Hands up who likes to eat a hand-made chocolate in the middle of a heatwave? No, me either. Thankfully, not only does Venchi (pronounced: Ven-key) in Covent Garden make exquisite chocolates, they make delightful gelato which is rather handy when the mercury is topping 35 on British thermometers. The store opened, rather unwittingly, on the first day of the Olympic Games in 2012 but this Italian-stalwart has over a century of expertise. The brand began life in Turin and is the go-to place for gelato in the country, even Giorgio Armani has licensed Venchi to provide his luxury retail brand with the production and distribution worldwide of Armani Dolci – his line of chocolates, ice creams and panettone.
Gelato has less fat than conventional ice cream because it uses more milk than cream, and Venchi uses no eggs either. It’s denser too because it’s churned at a slower speed, introducing less air into the base.
Now I mentioned the gelato but they’ve also got a cafe which has to be the coolest place in the capital, it’s brick, in a basement and is kept cool by the massive freezers in the next room where the Laboratory and the gelato magic happens.
Escape here for a coffee when it gets all too much with the heat, buskers and tourists and I promise you’ll not be sorry. It’s not surprising that the wrapped chocolates are kept here with the hand-made chocolates kept upstairs – next to the gelato.
All gelato is made on-site, daily, with natural ingredients which include Piedmont hazelnuts, 75% cocoa from the best plantations the world has to offers and is made with milk and not egg. Great for those who are on gluten-free diets, not so good for the nut allergists as the machine churns all flavours.
Egle Stravinskate is the woman in charge of the store and the chief Gelato maker and head of quality control. She tells me this is the busiest they’ve been – ever – and is loving the challenges that come with it. It’s a far cry from her former job as a manager at Starbucks, it’s hands-on here and it’s clear she has a passion for creating the very best ice cream she can. “I’m here for the customers.”, she tells me and I absolutely believe her when she says that. I watch as she carefully weighs out the ingredients, taking care to be absolutely exact, ensuring there’s really nothing wasted in any part of the process.
She takes me through the process and whips up a batch of cappuccino gelato – it’s being scooped out into cups and cones in under forty minutes.
She starts by weighing out the liquid 2½ litres of milk and ½ litre of cream and mixing it with the gelato mix base flavour – this makes 3½ kgs gelato. There’s no great demand for sugar-free ice cream here – the hazelnut, pistachio and milk chocolate gelato do not have cream added so if you’re watching your waistline these might be the flavours for you.
The mix then gets added to the gelato machine where it’s heated to 78 degrees and the pasteurisation process takes place.
Once the heated mix is pasteurised the liquid is poured into the freezer churn. Very soon the hot liquid is churned and turned into something resembling gelato.
It’s not long before the churning process is complete and the gelato is ready for
the serving tray and the blast freezer.
Egle then ensures that every last bit of gelato is removed from the freezing drum.
The ice cream is then removed after about twenty minutes and put straight in the store freezer.
Their best-sellers right now are Cour di Cacoa, Hazelnut, Bruto Ma Buono, Strawberry (Italian Strawberries of course) and Pistachio.
I get to taste a few of the other flavours and I have to say that the chocolate sorbet is my absolute favourite. The strawberry gelato comes a very close second made from frozen strawberry pulp imported from Italy, a much sweeter flavour than the regular strawberry flavour which wouldn’t normally be anywhere in my top ten.
Whilst it’s not immediately obvious it’s an ice cream shop, until you peer into the window, keep an eye out for it if you love quality gelato.
You can find out more about Venchi here.
18 Market Buildings, Covent Garden, London
Here’s a very quick caramel ice cream which needs only 2 ingredients and serves approximately 4-6 people.
600ml single cream
340g jar of dulce de leche
Whisk up the cream until you get soft peaks, fold the caramel into the cream and pour into a metal container. Cover, freeze for 3-4 hours until firm.
Making your own bespoke Easter presents might not be the cheapest, cleanest or waist-friendly option (certainly in my kitchen) but nothing says ‘Happy Easter’ like home-made.
Lakeland sent me some Easter products to sample and being a massive kid, and not having any myself, I spent an afternoon melting, eating and experimenting and to my surprise the results were a professional-looking array of eggs, bunnies and rabbits. If you do have children, then I know you’ll be mopping up molten chocolate for weeks to come, picking it out of places you never thought it would find itself and running round the corner shop for emergency bars.
When you cook with chocolate you need to follow a few basic rules: always use the best-quality chocolate – I tried a large bar of chocolate-flavoured cake covering and it didn’t melt down at all well and tasted fatty, cheap and nasty. Never allow the chocolate to come into contact with water or steam. Try not to eat your chocolate before you’ve been able to fill anything and try not to lick every spoon or utensil that gets covered in it. Get organised. Clear your fridge so you have space for your moulds to sit flat? And, make sure you wash and dry moulds thoroughly before use.
