Romance in a ramekin for Valentine’s Day. Simple to make and guaranteed (probably) to melt the hardest heart
St Valentine’s Day is upon us again, with the usual vanilla menu ranging from the vaguely phallic (asparagus, figs, god-help-us sausages) to the alleged aphrodisiacal (oysters, chillies) via the slightly depressing idea that you can buy love, or at least the pretence of it, with fillet steak and rosy red berries from the other side of the world.
Call me hopelessly unromantic, but I believe you don’t win someone’s heart with pricey ingredients, or even generous helpings of potassium, but with the food they love, whether that happens to be dal, dumplings, or even spotted dick and custard. But if you’re not entirely sure what they like at this stage, chocolate, whatever its rumoured effect on serotonin production, is a fairly safe bet.
Not that that narrows the options much: chocolate is not only universally popular, but incredibly versatile. But, assuming that fancy tarts and voluptuous souffles are not an option (who wants to risk serving up a defiantly unsexy brown puddle on this of all days?), and you’re not brave enough to chance a fondant, I’d recommend minimising stress, and maximising the amount of time you can spend ironing your pants/putting the kids to bed, with a chocolate pot.
Smoother and richer than a mousse, and even easier to make in advance, it’s an almost failsafe way to win their heart. (And if it’s not their heart you’re after, it pairs excellently with a banana lewdly spurting whipped cream. Just saying.)
As with all chocolate dishes with any pretensions to sophistication, the chocolate pot is almost always made with dark, rather than milk chocolate, though rarely with one as punchy as the 100% cocoa variety demanded by Hotel Chocolat which, in the absence of any added sugar, proves inedible for my tasters, who throw down their spoons in appropriately bitter disappointment. (Lucky I’m not trying to woo any of them.)
Margot Henderson, writing in You’re All Invited, Simon Hopkinson in Roast Chicken and Other Stories, and chef Tom Kerridge all call simply for dark chocolate (“at least 70% cocoa”) while Sylvain Jamois’s recipe for Green & Black’s uses its 70% cooking chocolate, and Chantal Coady of Rococo goes for a mix of its 61 and 70% cocoa solid bars in her book of the same name.
Because I’d like a certain cocoa heft to mine, I’m going to use an 85% cocoa version, which I try in Hopkinson’s recipe to some success, and balance it with sugar, though if you would prefer it milder, feel free to use a lower cocoa content and adjust the sweetness accordingly.
Henderson and Hopkinson use icing sugar, Kerridge uses dark muscovado, and Coady, Jamois and Hotel Chocolat eschew it altogether, which makes sense if you are using a fairly sweet chocolate to start with. Icing sugar melts easily, but the panel is very taken with the dark caramel overtones of Kerridge’s choice, which echoes the bittersweet flavour of the chocolate itself.
I am gratified, though somewhat surprised to discover that there is no strict need to use any dairy at all in a chocolate pot; Coady’s spring water ganache is, as the name suggests, made with boiling water, though she suggests this can be substituted with a “light fragrant tea” or even Champagne “though I think it’s a bit of a waste”. Vegans: feel free to push the boat out.
That said, although the water allows the bright acidity of the chocolate to shine through, this is a special-occasion dish, and deserves the richness of dairy – though perhaps not quite as much richness as Kerridge’s all-double-cream version, which feels a bit heavy and dense in comparison with those recipes that use milk as well, or even water and whipping cream, as Jamois recommends.
A ratio of about two-parts cream (whipping, on the grounds that the 13% fat saved from double will no doubt be the thing that stops you both falling asleep on the sofa afterwards) to one-part milk is fairly standard. Hotel Chocolat whips the cream before use, but this makes it hard to combine with the other ingredients, and in any case, there seems little point when we are aiming for a smooth, rather than airy texture.
Coady’s vegan version is predictably egg-free, as is Jamois’s recipe, while Henderson, Hopkinson and Kerridge use the yolks alone. Hotel Chocolat whips the egg white to soft peaks before adding it to the yolk and chocolate mixture, which along with the aforementioned whipped cream, gives their pots a lovely fluffy texture quite distinct from the rest.
Silky richness is the name of the game here, though, and the winner on that count is Henderson, who beats her yolks and sugar together until voluminous before stirring in the melted chocolate and dairy. This traps just enough air to save the pots from the claggy denseness that afflicts some of the others, but not quite enough to turn them into a mousse; they are still smooth and rich, rather than bubbly and light.
The world is your saucy oyster if you fancy getting fancy with some complementary spicing: Jamois and Hopkinson infuse their milk with vanilla, and Hotel Chocolat uses cardamom and orange, but cinnamon and nutmeg, or ginger, or even a pinch of salt on top, would all float my boat … as would plain and simple chocolate.
Many of the recipes call for the chocolate to be melted in a bain marie, but this creates unnecessary washing up – it’s much easier to melt it in the hot cream before you add it to the yolks and sugar. (You’ll thank me when you’re in your glad rags, trust me.)
Hopkinson is the only one to bake his chocolate pots, in a low oven, its gentle heat tempered by a protective bain marie. This gives them a delicious crust on top, but otherwise, I don’t think the (admittedly minimal) effort required is worth it when they can be set much more easily in the fridge. Take the time to have a shower instead. Valentine’s Day comes but once a year, after all.
The perfect chocolate pot
(serves 4; for a romantic two, use 2 egg yolks and halve the rest of the ingredients)
250ml whipping cream
100ml whole milk
150g dark chocolate, about 85% cocoa
40g dark muscovado sugar
3 egg yolks
Slowly bring the cream and milk to a simmer in a smallish pan. Meanwhile coarsely chop the chocolate or, more satisfyingly, whack it, still in its packaging, several times against a hard surface. (Pretend it’s a particularly offensive ex, if that helps.)
Put the sugar and yolks in a medium heatproof bowl and whisk them, preferably with electric beaters if you have them, until pale and voluminous.
Add the chocolateto the pan and remove from the heat. Allow it to sit for a minute, then stir vigorously until the mixture is an even brown colour and the chocolate has all melted.
Pour the hot chocolate cream on to the yolks and sugar, whisking vigorously as you do so, then divide between ramekins and allow to cool completely. Cover and chill for at least an hour before serving.
Chocolate pots: the obvious choice, or just plain obvious? If you’re planning to cook a romantic meal this weekend, what’s on the menu – or are you planning a bah-humbug Pot Noodle instead?
This article was written by Felicity Cloake, for theguardian.com on Thursday 11th February 2016 08.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010