Week 5 of Festive Food and it’s a full-on chocolate fiesta, because what is Christmas without some chocolate? A dang-poor Christmas, that’s what it is!
For years, I have resisted making Brownies, because the last time I’d tasted them, they didn’t strike me as anything special. Of course, this was 1987 and I seem to recall that vegetable oil featured rather heavily, so all in all, no wonder.
So I decided to turn my rehabilitation eye on the humble brownie and force it to raise its game by using top quality ingredients and adding a bit of elegance to its appearance.
What I’ve got for you here is the culinary opposite of those shabby specimens of almost 3 decades ago: it is a multi-layered extravaganza of dark 70% chocolate, real cocoa, fresh butter, rich praline, and creamy milk chocolate. Like Cinderella, humble beginnings have been primped and tweaked and slathered in more bells and whistles than a whole troupe of Morris Men (wack-fol-a-diddle-di-do-sing-too-rah-li-ay!).
I’ve made many versions over the past few weeks, but like some glorious cocoa-based Pokemon, THIS is it’s final form.
FIVE layers – yes, FIVE! Go on, count them! – of indulgence, the textures getting lighter and more luscious as they get higher and higher: from crisp chocolate crunch shortbread, though rich brownie, creamy praline ganache, ethereally light milk-chocolate Chantilly cream and finally, to be topped with shower of real chocolate sprinkles! If you wanted to go all-out, I guess you COULD add a dusting of pure cocoa powder, but that seems a little over-the-top if you arsks me….
If you’re starting to panic about how complicated this all is, stop. It’s not. Yes, there are five layers, but you don’t HAVE to make all of them. The brownie by itself is pretty amazing. Add one or two of the other layers, and it’s a real winner. Pick and choose what you want to make – your kitchen, your rules.
This is a 2-day recipe, so don’t think everything has to be done in one go. The bottom two layers are baked in the same tin, one on top of the other, and the ganache is then poured on top – the first three layers all neatly contained in a single tin – no mess, no fuss. The only other thing to do on the first day is to melt some chocolate in cream. So you end up with just 2 items in the fridge. Simples!
It’s a what-I-call Lego™ recipe, with bits taken from here and there and stuck together to make something new. Bonus: each layer is delicious just on its own:
- Chocolate crunch base – makes fabulously crisp biscuits.
- Brownie – bakes in 15 minutes for a speedy dessert – serve with cream!
- Praline Ganache – once cooled, can be rolled into decadent truffles and tossed in cocoa.
- Milk chocolate chantilly – with just 2 ingredients and a little planning ahead, the easiest dessert of all.
- Real chocolate sprinkles – delicious on bread and butter for breakfast.
You need to start it the day before it is required, because the ganache and the Chantilly must chill overnight in the fridge. Apart from that, it’s very straightforward.
WARNING: This makes a SLAB of brownie, and due to its richness, serves up to 20. If you’re not wanting such a huge quantity, even though it will last for several days over the festive season, consider scaling the recipe down. Also, if you’re thinking this could be regarded as a serving for 1 (which, technically, I suppose it could be), for the sake of your arteries, consider scaling the recipe down!
I make this a pan of dimensions 24cm x 32cm x 4cm. If you haven’t got a tin exactly the same, then just go with what you have – smaller and deeper – or even two small tins – is better, to keep the ganache from overflowing.
Chocolate Biscuit Base
This is a crumbly, buttery shortbread, but with added feuilletine and ground almonds for two different yet complimentary crunch textures. If you don’t have any feuilletine, use a few crushed crepes dentelles or cornflakes.
135g butter – softened
45g icing sugar
25g ground almonds
25g feuilletine 
- Line your tin with baking parchment. Leave the edges quite long, so that they stick up well above the sides of the tin.
- Mix the softened butter, sugar, salt, flour, cocoa and ground almonds in a bowl until well combined.
- Lightly stir in the feuilletine. Try to keep the pieces a reasonable size, so that they can still be discerned in the cooked biscuit.
- Turn out the mixture onto parchment and lay some clingfilm over the top.
- Roll the mixture out to fit your tin. The overall thickness should be between 5-8mm thick. You might find it easier to roll this out onto the baking parchment from the tin, then you’ll know exactly where to trim/patch.
- Prick all over with a fork (to keep it from blistering) and place in the freezer to harden for between 15 and 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes and then set aside to cool. The biscuit will be mostly cooked, and will finish off as the brownie mixture bakes.
Rich Chocolate Brownie
100 g egg yolks (5 large)
125 g caster sugar (to mix with the yolks)
120 g of egg white (3 large)
120 g caster sugar (to mix with the white)
15 g of cocoa powder
60g chopped walnuts (or pecans).
