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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Grimsvotn on a plate!

Apparently, we have ash cloud disruption again this year, thanks to Iceland's Grimsvotn volcano, which started erupting a few days ago. I'm cursing Grimsvotn's grim timing. Now, if only it had been considerate enough to time its eruption a mere couple of days earlier, I would have been stranded on the sandy shores of Antigua. But alas, such good fortune was not to be mine. Boo!

I’m being facetious of course. Apologies to the thousands stuck in airports all over the UK and Europe who don’t find my humour funny. But if this makes it any better – I was you last year, stuck for weeks (and not in Antigua), because of that other volcano with the unpronounceable name. And in precisely such times – when you’ve done everything you can, planned all those little details so meticulously...and then life throws a curve ball (or ash cloud in this case) your way, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it – sometimes, a good laugh is just what you need.

So, just for a good laugh and in the hope that all you stuck people get unstuck very soon, I’m making: Grimsvotn on a plate!

This is chocolate at its shiny best.  Pure, unadulterated, liquid decadence.

To be perfectly honest, I'm actually not that into chocolate. I neither require it, nor crave it. I'd really rather have apple crumble. But then every once in a blue moon when I want chocolate, I want chocolate. And nothing else will do. And when I want chocolate, I want the dark, bitter kind. Rich. Seductive. Almost Sinful. Today is that blue moon.  

And this is Chocolate Lava Cake.

For all you cocoa worshippers out there, this cake is about as perfect a dish as you can imagine. It looks innocent enough on the outside, almost like the top half of a muffin. Yawn. But on the inside?  On the inside, lies pure magic. Seducing you. Calling your name. Whispering secrets of dark desire and unspoken pleasures.

Try it:
- 200g semi-sweet chocolate. Cooking chocolate works, as does a dark chocolate bar. I use the Chocolate Society's Cooking Chocolate, 70% cocoa-filled little ovals of heaven!
- 125g butter, plus extra for greasing
- 25g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 2 eggs, plus 2 yolks
- 100g caster sugar

Break or chop the chocolate in a heat proof bowl. Add butter and set over a saucepan of simmering water until the chocolate is almost completely melted. While that's heating, beat together the eggs, the egg yolks and the sugar with a whisk or electric beater until light and thick (about 3 mins. by electric mix and 5-6 minutes with the whisk). Add the melted chocolate-butter mixture into the eggs. Sift in the flour and gently fold in, until well combined.

Butter and lightly flour four 4-ounce muffin molds, custard cups, or ramekins.  When buttering, coat the bottoms first, then butter the sides using upward strokes - this causes the chocolate to rise and also helps get the cakes out easier when baked. Tap out any excess flour.  Cocoa powder, incidentally, serves the same purpose as the flour – it makes no noticeable difference to the taste, but you do away with any risk of white residue on the finished product. Divide the batter among the molds until about 3/4 of the way full. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 C for 6 to 7 minutes until risen and just firm to the touch; the sides will be set, as in a brownie or muffin, but the centre will be liquid (check with a toothpick if you like). Invert each mold onto a plate and the cake should slip right out in a soft upside down U. Eat immediately after baking so the centres are still hot – the best way to enjoy the perfectly liquid melted chocolate core.

I take my little volcano outside and sit down to eat it in the garden. The wind is still, the night sky is cloudless. As you know, I only crave chocolate once in a blue moon. And I’m really craving chocolate now. I look up and I can't see a blue moon, but I can see the stars shimmering like jewels in the spreading darkness. It’s a rare sight, this – a London sky filled with stars.  

I am transported back to another starry night in a place far away from here. Strangely, that memory too, has a volcano in it. Considerably more magnificent than the one on my plate, I have to admit. This is Kilauea, in the Big Island of Hawaii.

It was the summer of 2007. I had just graduated from Business School and was on a 2-week holiday in the spectacular Hawaiian Islands. Along with the many secluded beaches and undiscovered ocean pools, I was also eager to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, boasting Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. And so, as I get myself up to the public hiking trail that would have taken me to the Kilauea overlook, I am dismayed to find the path blocked off. A uniformed National Park guard is standing at the entrance, turning people back. “There’s a bit of unusual activity going on today”, he explains, “we’re not sure how safe it is, we’ve closed the trail.”

I am crestfallen. When will I ever get to come here again?

I am just turning around to make my way back to the car when I hear the rest of his sentence, “...but you can go to viewing area if you like, just follow this path...”

And so, I follow the path. It ends on a flat, smooth, cliff jutting directly out onto the Pacific. The edge of the earth. There are a few people there already, sitting cross legged, the wind in their hair, staring out in front of them in absolute awe. I look up to see what they are looking at, and even the memory of the sight in front of me sends goose bumps through my body.

For just about thirty feet away, towering high above us, is Kilauea. And Kilauea is performing. Every few minutes, from deep within its belly, it spews out smoldering embers that light up the darkening sky in bursts of flame. And then it rests. I sit there in silence, taking it all in, the unspoken significance of these intervals of perfect darkness alternating with explosions of fire. Kileauea, disappearing into the shadows and then appearing again, its outline dark and majestic against the burnished glow of the sky. Creation and destruction. Some of the molten lava emerges from the open mouth of the caldera and flows down the edge of the rocks, carving out zig-zag paths of liquid fire. Rivers of Gold.

And then, just when I think it can’t get any better, it does. A chunk of volcanic rock – a piece of Kilauea – aglow with blistering lava, breaks off in front of my eyes, falling dramatically, as if in slow motion, into the Pacific Ocean below. The spectators gasp. A thunderous splash, a cloud of steam. High, high into the sky. As earth meets fire meets water meets air.

It is the most spectacular show I have ever seen.

Back to Grimsvotn. Mine, that is. I look down at it, sitting demurely on my plate. It’s time to make it perform. I take my fork and break off the crumbly crust, savouring its slight sweet crispness on my tongue. And then I get to the core. And the magic begins. The liquid chocolate lava oozes out. Swirls around seductively in my mouth. Hot. Voluptuous. Molten. I feel myself sinking into the dark, satiny smoothness. It’s easy to lose yourself here...

These are fireworks of a different kind. The volcano has come alive.

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