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Choc and awe

2011 April 19
by Paul Vallely

It is the school holidays but there is a fierce look of concentration burrowing the brow of my 11-year-old son. Yet he is not absorbed in Rome Total War on his computer or playing PS3 online with his classmates. He has a piping bag in hand and he’s decorating an Easter Egg.

Welcome to Betty’s, the cookery school attached to the high-class bakers and chocolatiers which make Harrogate the north’s most genteel destination for afternoon tea. Not, you might imagine, an apt Easter holiday for a red-blooded boy. But you would be wrong.

The one-day Easter Eggstravaganza course begins with Hot Cross Buns which brings together science, artistry, physical dough-pummelling, bowl-scraping and spoon licking in equal measure. There are five chefs to 18 pupils, half boys, half girls, aged 10-11. They teach one another.

“Anybody know what yeast is?” asks Richard, the school manager – who has worked in a five star London hotel, a Yorkshire stately home and been the chef for a band of touring rock super-stars – as he sets out the ingredients.

“A fungus,” says one boy, who was clearly paying attention in school science. “When it breathes it gives off CO2 and it’s that gas that makes the bread rise. It feeds off the sugar and starch in the flour.”

“Why do we put a pinch of salt in the chocolate sauce,” asks Melissa, another demonstrator as they move onto making brownies and then smother them in homemade chocolate sauce. “Because salt makes sweet things taste sweeter,” replies one of the girls.

They even add a bit of folklore. “Why do we put a cross on the buns?” asks Lisa, who has worked at Betty’s for 25 years. “Because if it didn’t have one it would just be a Hot Bun,” says a boy. “Because Jesus died on a cross,” says one of the girls as Lisa shows them how to work fast with the sugary paste to pipe the cross on the risen buns before the paste sets.

But Easter was originally a pagan feast – Eostre was the hare-headed Saxon goddess of dawn – and today its primary fare is chocolate.

The chocolate eggs at the school have been hand-moulded in Betty’s craft factory across the campus by Claire Gallagher, a Member of the Academy of Chocolate. Betty’s poached her from Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, where she made the chocolates for the Queen Mother. The Harrogate firm wanted a master-chocolatier to launch a Finest range of chocolates in the tradition of Frederick Belmont, the Swiss exile who founded Betty’s legendary tea-rooms over 90 years ago.

On the way to meet her, while the kids are at work on their pascal masterpieces, I pass through an artisan workshop which is a Willy Wonka wonderland where taps without off-switches run continuously with dark and white chocolate.

“You have to get your mind in a different place to taste chocolate properly,” the formidable Scotswoman announces as she greets me. She sets me a test, to identify the smell from three small white pots on the table between us.

The first smells of sandalwood, nutmeg. “It’s mixed spice,” she says. The second is citrus, lemony but sweet. “Oil of orange,” she corrects. The third is like praline. “Roasted almonds,” I suggest. “Roasted hazelnuts,” she adjusts, “but that’s not bad”.

Claire has studied Betty’s archives and come up with a range of chocolates which recreate the nostalgic flavours and historic attention to detail of Betty’s founding 1920s range. Chocolate moulds are hand-filled with best Madagascar vanilla infused into caramel, blackcurrant juice reduced to an intense jelly, or a fruity perfumed water-based ganache made from rare cocoa beans found wild in the tropical forests of Bolivia. They are then covered with rich criollo cocoa beans from Venezuela before being rolled and finished by hand.

It would be impossible to pig your way through a box of these. They are so rich that I was unable even to finish half a dozen. They are flavours as intense and complex as those of a fine wine, lingering long on the palate.

Back at the cookery school the young pupils have finished decorating their eggs. The girl next to my son has written “Happy Easter Mum” on hers. My boy has inscribed SPQR in yellow icing on the side of his, along with a Roman legionary eagle. They move onto the final creation of the day, smothering with chocolate the hand-formed balls of brownie they’d made earlier.

Later, at tea in Betty’s café, overlooking Harrogate’s famous white-and-pink blossomed Stray, Thomas reviews the day. “At first I thought they might be superior and bossy, showing off their speed and skill, and then say ‘we’ve got a machine to do it for you’,” he said, ordering a Chocolate Tasting Selection of macaroon, brownie and truffle with a miniature hot chocolate drink, clearly not having had enough of the stuff during the five-hour session.

“But they did everything slowly like we would, and showed us how to be precise so that things don’t go awry, and then let us get on with it. But they would come to give help if you needed it. When the girl next to me forgot to put in her shortening in the Hot Cross Buns they came and helped her fix it. There was much more intricacy and delicacy than I expected. The hardest thing was the piping; it spurted out everywhere if you weren’t careful.”

Marks out of 10? “Eleven,” he said, without hesitation. “I’d like to come again.” Betty’s runs kids courses at Christmas and Halloween. One of those? Or Fun Family Food or Healthy Eating? “No,” he said, wrinkling his nose at the thought. “But they run one called Chocolate Treats.  One of the chefs told us: ‘You can never have too much chocolate’.”

Details of the courses are at


Chocolate Cake Truffles

Makes 8

175°C (fan assisted)


30g cocoa powder

60g salted butter

1 egg

60g caster sugar

25g plain flour

¼ tsp baking powder


50g milk chocolate

50g dark chocolate


  1. Place the butter into a small pan and melt gently.
  2.  Place the cocoa in a small glass bowl and pour over the melted butter.
  3. Ensure the two ingredients are well combined and set aside.
  4. In a separate bowl whisk the eggs and sugar together  Using a whisk until light and creamy.
  5. Pour the cooled chocolate mixture into the eggs and sugar and combine .
  6. Fold in the plain flour and baking powder to the mixture.

  1. Pour into the baking tray and cook in a pre-heated oven for 10 minutes. Once baked leave  to cool.
  2. To decorate – Melt the milk and dark chocolate in a  bowl over a tall pan of boiling water taking  care not to let the water come into direct contact with  the chocolate.
  3. Using your hands scoop a small amount of the mix  roll into a 6 balls.

  1. Put the chocolate cake balls onto a cooling wire  and spoon over the melted chocolate.

  1. Sprinkle with edible glitter or sparkles place into the fridge to set.




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