Give your loved one a warm hug with braised lamb and Valentine's chocolate cake

Preparing coeurs a la creme

Preparing coeurs a la creme - Credit: Frances Bissell

Looking at the Valentine's Day creations of the top Parisian patissiers, shiny lip-shaped boxes full of heart-shaped macarons and light airy sponges made bright pink with dried raspberry powder, none of it inspired me to make my own pretty concoction for my loved one. 

In the past I have made heart-shaped pink cakes, cœurs à la crème with raspberry coulis, used a mould to shape steak tartare and bought a bottle of Saint Amour beaujolais to partner the Valentine's dinner. But what I want to cook is food which has the effect of a big, warm hug. February needs those, and this February needs them more than ever. Thus, slow cooking, delicious smells and a warm kitchen are what I shall be aiming for. Oxtail with dumplings? Venison cobbler? Daube niçoise? As you can see my notion of a big warm hug encompasses meat and starch.

A cold Sunday saw me preparing a half shoulder of lamb from the March House Farm stall in Swiss Cottage Farmers Market (the shop is now online) and getting ready to add some broken potatoes to the braising pot, Spanish shepherd-style, when I decided that the Pink Fir Apples were, in fact, rather disappointing in flavour. How would gnocchi be I wondered? I had a pack of chicce de patate, a smaller version of gnocchi, and added these about 15 minutes before the end of cooking time. The starch they gave off thickened the cooking juices nicely, and the soft potato dough absorbed some of the flavours of the meat and shallots. It was a happy match, enhanced by the Kalamata olives, the garlic and the slivers of mandarin zest. Not a photogenic dish, but supremely comforting. And it made wonderful left-overs; pulled lamb mixed with crumbled haggis and the rest of the gravy, topped with buttery mash and baked into a highland shepherd's pie. This recipe works with individual lamb shanks as well. And if the gnocchi idea does not appeal,  small Charlotte potatoes will be very good with it.

Braised shoulder of lamb (Serves 2 with leftovers)


1 kilo half-shoulder of lamb - shank or blade end doesn't really matter

1 or 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

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3 or 4 banana shallots, peeled and halved

Cloves of garlic, peeled - as many or few as you like

Glass of red  wine - about 150 ml

10 Kalamata olives 

Zest of half a mandarin or tangerine - finely pared and shredded

200 g chicce di patate, gnocchi or gnocchetti

Seasoning - to taste

Flat leaf parsley - to decorate


Trim any excess fat from the lamb. Heat the oil in a heavy based flam-proof casserole and in it lightly brown the shallots and then the meat, turning it to brown in as many spots as possible. This is an uneven piece of meat, so you will not be able to brown it uniformly. With the heat turned up, add the wine and let it reduce somewhat before putting the lid on the casserole; before you do, add the garlic. Put the lamb in the oven at about 150 C and let it cook for at least two hours. Add the olives and zest and cook for another 20 to 30 minutes before adding the chicce. Taste for seasoning at this point. Because of the olives, you may need little salt. The casserole with the chicce only needs a further 10 to 15 minutes in the oven, or you can finish it off on top of the stove. When cooked, I like to serve straight from the casserole, the meat tender enough to take off the bone with a spoon. 

With Lent just a week away, I have included my chocolate cake recipe because February needs chocolate too.

Valentine Chocolate Cake

Valentine Chocolate Cake - Credit: Frances Bissell

Rich Chocolate Valentine’s Cake


100 g chocolate bar - 70 or 85 percent

125 ml espresso coffee

100 g unsalted butter, softened

150 g light muscovado sugar

Half a teaspoon pure vanilla essence

3 eggs, separated

200 g self-raising flour sifted with

25 g cocoa and 1 teaspoon ground mixed spice

125 ml plain yoghurt


100 g chocolate – at least 70% or 85% cocoa solids

200 ml double cream

Icing sugar – see recipe


Grease and flour a heart-shaped sponge tin.

Put the broken up chocolate in a bowl over hot water, and add the liquid. Leave until the chocolate has melted, and stir.

Put the rest of the ingredients, except the egg whites, in the food processor and process for 25 seconds, stopping and scraping down the sides with a spatula halfway through. Add the chocolate mixture, and process for a couple of seconds more.

Whisk the egg whites until firm and snowy, and fold lightly into the cake mixture with a metal spoon, having first removed the bowl from the processor and taken out the blade. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, smooth the surface and bake in the middle of a pre-heated oven at 180 C Gas mark 4 for 40 mins or until a skewer emerges clean. Allow to cook in the tin for a few minutes then ease out and turn it onto a wire rack.

When completely cool, split the cake in two. The underneath of the cake becomes the smooth flat top to decorate. The original top surface may have cracked in the baking, or risen to a point, in which case, take off a thin slice to enable the cake to balance. Make a ganache by melting the chocolate in the double cream, which you then beat as it cools, to thicken. Sandwich the two halves of the cake with this filling and decorate the top as you wish. For example glaze the cake with sieved, warmed apricot jam and sift over fine flakes of chocolate, using a grater.

©Frances Bissell 2021. All rights reserved.