When I was in the Sixth Form, through no merit of my own, the Head of Sixth nominated me to attend at an event on work-life balance. Amazingly, it was held over lunch at Claridges, where a series of presentations were given, including a Q&A with two graduates of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, and most memorably, a talk from a woman who:
… stood at the front of the room like the figurehead of a ship
And like a prophetess, heavy-lidded eyes burdened with knowledge,
Explained as one who has seen and understands
The benefits and importance of the orgasm.
The organisers of the lunch looked as stunned as I felt. Anyway, I left Claridges with a handbag full of leftover petit fours that the other girls had been too polite (or too slow) to claim, and a sense of resignation that one day, work and life would pull me in different directions.
Eight years later, and most mornings it feels more like work pulls me towards Canary Wharf, but life, rather than pulling, is exerting a fearsome inertia over me to stay home. But this January, both work and life abruptly pulled my husband and I into taking two weeks leave to go to Peru.
The immediate motivation was watching Karl Pilkington travel almost as far as Machu Picchu on An Idiot Abroad, and I only learned after we had booked the flights that Peruvian cuisine is about to have a MOMENT and only after reading the guide books that Peru is known for its knitting industry and only after arriving that we could go to the most renowned restaurants in each city and indulge fully to the tune of £25 for the two of us.
The best of these meals was at the bar of Cicciolina, in the city of Cusco. My travel diary reads:
Stunning meal at Cicciolina – perched on a sun-drenched table for two…with a showstopping dessert – the lightness of mousse with a real white chocolate flavour, on a dense layer of dark chocolate whisky-soaked brownie. The whole enveloped in warm butterscotch sauce with a saline edge and glorious unifying stickiness. Cubes of mint jelly – for fun?
That was my impression – as for the husband, when we were showing the photos to our parents afterwards, Himself’s commentary on the following was that it was
the best dessert he had ever eaten.
Recreating/Reimagining a Restaurant Dessert at Home
Check you can obtain the ingredients – generally, this is easier for chocolate desserts rather than fruit desserts, at least until Morrisons finds space for lucuma on their shelves. They came through on everything else though.
Sensation not Presentation
Rather than individual portions, I wanted to make this in the form of a big cake. In some cases, that might mean ditching chocolate shells, or serving in a glass bowl rather than individual pudding glasses – for me, it meant forgetting about the spun sugar (a mountain for another climb) and making an oval version to be served on a platter.
Check for Pitfalls
The element I was least comfortable with was the mint jelly – weirdly, I was less keen on this in the original – love mint with chocolate, but less so with butterscotch. Jettisoned, along with the associated risk.
Break it Down, Break it Down
The remaining elements were:
Chocolate Brownie – but I needed a cakey version, instead of the squidgy variety I normally prefer, so rather than my usual recipe I used the one from Perfect by the marvellous Felicity Cloake, who tests recipes so the rest of us don’t have to. I wanted a thinner layer, so used a larger tin and shorter cooking time.
White Chocolate Mousse – I hadn’t made this before, so found a recipe online. I knew it needed to be a standalone mousse, so gelatine would be involved, and wanted something custard-based rather than just chocolate and cream. I ended up using a version from Hanaas Kitchen which was in turn adapted from Chocolate Passion by Tish Boyle. Many thanks to both ladies!
Butterscotch Sauce – this would have to be poured at the last minute, as it was served. In the end, with 50 people helping themselves whilst I was preoccupied with a blender full of cocktails, it was missed out. Next time.
A miss is not a fail
So my reimagined version of the Cicciolina dessert was much simpler than the original, but it tasted similar enough for Himself – just as well. Sometimes the next best thing feels like the best, when it’s at home, covered in candles and served with 50 people shouting “Surprise!”
RECIPE: White Chocolate Mousse and Dark Chocolate Brownie Cake
(quantities adjusted and with a few shortcuts, from Felicity Cloake)
This can be made ahead – and should be cool/refrigerated before layering the mousse on top.
25 x 37 cm tin, lined with baking parchment
250g dark chocolate (70% cocoa)
250g unsalted butter
200g granulated sugar
4 medium eggs
60g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
60g good quality cocoa powder
Preheat oven to 180C
1. In a non-metallic bowl, melt the chocolate in the microwave (go slow – a minute at a time on the second lowest heat, stir a bit as it starts to melt, and when over half of the chocolate is melted, stir it the rest of the way rather than putting it back in the microwave.
2. Using a standalone mixer (or just a handheld mixer and a large bowl), beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
3. With the mixer running, add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each until fully incorporated and no streaks of yolk are visible
4. Mix on a high speed for around five minutes until the batter is silky and has increased in volume
5. Whilst this is mixing, sift the flour, baking powder and salt
6. Use a spatula to gently fold in the melted chocolate, and then the flour mixture
7. Scrape the mixture into an even layer in the tin, and bake for 30 minutes. Test that the middle is set with a finger and a fork, if still liquid then bake for a few minutes longer. Cool in the tin.
If you are going to serve in pieces, or on a foil covered board, it is easiest to leave this in the tin. Otherwise, turn it out onto a platter and trim to the right shape if required. Using a double layer of tinfoil, folded into a strip long enough to generously go around the circumference of the brownies and around 10cm tall, make a band around the brownie layer, pulling the ends together and folding them together to make a tightly fit collar.
White Chocolate Mousse Layer
7 leaves gelatine (enough to set about 1l according to instructions – the volume of the mousse is more like 2l, but it has some natural set already)
55g caster sugar
475ml semi-skimmed/full milk, divided
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
200g good-quality white chocolate, such as Lindt, finely chopped
30g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tsp vanilla extract
450ml double cream
55g sugar (not an accidental repeat!)
Volume: approximately 2 litres
1. Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water (or according to packet instructions)
2. Measure the milk in a large measuring jug, and pour out all but 100ml into a large, heavy non-stick saucepan. Cook over a medium heat until small bubbles appear around the edges; leave a heatproof spatula/wooden spoon in the pan to give it the occasional stir so that a skin doesn’t form.
3. Meanwhile, add the cornflour and first 55g of sugar to the milk in the measuring jug and whisk with the handheld whisk so there are no lumps, and then whisk in the eggs and yolk until smoothly blended, pale and voluminous.
4. Gradually add half of the milk from the pan, keeping the whisk on the lowest setting, until blended. Pour and scrape out the contents of the measuring jug into the saucepan, stirring constantly.
5. Continue to cook over medium heat, whisking with a balloon whisk and scraping the edges and base occasionally with the spatula. Don’t be nervous about keeping the heat up – the cornflour will prevent it curdling irretrievably.
6. Meanwhile, remove the soaked gelatin leaves and put them in a small saucepan with 60 ml water, heat on a low flame, stirring occasionally, until gelatin is dissolved. Turn off the heat and leave.
7. When the custard has bubbles forming, let it boil for a few minutes until thickened and able to coat the stirring utensil. Take off the heat, and stir in the chopped white chocolate until melted. Stir in the gelatin mixture, and pour back into the measuring jug to give it another whizz with the handheld whisk. Stir in the vanilla extract and the butter until incorporated smoothly, keep stirring for a few minutes so it can cool slightly.
8. Whip the double cream and sugar until soft peaks – do not overwhip! The cream should still fall softly from the whisk.
9. Using a spatula, fold one third of the cream into the white chocolate custard. When it is fully incorporated fold in the remainder. If the cream does not incorporate smoothly, give it a whizz with the handheld whisk.
10. Pour the mousse onto the foil-collared brownies. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge to chill for at least an hour.
To serve: carefully remove the foil collar