This was a surprise even to the actors, and when they saw the table, they looked at one another in rapturous amazement. It was like Marmee to get up a little treat for them, but anything so fine as this was unheard of since the departed days of plenty. There was ice cream, actually two dishes of it, pink and white, and cake and fruit and distracting French bonbons and, in the middle of the table, four great bouquets of hot house flowers.
It quite took their breath away, and they stared first at the table and then at their mother, who looked as if she enjoyed it immensely.
Is it fairies? asked Amy.
Santa Claus, said Beth.
Mother did it. And Meg smiled her sweetest, in spite of her gray beard and white eyebrows.
Aunt March had a good fit and sent the supper, cried Jo, with a sudden inspiration.
All wrong. Old Mr. Laurence sent it, replied Mrs. March.
Little Women, Louise May Alcott
Though the book spans seasons, and indeed years, Little Women will always be a Christmas story in my head. It's hardly surprising - the opening chapters see the March sisters enjoy Christmas Eve, prepare Christmas dinner (and then take it to the Hummels), rehearse a play and then enjoy Old Mr Laurence's gastronomic gifts as Christmas Day draws to a close. The treats he leaves upon the table are even more indulgent when you remember that this scene is set during the American Civil War; it would have been years since Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy had seen anything like cakes and ice-cream on their table.
It is the 'distracting' French bonbons I've recreated here; delicate tempered chocolate filled with a Christmas-scented ganache. Bonbon means, quite literally, 'good-good' in French and is a term that has, historically, been applied to an almost infinite number of chocolates and sweets. In the late 19th century, chocolates were often filled with dried fruit so I've continued the tradition with here, and have included a very Christmassy dried cranberry.
My sister Lucy and I have always loved Little Women, especially the 1994 film, which we've watched countless times. These chocolates are, in thought at least, for her, to celebrate her first wintery Christmas in the US. Merry Christmas little Luce, and to all of you, wherever you are in the world.
Christmas Chocolate Bonbons
Makes 30 chocolates
250g chopped dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
150ml double cream
Zest of two clementines
150g chopped dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
30 dried cranberries
Chocolate moulds (I find that silicone works best)
1. Place the cream in the small saucepan with the allspice and the clementine zest. Put over a low heat a bring almost to a simmer. Remove from the heat and sieve over 150g chocolate. Fold the cream into the chocolate using the spatula, until the chocolate melts and the mixture comes together.
2. Clean the small saucepan, and place the port and cranberries over a low heat. Swirl the pan and, being careful not to let the port evaporate, bring it almost to the boil. Take off the heat and allow to stand for five minutes. Sieve the port into the ganache, folding it in carefully. Set the cranberries and ganache aside to cool.
3. Next, temper 250g of the chocolate. Place two thirds of this chocolate in the heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, ensuring that the water doesn't ever touch the bowl directly. Stir the chocolate while it melts, keeping the heat as low as you can. Once the chocolate has melted, pay close attention to it and remove it from the heat once it has reached 52C. Remove the bowl from the heat and wrap the base in a tea towel to keep it warm. Add the remaining third of the chocolate and stir it in. Once melted, continue to stir until the temperature of the chocolate reduces to 32C.
4. Use the plastic spoon to transfer small amounts of the chocolate into each mould, and push it around until it covers the base and sides. Add more if you can still see the light through the chocolate when you hold it up to a window. Set the chocolate aside on the bench (so long as it's a cool day and you don't have the heating on too high) until set.
5. Spoon the ganache into the piping bag and snip the end, creating a small hole. Pipe a little ganache into each mould, place a cranberry on top and another layer of ganache on the top of that, ensuring that you don't go over the top of the mould. Set aside to cool and harden.
6. If your tempered chocolate has solidified, temper it again, following the same procedure as before. Remember to remove some of it from the bowl, if possible, to add to the melted chocolate once you take it off the heat. With the plastic spoon, fill each chocolate mould up to the top, creating a smooth back. If you have dribbled chocolate over the silicone (I can't do it without getting this very messy), run the chocolate scraper along the top of each chocolate to create a smooth finish.
7. Once the chocolate on the back has set, pop the chocolates out of the mould. Keep in a cool, dry place and consume within a couple of days.