220 g of dark chocolate (I used 70% )
120 g unsalted butter
- Increase the oven heat to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
- Mix the egg yolks and sugar until very light and fluffy (10 mins-ish).
- Meanwhile melt butter and chocolate. Set aside to cool a little.
- Beat the egg whites until frothy, then gradually whisk in the sugar and beat until stiff peaks.
- Gently fold in the whipped egg whites with the whisked yolks. NB Use a balloon whisk for this – it’s more effective and doesn’t knock out as much air as a spoon or spatula.
- Fold in the butter/chocolate mixture.
- Fold in the walnuts.
- Fold in the flour and cocoa powder.
- When thoroughly combined, pour onto the biscuit base in the baking tin.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes (depending on how baked you like your brownie to be – I went for 20 minutes, because I like a cakey cake rather than a gooey cake).
- Set aside to cool in the tin.
100g unblanched almonds )
100g caster sugar ) for the praline paste.
You CAN buy praline paste ready made, but it’s generally made with hazelnuts and is therefore not as delicate a flavour as a purely almond praline paste.
115g praline paste
345ml double cream
285g dark 60-70% chocolate
2tsp vanilla extract (optional).
- Make the praline paste, or see footnote  below:
- Put the almonds on a baking sheet and put in the oven.
- Turn the heat to 160°C, 140°C Fan and let the nuts toast for 15-20 minutes.
- Put the sugar into a pan over medium heat. Allow the sugar to melt and become golden brown. NB Do not stir, as this will cause the sugar to crystallise. Swirl the sugar around the pan.
- Put the toasted nuts onto some baking parchment or a silicone mat, and pour the caramel over them.
- Leave to cool.
- Cut the praline into pieces and blitz it in a food processor to ‘breadcrumbs’.
- Keep the machine running and eventually (5 minutes or so) it will turn into a paste, as the oil in the nuts is released.
- Weigh out the quantity you need. Any remainder will keep very well in a sealed box.
- Chop the chocolate and add to the praline paste in a bowl.
- Heat the cream to just below boiling point and pour onto the chocolate.
- Leave for 5 minutes. This waiting time allows the heat of the cream to act on the chocolate and allows it to melt gradually. Vigorous stirring immediately after adding the cream will just create and trap air bubbles and spoil the finish of the ganache.
- Slowly stir in one direction only to ensure fully melted and combined.
- Stir in the vanilla, if using.
- Pour onto the cooled brownie in the tin. It will have sunk a little in the middle as it cooled, but I like also to press the edges down a little, so that the ganache sets as an even layer across the whole brownie. Just press the raised edges gently with the flat of your hand until the surface seems level., then pour over the liquid ganache.
- If you’re having the ganache as the final topping – and it does set to a beautifully glossy finish, you’ll want to try and get rid of as many of the air bubbles as possible, so that the surface is smooth and shiny. To do this, lift the tin about 10cm off the kitchen counter and drop it onto the worktop. Repeat 3 or 4 times. You will see the bubbles rise and burst through the ganache. This dropping will also help level out the ganache. You can also jiggle the tin from side to side to ensure the ganache has got into all the nooks and crannies.
- Allow to cool on the side, before covering lightly with foil and putting it in the fridge to set. If it’s still warm when you cover it, you run the risk of droplets of condensation falling onto the ganache. Clingfilm is an acceptable alternative to foil, if you can ensure it doesn’t touch the ganache, as this would spoil the mirror finish.
Milk Chocolate Chantilly
This is a fabulous concoction to have up your sleeve. Once prepared, it has the texture of mousse, but without the fuss of either gelatine or whipped (raw) egg-whites. Great for vegetarians!
400ml whipping cream
200g Milka milk chocolate
- Chop the chocolate into small pieces and put into a bowl.
- Heat the cream until just below boiling point and pour onto the chocolate.
- Leave for 5 minutes.
- Slowly stir in one direction only to ensure fully melted and combined.
- To ensure that the cream and chocolate are fully combined, you can, while the mixture is still hot, BRIEFLY whisk it with an immersion blender – no more than 4 or 5 quick pulses.
- Allow to cool.
- Cover the bowl with cling film and chill in the fridge overnight.
You can, of course, serve this as a traybake, with or without the chantilly cream, but it is so rich, and looks so pretty when you can see all the layers, I really recommend portioning it out neatly in either squares or fingers.
- Remove the tin of brownie from the fridge. The Ganache will have set to a lovely smooth and shiny finish.
