I didn't eat chocolate until I was about fifteen years old. If I'd ever had to play that irritating "tell us your name and an interesting fact about yourself" game at that age, that would have been my interesting fact, largely because it always met with such sheer astonishment. People, especially my peers and teachers, were aghast. However, when considered on the spectrum of other things I didn't eat, it perhaps wasn't that strange, considering I also refused to consume most basic foodstuffs. I remember going on a French exchange at the age of about fourteen; the family wrote to me before I visited, asking if I had any dietary requirements. I wrote back, in French, a long list of things I wouldn't eat, including "pâtes et riz": pasta and rice. I can just picture the poor family's reaction as they opened this missive. It was fortunate that I didn't also say "fromage et boeuf", or they may have refused me entry to France altogether. That said, maybe that would have been a blessing: my exchange partner was an utterly bizarre human being, with eyebrows too enormous to be fully comprehensible, and a lingering body odour.
I didn't eat sweets, either. I remember I was once handed a sweet at a friend's birthday party when I was quite young. The other kids shrieked in delight and rapidly consumed their sugary lozenges. I contemplated mine for several minutes, feeling its smooth oblong contours and gazing curiously at the tiny bubbles of air trapped in the amber-like exterior. I didn't know what to do with it; giving it away would clearly reveal my awful secret dislike of sweets and no doubt cause endless social stigma for years to come. I would be friendless. I would be shunned by the sweet-eating cool kids, relegated to a lonely corner of the playground and pelted with sweet wrappers every break time. Yet I couldn't bring myself to ingest this alien, lurid, fructose-laden pellet of woe. Instead, when I was sure no one was looking, I scuffed a hole in the gravel driveway outside my friend's house with my shoe, and buried the sweetie under the pebbles with the same furtive glances and guilty conscience as if I were burying a freshly murdered corpse (I imagine).
I have absolutely no idea what finally caused me to try chocolate, nor do I remember my reaction upon first tasting it. Did I find it strange? Was it something I had to be weaned onto before addiction struck, like cigarettes? (Mother, if you're reading this, I am only speculating - tobacco has never passed my lips). Or was I instantly in love? I wish I could remember. Was it a good quality bar of the finest dark stuff that first got me hooked on cocoa? Or was it something in foil from a box of Celebrations? Probably the latter. I do remember, though, that quite soon after I found chocolate, I found Twirl bars. I loved the way the outer hard casing gave way to that irresistibly flaky, melt-in-the-mouth, crumbly chocolate centre. These were a favourite of mine for a while; I think it was probably a good couple of years or so before I enjoyed real dark chocolate. Though I still have a soft spot for the commercial, sugar-heavy variety. Sometimes nothing hits the spot quite like a square of Cadburys fruit and nut.
That said, I am still not what you'd call a chocoholic. My friends know this; they are constantly bemoaning the fact that a box of Ferrero Rocher that I received for my birthday seven months ago still sits, over half full, in my bedroom (and the only reason it isn't more full is because they help themselves to it every time they visit, convinced they're doing me a favour). It's not that I don't really like chocolate; I just like it in very small doses. I love Ferrero Rocher, but I'm just pretty good with willpower. Very rarely will I get a sudden craving for a big bar of chocolate; if I do, a couple of mouthfuls will normally sate said craving, especially if it's dark chocolate, which I find so flavoursome and intense I can only stomach a couple of bites. It's a different story for those Lindor truffles or the easter bunnies in gold wrapping, though...I could easily polish off a whole one if I didn't have aforementioned willpower of steel (you need it, to write a food blog).
Chocolate just isn't something I go completely mad for. I would never order a chocolate-based dessert in a restaurant, and I rarely bake them either. I much prefer fruit-based desserts, largely because they're often more exciting and inventive, and because I love fruit more than I love chocolate. Fruity desserts possess that necessary tartness required to balance out creaminess or sugar; chocolatey desserts all too often err on the side of sickliness. Give me a ripe mango or pear over a box of Lindor any day. Weird, but true. I crave chocolate maybe once a month, and I can't eat it without a cup of tea or coffee - I hate the way it coats your mouth; you need hot liquid to dissolve it from between your teeth or your mouth just feels horrible. This is good, because it means I'm unlikely to eat chocolate on a whim; I have to really sit down and take my time over it, alternating sips of steaming tea with little nibbles of sugary goodness. It takes me, on average, over a week to eat a normal, small bar of Dairy Milk, the kind most people would wolf down without a second thought mid-afternoon. People find this absurd and infuriating, but that's just me.
Fruit is better than chocolate in my opinion. However, when you combine the two, you have something incredibly special, far more than the sum of its parts. Many fruits pair extremely well with chocolate. Oranges, pears, figs (you can buy dried figs coated in chocolate in posh delis all over Italy) bananas and strawberries all go exceedingly well, but most other fruits will work too, except maybe apple or melon. Just think of those awful ubiquitous chocolate fountains you get at parties; pretty much any fruit tastes good dipped in those (though it won't when I tell you that those things are at least 30% oil, in order to get the chocolate to flow properly, and very likely to breed horrible bacteria because of their consistently warm temperatures).