In the package was a Chocolate Melting Pot (£2.99) a silicone pot with a lid that is incredibly pliable so you can squeeze out most, if not all, the contents. Up to 100g of broken chocolate fit into the lidded pot and this is made for the microwave. Initially, I filled the pot up and burnt the contents. It gets incredibly hot so whilst the chocolate is melting the pot heats up and does an incredible job. Don’t whatever you do, set the microwave to the highest setting and the timer for a minute you will spoil your chocolate and likely burn your fingers. So a more comfortable setting of 600 in 20 second bursts was the best way to melt this size of bar and the pot was easy to handle without oven gloves. It was great for the smaller moulds, a more steady hand with a decent pour ensured that the work surfaces didn’t have more chocolate on them than the moulds had in them. It would also work really well for melting butter or milk for coffee. I found it really easy to clean, it’s that flexible it turns inside out for a decent scrub.
But, I still think that the best way of melting chocolate is over a pan of hot water. If you’ve got a cooking thermometer plain chcolate heats to about 44°C whilst white and milk should go no higher than 42°C. If you haven’t got a thermometer, it doesn’t really matter, you can see when the chocolate starts to melt and it should feel warm to the touch using the back of a finger. Also give it a good stir what looks like a complete chocolate square will buckle with a good poke.
I bought Fairtrade chocolate with a hint of orange; this made some bite-sized eggs with the brown silicone mould. I don’t like white chocolate or milk come to that but if you’re giving your efforts as gifts it’s easy to create different effects. Think marbling, chicks with coloured beaks and wings, white bunny tails. To be honest, I didn’t have the time or chocolate to turn the kitchen into a Willy Wonka production line. The Easter Silicone Mould is £8.99, and makes fourteen treats, not just for chocolate as you could use it for pressing marzipan shapes for your Simnel Cake or for ice. Turning the chocolates out couldn’t have been easier and the results were absolutely perfect. If you do make the half eggs, remember to save a little melted chocolate if you want to sandwich them together to make one big fat egg.
The Chocolate Bunny Moulds (£3.49) are really cute and come with six lollipop sticks. Once filled up, you must tap them to remove bubbles, gently lie in the sticks, and then put them in the fridge. After about half an hour the bunnies pop straight out but you may have to give your tray a tap first if they’re a little stubborn. You can buy extra sticks (£1.09 for 30) but they’re just as cute without. If you want to use these after Easter you could fill them with a flavoured yogurt and freeze for a healthier treat.
My favourite mould was the Duckling Chocolate Mould (£4.99) because they turned out 2-bite solid chunky chocolates. I used sprinkles in the base because I didn’t have any coloured balls, remember Jazzies? Again these moulds can be used for ice and moulding other treats. Chocolates were easy to turn out and each bunny was near perfect. The trays, again, were easy to clean.
The most fun I had, and probably the messiest was using the traditional Easter Egg Moulds. I’m sorry to report that Lakeland have sold out of these moulds although they are available in most kitchen and department stores. To make 2 large eggs and 12 solid mini eggs (24 halves) you need 500g (1lb 2oz) of good quality chocolate – your choice, milk, plain or white. Melt the chocolate but the trick for the larger eggs is to let the chocolate thicken so it coats the mould and actually bonds. I used a pastry brush at the start but the back of a spoon workedbetter. Patience is absolutely vital here, as instinctively you want to layer the mould in thick chocolate. Don’t. You need to coat the large moulds with thin layers, placing it in the fridge each time to cool so you can build up the next. I did 5 layers. I placed the egg down on a baking tray lined with greasproof paper. When you’re happy with the thickness, it’s then time to remove the egg halves and this is the trickiest part, you gently pull the sides of the mould outwards. You shouldn’t have to grease the moulds; you just need a light touch.
You can also make 18 solid mini eggs, some could be two tones, and for this you’ll need 200g (7oz) of chocolate. Melt the chocolate, use a teaspoon to fill up the mini eggs and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Join the eggs together with a little extra melted chocolate. You may want to trim off the excess with a sharp knife to get a perfect edge.
And what if you’ve used all your creativity on the eggs and you just can’t even begin to think about the packaging. Well, if you haven’t got plastic bags for your mini-treats, the dotty boxes are lovely. Eight super cute boxes are £2.99 and frankly they could be used at any time of year, would be great for wedding favours too.
Lakeland also sell 50 presentation bags for £2.99. I haven’t got any right now but have used them in the past they are perfect too, especially finished off with a pretty bow. If a little big for your baked treat you can just cut the top off and make them smaller. Great for single cupcakes as well as larger party treats and biscuits.
All products available at http://www.lakeland.co.uk