A Chocolate Palimpsest


I’ve found the oddest books in a second­hand book shop — First-Line Index of Eng­lish Poetry 1500–1800 in Manu­scripts of the Bodlei­an Lib­rary, Oxford, edited by Mar­garet Crum. The two huge volumes con­tain just the first lines of over 23,000 poems, spread across more than 1,000 pages. I hated the idea of all that effort sit­ting aban­doned on the shelves, when oth­er more flir­ta­tious books were slink­ing out of the shop without even hav­ing to try. So I bought both volumes.

I’ve been teach­ing under­gradu­ates the his­tory of the Eng­lish nov­el and at the end of term I felt they deserved a treat. The choice was either chocol­ates or a glor­i­ous new word to add to their lex­icons. In the spir­it of Mar­garet Crum, I chose the word over the con­fec­tion­ery.

My word gift was a really good one: pal­impsest — a manu­script that’s been erased and on which new words have been writ­ten. Not a word to be used very often but, like car­a­mel souffle, per­fect for the big occa­sion. I asked my stu­dents if they agreed with my choice: pal­impsest over Cadbury’s. Well, it turns out I got it wrong.

But I’m not giv­ing up on the pal­impsest. I’ve cre­ated a chocol­ate ver­sion, so the stu­dents get their way and I get mine. It’s called dip­lomacy. Or hav­ing your pal­impsest and eat­ing it too.

Chocolate Palimpsests

You should end up with a dozen.

Manuscript 1 — peanut butter biscuits

100g but­ter — if it’s unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the mix­ture. If it’s not, don’t.

100g crunchy pea­nut but­ter

125g golden caster sug­ar

1 tea­spoon vanilla extract

1 egg

Either 165g plain flour with a tea­spoon of bak­ing powder OR 165g self rais­ing flour.

Mix the but­ter, pea­nut but­ter and sug­ar until smooth, then trickle in the vanilla extract and add the egg. Com­bine the lot into a tan col­oured mix­ture. Sep­ar­ately, blend the salt and the bak­ing powder and mix well into the flour (or just weigh out 165g self rais­ing flour — it really doesn’t mat­ter.) Fold the flour into the but­ter and pea­nut but­ter.

On a lightly floured sur­face, roll the dough out and then flat­ten the top and sides to form a sol­id brick about five inches long and 2 inches square. Wrap the brick in cling film and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours. Don’t miss this bit out — if you do, the bis­cuits will ooze all over the bak­ing tray before they get a chance to cook.

Heat the oven to 180 degrees C and but­ter a bak­ing tray and line it with bak­ing parch­ment. Cut the dough into 5 mm slices and place them on the tray with plenty of room to expand. Bake for about 10 minutes until golden. Allow to cool, while you make Manu­script 2.

Manuscript 2 — chocolate cream

150 g chocol­ate (70% cocoa solids)

150 ml double cream

25 g but­ter

20g icing sug­ar

Chop the chocol­ate roughly and put it into a bowl with the cream and but­ter. Melt it over a pan of sim­mer­ing water, stir­ring well. Sift in the icing sug­ar. When it’s thor­oughly mixed and a uni­form glossy brown, put it to one side to set, but not too hard.

Turn the bis­cuits upside down to reveal their flat­ter sides, scoop up a wodge of chocol­ate paste on a knife and spread it on in a good, thick lay­er. Write some­thing important/funny/daft/endearing/educational in the chocol­ate using a skew­er or a cock­tail stick.

Manuscript 3 — toasted almonds and chocolate shards

40g chocol­ate (70% cocoa solids)

A hand­ful of flaked almonds

Melt the chocol­ate in a bowl placed over a pan of sim­mer­ing water. But­ter a bak­ing sheet and cov­er it with bak­ing parch­ment. Pour the melted chocol­ate onto the paper and spread it to a 5 inch by 7 inch rect­angle. While it cools, toast the almonds in a dry fry­ing pan, or in the oven for about ten minutes at 180 degrees C.

When the chocol­ate is firm but not rock hard, pull it off the paper and tear it into strips about half an inch inch wide. Tear each strip into half inch lengths. Push over­lap­ping pieces of chocol­ate into half the pea­nut bis­cuits spread with chocol­ate paste and coat the remain­ing bis­cuits with almonds you’ve toasted lightly in the oven for ten minutes. You no longer have posh chocol­ate bis­cuits, you have pal­impsests. If the mes­sage carved into the paste is one you’d like the recip­i­ents to see, ask them to peel back the top lay­er of chocol­ate or nuts. If you’d rather keep it secret, stay silent while they devour the evid­ence.

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5 thoughts on “A Chocolate Palimpsest

  1. They look deli­cious and what a good name for them: Chocol­ate Pal­impsests. Always liked the word and I’m sure the bis­cuits are worthy of it.

  2. Inspired. And funny.
    It’s a pity it is not, as you say, a word one would often use. Could one get away with…“I had such a pal­impsest morn­ing. I was sup­posed to go to the dent­ist, but I got stuck in traffic and then my boss called me in and told me to go to Par­is instead. So here I am, feel­ing pal­impsest in Par­is.“
    I actu­ally secretly wish that pal­impsest was a super­lat­ive. It deserves to be a super­lat­ive, to me. It feels like a super­lat­ive on the tongue, a nice super­lat­ive, describ­ing an incred­ible piece of good luck. “Gosh, I had the pal­impsest morn­ing. By utter coin­cid­ence I found the bone china tea­cup I’ve been search­ing for for years, at a dinky antiques shop in a vil­lage I just happened to be passing through. I saw the shop and stopped on the off chance, and there it was!”

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