Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Love is in the air: make a sweet treat to show you care

Those who’ve been in Mexico on Valentine’s Day know that it’s celebrated in high style, with giant stuffed teddy bears, extravagant flower arrangements, balloons and boxes of chocolates and candies. 

It surprised me at first; now it’s charming, rather sweet and often amusing. Día de San Valentín is a “festivity” holiday, an official designation that includes other special days like Mother’s and Father’s Day, Teacher’s Day and Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe.

Coconutes shortbread cookies
Rich shortbread paired with toasted coconut equals a decadent melt-in-the-mouth cookie.

The origin of Valentine’s Day harkens to the third century, when a renegade Italian bishop officiated at weddings for couples who were not permitted to marry for various reasons: the parents didn’t approve of the match; one member of the couple was a slave; or the man was a soldier. Valentine performed the weddings and gave the couple flowers. Not surprisingly, the emperor disapproved of this, and on Feb. 14, A.D. 269, Valentine was beheaded. 

His love of love, however, lives on in the holiday, and St. Valentine is the patron saint of lovers everywhere. 

The commercialization of Valentine’s Day — and the introduction of chocolate as representative of true love — came centuries later. In the late 1300s, Chaucer wrote a poem heralding “seynt Voantynes day” as the time when “every bird cometh to choose his mate.” And in Europe, especially Britain, people were rapidly becoming addicted to cacao, a new imported delicacy, and discovering so many things that could be done with it. 

The first big chocolate company to make “eating chocolates” was the British firm Cadbury, who in 1861 paired them in heart-shaped boxes for the newfangled Valentine’s Day, to instant success. That was in 1861.

Meanwhile, over in America, chocolate candies were off to a slow start, but then in 1907, Hershey’s hit the jackpot with its production of tear-drop shaped chocolate “kisses” – the perfect symbol of love for a Valentine’s Day gift. (The name came not from the shape but from the ”smooching” noise the machines made as the kisses were extruded.)

As chocolate became more affordable, other companies sprouted up, including Russell Stover Candies. What started in Clara Stover’s Denver kitchen in 1923 eventually became the number-one manufacturer of boxed chocolates — particularly for Valentine’s Day — in the U.S.

Chocolate Dipped Strawberries

  • 1qt. strawberries, with green leaves if possible
  • 1-1/3 to 1½ cups milk chocolate, semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

Wash and dry berries; have at room temperature. Place parchment paper, foil or waxed paper on baking sheet(s) big enough to hold berries in single layer.

Heat chocolate in microwave for about 1 minute until soft and shiny. Using a spoon, stir till melted and smooth. Grasp a strawberry by its stem; swirl in melted chocolate, coating all sides. Place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining berries.

Refrigerate dipped berries for 20 minutes to set chocolate. Remove from refrigerator; let harden completely at room temperature. Serve the same day, if possible.

Molten Chocolate Cake

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, plus more for buttering molds
  • 4 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
  •  4 eggs
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. flour, plus more for dusting molds
  • For serving: ice cream or whipped cream

Put butter in medium bowl. Melt in the microwave, then add chocolate and stir until melted. In another bowl, crack 2 eggs and add 2 more yolks (discard the extra whites). Add sugar; beat or whisk until light and thick, about 1 minute. Mix egg mixture and 2 tsp. flour to melted chocolate.

Butter and flour four (4 oz.) molds or ramekins. Make sure not to miss any spots or cakes will stick. Tap out excess flour. Divide batter among molds. (At this point you can refrigerate them up to 3 hours; just bring them back to room temperature before baking.)

When ready to bake, heat oven to 450 F (230 C). Put molds on rimmed baking sheet; bake until cakes puff up a bit, tops are barely set and they jiggle slightly when shaken, 7–9 minutes (better underbaked than overbaked). Let sit for 1 minute.

To unmold, put a dessert plate on top of each ramekin and (with a potholder to protect your hand) carefully invert. Let sit for 10 seconds, then lift ramekin. Serve immediately.

Toasted Coconut Shortbread 

  • 1 cup + 2 Tbsp. cold salted butter (2¼ sticks), cut into ½-inch pieces
  • ½ cup granulated sugar + more for dipping outside of cookies
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1¾ cups flour
  • ½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut, plus more for sanding
  • ¾ tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 egg (beaten) for egg wash

In medium bowl with electric mixer, beat butter, both sugars and vanilla on medium-high until super light and fluffy, 3–5 minutes. Slowly add flour, then ½ cup coconut. Beat just to blend.

Divide dough in half; place each half on large piece of plastic wrap. Sprinkle each half with cinnamon. Roll to form a log. Each half should form a log about 1½-2 inches in diameter. Chill until firm, at least 1½ hours.

Heat oven to 350 F (177 C). Line baking sheet with parchment. Brush outside of logs with egg wash; roll in coconut. Slice each log into ¼-inch-thick rounds. Dip one side of each round into sanding sugar. Arrange on baking sheet, sugar-side up, about 1-inch apart. Bake until edges just begin to brown, 10–12 minutes. Cool slightly before eating them all.

Tip: Cookie dough can be made 1 week ahead. Tightly wrap in plastic and chill or freeze up to 1 month. 

No-bake peanut butter heart treats
These no-bake chocolate-and-peanut butter treats taste just like — you guessed it — Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

No-Bake Peanut Butter Chocolates

  • 1½ cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 2½ cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 cup peanut butter, crunchy or smooth
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

In large bowl, thoroughly mix graham cracker crumbs, butter, confectioners’ sugar and peanut butter. Spread mixture in lightly greased 9×13-inch pan. Chill in refrigerator 10 minutes.

While peanut butter layer is chilling, melt chocolate chips in a microwave or a double boiler on the stove. Remove chilled peanut butter layer from refrigerator; spread melted chocolate over evenly over top. Chill another 10 minutes to set before cutting into squares or shapes with a cookie cutter but leaving cut cookies in the pan. Return to refrigerator to chill for at least 1 hour before removing from pan.

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