Honey has long lent sweetness to humankind's culinary creations, and adds golden colour, crust and moistness to your baking, as well as a range of floral flavours
Honey has always sat at an uneasy juncture for me; I'm pinned between a pathological fear of bees and a very sweet tooth. On the allotment where my parents tend to a scrubby vegetable patch, I stay as far from the beehives - a row of them, smartly painted and buzzing with bees - as possible.
Luckily, none of us need ever face the swarm to get our sweet fix, though I think there's an unnerving joy in reminding ourselves, as we tuck into some honey-laced snack, that this perfect sweetness is the labour - and the regurgitation - of thousands of tireless, busy bees.
Although honey is roughly as sweet as refined sugar, care should be taken when swapping one for the other in a recipe. As it contains a small amount of water, recipes made with honey ought to have their liquid ratios tweaked accordingly; honey is liquid, so it can't hold air bubbles as well as the usual creamed butter and sugar mixture in cake and puddings, which means that you may notice a slightly closer, damper texture - ideal for earthy cakes made with ground nuts, hearty fruit loaves and the sticky chocolate puddings below.
I'm guilty of buying cheap honey - worst of all the value range stuff, or the ones in squeezy bottles - but I urge you to spend the extra pound or so for a nicer version for these recipes. Take a moment to scan the shelves next time that you're at the supermarket and you'll notice a huge variety - runny, set, woody heather, orange blossom, expensive Manuka. Better still, have a look in a farm shop or market.
Dark chocolate puddings with salted chocolate honey sauce
These puddings would, I suppose, be ideal for a dinner party: they're elegantly dark and rich ... you can be sure of guests boasting that they couldn't possibly find room for dessert before snaffling one in a few greedy bites. But where they really come into their own is against the backdrop of a bad mood. Pull a filled pudding basin from the fridge (the batter is easy to make in advance), bake, flood it in silky chocolate sauce and eat curled up in a duvet cocoon. It's not a healthy form of therapy, but will give you a few minutes of pleasure at least, and I think there's something very special about giving yourself the purest of joys when you're at your lowest ebb.
Makes 4 large or 12 small
100g unsalted butter
80g dark chocolate (70% cocoa), roughly chopped
2 large eggs
80g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
For the sauce
150ml double cream
120g dark chocolate (70% cocoa), finely chopped
30g unsalted butter, softened
4 tbsp honey
1/4 tsp salt, or to taste
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.Melt the butter over a low heat. You'll need either 4 individual (150ml) pudding moulds or a 12-hole cupcake tin. Brush the sides of the tin(s) liberally with 1-2 tbsp of the melted butter (setting the remaining butter aside for the puddings), then place in the fridge to cool and set.
2 Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl suspended over a pan of barely simmering water (you could always use a microwave - with care - if you have one). Stir in the remaining butter, honey and eggs. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and stir until smooth.
3 Divide the batter between the buttered tins and place in the preheated oven. Baking time will depend on the size of the puddings; small ones will be done in as little as 10-12 minutes while large puddings will take 15-20 minutes. Just keep an eye on them. They're done when well-risen and when a small knife inserted into the centre emerges clean. With puddings like these, which ought to be soft, damp and sweet, it's better to under- than overcook them.
4 While the puddings bake, heat the cream for the sauce until just shy of the boil, then remove the pan from the heat. Add the finely chopped chocolate (and it really should be finely chopped, otherwise it won't melt evenly), and stir until smooth. Immediately mix in the butter, honey and salt. Keep warm in a water bath until ready to use, which will ensure the sauce stays silky and pourable.
5 Serve the puddings while still hot and ladle over the chocolate sauce.
Honeyed Earl Grey tea loaf
I've returned to tea loaves in this column a number of times over the last year or so, and for good reason. They're blissfully easy to make - particularly compared to the trickiness of pastries and patisserie - and can usually be rustled together from a few storecupboard basics. What I most like about them though is their balance of sweetness and substance: with no sickly icing or cloying cream, they're just sweet enough to sate a sugar craving, and just plain enough to justify going in for a second, third or even fourth thick slice. Here I've worked with the light citrus tang of Earl Grey, bolstering it with zest and pairing with a mild orange blossom honey. You can swap in different flavours as suits you, though - a light acacia honey might complement a small handful of flaked almonds scattered on top, while a darker honey could match a robust Assam tea.
30g unsalted butter, melted
225ml Earl Grey tea, cooled
100g orange blossom honey
2 large eggs
Zest of 1 orange
1 tsp orange blossom water, optional
275g plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Grease and line a 2lb/900g loaf tin.
2 Whisk together the butter, tea, honey, eggs, zest and orange blossom water in a large bowl. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl, then add to the wet mixture along with the sultanas. Stir until just combined.
3 Pour the batter into the prepared loaf tin and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a small knife inserted into the centre of the loaf emerges clean. Leave to cool completely before slicing, toasting and serving with pats of salted butter.
Dark chocolate pud with a silky salted chocolate honey sauce. Photograph: Jill Mead/Guardian