Friday Photo Challenge – Easter

To those of you who celebrate Easter – enjoy! To those of you that don’t, well you’re going to have to find another excuse to eat copious amounts of chocolate. Good luck with that!

Weather permitting, my beloved and I will be out and about on our bikes hoping to offset the ravages of all that chocolate. I just have to find where these two have hidden all the eggs.

The Musette: Brownies

Hands up who doesn’t love brownies? Thought so! This is a recipe from Hannah Grant’s The Grand Tour Cook Book that I’ve tweaked and have cooked for numerous professional cyclists. It’s universally popular and, according to my beloved, is my best brownie recipe ever. I should warn you, he’s not lightly given to exaggeration.

At this time of year, many of the pros, including my crack team of taste testers, are trying to lose that last stubborn kilogram so cakes are only permitted post-race. Strade Bianche’s a tough race, riding over the white gravel sections requires total concentration and don’t get me started on that final climb up into the Piazza. I checked the start list, saw two of my friends were riding, and cooked up a few batches of brownies to take with me.

These are deliciously rich and gooey, so just a small finger does the trick. One tray’s enough for eight riders, even after that gargantuan effort.

Ingredients (makes enough for 16 cyclists)

  • 375g (3 sticks and 3tbsp) unsalted  butter
  • 375g (14oz) 70% dark chocolate, chopped
  • 375g (14oz) unrefined cane sugar
  • 6 large organic eggs, weighing approx 45g (1⅔oz) without shell
  • 225g (8oz) almond flour
  • 1 tsp instant espresso coffee powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 150g chopped walnuts (optional)

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 175°C/155°C fan/gas mark 3 (325°F/300°F fan).

2. Grease the base and sides of two  baking tins. I typically use a disposable tin-foil one measuring 18cm x 23cm x  5cm (6” x 9” x 2″) – they’re great for storing the brownies in the freezer – which I line with a couple of strips of greaseproof paper to make it easier to remove them. In addition, I find it’s an easy size and shape to slice into fingers for serving.

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3. Melt together the chocolate and butter either in the microwave on a medium setting or in a glass bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water (bain-marie), whisk to combine and allow to cool. Add the coffee powder, vanilla essence, salt and whisk to combine.

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4. Beat the eggs and sugar together to dissolve the sugar.

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5. Now lightly fold in the melted chocolate mix, the almond flour and walnuts with a spatula.

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6. Pour the mixture into the two baking tins and bake for 30-35 minutes. The top of the cake at the edges should be crinkly and a skewer or toothpick inserted in the centre should still have some mixture clinging to it.

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7. Let the brownies cool in the tins and then refrigerate to firm up before cutting. Because of the fat content, I store the brownies in the fridge. They’ll keep for a week  – providing they’re well hidden – equally, they’ll happily sit in the freezer for a month.

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Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the brownies in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you don’t like your brownies to be this dark, substitute a chocolate with a lower percentage of chocolate.

4. I have made them with and without walnuts – your choice. Or substitute the walnuts with chopped pecans or hazelnuts.

5. These are so rich, they need no further adornment. However, my beloved enjoys them with a dollop of crème fraiche.

There’s no such thing as too much

Yummy

I hate to be the bearer of bad news so soon after the festive season but, start stockpiling chocolate, a cocoa crisis is looming. Yes, according to the scaremongers, chocolate will soon be considered as luxurious as caviar, and just as expensive. Those City boys are going to be buying cocoa futures like there’s no tomorrow, which will only exacerbate the problem.  

Allegedly, within the next eight years there will be a million ton cocoa shortage, forcing significant price rises in chocolate and related products. It’s the fault of those in the East who have developed a taste for Western treats. Hands off our Mars bars!

I sense the problem’s already begun. One of my current favourite television adverts features tennis player Roger Federer (who knew he had a sense of humour?) going through Customs with a tennis bag full of round Lindor truffles which look like tennis balls in the X-ray machine. The stunningly attractive Customs officials first taste and then confiscate the chocolate while threatening/promising Roger with a strip search.

It’s obviously a spoof as anyone who travels knows that absolutely none of the customs officials look like the two women in the advert. Though they might well confiscate your goodies and subject you to a quick once over with the marigolds.

I understand the real crux of the cocoa problem is low yields and inefficient farming methods in the prime cocoa producing areas, largely in West Africa.

Chocolate comes from the dried and fermented seeds of the tropical Theobroma (meaning food of the gods) cacao tree. They’re small and require rich, well-drained soil. They naturally grow within 20 degrees of either side of the equator because they need about 2000 millimetres of rainfall per annum, and temperatures in the range of 21 to 32 °C. Cacao trees cannot tolerate a temperature lower than 15 °C. (Damm won’t be able to grow any on the balcony.)

The three main varieties of beans used in chocolate are criollo, forastero, and trinitario. Criollo is the rarest and most expensive cocoa on the market, and is native to Central America, the Caribbean and South America. Criollos are particularly tricky to grow and produce low yields. The most common bean is forastero, a native of the Amazon basin. The African cocoa crop is entirely of the forastero variety and they are significantly hardier and of higher yield than criollo. Trinitario is a natural hybrid of the other two varieties and hails from Trinidad.

To harvest cacao, the fully ripened pods are cut from the tree and the beans and surrounding pulp are extracted and placed in bins to ferment for about seven days. The beans are then spread in the sun for 5-7 days to dry quickly and to prevent mould growth before being taken to the chocolate factory to be cleaned, roasted and graded. The shell of each bean is removed to extract the nib. Finally, the nibs are ground and liquefied, resulting in pure chocolate in fluid form which can be further processed into cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

Chocolate liquor is blended with the cocoa butter in varying quantities to make different types of chocolate or couvertures. The finest, plain dark chocolate couvertures contain at least 70% cocoa (both solids and butter), whereas milk chocolate usually contains up to 50%. High-quality white chocolate couvertures contain only about 35% cocoa. Accept nothing but the best! It’s like wine in this respect; don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t eat.

Chocolate first started life as a beverage enjoyed either hot or cold. It was imported into Europe after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. It quickly became a Spanish court favourite and within the next century its popularity spread throughout Europe with the first chocolate house opening in London in 1657 and in 1689, noted physician and collector Hans Sloane created a milk chocolate drink.

Come the Industrial Revolution, the Italians invented the first form of solid chocolate. The Swiss jumped on the bandwagon and opened the first chocolate factory. Then the Dutch patented a method for extracting the fat from cocoa beans to make powdered cocoa and cocoa butter. But it was the Germans who made the first chocolate bar swiftly followed by the British, J S Fry & Sons. Enter the Cadbury Brothers from Birmingham and the rest is history.

Or is it? Part II to follow