What's Valentine's Day without chocolate — or better yet, rich, moist chocolate cake? Nigella Lawson discusses with Steve Inskeep the keys to the perfect chocolate cake and the secrets to chocolate's allure.
The food writer and television host says she has "managed to put away quite a few chocolate cakes and bars of chocolate in my time." But Lawson says she's not an "indiscriminate lover of all things chocolate."
"I don't think one should go to the giddy heights of chocolate snobbery," she says. The most expensive chocolate isn't necessary, but "you've got to use, I think, a good-enough bar."
So Lawson suggests looking for brands containing a minimum of 70 percent cocoa solids.
The perfect chocolate cakes should be damp, rather than dry and should have "a hint of pudding about them," she says.
So, what makes cooking with chocolate so special for Valentine's Day?
"It is not a necessity — it's an indulgence," Lawson says.
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STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
In front of me I've got two items for which I can thank Nigella Lawson, the food writer and television host. One is a slice of chocolate loaf cake, made from one of her recipes, by my wife. The other is a page from one of her books in which she writes I am not particularly keen on chocolate, which might make her an especially discriminating guest to talk about chocolate before Valentine's Day.
She joins us from London. Welcome once again to the program.
Ms. NIGELLA LAWSON (Food writer, television host): Oh, thank you very much.
INSKEEP: Now, what's wrong with chocolate?
Ms. LAWSON: Nothing. When I started a whole chapter on chocolate and chocolate cakes by saying I'm not especially keen, it's really by saying I'm not an indiscriminate of all things chocolate. I mean, I certainly manage to put away quite a few chocolate cakes and bars of chocolate in my time.
However, I think a chocolate bar is pretty well a perfect - if not a food stuff, then a treat. So I think that if you're going to cook with chocolate you have to be absolutely sure that you're doing something which makes this transformation worthwhile, because it's not like you're starting with a dud ingredient and having to fiddle with it to create something gorgeous. It starts off fantastic. So, in other words, your standards mustn't be unworthy of it.
INSKEEP: Okay. So you need to be able to do something impressive with it. and do you also want to be using very good chocolate?
Ms. LAWSON: I want to be using very good chocolate. I slightly hesitate at the word impressive, in that I think that food is to give pleasure rather than to impressive.
Ms. LAWSON: And in many ways it's probably easier to impress people than to give them pleasure.
(Soundbite of laughter)
And so I think that is to be brought to mind. I don't think one should go to the giddy heights of chocolate snobbery. I have seen - and indeed tasted -chocolate bars that are really like wine gonjuer(ph) and there's a particular cocoa bean and you mustn't mix one bean with another. And they're enormously expensive. And I'm not sure really, you can tell the difference, in cooking anyway.
But you've got to use, I think, a good-enough bar. You know, so, for example, in Britain we have, I think, an easier way of helping people - and I think this is changing a bit in the States - which is in chocolate bars we have to say what percentage cocoa solids, you know.
INSKEEP: Oh, like 50 percent, 70 percent.
Ms. LAWSON: Well, 70. So really you want good quality because you want depth. And what's so interesting about chocolate is this sort of revenant interplay between sharpness and deep, deep sweetness. And I don't mean sugariness, but there's a sort of melting sweetness which is very important.
INSKEEP: Can I just mention, as we continue talking about this, I'm probably in a minute going to have to take bite of this chocolate loaf cake, because…
Ms. LAWSON: Oh, so poor you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: …to hear all this and see this at the same time it's overwhelming. But…
Ms. LAWSON: And you got your wife to cook it.
INSKEEP: Absolutely. It was lovely of her to do that. Now, what is the percentage I should be looking for then? Seventy percent, is that the number?
Ms. LAWSON: I would use 70 percent. You don't need to have a whopping great wad of cake, you know, a slice is - a regular slice will do.
INSKEEP: Oh, it'll be really, really rich is what you're saying?
Ms. LAWSON: Yes, it is rich, but it is an indulgence and it is a treat.
INSKEEP: Do you mind if I take a bite of this chocolate loaf cake while we continue talking?
Ms. LAWSON: Please do. Please do. I don't mind when people talk with their mouth full either.
INSKEEP: Thank you. The recipe says - and its true - that'll be - you like if it's a bit squidgy(ph) in the middle.
Ms. LAWSON: I do. I think that the perfect chocolate cake - which is why I think the flourless chocolate cakes are so successful…
Ms. LAWSON: …should be damp, rather than dry and should have a hint of pudding about them rather than - they should be nearer pudding than cookie.
INSKEEP: Oh, this does. This does. It's very, very, very, very moist. Now, lots of places will advertise - lots of brands of chocolate will advertise where the chocolate comes from.
Ms. LAWSON: Yes.
INSKEEP: You know, Guatemala or some place. Does that matter? Does it make a difference?
Ms. LAWSON: Well, I imagine that each chocolate or cocoa grower has reams of good words to say about his or her in particular forest - cocoa forest. But I think that in a way a bit like grapes. That there are many countries that produce wine and there are people who find any wine, so long as it's poured quickly, good. And there's some who find that, you know, they have a particular like. They want to have burgundy and it has - or they, you know, wish to have a claret.
I think really, that if you did a blind tasting - within the general public, I don't think anyone could tell the (unintelligible)…
INSKEEP: Hey. This chocolate loaf cake is amazing, by the way.
Ms. LAWSON: Oh, that's very - I'm very - I hope you have a glass of water or strong coffee to have with it.
INSKEEP: Oh, I've got some tea, actually. that's maybe not appropriate.
Ms. LAWSON: Tea's always appropriate.
INSKEEP: Why do you think it is that chocolate has become associated with Valentine's Day as opposed to celery or a grapefruit.
Ms. LAWSON: I think you know the answer to that without my having to say anything.
(Soundbite of laughter)
I think there's emoting about cooking things with chocolate or making something out of chocolate for people, especially if you're thinking Valentine's Day, which is so right in the sense that it is not a necessity — it's an indulgence. And I think just as if you gave someone, you know, a broom or a something or a dishwasher for Valentine's Day, the fact that you were giving something that was purely practical would be upsetting.
And scientists have said, well, it has a chemical structure that is not dissimilar to amphetamines. And it's really a neurotransmitter and what this does - how this affects people is it gives them a feeling that's meant to be comparable to the feeling you get when you fall in love. It's like giddiness, feeling of excitement, feeling of attraction. So, in other words, perhaps without knowing it, we're giving people a love drug.
INSKEEP: Mm. Do you expect…
Ms. LAWSON: You sound very doubting there.
INSKEEP: Doubting? Do I sound doubting?
Ms. LAWSON: Yeah, you did sound doubting. Yeah. Yeah.
INSKEEP: Why would I be - I'm interested.
Ms. LAWSON: But the - you - I don't know necessarily. There were - science, as you know, is as much opinion as art - and there are some scientists who say there isn't enough of this particular chemical to make the difference. But nevertheless…
INSKEEP: Oh, so you'd need to eat like the entire cake pretty much?
Ms. LAWSON: Probably about 20 cakes. But nevertheless, it is something that people find irresistible. And maybe there's something, just the sensuality of chocolate. I mean, isn't it meant to be the only thing that melts at blood temperature?
INSKEEP: Mm. Well, Nigella Lawson, thanks very much.
Ms. LAWSON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And if you would like to try Nigella Lawson's chocolate raspberry heart and dense chocolate loaf cake the recipes are at npr.org. it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
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