- Take hold of the parchment and lift the whole thing out of the tin and set it on the work surface.
- Slowly peel the parchment away from the sides.
- Cut up the brownie. This might seem a little over the top, to have a section devoted to cutting up a tray bake, but having gone to so much effort, a little care to ensure beautifully smooth slices like the one in the picture is time well spent.
- Have a large, sharp, smooth knife to hand. A serrated knife won’t give you the sleek, smooth edge required.
- Also have a jug of very hot water and a clean tea towel.
- Have a board/serving dish for the slices of brownie, and a side plate for the offcuts and trimmings.
- Hold the blade of the knife in the hot water for a few seconds, to heat up. This will allow it to cut through the ganache cleanly.
- Dry the blade thoroughly with the tea towel.
- In one smooth movement, trim one of the short sides of the slab, to reveal the layers.
- Put the trimmings on the side plate.
- Wash the knife blade clean. This removes all crumbs and traces of ganache, which would spoil the clean cut surface the next time you made a cut.
- Repeat – heating/drying/cutting/washing the blade clean – until all four sides have been trimmed.
- Divide the trimmed brownie slab into fingers. My suggestion is for fingers no larger than 10cm x 3cm.
- Carefully place each cut slice onto the board/serving dish.
- Remember to clean your blade after each cut, and every serving will be perfect.
- Prepare the milk chocolate Chantilly cream by whipping it with either a stand mixer fitted with a balloon whisk, or a hand mixer. The setting power of the milk chocolate means that the cream will hold its shape like whipped double cream, but be altogether lighter. NB Be careful not to over-whip the cream – it will take only 1-2 minutes of whisking to thicken up.
- Pipe the cream onto your brownie slices. For the pattern in the picture, I used a piping bag fitted with a 1.5cm plain nozzle to form ‘kisses’ in rows. Feel free to choose both a different piping tip and pattern.
- Sprinkle real chocolate sprinkles over the top to finish.
 http://www.souschef.co.uk is a great online resource for praline paste, feuilletine etc.
Just to complete the hat-trick, now that you’ve made your Candied Peel and used it to rustle up some Guilt-Free Mincemeat, it’s time to bake some Mince Pies! Of course, you can use a jar of your favourite brand too – it’s all good – just don’t BUY mince pies! They’re never as good as home made.
Now to my mind, mince pies come in two sizes. There’s the small, Christmas party/buffet size – gone in a couple of bites, no need for a plate, more of an appetiser/nibble. One of the down-sides of this size of mince pie, however, is the danger of not rolling the pastry thin enough, resulting in thick, claggy pastry forming the greater part of the pie. Due in part to the difficulty in making such small pies and also to eliminate the danger of the filling bursting out, there’s a tendency to err too much on the side of caution, and consequently they frequently contain just a miniscule amount of mincemeat inside.
Then there’s the mince pie made in a bun tin, which is much more my kind of pie – larger, more substantial, easier to shape, fill and decorate. As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really have a sweet tooth – but Christmas isn’t Christmas without a mince pie, so I like to eat just one, but make it an extra special one.
Many moons ago, I found a recipe by Jocelyn Dimbleby for Deluxe Mince Pies – it was in a little paperback book entitled Cooking For Christmas that I borrowed from a friend. This decadent confection had a short, orange-flavoured pastry and topped the mincemeat with a tiny amount of sweetened cream cheese – so that when the pie was cooked ( or indeed warmed just prior to serving), the cheese-cake-like mixture melted and mingled with the rich mincemeat to make a very indulgent mouthful. I thought they were amazing.
I’ve since managed to track down a copy for myself *vaguely scans the bookshelves* – OK, so I’m not 100% sure where exactly my copy IS at the moment, but I do have a copy somewhere! It must be popular, because it’s also ‘out there’ on various web pages if you search.
ANYHOO – I was eager to see how the Guilt-Free Mincemeat performed in my favourite mince pie recipe, so I rustled up some test pies with great anticipation. Alas, I was disappointed. The pastry was frustratingly difficult to work with, and when cooked, was overly sweet, too greasy and very fragile – too fragile to hold the shape of the pies.
Maybe it’s my own tastes that have changed, but I was still convinced that the mince pies could be amazing if only the pastry could be improved. So I headed to the kitchen to experiment and finally came up with the recipe below. You might think it a bit of a faff to bother tweaking pastry, but I really wanted the WHOLE mince pie to be delicious to eat, and not just the filling. The bonus is that, now I have a great sweet shortcrust variation, I shall be using this pastry again in other sweet bakes. For those interested in the reasoning behind the ingredient choices I made:
Butter: For flavour – 50% of the fat content. All-butter pastry tastes great, but it is extremely rich and very delicate once cooked.
