Photo by Judith Hausman
Keeping Valentine’s Day sweets local is a fun challenge to meet around here. We face blustery cold, sad imported fruit in the supermarket and, of course, the food miles inherent in luscious chocolate. I try to balance this by also using local butter and cream, berries I picked and froze in the—sigh—summer heat, and the jams I made from local fruit, as well as conscientiously farmed and processed chocolate.
French parts of romantic but local desserts
crème fraiche: a thick, cultured or slightly soured cream crème
chantilly: lightly sweetened whipped cream with a little vanilla added
coulis: a light, strained sauce with no thickener
ganache: an icing or filling of melted chocolate and cream
coeur à la crème: cream cheese, powdered sugar and heavy cream, whipped and then drained
As a treat for my Valentines, I make the simplest of chocolate cakes in a heart-shaped pan and trot a line of raspberries and blueberries across it like a berry parade. A keep-it-simple garnish would be thick Greek yogurt, sweetened with a bit of (local) honey, but a sexier final garnish would be a dollop of crème fraiche or crème chantilly. Invest in one of those heart-shaped molds with drainage holes to make a rich and delicate coeur à la crème. It’s really delicious with fruit. Maybe you can find local cream somewhere. I use Ronnybrook Dairy’s cream, which comes from a little farther up the Hudson Valley in Ancramdale, N.Y.
Want the chocolate part to be fancier, too? Try a chocolate gananche tart, the popular molten chocolate lava cake or your best from-scratch brownies, all great with frozen berries, too. Use a very good chocolate; maybe a dark, 75-percent cacao, single estate, Fair Trade chocolate. Mast Brothers in Brooklyn, N.Y., makes an amazing selection of chocolate bars that reveal all the subtle differences among their sources. The beans for their Grand Cru dark chocolate are farmed and harvested just for Mast Brothers. Or use Taza bean-to-bar chocolate, handmade in Somerville, Mass., from stone-ground, organic, and cooperatively and sustainably farmed cacao. Taza makes discs of Mexican-style spiced chocolate, too, that make amazing hot chocolate.
Beyond ethical chocolate and last summer’s fruit, think about what you can do with local butter. The smell of local butter in baked goods is a fresh reminder of just how wonderful it is. Ronnybrook Dairy’s butter has 84 to 86 percent butterfat content, an average of 5 percent more than the USDA standard. For Valentine’s Day, I may make a simple thumbprint butter cookie, which I’ll fill with my “I-picked” raspberry or strawberry jam. Next level? Make heart-shaped sugar cookies or shortbreads with it. If you have the right heart-shaped cookie cutters, you can make a sandwich cookie. The prettiest version has a window cut into the top heart to show off some bright, garnet-red jam.
The same butter and jam will make an even more impressive jam tart. With patience, you can weave a lattice across the sparkly jam, but open-faced is pretty too, especially in a heart-shaped pan. With ground walnuts or hazelnuts in the pastry, the cookies or the tart will resemble an Austrian-style Linzer tart.
Recipe: Easiest Chocolate Cake
- 1½ cup white flour
- 1/3 high-quality unsweetened cocoa
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1 cup cold water or coffee (vanilla- or hazelnut-flavored is nice)
- 2 tsp. vanilla
- 2 T. vinegar
Mix the dry ingredients right in an ungreased 8- to 9-inch or heart-shaped baking pan. Beat together the wet ingredients, expect vinegar. Pour the wet ingredients into the pan and mix well with the dry ingredients using a fork. When the batter is smooth, add the vinegar, stirring gently until it’s mixed in. (The baking soda will bubble a little.)
Bake at 375 degrees F for 30 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Cool 15 minutes on rack before removing from pan.
Frost, glaze or sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar when cool. Serve with berries and crème chantilly.