School dinners of the mid-late-20th century have experienced somewhat of a nolstalgic revival in recent years, especially in the post-Jamie Oliver crackdown. What were once reviled as days of sulphurous overboiled cabbage and lumpy custard are now looked back on extremely fondly as simple yet evocative fare. I’m perhaps slightly too young to be part of this era of school dinners but I still own a copy of Becky Thorn’s hard-to-get School Dinners cookbook on Kindle and have attempted a few.
This recipe however, came from a childhood friend’s mother in 2001 who worked in a primary school in Birmingham. I was 12 and remember her cooking it for us one visit 2 years previous and asked her for the recipe. I found it many years later in my mother’s recipe file in 2013 and copied it into my own. It has lost NONE of it’s charm.
Chocolate Concrete, or Chocolate Crunch as it’s sometimes known, was a popular dessert amongst schoolchildren, and Giles Coren and Sue Perkins showed it on a Supersizers feature on school dinners if I remember correctly. It is essentially a crude version of shortbread, served warm in glorious brown slabs with chocolate flavoured custard poured thickly over the top. However it can also be served cold and eaten like any other biscuit/cookie. I have taken it into work before and it received rave reviews – one colleague christened it ‘rocket fuel’ as it packs a calorific burst and childhood chocolate hit, perfect to get you through the rest of your shift.
It is a very simple recipe and very cheap to make – obviously it was designed be made quickly and served in large quantities out of those epic square tins. Don’t worry though – this recipe fits a small roasting tin and you won’t have stale pieces haunting you 10 days later! You will most likely have all the ingredients to hand in your store cupboard.
Final word of note – the standard recipe is gratifying enough, but feel free to substitute ingredients to take it from misty-eyed school lunchtimes into something more grown-up – use dark muscovado sugar instead of regular, for example; wholemeal flour for extra texture; replace some of the flour with rice flour a-la some shortbread recipes; add vanilla extract to the melted butter; add some salt to cut some of the juvenile sweetness; replace some of the cocoa with a little instant espresso powder to add adult bitterness – the list is endless. You can even forego the cocoa entirely and make a blonde vanilla concrete sister version. I will be bossy though and insist an oblong tin is compulsory, and it shall not be served in any way other than being cut into dense, crunchy squares.
8oz flour (can be plain or self-raising)
2oz cocoa powder
4oz melted butter or margarine
- Preheat oven to gas mark 3/140C fan/160C electric
- Mix the dry ingredients together.
- Add melted butter or margarine. Be warned that you may need more as flour can annoyingly vary in its absorbent qualities; or add a little water if the mixture behaves impossibly.
- Mix (No?!). Best started with a regular dessert spoon and then finish it with your hands. You won’t get a full dough, but rather a mixture resembling damp soil. Be careful to not overmix.
- Tip this glorious mound of Aztec earth into a small rectangular baking tin, (ungreased but lined with parchment if you intend on serving it cold as a biscuit for easy lifting out) and press in with your hands or the back of a spoon. Compact it down as hard as you can.
- Brush the top with water and sprinkle with some caster or granulated sugar.
- Bake for 30 minutes. When cooked, leave to cool in the tin – like cookies and shortbread, it will harden as it cools.
- Best eaten warm on the same day, cut into equal squares with some chocolate custard -(good old Bird’s custard, please, to which a few squares of cooking chocolate is added) or left to cool completely before cutting.