After dinner treats

Sat, Dec 8, 2007, 00:00

Everyone appreciates the effort of a home-made gift - especially if it's something delicious made with top quality chocolate, butter and cream, writes Marie-Claire Digby.

Handmade truffles, fudge and cookies make excellent gifts, especially when artfully arranged in a fancy box, or on a piece of china that becomes a part of the present. The effort involved in producing the goodies is immediately evident to the recipient, and with all that top quality chocolate, butter and cream involved, they taste good, too.

The chocolates, cookies and fudge pictured on these pages were all made in a sugar-powered burst of activity on a recent weekend.

My kitchen has never smelled so good. As the chocolate melted, the fudge was stirred and the cookies baked to an appetising crispness in the oven, a fug of domestic bliss settled on the house. A little helper, or two, would have come in handy, especially when it came to icing the butter cookies, and they might have been rewarded with the just-baked off-cuts from the cookie dough. These were a surprise hit - the lacy, irregular-shaped morsels of biscuit making a tasty treat for those who wandered through the kitchen, checking on my progress.

The fudge was a doddle to make and yielded a vast quantity of hefty chunks, enough for four or five gift boxes at least. Just don't think about the consequences for the waistline (well, you are giving it away aren't you?), as you toss in a whole bag of sugar, a mound of butter and a torrent of condensed milk.

The white chocolate fruit and nut clusters also took mere minutes to throw together, and there's lots of scope with these to adapt them to taste. Mix dark and white chocolate ones, and vary the types of fruit and nuts used.

Making chocolate truffles is an undeniably mucky process, no matter how organised you are, so it's just as well they are delicious, provided you use good quality chocolate. It helps to make the ganache (melted chocolate, cream and butter mixture) the day before you want to form the truffles, so that it has firmed up in the fridge. A word of warning: don't use icing sugar to coat your truffles, unless they are going to be eaten within a couple of hours, otherwise they absorb the sugar and turn into a sticky mess - something I learned from bitter experience! Toasted desiccated coconut would have been a sturdier and longer lasting coating for the rum truffles pictured.

The little chocolate cups filled with a mascarpone mousse involved a bit of fiddly paintwork with a pastry brush, but the mousse came together in minutes, and the consensus was that they were well worth the effort.

"The best thing I've tasted in 2007," said a colleague. Praise indeed.

CHOCOLATE MASCARPONE CUPS WITH COFFEE TOFFEE MOUSSE (MAKES 16-18)

To make these, you'll need some small paper cases, such as those used for petits fours (I got them from the Irish Yeast Company in College Street, D2), a pastry brush, and lots of patience.

100g bar Lindt coffee chocolate (or any good dark chocolate)
100ml cream
125g mascarpone (half a tub)
2tbsp espresso or strong dark coffee, cooled
3tbsp Baileys (the Creme Caramel variety works best), or any Irish Cream liqueur
3tsp icing sugar, sieved
cocoa powder

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. When it has melted, use a pastry brush to paint the chocolate all over the inside of some petits fours cases. Allow the chocolate cases to cool and harden a bit before painting on a second coat. Make sure there are no visible holes. Chill the cases until needed. Just before you want to fill them with the mousse, carefully peel off the paper and return the chocolate cups to the fridge. To make the filling, whip the cream to the soft peak stage. Mix the liqueur, coffee, mascarpone and icing sugar together and beat well until it is smooth. Fold in the cream. Use a teaspoon to fill the chocolate cups with the mousse mixture and refrigerate until needed. Just before serving or boxing, dust the chocolates with cocoa powder.

RING THE CHANGES:The liqueur can be omitted, and the mousse topped with a chocolate covered coffee bean. For variety, use orange flavoured dark chocolate for the cups, leave out the coffee and cream liqueur from the filling and use a spoonful of orange juice or orange liqueur instead.

ICED BUTTER COOKIES

The recipes for these delicious, crumbly cookies is from Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery Course. They are very quick to make, and children love to get involved in decorating them. As Allen points out, the ingredients are simplicity itself when "old" measurements are used - 2oz sugar; 4oz butter and 6oz flour.

