In case you’d not noticed – and I simply can’t see how you wouldn’t, given how many pink heart-shaped things, red roses and stuffed toys are filling the shops and supermarkets – Sunday is Valentine’s Day.
Yes, you’ll need to put your coat on and go out to buy a card. I’ll wait.
Valentine’s Day is always a tricky evening for the catering profession. When we ran The Weavers Shed, it was always a dinner to be regarded with some trepidation.
The tables were always set for two, and the clientele would be a mix of established regular couples celebrating, or newly-courting couples on their first ‘posh dinner’ date.
What this boiled down to was a very quiet dining room, as everyone nervously whispered sweet nothings and gawped into their partners’ eyes. We tried to offset this tense atmosphere with live music and entertainments, but it was always a peculiar night. That is until a beloved regular foursome habitually started booking for the 14th, and their cheerful laughter and conversation raised the volume in the room enough for everyone to stop feeling self-conscious, saving us all from the polite small-talk.
Menu choice is also a bit of a tough one for chefs, too. I was never crass enough to shape things like hearts or cover things in rose petals, but I did try to keep things light and exciting, and occasionally make use of ingredients generally considered to have slightly aphrodisiac qualities.
I’m personally of the opinion that almost anything can have such qualities given the right context. Even a salad cream and crisp sandwich might have the desired effect if it’s served at the right time, in the right place, and to the right person.
However, consensus seems to dictate that, when it comes to romantic desserts, one ingredient stands high above all others – chocolate.
I won’t argue, either. Chocolate is a wonderfully sensuous ingredient, whether it’s in the melting texture of a sweet truffle, the snap of a bar of rich, dark chocolate, or oozing from within a pithivier or profiterole.
It has been established that eating chocolate actually does boost the senses, due to the chemical compound theobromine.
In small doses, theobromine can widen the blood vessels and stimulate the heartbeat enough to produce a tangible effect. That’s why we feel better when we take that first bite into a mid-afternoon Bourbon.
Theobromine is also present in tea leaves, which goes some way to explain why we, the British, cure most minor ailments and alleviate disasters by putting the kettle on.
It is also, and this is important, why one shouldn’t feed ‘proper’ chocolate to household pets. Even a moderate amount of human chocolate has the potential so increase an animal’s heart rate to fatal levels, so keep the pleasures of chocolate to yourself.
So, chocolate is our ingredient of choice for romance, and I thought I’d make a variation on an old favourite of mine, the chocolate tart.
Based on an old recipe by French genius chef Joël Robuchon, it’s really easy to make, but really punches above its weight – it looks incredible, and tastes really rich and decadent.
On top of this, we’re adding two bang-on-trend additions, popcorn and a lovely golden salted caramel. These add texture as well as flavour, and look really impressive, when served as the climax to a cosy dinner for two.
I’m indebted to my neighbour Julie Cottrell for suggesting the maizebite flour, made by Cotswold millers Matthews, and which can be found in specialist grocers, supermarkets, or online.
It has a lovely creamy colour, which darkens to give a rich golden pastry when baked, and the texture is incredible.
The light corn flavour ties up with the popcorn in the recipe and makes for a very satisfying sweet treat – perfect for melting your loved one’s heart.
For the sweet pastry:
250g maizebite or plain flour, plus extra for dusting
150g unsalted butter, diced and chilled
50g icing sugar
A pinch of Maldon salt
2 fresh medium-size free-range egg yolks
For the filling:
500g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa), chopped
375ml single cream
125ml full milk
For the popcorn:
1 x 70g pack microwave salted popcorn
70g unsalted butter
100g unrefined golden caster sugar
400ml double cream
Clotted cream or ice-cream
A 22cm flan tin/tart case
First, make up the salted caramel sauce; in a heavy-bottomed pan, gently heat the butter and sugar, until the mixture is smooth, then turn up the heat and boil, stirring as little as possible, until it takes on a deep golden colour.
Carefully add the cream (it may spit a little) and return to a gentle heat, stirring until completely smooth. Cool to room temperature and reserve until required.
Next, make the pastry. Heat the oven to 180°C / Gas 4. Whizz the butter, flour, salt and sugar in a food processor until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Add the yolks and a little chilled water, and pulse until the mixture just begins to form a soft dough. On a well-floured surface, roll out the chilled pastry to ¾ cm thickness.
Carefully line the tart case, making sure the pastry reaches the corners, and leaving a few centimetres’ excess all around the top. Make a disc of
greaseproof paper that will fit snugly inside the tart case, up and over the edges. Screw it tightly into a ball, then unfold it – this allows it to reach the corners more efficiently.
Fill the paper with baking beans and chill for half an hour, then bake for 15-20 minutes until set and lightly golden in colour. Remove from the oven, and gently take out the filled greaseproof paper. If the pastry is still a little soggy, pop the uncovered tart back into the oven for 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to 150ºC / Gas 2.
To make the filling, heat the milk, single cream and a pinch of salt until just about to boil. Pour this over the chocolate in a bowl, and whisk until smooth. Whisk the eggs lightly, and beat into the chocolate.
Pour into the
tart case and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the custard is just set but wobbling slightly. Remove from the oven and chill completely, then trim away the excess pastry with a sharp serrated knife.
To garnish the tart, pop the popcorn on the microwave according to the instructions and cool.
Drizzle some salted caramel over the surface of the tart, and cover with popcorn, piling it up and drizzling with lots more salted caramel.
Serve in slices with either a scoop of clotted cream or good vanilla ice-cream.
And turn the lights down low ...