Lard: 50% of the fat content. All-lard pastry is very hard and crusty and sometimes has something of an aftertaste, but tempered with the butter, makes for a deliciously crisp crust that holds its shape well.
Another reason for using the pure fats listed above, is ease of removal from the tins. I’ve used pastry made with hydrogenated oils and blended fats and been plagued with having bakes stick to the tins. They never have when I’ve used ‘pure’ fats. Just sayin’……
Sugar: For sweetness – although it’s a good deal less than in traditional sweet shortcrust.
Almonds: For crunch and crispness. They lighten the pastry and help keep it crisp.
Orange zest and juice: Makes for a lovely orange flavour to the pastry that really compliments the citrus in the mincemeat. I’ve opted to use orange juice as the sole liquid to bring the pastry together.
I also reduced the amount of sugar and added lemon juice to the cream cheese mixture to bring out the flavour of the mincemeat. It’s amazing how a little bit of lemon can lift the flavour of a whole dish. Feel free to omit the cream cheese topping – the mince pies will still be awesome! 😀
Luxury Mince Pies
Makes 12 deep and decadent mince pies (plus 3-4 small ‘cooks perks’ pies) 😉
Orange and Almond Shortcrust pastry
200g plain flour
50g unsalted butter
50g caster sugar
50g ground almonds 
juice and zest of 1-2 oranges 
500g of mincemeat (or 1 batch of Guilt-Free Mincemeat)
Cream Cheese Luxury Topping (optional)
200g cream cheese
zest and juice of 1 lemon
milk & caster sugar to glaze
- Put the flour into a food processor fitted with a blade.
- Cut the fats into 1cm cubes and add to the food processor.
- Blitz until mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
- Add the sugar and ground almonds and pulse a couple of times to mix.
- Add the zest of both oranges and the juice of one and run the mixer to combine. I the mixture doesn’t come together into a ball by itself, squeeze the juice from the second orange and add gradually, pausing between each addition, until the mix comes together.
- Wrap the ball of dough in plastic and chill for at least 30 minutes.
- Make the cream cheese topping (if using)
- Beat the cream cheese in a bowl or using a mixer until smooth.
- Add the zest of the lemon.
- Add half the lemon juice and mix until combined. You don’t want the mix to get either too sharp or too runny.
- Sweeten to taste with icing sugar. Don’t add too much – 2-3 heaped tablespoons is plenty. Just enough to take the edge off the lemon flavour without making it too sweet.
- When the pastry is suitably chilled, remove from the fridge, cut it in two and return half to the fridge. Why? It’s much easier to work with a smaller piece of pastry than a larger. You want to be able to roll this pastry nice and thin, but if you’re flinging around a huge sheet of the stuff, there’s going to be tears (and you can read that two ways!).
- Roll the pastry thinly (3mm-ish) and cut out the bases of your pies. Make the circles of pastry large enough to fill the whole base of the tin and overlap the rim by about 1cm. Make sure your tin is well greased and lay in the pastry circles. NB Be careful not to accidentally push holes in the pastry when you’re easing it into the tins. Re-roll the trimmings if required.
- Put 1tbs of mincemeat filling into each pie and pressdown.
- Spoon 1tsp cream cheese topping onto the mincemeat.
- Put the tray of pies into the fridge while you roll out the rest of the pastry and cut the lids. Make sure the lids are large enough to overlap the holes by about 1cm.
- Wet the edges of the lids and press them onto the pies. Make sure the edges are well sealed by pressing firmly. You can make pretty crimping patterns by using the tines of a fork, but I like to make a nice, neat plain edge by using a plain, round cutter once the lids are on and in the tin (which is why the bases and lids need to be cut on the large side). As well as making the pies nice and neat, it seals the lids onto the pastry bases and helps prevent the filling from oozing out.
- Brush the tops with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar. The milk will brown the pastry and the sugar will melt and form a lovely crunchy top layer.
- Cut a small slit in the top to let out steam.
- Bake in a hot oven – 200°C, 180°C Fan – for 15-18 minutes until golden brown.
- Gently tip out of the tin and set to cool on a wire rack.
- Best served warm.
Cost: Pastry only £1.50 (using ground almonds & 2 oranges, December 2011)
 If you want to make this pastry nut-free, then just omit the ground almonds. It’ll not have the same crunch, but still be an improvement on plain shortcrust.
 This vagueness is due to the juiciness of the oranges and the water content of the flour – two oranges should definitely be juicy enough though.