A Valentine dessert fit for a diva

Peach Melba can be easily prepared and enjoyed quietly at home with another.

Just when you thought it was safe to toss out your Barry Manilow CDs, here comes Valentine's Day again: 24 hours of American Beauty roses, Hallmark cards with embarrassing verses, and anything frilly and bubble-gum pink.

But it's also a day when it's OK to be sentimental - even for guys, who only get choked up when their team loses the Super Bowl.

At its best, it's a time for a quiet dinner for just the two of you, far from the madding crowd, soccer games, and combing Play-Doh out of little Johnny's hair. And it doesn't have to be an expensive, nose-rubbing tête-à-tête at a hoity-toity restaurant - not that you would say no.

A simple, romantic dinner can be made at home after the kids are in bed - or the grandchildren are back home where they belong.

An elegant meal can be a pan-broiled filet mignon, baked potato with all the fixings, and asparagus topped with hollandaise or béarnaise sauce. (Quick and perfectly acceptable packaged sauce mixes are available at your supermarket.)

It can also be a roasted Cornish game hen (the perfect just-for-two poultry) with a simple side of pasta tossed with olive oil, parsley, and Parmesan cheese.

For fish lovers, a poached salmon fillet and steamed rice might be just the thing. Add your favorite salad, and the meal is complete.

Oh, wait. "Where's the dessert?" you ask.

There's a wonderful confection with a charming history that's been served around the world for more than 100 years.

How about a simple serving of poached fruit and ice cream, topped with a flood of raspberry sauce?

Even if you luck out on that dinner for two, Peach Melba is a dessert that can be made well in advance and enjoyed quietly at home with another. (Don't forget the candles - they'll ignite an air of romance for any dish you serve, except maybe pizza.)

Peach Melba was created for the celebrated Australian opera diva Dame Nellie Melba by the equally celebrated French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier during the singer's visit to London at the turn of the last century.

The generally accepted story is that Escoffier knew of Melba's penchant for peaches and ice cream, and so, to celebrate her triumphant performance in Wagner's "Lohengrin" at London's Convent Garden, he created the dish in her honor.

It was not uncommon for great chefs of the day to name an original dish after a prominent artist, a practice that seems to have since been shelved in the pantry. (Maybe Rachael Ray of the Food Network will restore the tradition. Perhaps a Symphony of Smoked Pork Ribs Snoop Dogg? Perhaps not.)

Initially, Peach Melba consisted of a simple combination of poached fresh peaches and vanilla ice cream. But Escoffier had a flair for presentation. Serving one of his signature dishes in a simple Limoges bowl would not do for this chef. For him, only a carved ice sculpture in the shape of a swan would suffice - a prominent figure in Wagner's opera.

Escoffier later embellished the dish with a sweetened purée of fresh raspberries, Melba sauce.

Over the decades, this simple dessert has had more reincarnations than Madonna. Pears and nectarines have been substituted for peaches. It has been served on pound cake. Shortbread cookies have accompanied the dish. It has even appeared with whipped cream and chopped almonds.

Melba sauce became so popular over the years that today it is available in many high-end grocery and gourmet stores.

The accompanying recipe is the more traditional one. If your ice-sculpting technique has become a bit rusty, you may get away with serving the dessert in an elegant dish.

That should leave enough time for you to put those Manilow recordings out of your misery and pick up a CD of Puccini love arias - an appropriate and appreciated substitute for the occasion.

Puccini and Peach Melba should bring a standing ovation and shouts of those three little words you'd expect to hear on this day of romance...

"Any more dessert?"

Peach Melba

Because the ingredients are few, this recipe's success rests solely on their quality. If the best ripe, juicy, fresh peaches are not available, quality canned peaches are better. If using canned, disregard the peach preparation below.

1 cup fresh raspberries, or frozen raspberries, thawed
3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon currant jelly or preserves
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 fresh peaches peeled, halved, and pitted, or 4 canned peach halves
Vanilla ice cream
1/3 cup chopped almonds (optional)

Sauce: Put raspberries, confectioners' sugar, currant jelly, and lemon juice in a blender or food processor. Blend 10 to 15 seconds. With a spoon or spatula, push sauce through a fine sieve to remove seeds. Set aside.

Fresh peaches: Combine 2 cups water, granulated sugar, and vanilla in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add peaches. Reduce heat to simmer and cook, covered, until peaches are tender, about 5 minutes. Remove fruit with a slotted spoon and refrigerate until cool.

Divide peaches into two bowls, top with scoops of ice cream, and drizzle with the raspberry sauce. Sprinkle with almonds, if desired. Serves 2.

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