Another classic combination is chocolate and cherries. This works well not just from a flavour point of view; the glossy purple-red skin of a cherry looks beautiful paired with a muted canvas of dark, silky chocolate. The slight tang and sweetness of good cherries is just what you need to lift the deep richness of good chocolate. I've been toying with the idea of a cherry and chocolate mousse for a while, especially because the cherry season is in full swing and there are some lovely (and extraordinarily cheap) specimens around at the moment. However, mousse is another thing I'm not hugely fond of; I generally like my desserts to have a bit more texture. Basically, I love them to be stodgy and satisfying, like a good crumble (incidentally, cherry and chocolate crumble is something I am going to have to try). Mousse just doesn't sate me in a way something packed with flour, butter and sugar will.
I say that, but this cake doesn't actually contain any butter. In fact, apart from the fairly small quantity of good quality dark chocolate it contains, it is fat free. I debated whether to tell you that, because it makes it sound like it will be dry and horrible. In fact, it's entirely the opposite. Something magical happens when you put the very loose mixture, thickened using beaten egg whites, into the oven. The outside hardens to a flaky crisp while the inside stays molten and gooey, rather like a chocolate fondant. When eaten warm, it basically tastes like a chocolate fondant, but with the immensely pleasurable squash of a tart, juicy cherry every couple of mouthfuls. I've made this before with brandy-soaked prunes, but the cherry version is even better, because of the juiciness and the slight sourness. I too often find cherries rather disappointing; they don't seem to have a real flavour, just a generic burst of tart juice that I can take or leave, unlike the clear fragrance of a strawberry or blackcurrant. However, they take to heat very well, so are perfect for tucking into the chocolate-rich batter of this cake, where they give just the right subtle fruitness to balance it without overpowering and hogging the limelight.
This is an incredibly easy cake; you add beaten egg whites and flour to a liquid mixture of molten chocolate, boiling water, sugar and cocoa powder. The result is an extremely runny batter, more like a crepe mixture, that looks like it will never work as you pour it into the tin and drop pitted cherries into it, watching them sink into the chocolatey lake like quicksand swallowing a hapless wanderer. Yet under an hour later, you remove a perfectly formed cake from the oven, perfuming your kitchen with that irresistible aroma of baked cocoa. I decided to adorn it with nothing more than a drizzle of almond-flavoured icing: just icing sugar, almond essence, and a drop of water. It hardens to a satisfying crunch, the pronounced, bakewell-like almond flavour marrying incredibly well with the rich chocolate and juicy cherries. The cake in itself isn't too sweet, so the icing sets it off nicely, and the contrast in textures between the crispy exterior of the cake with its crunchy icing and its warm, oozing interior is sublime.
I love this cake. I love it even more because it's basically guilt-free, but tastes like something that is laden with butter and sugar. It really is just as good as a melting chocolate fondant, but accompanied by none of the self-loathing. The inside stays almost liquid; you need a spoon rather than a fork to eat it which, when chocolate is concerned, can only be a good thing. Served still warm from the oven, I can think of few better things to enjoy for dessert or just with a cup of tea. The scarlet cherries studded throughout the dark, melting cake batter lift it from delicious to incredible; I can't think of a better combination. Because I so rarely eat chocolatey desserts, I often forget just how wonderful they can be, and how fine a thing chocolate actually is. This reminded me.
I might have to go and eat one of those Ferrero Rocher now...
Cherry and chocolate cake with almond icing (makes one 20cm cake):
- 300g cherries, pitted, plus extra for serving
- 75g good quality dark cooking chocolate, broken into small pieces
- 25g cocoa powder
- 150g muscovado sugar
- 150ml boiling water
- 25g caster sugar
- 4 egg whites
- 75g plain flour
- 5 tbsp icing sugar
- 1/2 tsp almond essence
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin. Mix the boiling water, cocoa, chocolate and muscovado sugar in a mixing bowl, stirring until thoroughly melted.
Whisk the egg whites until stiff and you can turn the bowl upside down without them moving. Whisk in the sugar until the mixture has the consistency of shaving foam.
Sift the flour into the chocolate mixture and fold in with a spoon until incorporated. Add a spoonful of the egg white mixture to the chocolate and fold it in to loosen it, then add the rest of the chocolate to the egg whites. Fold in gently, being careful not to knock all the air out of the whites, until just incorporated.
Pour into the prepared tin and drop the cherries over the surface of the batter. Place in the oven and bake for 35 minutes until just firm.
For the icing, mix the icing sugar, almond essence, and a little water to achieve a fairly thick paste, but one that you can still drizzle over the top of the cake. Serve with extra fresh cherries.