St. Valentine's Day is the time to pull out all the clich'es: grandmother's Quaker lace tablecloth, long-stemmed red roses, tapered white candles, Chopin nocturnes, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates trimmed in red velvet, the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning poems, paper doilies, and sweet desserts. The more of the above, the better. This is the day it's OK to be sentimental and schmaltzy.
Romantic dinners should be relaxed, though, and regardless of how much time you spent in preparation, they should flow smoothly. Even if they are a chore, they should have the appearance of being created with ease.
This is not a time for conversation to dwell on how many hours it took to make the bouillabaisse; how hard it was to find the fillet of veal; the price of prosciutto; or how far you had to travel to get that special brand of ice cream. Nobody cares anyway.
Do try to do as much as possible in advance. It's an evening when time should be spent with that special friend, not with your double boiler. Give particular attention to desserts, those sweet, gooey-fruity ones.
Certain special desserts have been created for special women throughout the years, and even named after them. Cr^epes Suzette, Pavlova, and Peach Melba are three that come immediately to mind. Best of all, they easily fall into the clich'e column and are perfect for a Valentine's Day fete.
The latter two are by far the simpler to prepare.
The first was created for Russia's most famous ballerina, Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) and is, as a matter of some interest, the national dessert of New Zealand, home of most of the kiwifruit found in US supermarkets. It combines a light, snow-white nest of meringue with scoops of vanilla ice cream and usually emerald-green slices of kiwi. Some say it was originally prepared with passion fruit. Any soft fruit, or combination, may be used, however.
The meringue may be made a few hours ahead, kept unrefrigerated, and filled just before serving.
A word on kiwifruit: It is ripe when it becomes slightly soft to the touch, like an avocado. To hasten ripening, place kiwis in a plastic bag with an apple or banana and keep a few days at room temperature.
The second dessert is the celebrated Peach Melba, created in 1892 by the brilliant chef Auguste Escoffier for the equally brilliant Australian soprano, Nellie Melba (1859-1931). The occasion was a party given by Dame Melba at the Savoy Hotel in London in conjunction with her appearance in ``Lohengrin.'' Escoffier, chef at the Savoy, presented the dessert with his usual aplomb -- placing it in a life-size, hand-chiseled ice sculpture of a swan, symbolic of the swan in Wagner's opera. There, tucked between its chilly wings, lay poached peaches on a bed of vanilla ice cream.
The carved ice swan is a nice touch, but you needn't bother.
Sometime later Ecsoffier embellished the dish further by adding a sauce of pur'eed raspberries and a few shredded almonds. Pavlova 2 egg whites 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon cornstarch 1 teaspoon white vinegar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 cup boiling water 1 quart vanilla ice cream 3 ripe kiwifruit, peeled and sliced 1 cup fresh strawberries, halved
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine all ingredients except ice cream and kiwis in mixing bowl. Beat at high speed with electric mixer until smooth, shiny, and stiff -- 6 to 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with a smooth piece of brown paper bag or cooking parchment. Grease paper and dust lightly with additional cornstarch, shaking off excess. Spoon egg white mixture in center of paper to form a slightly hollowed, nestlike, 9-inch circle.
Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 300 degrees F. and bake for 45 more minutes or until crisp.
Turn off oven and let meringue cool in closed oven.
To serve, remove meringue to platter and fill with several scoops of vanilla ice cream and arrange kiwi and strawberry halves around ice cream. Peach Melba 2 cups water 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 large fresh peach, halved and peeled 1 package frozen raspberries 1 pint custard-based vanilla ice cream 2 tablespoons slivered almonds 4 vanilla wafers Few sprinkles of pareils -- tiny silvered candy balls (optional)
In a saucepan, combine water, sugar, and vanilla. Bring to boil and poach peach halves until slightly soft. Remove with slotted spoon and cool thoroughly. Defrost frozen raspberries. Pour into blender or food processor. Process for 10 to 20 seconds and strain to remove seeds. Scoop ice cream into glass dishes. Add peach halves, pur'eed raspberry sauce, almonds, and optional pareils. Garnish with wafers.