• Easter Entertaining

    At Easter, when you’re likely to have a house full of family for at least some if not all of the long weekend, there is inevitably going to be a lot going on in the kitchen. Having made it through lean lent, it is an opportunity for indulgence; a chance to enjoy those treats which we might have denied ourselves for the preceding 40 days, and many other delicacies besides. The festival atmosphere is enhanced by the arrival of Spring, the longer days and budding gardens, and in our house the mood of celebration is inevitably articulated in the kitchen where the table groans under the resulting fare.

    When I’m feeling particularly joyous, a favourite way of mine to pass time before the throngs descend is to make chocolates to give as presents at Easter, rather than relying entirely on the Easter Bunny. This is a lot easier than it might sound and by simply combining some melted good quality chocolate with interesting flavours you can soon be packaging up some seriously impressive looking, and tasting, treats. White chocolate combined with very finely chopped rosemary and some sea salt is an absolute sensation and can completely convert those who normally find white chocolate far too sickly sweet. Similarly, tiny pieces of stem ginger and some crushed fennel seeds can temper the bitterness of good dark chocolate and deliver a wonderfully complex combination of flavours. Having mixed the ingredients together, I just spread the mixture as evenly as possible with a large palette knife into a very thin layer and put it somewhere very cool (but not the fridge) to harden. Spreading it constantly while it cools, ideally on a cold surface, leads to something close to tempering which makes these chocolate much more professional looking and easier to handle. Finally I break it into roughly square shaped pieces and arrange these in a small box or bag to be sealed with some pretty ribbon and delivered to the lucky recipient.

    When you want to give everyone a properly special Easter Day or weekend it’s fun to try lots of new and exciting recipes but, keen to avoid bursting the happy bubble with any kind of culinary stress, I also like to fall back on old favourites which I absolutely know will not let me down and the making of which won’t risk denting the positivity that reigns at this time of year. A smattering of these old friends amongst the experimental means that you are guaranteed success at some point, and I particularly like to save them for pudding; finishing on a high is good for everyone’s morale.

    Having a solid collection of these “safety first” recipes up one’s sleeve is of course invaluable for an obviously big occasion like Easter but they can also be extremely useful on slighter but just as critical events all year round. I am the youngest of four sisters and can categorically state that my mother’s most reliable and oft relied on dish was “new boyfriend pudding”. Every time one of us came home for lunch with a new suitor in tow, we could relax in the knowledge that whatever else happened in our slightly bonkers household, the all-important pudding would come up trumps. I should probably be dreading the day our daughter comes home with her first boyfriend but a small part of me is not only rather excited about carrying on the tradition but also reassured in the knowledge that even if we embarrass her in every other way, new boyfriend pudding won’t let her down. It is a fantastically simple confection: your favourite shortbread recipe (I’ve always favoured the 3:2:1 approach, referring to the relative quantities of flour, butter and sugar) baked into two circles approximately 10” in diameter and used to form a sandwich filled with pureed apple spiked with cinnamon and raisins. For ease of serving, it’s a good idea to score one of the circles into 8 wedges when it comes out of the oven. Once everything is completely cool you can then place these wedges in a neat circle on top of the filling which not only ensures that nobody can complain about being short changed but also that everything stays neatly in place when it is carved up. A last minute dredging of icing sugar lends a degree of finesse and otherwise all it needs is to be served with some very cold single cream. Everything can be prepared well in advance and then assembled an hour or two before serving. For something so incredibly simple it seems ridiculous how delicious it is; the ultimate crowd (and new boyfriend) pleaser.

    My main recipe below is another that has been awarded with “reliability guaranteed” status and one that is a particular favourite of mine for Easter lunch. Apart from being completely failsafe, this “nearly flourless” chocolate cake also fulfils the other critical criteria for this feasting weekend: firstly of course it’s chocolate, unavoidably, as this is always desperately needed after new year’s resolutions swiftly followed by lent; secondly it’s prepared in advance which is absolutely essential when one has a houseful; finally it’s infinitely adornable, whether you choose to take advantage of this unique excuse to cover chocolate with more (and more) chocolate or in rather more sophistication fashion to temper its richness with some fruity sharpness. Most importantly of course, it’s absolutely delicious, delivering a great bit chocolate hit without any accompanying heaviness.

