WITH A KISS
THE CHANGING FACE OF VALENTINE’S DAY
I remember 4th grade. And 5th. And 6th. We were asked to take an old shoebox, cut a slit in the top of it and decorate it for Valentine’s Day. Out came the scissors and paste, the crepe and tissue papers in all the shades of pink. Frilly white paper doilies and shiny glitter hearts and whatever else would fall my way, each selected, matched and cut out with the care and attention of a mother to her newborn babe, the concentration and patience of a surgeon. With each tiny colored heart, each shake of silver glitter, my heart would pound as my mind flitted from boy to boy, from schoolgirl crush to schoolgirl crush, wondering who would slip a pristine white envelope carefully inscribed with my name into my Valentine mailbox, which classmate was, at this very moment, agonizing over a pile of store-bought Valentine’s Day cards, choosing just the right one for me as I was for him. I would finger the pile of tiny sweet candy hearts, each inscribed with a message of love, and debate whether or not to slip a few into this envelope or that and wonder if he would do the same and what words would he choose?
The fatal day would arrive, a week before that most emotional, angst-ridden of holidays, the day we would carry our Valentine mailbox to school, walk the walk into the classroom and gently, lovingly but oh-so self-consciously place it on the corner of our desk for all the world to see, glancing jealously from desk to desk, box to box. The more self-assured of us, the popular ones, would bring in bigger boxes, knowing that the pile of Valentines they would receive would necessitate the space of an adult’s shoebox. The rest of us, grade school ugly ducklings, could pray all we wanted but knew in our heart of hearts that our own box would be stuffed with the minimum, the Valentine’s cards declaring faithful and long-lasting friendship, the “have a great day” cards, and our hearts would sink in our chest as we gently pulled each card out of its envelope and glanced at the signature.
The years raced past and I had more important things to think about than something as silly as Valentine’s Day. Cupid’s special holiday slid past, one after another, boyfriend-less year after boyfriend-less year and as I flipped the calendar over from February to March I would sigh the sigh of the unloved, the single girl, the independent woman who, once again, finds herself stoutly declaring to herself and her friends that Valentine’s Day is just another meaningless holiday, just another day like all the others, that we strong, college-educated women didn’t need something so trite and frivolous and I would soldier on, getting through school and getting on in the world.
Occasionally I did indeed find myself one half of a couple come mid-February, deep in the cold of winter. Well, more often than not it was he who wished to be a couple rather than me, wooing me with red roses and Godiva chocolates, romantic dinners and sentimental words. I accepted these gifts, rewards of my patience, having yet to be stung by love and yearning, knowing that I had yet to meet “Mr. Right”. Once this ugly duckling had turned into somewhat of a swan, the men did swirl around in the air in front of me and offer up the Valentine’s Day sacrifice but to a heart still cold with loneliness. Yes, there were years where I would hand out tiny white boxes laden with deep chocolate truffles, dark with cocoa or dressed in snowy white sugar, gift boxes filled with delicate, tender, romantic Linzer Hearts, the ruby-red center like a beating heart, special Valentine’s Day treats made in my own kitchen. There were Valentine’s Day dinner parties, cranberry glazed turkeys gracing the white tablecloth while red heart-shaped ice cubes danced in champagne flutes. There were cards declaring a love I wished for more than felt, all inspired by this yearly ritual that we were led to believe in, this emotional roller coaster ridden through the month of February, inching its way up, up, up, slowly, agonizingly, in anticipation of that brief pause at the top, the 14th of the month, when we look down below us, our heart in our mouth, terrified of what was to come: the perilous drop into nothingness, the emptiness of being alone yet another Valentine’s Day.
And then I met Mr. Right, my Prince Charmant, Le Grand Amour wearing blue jeans, singing around the house and being trailed after by a large hairy dog. Valentine’s Day didn’t really seem to matter anymore, that mere tribal mating dance of the self-doubting. He grumbled and raged each year about the commercialization of love and we agreed that there was no need to do anything special, that it could have no meaning to two such us we, so much in love every day of the year. Yet the gifts did come, simple gestures filled with meaning, showing love more than a heavy price tag, bouquets of flowers and a special meal, a hug and a nuzzle and kind words to let me know that he hadn’t forgotten. And I, in return, baked for him.
