Thursday, 31 July 2014

Bean to Bar: Making Chocolate with Hotel Chocolat



Bean to Bar at Hotel Chocolat's School of Chocolate

A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends drew my attention to a Hotel Chocolat chocolate-making course. And I don't mean taking bars of chocolate and turning them into truffles (although that's also fun). I mean taking actual cocoa beans and turning them into a recognisable food product.

I've long been fascinated with the processes of food production, so I knew a little bit about the theory, but the chance to get some hands-on experience was just too tempting. Especially since the course was buy-one-get-one-free for the whole of July (now also extended into August). I would have felt £65 was a little pricey for a 2-hour course, but split between two of us it felt more reasonable.

So Katie and I headed down to London.

The day started off with a little unplanned excitement when our train was cancelled, but fortunately I have a major paranoia about travel plans going awry, so I'd booked us on one an hour earlier than we really needed, and we got there with about two minutes to spare.

We were welcomed with glasses of prosecco and tasters of chocolate, to give everyone the chance to experience a few different varieties of cocoa as chocolatier Bethany talked us through the finer points of cocoa production.

And then we got the chance to eat roasted cocoa beans, which are surprisingly nutty in flavour. When you crush them between your fingers, the scent of chocolate really comes out, but the taste isn't quite what you would expect. I found myself wishing I had a salad to garnish.

Bean to Bar at Hotel Chocolat's School of Chocolate

One of the more surprising highlights of the afternoon was the chance to try the fruit of a cocoa pod. Usually, this is left to ferment around the beans, but it is also edible in its own right. It doesn't have much structural integrity after the seeds have been removed, so it was served in a glass. Despite the strange appearance, it was quite nice, tasting similar to lychee with a hint of lemon.

Bean to Bar at Hotel Chocolat's School of Chocolate

The process of transforming cocoa nibs into chocolate is called conching, and consists of grinding the cocoa for many hours until the cocoa butter melts out and the mixture becomes smooth. In industrial production, this is achieved with a large, purpose-built machine:

Bean to Bar at Hotel Chocolat's School of Chocolate

For our afternoon's activity, however, we were going to replicate the process with a pestle and mortar. Propped up with a little more prosecco, and helped out by pre-warming of the mortar, we got busy grinding until the cocoa (and later, the sugar) was reduced to a shiny paste.

Bean to Bar at Hotel Chocolat's School of Chocolate

Bean to Bar at Hotel Chocolat's School of Chocolate

Bean to Bar at Hotel Chocolat's School of Chocolate

Bean to Bar at Hotel Chocolat's School of Chocolate


Sunday, 27 July 2014

White Chocolate Berry Cheesecake



White Chocolate Berry Cheesecake

We recently discovered a new neighbourhood café, which as well as offering a decent lunchtime selection of soups and salads, has some wonderful cakes. My favourite is a raspberry and white chocolate cheesecake - which was so good I just had to replicate it at home.

The only change I made was to include some strawberries amongst the raspberries - for variety, or because even a huge punnet of raspberries wasn't quite enough to make two layers and I happened to have some strawberries in the fridge (take your pick as to which reason you believe, but it was nice).

I didn't have a recipe to follow, but melting white chocolate into the cheesecake mixture definitely worked to create a creamy, chocolatey base.

White Chocolate Berry Cheesecake

White Chocolate Berry Cheesecake

White Chocolate Berry Cheesecake
Serves 8-10

150g (5¼oz) digestive biscuits
65g (2¼oz) butter
150g (5¼oz) strawberries
300g (10½oz) raspberries150g (5¼oz) white chocolate
200ml (6¾ fl.oz) double cream
400g (14oz) cream cheese
50g (2oz) icing sugar
1tsp pure vanilla extract

  1. Use greaseproof paper to line the base of an 18cm (7in) loose-bottomed cake tin.
  2. Crush the biscuits (I use the end of a rolling pin), melt the butter, and stir through the crumbs until thoroughly combined. Press this mixture into the base of the cake tin, and refrigerate for an hour.
  3. Reserve enough fruit to fully cover the top of the cheesecake, and chop the remainder onto the chilled biscuit base.
  4. Melt 100g of the chocolate, and keep warm enough to maintain a pourable consistency.
  5. Whip the cream until stiff.
  6. Combine the cream cheese, icing sugar, and vanilla in a separate bowl.
  7. Stir the melted chocolate into the cream cheese mixture.
  8. Fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture.
  9. Spoon the cheesecake mixture on top of the base, pressing down firmly onto the fruit. Smoothe the top with a spatula.
  10. Refrigerate before serving, for at least 2-3 hours (preferably overnight).
  11. Arrange the remaining fruit on top of the cheesecake.
  12. Melt the remaining chocolate, and drizzle over the berries.



Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Avocado & Sweetcorn Summer Salad



Summer salad with avocado & sweetcorn

Like everyone, I struggle a bit to eat as healthily as I might like. There are always so many tempting dishes, and my tastebuds can't be relied upon to pick out the option that's actually best for me in the long run. Every now and then, though, you stumble upon something that hits exactly the right balance of moreishly delicious and utterly virtuous.