    I think of it as the culinary version of the “little black dress” in that by being dressed either up or down it can be used on pretty much any occasion. After the recipe below I have suggested some Easter-esque toppings and if you’re relaxed enough about these things it’s a lovely chance to let the children loose with some mini eggs or chocolate bunnies and allow them free rein to embellish to their hearts’ content. However this is also a wonderful recipe for all times of year and you can adapt the topping to suit the season and the occasion. Occasionally I have cut this cake into small squares to serve almost like a mini brownie with coffee after dinner, but mostly I leave it whole, smother the top with whipped, sweetened cream and then adorn it with any manner of topping appropriate to the season.

    Strawberries and raspberries obviously (a bit of mint goes well here), mango dressed with passion fruit, softened autumnal berries with or without some freshly torn basil, caramelised or plain oranges, pomegranate seeds; broken meringues stirred through the cream, the list goes on. Ultimately, the endless possibilities make this an infinitely adaptable pudding which can be brought out in its different guises time and time again. It is one which I hope will soon be on your list of dead certs to be brought out on any occasion when you want everything to be just perfect.

    Nearly Flourless Chocolate Cake

    For the cake

    220g butter

    340g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces

    4 eggs

    150g caster sugar

    1 tsp flour

    For the sweetened cream

    150ml double cream

    30g icing sugar

    Pre heat the oven to 180˚C. Line a tin (mine is 22cm square) with baking parchment, making sure the parchment sits proud of the cake tin so that you will be able to use it to lift the whole cake out when it’s done.

    Put the chocolate and butter into a bowl over a barely simmering pan of water and leave to melt slowly, stirring now and then. While that’s happening, combine the caster sugar and eggs into a large bowl and whisk until they are pale, light and much increased in size; this can take 8 – 10 minutes so a free standing mixer is invaluable. Once the chocolate and butter have melted leave them to cool a little and then fold them, along with the teaspoon of flour, very carefully into the egg/sugar mixture trying to keep as much air in the mixture as possible.

    Pour the mix into your cake tin and bake for 25 minutes or until there is a crust on the top but it’s still looking gooey underneath; ovens vary hugely so it’s worth checking after 20 minutes as, much like with brownies, you really don’t want to overcook it. Turn the oven off and leave the cake with the door open for 15 minutes or so; this isn’t essential but will help to minimise the cracks which are inevitable as it cools.

    When it is freshly cooked it will be proudly puffed up but I’m afraid will sink rather depressingly as it cools. However this should be welcomed as it provides a perfect square bowl for your choice of toping.

    For the sweetened cream simply whisk the cream and icing sugar together until it has thickened and holds its shape. You could add some seeds from a vanilla pod if you like. When the cake is completely cold this can be spread on top, using the raised sides as a perimeter guide, and then adorned with your choice of topping.

    The topping

    I do think that at Easter you can let yourself go slightly wild when embellishing this cake. Here are some ideas, some of which require more effort than others, but all of which would look fantastic. I can’t claim to have experienced all of the following but am going to enjoy deciding which one (or even combination) to try this year…

    - Mini eggs, neatly arranged or gloriously piled

    - Mini chocolate bunnies, out of their gold wrappers

    - Crunched up Maltesers or flake

    - Chocolate cigarillos, which you can make or buy

    - Chocolate truffles (ditto); all the same or a mix of flavours

    - Grated chocolate, a combination of dark, milk and white is effective

    - Melted chocolate, again all colours, drizzled or splattered (in Jackson Pollock style)

    - Shards of drizzled chocolate sitting upright in the cream

    - Nests made from a chocolate cornflake mix, filled with eggs or chicks

    - Edible flowers always make a stunning addition

    - A layer of chocolate mousse under the cream and then any of the above

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