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Published: Tuesday, 2/8/2011

Heart-shaped sweetness

Nothing says 'Be Mine' like chocolate

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

Chocolate-Dipped Strawberries Chocolate-Dipped Strawberries
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo
This will not surprise you: Men procrastinate.

In recent years, men and women have been buying chocolate for each other in equal numbers for Valentine's Day, according to Bob Christie of Christie's Candies & Mints. Which, it must be said, is a healthy trend that needs to be encouraged.

Valentine's Day is the third busiest holiday of the year for chocolates, Mr. Christie said, behind Christmas (the biggest by far) and Easter. And about two weeks before Valentine's Day, women and men begin buying chocolate for their sweethearts at about the same rate.

But here is the part that is so satisfyingly unsurprising: "Men, 90 percent of the time, will wait until the last three days. And then on the last day, it's nothing but men," Mr. Christie said.

Chocolate candies and roses are traditional Valentine's Day gifts for a reason -- they epitomize romance because they delight the senses. The deep red of the rose combines with its ethereal scent, while chocolate mixes an irresistible taste with an intoxicating aroma and a sexy feel as it melts over the tongue.

So by all means, buy candies and flowers for your honey (or honeys) this Valentine's Day. But this year, show your love by also cooking something temptingly, sinfully delicious.

A rich, homemade chocolate dessert shows you care enough to bake the very best.

And it doesn't even have to be hard to make something special. Alain Ducasse's Dark Chocolate Tart uses only four ingredients in the filling, yet it is the height of romantic elegance -- not to mention pure chocolate decadence.

All chocolate comes from a frankly ugly nut called the cacao bean (it's called a bean but it's technically a nut, in the way that tomatoes are technically a fruit). As is often the case, the highest quality beans are in limited supply. Most cacao trees grow in Africa, though their quality is ordinary. What are generally considered the best beans are from South America, where they can grow fewer trees. Cacao trees also grow in Central America and the West Indies.

The process of turning cacao beans into, say, Hershey's Kisses, is long and fairly involved, but it is oh so worth it. By themselves, the beans are quite bitter, but after they have been fermented, dried, and roasted they take on a flavor closer to what we know as chocolate. The Mayans and Aztecs used to serve it at this stage, cold, mixed with water, and topped with a foam created by pouring it from one vessel to another. The Aztecs prized cacoa beans so greatly they even used them as currency.

European conquistadors brought cacao back with them to Europe in the 16th century, where it soon became fashionable among the upper classes. It was still too difficult and time-consuming to make to be available to anyone else, until Dutch chemist C.J. van Houten invented a method of separating what is known as cocoa butter from what became his invention, cocoa powder. This powder could easily be mixed with water or milk, could be used to form bars made of chocolate, and could be spread on chocolate candies.

This process also was much less expensive to work with, and chocolate came to the masses. Van Houten Cocoa, invented in 1828, is still available today.

Cocoa is more than just a way of making hot chocolate, it is an integral ingredient in many forms of baking. Home cooks also use semisweet chocolate (at least 35 percent cocoa solids and sweetened with sugar, it is what makes most chocolate chips), bittersweet chocolate (at least 35 percent cocoa solids and sweetened with little or no sugar), and unsweetened chocolate (at least 75 percent cocoa solids and no sugar, it is suitable only for cooking or baking).

Today's recipes call for all of these types of chocolate. Semisweet and bittersweet chocolate can almost always be substituted for one another, but never use unsweetened in place of the other two; the result will be too bitter. You can customize your edible Valentine by changing the proportions or mixing semisweet and bittersweet chocolates in your recipes.

Chocolate-covered strawberries are perhaps the easiest chocolate treat of all. Not only are they a simple presentation of chocolate, they also borrow the general shape and red color of a heart -- a Valentine heart, that is. The shape and color of real hearts are, frankly, unappetizing.

Many people just melt chocolate in a double boiler or microwave (stirring every 20 seconds or so, to avoid burning) and then plunk their strawberries right into that. And that method works, to a point. But the chocolate that adheres to the fruit cools to a crunchy shell that shatters when you bite into it. The secret to making softer, slightly chewier chocolate is easy, but some people find the concept a little weird: Just add a little vegetable shortening to the chocolate as it melts.

The difference is striking.

From the simple to the sublime. Alain Ducasse is considered one of the world's greatest chefs, having earned more stars from the seminal restaurant rating service Michelin than any other chef. The foods in his cookbooks are daunting and often beyond the abilities of the average home cook. But his Dark Chocolate Tart is an exception. It's as easy as pie, so to speak, especially if you just buy a pre-made pie crust.

The hardest part may be finding the creme fraiche the recipe requires. More or less mixing the richness of whipping cream with the slight tang of sour cream (though that isn't how it's made), creme fraiche is available at some of the fancier food markets. Look in the dairy section.

Red velvet cakes have been around since at least the 1940s and are noted as much for the cocoa that provides their distinctive flavor as for the brilliant red color that gives them their name. Here again, the color symbolizes the passion in one's heart. This recipe miniaturizes and personalizes the food into trendy cupcakes, perfect for sharing with a loved one. The vanilla and tang of the cream cheese icing make a perfect foil for the rich, chocolate cupcake.

And from Sur La Table and Cindy Mushet comes what might be the best, most incredibly, chocolatey brownies ever. Mixing bittersweet with unsweetened chocolates creates a wonderful melange, particularly if you take the time -- and you should -- to top it with a simple and sinfully rich ganache. Use semisweet chocolate for the ganache and you're in chocolate-lovers' heaven.

What better way to say "Be my Valentine"?

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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