This salad is made from just five ingredients, so it's simple and really quick to put together. The flavours and textures are in perfect balance: creamy avocado and crunchy peppers, sweet corn and spicy rocket.

And because the flavours are so bright, you really don't need to add any dressing.

5:2 Intermittent Fasting button5:2 Diet
At under 230 calories, this is a perfect 5:2 lunch option. Almost all of the calories come from the avocado and sweetcorn; you could add more of the other ingredients without significantly affecting the calorie count.

Summer salad with avocado & sweetcorn

Avocado & Sweetcorn Summer Salad
Serves 2

1 avocado
½ red pepper
10 cherry plum tomatoes
1 cup (100g) sweetcorn
2 large handfuls rocket (arugula)
  1. Cut the avocado into small cubes, slice the pepper, and cut the tomatoes in half.
  2. Toss the chopped vegetables together with the sweetcorn.
  3. Arrange the rocket on two plates, and top with the vegetable mixture.
  4. Serve with an optional twist of black pepper.


Monday, 14 July 2014

Spinach & Artichoke Cheesey Pasta (Secret Recipe Club)



Spinach & Artichoke Pasta

Secret Recipe Club

My assignment for the Secret Recipe Club this month was to make something from Mostly Food and Crafts. Danielle's blog has dozens of gorgeous recipes, including a whole section just for beans, and some really tempting desserts. I'm trying to be just a little bit more healthy this month, though, so in the end I tore myself away from the cakes and went back to the savoury options.

One of the dishes I've repeatedly fallen in love with on recent trips to the US is a spinach and artichoke dip. Hot dips were a bit of a novelty to me the first time I tried it, and this one contains a few of my favourite ingredients. I'd even been thinking, a couple of weeks ago, that such a dip would make a great pasta sauce to try when I got home.

So when I saw that Danielle had a recipe for cheesey baked penne with spinach and artichokes, I knew what I was making for SRC this month. This was a really easy recipe, and brought back a lot of happy memories.

I've adapted the recipe slightly, adding a little cream cheese to make the whole thing more creamy. I used fresh spinach rather than frozen, but I can't imagine that would make much difference: it just happens to be in season (and in my garden!). I also converted the recipe into metric units, and I'm feeding two rather than a family.

Spinach & Artichoke Pasta

Spinach & Artichoke Cheesey Pasta
Serves 2

200g (8oz) dried pasta
135g (½ cup) cream cheese
150g (1 cup) grated mozzarella cheese
8 artichoke hearts (1 tin, 240g)
2 large handfuls of spinach
fresh ground black pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F).
  2. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.
  3. Mince the artichokes and cut the spinach into strips.
  4. Drain the pasta and return to the saucepan.
  5. Stir the cream cheese and mozzarella into the pasta, along with the vegetables.
  6. Warm over a low heat until the cheese melts.
  7. Season to taste with black pepper.
  8. Decant into an oven-proof dish and bake for 5-10 minutes until the top begins to brown.




Sunday, 6 July 2014

Ships & Trains in Baltimore



Baltimore Ship Museum

I've been to the US a few times now, but until I went there for a conference last month, I have to admit that all I knew of Baltimore was from The Wire. Which wasn't exactly encouraging me to visit. (Equally troubling was the note in the conference program, on running routes around town, with its simple injunction: "Don't run north.")

However, there's actually a surprising amount to do, and I didn't struggle at all to fill my spare weekends. Two museums that appealed to my wanderlust and love of history were the Historic Ships in the Inner Harbor, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.

I went round the lighthouse and two of the four ships, of which my favourite was the submarine, USS Torsk. I've been in a submarine before, and each time, it makes me just a little bit envious of the minimalism that such confined living quarters must require of the inhabitants. Each bunk lifts up to reveal just enough storage space for neatly-rolled shirts and a few personal effects. Trying to cater for the whole crew, in a kitchen the size of a postage stamp, would also be a significant challenge.

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Going rather further backwards in time, the USS Constellation is a three-masted wooden frigate that dates to the 18th century. As well as the complex rigging, highlights included an impressive gun deck full of cannon, and sleeping accommodation that really highlighted the difference in status between officers and crew.

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

Baltimore Ship Museum

A little further out of town (it felt a lot further in the sweltering heat and high humidity of summer), the B&O Railroad Museum is a collection of trains dating from the beginning of the American railroads through to the end of the Age of Steam. The exhibits celebrate the route which used to run from Baltimore all the way to Columbus, Ohio. As well as a number of imposing engines with wheels taller than I am, highlights for me included the very old carriages styled after a horse-drawn carriage, the specialised trains used as post sorting offices and mobile laboratories, and the 'Gratitude Train' sent as a gift from France to the state of Maryland after the Second World War.

Baltimore Railroad Museum

Baltimore Railroad Museum

Baltimore Railroad Museum

Baltimore Railroad Museum

Baltimore Railroad Museum

Baltimore Railroad Museum


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