The sentiments have changed, evolved, the worries of being Valentine-less have evaporated into thin air and the rituals have changed. I no longer wait anxiously, hover around the mailbox, praying and hoping for a letter, a card, a sign. I no longer need the romance of a dozen long-stemmed red roses, nor do I smugly smile myself through another boring meal and listen to words of undying love hemmed and hawed by yet another college friend, simply pleased that I have someone on Valentine’s Day. The little attentions paid to me now are truly from the heart and each one I take gratefully, confidently and hug it to my heart, warm and overflowing, and I return it hundredfold.
This year, he brought me tulips, a bouquet of dusty rose and feminine mauve, tulips placed secretly somewhere in the house for me to find. Once discovered, I carried my prize into the kitchen to find a stack of half a dozen cooking magazines piled onto my plate, his face beaming as he watched me squeal in delight. He pulled me out in the icy cold, hand in hand, to the market where he stood me in front of the fruit seller to choose tangerines and salad as he scooted off by himself, returning to me laden down with white sacks. At home he revealed his treasures, purchased just for me: oysters, plump and fruity to be swallowed down with a glass of crisp, chilled Amphibolite, followed by a pan-seared boudin blanc accompanied by warm, golden, caramelized apples. Love on a plate.
And I answered his declaration of love with my own, these tiny cherry chocolate cupcakes, dense and so moist, more like bon bons than cake, each topped with a kiss of meringue icing, decorated with romance. Or, for the less conventional side of our love, topped with rich chocolate buttercream and dazzling in a coat of many colors.
INCREDIBLE CHOCOLATE CAKE
Made into mini cupcakes, tiny chocolate bon bons
1 ¾ cup flour
2 cups sugar
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk or buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
2 tsps vanilla
1 cup boiling liquid, ¾ cup of juice from a jar of cherries, ¼ cup water *
* I made this recipe last year as a double-layer cake for my birthday using prepared espresso/strong coffee instead of the cherry juice.
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Line cupcake molds with cupcake papers – This will make about 24 mini cupcakes.
Combine all of the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. I whiz them with the electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds until everything is well combined.
Add the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla. Beat on low until well blended then increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes. Stir in the boiling liquid. The batter will be watery. To make it easier to fill the cupcake pans, I pour the batter into a liquid measuring cup with a spout.
Fill the cupcake papers slowly (the batter runs out quickly) about ¾ of the way. Bake for about 20 minutes until the cupcakes are slightly risen and set in the center. They will be slightly sticky to the touch and will shrink a bit when removed from the oven.
Remove the pans from the oven and allow to cool just slightly before cooling them completely on cooling racks before frosting.
CLASSIC 7-MINUTE FROSTING
Quantities from my 1973 Joy of Cooking
2 egg whites
1 ½ cup (300 g) superfine sugar
5 Tbs cold water
¼ tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla
Place all of the ingredients except the vanilla in the top of a double boiler or a heat-proof mixing bowl over a pan of rapidly boiling water. Using an electric mixer, beat for 7 minutes. It will turn into a thick, dense, white, fluffy meringue.
Remove from over the boiling water and beat in the vanilla. Continue beating just a bit until spreading consistency if needed.
Your can now spread the icing on the cupcakes or place in a pastry bag and pipe on dollops, kisses or designs. Decorate immediately with colored sprinkles.
OUR FAVORITE SIMPLE CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM
Always loved, always romantic
6 ounces (175 grams) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons (50 grams) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 tablespoons (25 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons very hot water
Using an electric hand mixer, cream the butter and the powdered sugar together. Add the cocoa powder and the hot water and beat, scraping down the sides as necessary, until well blended and fluffy.
Spread and decorate with sprinkles.