French Chocolate Cake and the Good/Bad Fats Debate

Growing up in North America I've been painfully aware that in a society that puts health-conscious labeling at the forefront of processed food, we have some of the highest obesity rates. During my nutrition course in university we were told to be wary of health charity approved foods because although they may be low-fat they are usually high in sugar. There is a surge of foodies converting to the paleo diet. I myself had to go on this diet for about 6 months after I discovered that I had a number of food intolerances. Did I ever get fit! I even had a 1-pack (that's.. almost abs..). This diet was prescribed to me by a health professional due to the inflammatory properties of certain foods that were making me physically and mentally ill.

Of course, I had to throw the dairy and sugar-free way of eating out the door if I wanted to learn anything about Ballymaloe cooking. You never see margarine in traditional recipes and they had to be seasonal. Fat was our winter resource to keep us alive!

..and then processed* sugar was introduced. *Disclaimer: Not all 'processed' foods are 'bad' – If you think about cheese, it involves some sort of processing.. but I digress.

One of the questions I get frequently asked about taking the course at Ballymaloe is, “Why didn't you gain weight? Isn't there a lot of butter and cream in Ballymaloe cookery? Oh, and the desserts!!!”

Steak, Chips & Bernaise Sauce
Steak, Chips & Bernaise Sauce
My Gluten Free Candied Kumquat and Whipped Cream Victoria Sponge Cake
My Gluten Free Candied Kumquat and Whipped Cream Victoria Sponge Cake
Shortbread & Whipped Cream
Shortbread & Whipped Cream

When I came to Ireland, the only thing that changed in my diet was that it went from low carb and high fat to high carb and high fat. Anecdotally speaking, I noticed that my over indulgence in sweets (particularly because I'm gluten-intolerant and I was excited about finally making my own delicious gluten-free treats) led me to feel a bit more lethargic and gain a bit of.. erm.. padding. In essence though I realized that, “fat is not fattening.”

My Irish Breakfast! Gluten Free Toast, Fried Tomato, Mushroom Cap, Lamb Kidney, Back Rasher, Streaky Bacon, Potato Cake, Blood Pudding
My Irish Breakfast! Gluten Free Toast, Fried Tomato, Mushroom Cap, Lamb Kidney, Back Rasher, Streaky Bacon, Potato Cake, Blood Pudding

Having a background in Western Herbalism I know that the role diet plays on our health is determined on a case by case scenario. It's not just about fat or no fat, sugar or no sugar, but our entire diet!

“[There is a] previously underestimated role of vitamin D in supporting good health. The best sources of this fat-soluble micronutrient... are animal foods. When we diligently drink low fat milk or avoid cream and fatty meat, we deprive ourselves of this crucial vitamin.” Joanna Blythman

I like this way of thinking.

One thing that really irks me about other food articles with limited scientific backing is that they create health fads for their vulnerable and desperate readers searching for an answer. There is an over generalization that certain foods are either 'good' or 'bad'. This approach implies a health standard for a varying genetic makeup of different humans from all around the world. Thus, I'm very interested to hear the answers the real professionals will provide.

Before I talk about them, let me share my favourite buttery recipe from Ballymaloe. Equal portions of butter to flour excites me. Oh wait.. aren't carbs bad?


Almond Gateau Chocolate Cake
Almond Gateau Chocolate Cake

Ballymaloe Chocolate Almond Gateau with Crystallized Violets

serves 10

4 ozs (110g) best quality dark chocolate
2 tablespoons (2 American tablespoons + 2 teaspoons)
Red Jamaica Rum 4 ozs (110g/1 stick) butter, preferably unsalted
4 ozs (110g/1/2 cup) castor sugar
3 free-range eggs
1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) castor sugar
2 ozs (50g/scant 1/2 cup) plain white flour
2 ozs (50g/scant 1/2 cup) whole almonds

Chocolate Icing
6 ozs (175g) best quality dark chocolate
3 tablespoons (3 American tablespoons + 3 teaspoons)
Red Jamaica Rum 6 ozs (175g/1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter

crystallized violets or toasted almonds or praline

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4.

Grease two 7 inch (18 cm) sandwich tins and line the base of each with greaseproof paper. Melt the chocolate with the rum on a very gentle heat, peel the almonds and grind in a liquidizer or food processor they should still be slightly gritty. Cream the butter, and then add the castor sugar, beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff. Add 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of castor sugar and continue to whisk until they reach the stiff peak stage. Add the melted chocolate to the butter and sugar mixture and then add the almonds. Stir in 1/4 of the egg white mixture followed by 1/4 of the sieved flour. Fold in the remaining eggs and flour alternatively until they have all been added. Divide between the two prepared tins and make a hollow in the center of each cake.


Cake should be slightly underdone in the center. Sides should be cooked but the centre a little unset. Depending on oven it can take between 19 and 25 minutes.

Chocolate Butter Icing Melt best quality chocolate with rum. Whisk in unsalted butter by the tablespoon. Beat occasionally until cool. When the cake is completely cold, fill and ice with the mixture. Pipe the remaining icing around the top and decorate with crystallized violets or toasted flaked almonds


Joanna Blythman, whom I've quoted above, is one of the journalists along side Ella McSweeney that will be taking part in the Good Fats / Bad Fats event. Given their online and newsprint presence, they will be sure to be incredibly informative. For more on butter, John McKenna (McKenna's Guide) is also participating. It's bound to be an interesting talk.

Check out this gallery showing a step by step guide on making butter from scratch by none other than McSweeney herself. And if that wasn't enticing enough, here's one of McKenna's YouTube videos on making mashed potatoes. Before I came over to Ireland, I didn't believe my Irish cookbooks when they said 'make a dip in the middle of your hot colcannon and add a wedge of butter.

If you can't make it to the debate, check out the Cork Butter Museum or Butter Vikings Workshop on the LitFest weekend.

For more, here is BBC Radio 4 Food Program: Butter a delicious story of decline and revival.

I'd love to hear your opinions and experiences with fats in the diet. Feel free to start the conversation below!