February brings to mind Valentine's Day. Remember when we were kids? Valentine's Day was mainly for cutting out crafty Valentine hearts, exchanging cards with your classmates and eating those pastel heart-shaped candies with the timely sayings stamped on them? My Daddy always remembered to present his little girl with a heart-shaped box of chocolates. The bakery windows would display their wares of heart-shaped cookies, cakes and other sweet confections. Our parents would let us stay up to watch 'Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown' on television. All sounds fun and blissfully carefree, doesn't it?
While they may not air Charlie Brown holiday specials as much as they once did and many of us no longer have hours to wile away with the art supplies, and those pastel heart candies just don't taste very good to our grown-up palates as they once did, we can still have a lot of fun and eat very sweetly for Valentine's Day. In lieu of cutting out pink and red paper hearts, turn to the kitchen and explore what sort of edible hearts you can cut out of cookie dough instead.
When Brian and I spent our first Valentine's Day together during our dating years, I remember making him a big pink heart-shaped sheet cake. It was made from a strawberry cake mix, covered with store-bought strawberry frosting and trimmed with red icing piped around the edges. I presented it on a big sheet pan, and surrounded the cake with heart-shaped cookies that I made using my grandfather's old cookie press. It was quite the presentation, perhaps even a bit overwhelming. I've come a long way since, having experienced the bravery required in the quest to discover that baking from scratch really isn't that daunting after all, especially when you have the right tools and the right ingredients. With all of the big baking holidays falling during the cooler months, baking is a perfect indoor activity in which to escape from the cold winter outdoors. It brings the family together, it warms the home, the holiday themes incite creativity in the cake and cookie decorating and the sweet enticing aromas emanate throughout the house.
Baking is an exact science. Whereas in cooking one can simply throw in ingredients on a whim without measuring each and every one, baking is almost like a chemistry experiment: if you don't put the exact right amounts of each ingredient called for, the mixture will not come together the way you intended when baked. That said, the first three important gadgets to have in your kitchen are at least two sets of measuring spoons, one for dry ingredients and one for liquid; a set of measuring cups as well as a graduated glass measuring cup, preferably a two-cup version. The set of measuring cups are ideal for measuring dry ingredients such as flour and sugar, and the glass cup is perfect for liquids. Also valuable in your kitchen, for baking and cooking alike, is a set of nesting glass mixing bowls. That way you'll be able to measure out and keep separated your ingredients as you prepare everything to be heaped into the mixer, bringing me to the next point. One of the most crucial additions that you can treat yourself to for your kitchen would be an electric stand mixer, preferably a Kitchenaid as they are powerful and durable. This will make short work of mixing batters, whipping cream and kneading doughs, and allows you to multitask. Start a collection of quality nonstick bake ware as well, including sheet pans, round cake pans, square cake pans, loaf pans, muffin pans and a bundt cake pan. Williams-Sonoma carries a gorgeous heart-shaped bundt pan which I purchased a few years ago when I made Brian a chocolate-Chambord cake for Valentine's Day.
Also important to successful baking is the use of quality ingredients. Use the best Madagascar bourbon vanilla and the best quality baking chocolates you can find, they are available in gourmet food shops. Be sure any nuts used are fresh and crunchy, not stale and soft. Even the way you handle ingredients can make a difference. One tip is to sift the measured flour and sugar through a fine-mesh sieve into the mixing bowl, this helps to remove any little balls of flour which would otherwise not be evenly distributed throughout the batter. Crack each egg, one at a time, in a separate bowl before adding it to the batter, to be sure that each egg has not spoiled. Other baking success tips? When making dough to be fed through a cookie press, use food coloring pastes instead of liquid food coloring as the liquid changes the texture of the dough and can inhibit the smooth extrusion and cutting process through the press. For whipping cream, be sure to chill the bowl and the whisk in the refrigerator beforehand. Conversely, for meringues, allow the eggs to sit at room temperature before placing them into the room-temperature bowl. Once the cake or cookies are relegated into the oven, no peeking! Each time the oven door is opened, even for a few seconds, the oven temperature drops enough to retard the baking process.
So what will you be baking this Valentine's Day? The choices are infinite. How about heart-shaped meringue shells, filled with strawberry ice cream and sprinkled with shavings of chocolate and sliced strawberries? Heart-shaped linzer
Whether you choose to indulge in dinner out at your favorite Italian or French restaurant or dine in on a home-cooked romantic feast, make the evening special. Enjoy your sweet confections by a cozy fireplace and put on some romantic jazz. Alternatively, enjoy your chocolate fix as a movie treat as you pop a romantic comedy into the DVD player. My personal favorites of the genre include 'When Harry Met Sally,' 'Moonstruck' and 'Father of the Bride.' We may have grown up, but having found our true Valentine just makes the holiday that much more meaningful; now the luscious desserts and the entertainment are just the icing on the cake. Now I'm off to prepare my shopping list of ingredients to create a batch of decadent red velvet cupcakes ... with truffles on the side!