Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Chocolate and Valentine's Day: Perfect Together

Purchasing the ubiquitous heart-shaped box of chocolates and making dinner reservations at a romantic Italian or French restaurant head the list of tasks to be completed in the coming week.  Yes, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and love is in the air, to be made sweeter still with the enticing aroma of chocolate.  Valentine’s Day and chocolate are the inseparable perfect pairing.

Make your beloved feel extra special by presenting a chocolate dessert that you create for the occasion.  There are so many possibilities to accommodate every schedule and every level of culinary ability.  I always find a trip to Williams Sonoma inspiring as I peruse the aisles, browsing at the seasonal items and baking paraphernalia.  One year I purchased a heart-shaped Bundt pan and surprised Brian with a dark chocolate-raspberry cake spiked with Chambord and dusted with confectioners sugar and red decorator sugar.  Another year I baked a batch of heart-shaped cookies with a cookie press, which you can also find at Williams Sonoma or any other gourmet cooking shop.  Last Valentine’s Day, with red velvet being all the rage, I made my sweetie red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, sprinkled with red sugar and crowned with a piece of dark chocolate.

Creating truffles may seem daunting; it really is not that difficult, although it can be time-consuming.  The process usually involves melting some high quality chocolate, allowing it to firm up a bit in the refrigerator and then using a small scoop to grab bite-sized morsels and then rolling those morsels in your hands to form balls.  The balls can then be rolled into coatings of chopped nuts, powdered cocoa or confectioners sugar, and then refrigerated once again until firm.

The flavor of chocolate combines extremely well with certain liqueurs, including Kahlua, Chambord, Crème de Menthe, Cointreau and Frangelico.  I highly recommend adding any one of these when making truffles.  The use of instant espresso powder, freshly brewed strong coffee or Kahlua liqueur in most recipes really enhances the depth of flavor of the chocolate.

For those who are either creativity challenged, pressed for time or the very idea of baking strikes irrational fear into your heart, there is always the simpler all-American chocolate classic: the brownie.  Brownies are about as easy as baking gets, so easy in fact that I can never comprehend why people insist on buying instant boxed brownie mix.  Homemade always tastes so much better, richer and more natural.  Brownies are also versatile, allowing a vast array of possibilities for final ingredients to be stirred into the batter, toppings and even packaging, thus lending themselves a welcome treat on any occasion.  They are the ultimate in easy comfort chocolate dessert.

Brownies (makes 9)
½ cup (one stick) butter
1 ½ ounces semi-sweet baking chocolate
1 ½ ounces bittersweet baking chocolate
1 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup flour, sifted
1 cup stir-in (see note below for ideas)
Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  Grease an 8 or 9-inch square baking pan.  In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter and chocolates together, stirring constantly.  Once completely melted and combined, remove from heat and allow to cool for five minutes.  Stir in the sugar and salt.  Add the eggs and vanilla and stir until well blended.  Add the sifted flour and stir until just combined.  Add the stir-in of your choice.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.  Bake until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes.  Be sure to start checking for this at 30 minutes, as you do not want to over bake brownies.  Remove from oven and allow to cool before cutting.

Choose Your Stir-In!
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup peanut butter chips
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 cup salted cashew halves
1 cup coarsely chopped hazelnut pieces
1 cup chocolate-coated toffee chips
1 cup peanuts

Of course, you may choose to stir in a combination, such as ½ cup of chocolate chips and ½ cup of walnuts, for example. 

These ingredients can also serve as a topping, if desired.  Once the batter has been poured into the prepared pan, for topping sprinkle a layer of whichever ingredient(s) you choose over the batter and press them VERY lightly.

You can also add one of these into the batter if you want to spike up the flavor once in awhile:
1 tablespoon Kahlua (coffee liqueur)
1 tablespoon Cointreau (orange liqueur)
1 tablespoon Chambord (raspberry liqueur)
1 tablespoon Amaretto (almond liqueur)
1 tablespoon Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur)
1 tablespoon Crème de Menthe (mint liqueur)

Or you may choose to swirl one of these additions into the batter.  Once you have poured the above batter recipe into the pan, drop four teaspoons of one of the following onto the batter.  Then take the blade of a knife and gently swirl the dropped item of your choice throughout the batter, taking care not to touch the bottom of the pan with your knife.

Nutella (a chocolate-hazelnut spread)
Smooth peanut butter

Whatever variation you choose to bake, make the presentation special.  Once completely cooled the brownies can be packed in a Valentine-themed tin, a box lined with red tissue paper, a red cellophane wrap or bag, secure with red, white and pink ribbons.

I could say that once you lavish a chocolate delicacy upon your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day, Cupid will take care of everything else; but once chocolate gets involved and leaves your Valentine spellbound, there’s very little left for Cupid to do!

1 comment: