooked half of it that we realised the kitchen table Claire Balding and Mark Francis had been trying to put up in the corner was missing two legs, so it was a feast, eaten off a mini chest of drawers….

I’m still going through the avocado obsession faze, so for the starter I decided to make tortilla baskets, salmon ceviche and guacamole.

For the ceviche, I chopped 1/2 red onion, 1/2 red chilli, seeds removed,1garlic clove,a handful of coriander, 1 fillet of salmon, skinned and mixed them together with 1tsp olive oil,a large pinch of salt,black pepper and 3-4tbsp lime juice, to taste. Then I set it aside for about 1/2 hour in the fridge, during this time, the salmon turned a pleasing light pink colour ‘cooked’ by the lime juice.
Meanwhile, for the tortilla baskets, I divided a tortilla wrap into 4 quarters, and shaped each into a basket shape in a muffin tray. I baked them in the oven for about 8-10mins on high until golden and stiffened, then left to cool.
For the guacamole, I mashed 1 avocado with salt,pepper, small handful of chopped corianderand 1-2tsp lime juice.
Salmon in the basket, topped with guacamole and a coriander sprig, hey presto.

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The main was slightly more complicated, I have never eaten Beef Wellington.

Now I’ve given you a moment to get over that terrible fact, I decided to make it for the main course of this dinner alongside braised carrots, baby gem lettuce and peas. There are many different ideas about the ideal beef Wellington, whether you add a layer of Parma ham, foie gras or pancakes. But owing to budget and craving for simplicity I stuck to a simple layer of mushroom duxelles. Besides, I believe adding anything that might mean more moisture around the meat will result in a soggy bottom for the pastry. Then of course there’s the pastry itself, again I went for the classic puff (shop bought, there’s no point in making your own except to learn how to do it). However I was recently informed that brioche pastry is even better so I will be trying that in the future. Finally there’s the meat, this I was very insistent should be rump. Aldi turned up trumps, 1 rump steak, easily enough to feed two people for under £5, sorted. Unfortunately I have waste not, want not attitude so used all the pastry resulting in a disastrously skewered pastry to meat ratio and the pastry was a little undercooked on the bottom (I decided to sacrifice this rather than a perfectly medium rare steak when push came to shove). However I was told that it tasted pretty good nonetheless so the recipe is below, just try to hold back on the pastry.

Individual Beef Wellingtons with braised lettuce
1 large rump steak, trimmed of fat and divided into two pieces
1 packet of ready rolled puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
300g mixed mushrooms, finely chopped
Fresh thyme
2tbsp brandy
Splash of truffle oil
1 bay leaf
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
3-4 garlic cloves
1/2 red onion, finely chopped

For the sauce
2tbsp flour
300ml stock
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1tbsp brandy
Fresh thyme, chopped

For the braised lettuce
1 baby gem lettuce, broken into leaves
Peas
Carrots, chopped into discs
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
100ml stock (but 1 stock cube)
1tbsp butter
1/2tsp dried mint

1. Sear the meat over a high heat (try not to set the fire alarm off) for about 1 min each side, set aside to rest in the fridge. Add brandy and garlic for the sauce to this pan immediately then turn off the heat, this will be used later. Nb it will bubble furiously but should die down, put into a cold oven to keep the smoke out of the kitchen.
2. Meanwhile put the mushrooms, garlic, thyme, pepper, bay leaf and onion into a saucepan with a drizzle of olive oil and a hefty pinch of salt. When hot, add brandy to the pan and allow to bubble furiously before turning down the heat, cook until most of the moisture has been drawn out of the mushrooms, add truffle oil at the end of cooking. Set aside in the fridge to cool down.
3. It is important at this point to make sure both the meat and the mushroom mix is cold, or the pastry will melt, ideally your kitchen should be cool as well so maybe make the first two steps earlier in the day. Take out the pastry and brush with a layer of beaten egg. Apply a layer of the mushroom mix leaving a circle around the edge. Place the meat on top and wrap the pastry around, sealing the edges by pinching the pastry together and moulding to the meat, try as hard as you can not to have any gaps at all. Repeat with the second one.

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4. Brush with more beaten egg and refrigerate for 10mins.

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Preheat the oven to 200oC and bake for 25mins. Turn the heat down to 180oC and cook for a further 10mins till the pastry is golden.

5. Meanwhile add the flour to the saucepan with brandy in it from step 1, whisk furiously over a low heat to form a paste, gradually add the stock to the pan, whisking as you go to form a thin liquid, add the thyme and season to taste.
6. For the braised lettuce, Cook the carrots for 3-4mins with the stock, garlic, mint and butter. Add the peas, cook for a further 2mins, and finally the lettuce, cook for another 2mins.
7. Serve

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For dessert I reached another blockage, I discovered at this point in the meal that I was missing a crucial attachment for the magimix, so had to make the magic ice cream below in the kitchen aid and somehow it didn’t work, but prior experience means I know this recipe will most definitely work if you have the right equipment. This also means I didn’t take a picture.

Banana Ice Cream, salted caramel rum sauce, dark chocolate, coconut shortbread

For the Shortbread
60g room temperature coconut oil
80g flour
Vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
25g sugar

For the rest
2 bananas
200g caster sugar
2tbsp rum
50g butter
Vanilla extract
Large pinch of salt
2 squares of 85% dark chocolate

1. Mix the flour, vanilla, salt, sugar and coconut oil together to form a dough. Roll into a thick oblong shape and refrigerate for 30mins or more. Slice the oblong and lay on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated oven at 180oC for 10-15mins until golden brown, leave to harden on the tray.
2. Freeze the bananas, peeled and sliced. Just before serving, remove from the freezer and whizz up in a magimix for your own soft serve ice cream.
3. For the sauce, leave the butter, salt and sugar with 2tbsp water over a medium heat, do not stir but you may swirl. When just beginning to turn golden (nb this must be watched or it will be a hard gooey mess -toffee) take off the heat and add the rum and vanilla extract, stir as it bubbles furiously.
4. Serve the ice cream, topped with the sauce and a square of dark chocolate with the shortbread on the side.