50g caster sugar
110g butter
175g plain flour

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees/gas 4. Put the flour and sugar into a bowl and rub in the butter, as for shortcrust pastry. Then gather the mixture together and knead it lightly (no liquid is needed as there is enough butter to bind the dough). Roll out to 5mm thick. Cut into rounds, stars or whatever you fancy. Bake on a greased tray for 10-12 minutes. Watch them like a hawk as they turn from pale golden brown to burnt in what seems like seconds. Cool on a rack and either dust with icing sugar or ice and decorate as desired.

RING THE CHANGES:A teaspoon or two of finely grated orange or lemon rind can be added to the dough, and the icing made with the juice of either fruit, instead of water. Christmas spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg can also be added to the dough before rolling it out.

CLAIRE McDONALD'S KINLOCH FUDGE

This fudge is served in Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye, where McDonald, who has written several excellent cookery books, runs a luxury country house hotel.

225g butter
900g granulated sugar
1 tin condensed milk
the empty tin filled with full-fat milk
half tsp vanilla extract

Butter a 22x30cm baking tin, or Swiss roll tin. Put all of the ingredients into a large saucepan over a moderate heat. Stir until the butter has melted and the sugar is completely dissolved. Don't let it boil before the sugar has dissolved - before the sugar has dissolved you can feel a gritty sensation under your wooden spoon as you stir. Then boil the fudge - be aware it will ride up the sides of the saucepan. Stir it all the time, and when it becomes fudge-coloured, from its original very light colour, drip a tiny amount into a bowl of cold water. If it forms a soft ball, it is ready. Take the pan off the heat and stir it vigorously until the fudge thickens and cools a bit (about seven minutes). Pour and scrape the fudge into the baking tray and spread it out. Leave it to cool a bit, then cut it into squares. When it is cold, lift out the squares with a palette knife and store in an airtight tin.

RING THE CHANGES:For chocolate fudge, mix two tablespoons of sieved cocoa powder in with the sugar before adding it to the pan. "It will mix in, though at first you will wonder," McDonald says.

DARK CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES

Makes about 36. This recipe comes from Unwrapped, the excellent chocolate recipe book, from Green & Black's, whose 70 per cent organic dark chocolate bars make great truffles.

75g dark chocolate broken up into chunks
250ml double cream
50g butter, at room temperature
50g cocoa powder

Place the chocolate in a large bowl. Bring the cream to the boil and pour it over the chocolate. Stir this together until the chocolate has melted. Leave to cool for two minutes, then add the butter in two stages and stir in gently. Once the butter is incorporated the ganache should be smooth and glossy with no oil slick on the surface. Leave the truffle mix in the fridge for a minimum of three hours, or overnight. Remove the ganache from the fridge about 15 minutes before you want to make the truffles, depending on room temperature. Put the sieved cocoa into a bowl. Ensure your hands are dry, then dust them with cocoa. Roll a teaspoonful of the chocolate ganache into a ball between your palms, toss in the cocoa and either place in a gift box, or return to the fridge.

RING THE CHANGES:If you want to add liqueurs to your truffles, divide your ganache mix into as many small batches as your require before refrigerating it, and stir a splash of a different liqueur into each bowl. When you come to roll the truffles match the coating with the liqueur used - Amaretto is good with nibbed almonds, Cointreau works well with a cocoa powder coating, and rum truffles can be rolled in toasted desiccated coconut. Claire Clark of The French Laundry restaurant in California suggests rolling champagne truffles in a powder made from freeze-dried strawberries whizzed in a spice grinder.

FRUIT AND NUT CLUSTERS

1 large bar white chocolate
handful of dried cranberries and blueberries, chopped
mixed (unsalted) nuts, chopped

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over hot water. Stir the dried fruit into one half of the chocolate and the nuts into the other half. Drop teaspoonfuls of the chocolate and fruit/nut mixture onto a greased baking sheet and chill in the fridge until set.

RING THE CHANGES:Make half white and half milk chocolate clusters, with fruit in the white and nuts in the milk chocolate.