As we head into Chocolate Week in the UK (October 14-20), a recent invitation to watch master chocolatier Paul A Young conjure up two new creations in his boutique Soho shop seemed just too good to miss.
So there we were last Thursday, a group of food bloggers and chocolate afficionados squeezed into Young’s small working kitchen in the basement, nibbling on samples and sipping Champagne, as the artisan himself rustled up perfect Prune, Caramel & Black Pepper Brownies and Prune & Porter Truffles. Yum, yum, and one more chocolate-coated yum for good measure!
If you were paying attention, you might have noticed an unusual ingredient in all that. No, not the black pepper – although I must admit using black pepper in sweet things is new to me. It REALLY works, by the way. Being a trendy artisan, Young uses Tellicherry pepper from India’s Malabar coast, but I’m sure any black peppercorns (note, they should be freshly ground) will do.
I was actually referring to the prunes, which are not your everyday accompaniment to sexy handmade chocolates, are they? Raspberries, maybe, strawberries most definitely, but prunes, well, they are those wrinkly little dried fruits that help keep you regular, aren’t they?
They are indeed, but in case you didn’t know, prunes are also the new baking ingredient du jour. Remember that sell-out Heston Blumenthal Christmas Cake at Waitrose last year? Prunes were a major ingredient, and the trend-setting chef was even partly credited for sending the sales of prunes soaring in the UK.
And now Paul A Young is on a similar mission after teaming up with the California Prune Board to promote the taste and cooking benefits (the health benefits are already a given) of prunes.
California is the largest producer of prunes in the world, churning out $190m worth of prunes for export to 70 different countries each year (with the UK the 7th largest recipient). If you buy prunes with a US origin, 99 times out of a 100 they’ll have been grown in the sun-soaked plum orchards of California, and are all the more nutritious because of it.
So let’s return to Young’s prune and chocolate brownie, which we were all so eager to try. Because we were a hungry pack of food bloggers, we got to taste a ‘here’s one I made earlier’ version, and then tasted some of the core ingredients (plump, juicy prunes, the finest Valrhona chocolate from France…) as he proceeded with his demo.
Pure, natural chocolate
As an artisan chocolatier, Young never uses any flavourings or compounds in his chocolate creations, only real, pure ingredients. Nor does he use any emulsifiers or preservatives.
He’s a chatty, amiable and natural instructor, offering us some great little tips along the way. To make a caramel with sugar and butter, for instance, don’t use nasty refined white sugar that you have to watch over with a thermometer in case it burns, use a brown molasses sugar (he uses Billington’s organic variety) which turns into a natural brown caramel as soon as it melts.
I’m not going to list all the details of the brownie making, as Young and the CPB kindly gave us the recipe which I’ll be posting on the blog this week – so watch out for that. [UPDATE on 15/10: And here it is, ta daaa..)
Suffice to say it was the richest, most moist and intensely flavoured brownie I’d ever tasted. It wasn’t cake-like at all, rather like a sticky fudge, so a little goes a very long way. It was surprisingly easy to make, and your chocaholic friends are guaranteed to love you forever more.
So onto the truffle making, and this is where the chocolate theatre really kicked in, as we watched Young tempering his chocolate. This is the process that makes chocolate crisp, shiny and silky smooth. On a more practical note, it also ensures it shrinks back slightly when cool so you can actually get it out of the mould.
Young is particularly proud of his smooth bottoms. Close inspection of any of his artisan chocolates and truffles, he proudly proclaims, and you’ll not find a wrinkle in sight! They’re smooth and perfectly formed all over. If only I could say the same for my own derriere (but that’s a future project I’m working on!).
To temper the chocolate you heat it (milk choc to 40-45 degrees c, dark choc 50-55 degrees c) slowly and then work it. For a master chocolatier, the heating process takes at minimum of four hours. If you’re doing it at home, you’re not going to spend that amount of time, but whatever you do, don’t melt it in the microwave, do it gently over a homemade bain-marie.
Young poured most of the melted chocolate mixture (here he was using a 55% Venezuelan Okamare chocolate from Duffy’s – it was good!) from a height onto a marble slab and using a chisel shaped palette knife started to quickly (speed is of the essence, says Young) work it back and forth across the surface until it started to wrinkle. When it reached a thick enough consistency (ie it could hang off the end of a palette knife without instantly dripping on the floor) it was returned to the remaining warm chocolate mixture and worked through.
Young makes this process looks very easy, but I’m sure it’s not. I don’t think I’ll be attempting to temper chocolate at home anytime soon as it’s sure to turn into a messy business. But Young insists you can easily work a kilo of chocolate on a small square foot slab (in his shops, they temper around 100 kilos per day).
The filling for his truffles was made from California prunes (mais oui) and Porter (stout). I need no convincing of the divine marriage of chocolate and stout, after discovering a Guinness and Chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting in a little neighbourhood café in Perth, Australia a few years back. I’ve since made a few varieties of this cake myself and it always turns out rich, moist and moreish.
A tip from Young when making truffles with alcohol is not to boil off the alcohol, simply heat it until it vaporises to preserve the best taste.
To use prunes in baking, it’s best to make a puree, which is easy to do. Roughly speaking, use three parts chopped prunes to one part water and blend to a smooth paste. They add a rich, caramel-like flavour to your baking and contribute a moistness that can often be difficult to achieve with regular cake ingredients.
I often use a date puree in baking, but have never tried prunes. After tasting the really juicy Californian variety I’m going to make it my mission to try them out in some cakes in the near future.
The tempered chocolate is poured into special chocolate moulds to form the delicate shell of the truffle. This is about as technical as it gets at Paul A Young’s. Apart from the industrial bain-maries, all processes are completed by hand.
“The chocolate tells us what to do,” says Young. “You can’t speed things up or slow them down, you have to work at it’s pace. It’s all about the chocolate. You very quickly fall under its spell.”
Young trains all his own chocolatiers, who come from a variety of different backgrounds. His chief chocolatier in his Islington shop, for example, used to be a pub manager.
Becoming a master chocolatier certainly wasn’t on our careers advisor’s list at school, but nowadays working in this industry looks so damned appealing.
Young trained as a chef in County Durham, working his way up to become chief pastry chef for Marco Pierre White at Quo Vardis, before going it alone and opening his first chocolate shop in 2006.
He now spends his time creating chocolate alchemy in his shops, developing new products for third parties, catering for high class events and teaching sell-out classes.
Anyone for truffle-rolling or a sea-salted caramel class? After sampling Young’s wares and his warm hospitality, I’m definitely in!
For more details on Young’s chocolates, visit http://www.paulayoung.co.uk
For details about UK Chocolate Week, visit http://www.chocolateweek.co.uk
To find out more about California Prunes visit http://www.californiaprunes.co.uk