A couple of classmates from elementary school “friended” me recently on Facebook. To protect the innocent I won’t say how many years have gone by since I’ve seen them. As happy as I was to hear from them after all these years, I also found that it raised some strange emotions for me. I think the passage of time has always had an ineffable quality for me; I can count the time passed in numbers but I can’t quite wrap my head around what it means.
One of these long lost school mates reminded me that when we were kids I always gave everyone in our classroom a Valentine’s Day card. I admit I found this a bit disconcerting: you mean everyone DIDN’T give everyone in class a Valentine’s Day card?? What was going on there? Were they raised by wolves?
I remember vividly that every year there was the ceremonial carving of the shoe box: everyone decorated a shoe box with a slot cut in the top. Everyone placed them on their desks to serve as a Valentine’s Day mailbox. I remember a flurry of activity as everyone ran around the classroom delivering their cards. I do not remember why I was so generous with my little paper hearts and cupids. Was I sentimental or romantic? Was my Mom teaching me some early lesson about etiquette and letter writing? Maybe it was the simple math of me observing that there were twenty-something cards in the pack, and assuming that I was supposed to use them all?
Whatever the reason, it is a relief to know that for once, I had it covered. Phew.
Living here in New York, I am a witness every year to the adult version of this ritual. I always get a laugh out of seeing the long line of quietly panicked men at the florist and at the Godiva store much too late on Valentine’s Day. I never see women in those lines. I’m not sure why, but I got a hint the other day when my Baby Niece (or “B.N.”) called me – more than two weeks before Valentine’s Day – and asked if I would help her make a special treat for her boyfriend (lower case.) I think she’s trying to make him her Boyfriend (upper case.)
She wants to surprise him with cookies (he doesn’t read this blog so this won’t ruin the surprise.) I think this is a great idea. Anyone can go out and buy chocolate, but the extra step of making something or planning something is what makes a gift romantic on Valentine’s Day. It says, “I was thinking of you, and you mean enough to me that I took the time and planned something special.” I am not advocating stalking, rather, I am merely suggesting consensual obsession.
Nor am I advocating that you should forego including jewelry as part of your Valentine’s Day gift. If I did that I would likely be disinherited by my Mother and have to endure the scorn of the other women in my family, as well as countless others. Jewelers everywhere can now breathe a sigh of relief.
I was more than willing to bake the cookies for her and let boyfriend (lower case) operate under the delusion that she baked them – the sugary equivalent of Cyrano de Bergerac. (How’s that for romantic?)
But no, B.N., an intrepid young woman, insisted that she needed to do it herself under my supervision. My only concern was that my kitchen is a bit snug for two adults to comfortably work. Also, we were planning on dipping the cookies in chocolate; to bake them, wait for them to cool, and then dip ‘n decorate (can I trademark that term?) would mean perhaps a longer day than either of us was willing to give to the project.
In the past I have described my usual division of labor for projects of this type. To be brief, I prefer to break the work into pieces. For these Valentine cookies I decided that the pieces should be: A) I’ll make the cookie dough B) I’ll bake the cookie dough C) B.N. will decorate the cookies.
That weighty decision done, I unearthed a very simple, not too sweet, shortbread recipe I had cobbled together. This is one of those “double duty” recipes I always like. You can use it for cookies, but if you omit the egg it makes a great crust for lemon bars, or pecan bars. As B.N.’s boyfriend (lower case) prefers milk chocolate (I approve!), I thought this humble cookie would be the best delivery system for the milk chocolate.
We had a bit of time between “cookie day” and Valentine’s Day, so I knew I needed to be extra careful with the chocolate. During that time the chocolate could become streaky or discolored – especially if refrigerated. Tempering chocolate is a process that allows you to melt it and let it set again without streaking or discoloring. Tempering chocolate requires raising it to a particular temperature, then cooling it slowly by folding it over on itself on a cool marble slab. It requires a bit of skill, patience, and space. I’m one for three. Barely.
Instead, I found a shortcut technique in a really beautiful book titled, “Baking At Home with The Culinary Institute of America.” Their shortcut involves simply melting two thirds of the chocolate on top of a double boiler, then adding the remaining un-melted chocolate and allowing it to melt while stirring until the chocolate reaches 84˚F to 87˚F. Sounds convoluted? The fault is in my description, it is really very simple.
B.N. and I had a blast. This is a really low stress project. One of the reasons for the lower stress is the sheer scale of the project: at Christmas you feel compelled to bake enough cookies to feed a small country. On Valentine’s Day you can get away with as few as three or four and as many as a dozen. Unless you’re baking enough for the whole class.
You can see samples of our collaboration in the picture above. The question remains: will boyfriend (lower case) be promoted to Boyfriend (uppercase)?
We’ll see. But for now I’ve got another Valentine’s Day covered. Phew.
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