FOR Cynthia Salvato, Valentine's Day is prime time to tout dessert. ``The forgotten course,'' as she calls it, has been erased from too many people's lives. ``You don't have to have a huge sundae overflowing with goo,'' says the pastry chef and instructor. ``Indulge yourself a little: One little chocolate truffle is all you need.''
That sounds a bit conservative, coming from someone whose motto is ``Life is uncertain: Eat dessert first.''
Ms. Salvato is a traditionalist, holding that real desserts are made from ingredients such as cream, sugar, eggs, chocolate, butter; not margarine and soy oil.
The traditional Valentine's Day dessert is coeur de cr`eme, French for ``heart of cream,'' explains Salvato, who teaches pastry at Johnson & Wales University. It's made in a heart-shaped mold with cream cheese, sour cream, and cr`eme fra^iche, and is usually served with fresh fruit.
Another traditional Valentine's Day dessert is the linzertorte, says Salvato. Long ago, in Scandinavian countries, if a gentleman wanted to propose marriage to a lady, he'd bring a linzertorte to her home. If she accepted his proposal, she would eat the torte. If she declined, she would throw it out into the street!
But today, most people associate Valentine's Day with chocolates in red, heart-shaped boxes.
Being a chocolatier, Salvato doesn't take the holiday of love lightly. In fact, today her sunny kitchen is stocked with foot-long blocks of chocolate and bowls of ganache (a rich pastry cream made from butter, cream, and sweetened chocolate). Her goal is to show a writer that making homemade chocolates isn't as difficult as some people think. Homemade sweets are sentimentally sweeter than store-bought sweets, and much more romantic.
``With times as bad as they are, people are turning to each other ... realizing how nice it is to cook for someone,'' says Salvato. ``Cooking is a bonding experience. It's very important who you `break bread' with.''
Unfortunately, making homemade chocolates isn't something many people consider. ``They taste something so delicious, they say: `I could never do that,''' says Salvato.
Speaking as an artist, she adds: ``Chocolate is such a great medium to work with.'' Salvato uses ``good, domestically produced chocolate'' and recommends Ghirardelli and Van Leer.
The way to take the mystery out of making chocolates is to try a simple recipe, she says. The perfect example: chocolate truffles. (See recipe.)
``It's the simplest things that are the best and enjoyed the most,'' says Salvato, who claims to eat a truffle a day.
In France, truffles refer only to the fungal delicacy dug from the ground. ``This is their chocolate counterpart, their sweet counterpart,'' Salvato explains. Traditionally, chocolate truffles - made to resemble their mushroomlike namesakes in shape and color - are rolled in cocoa, which represents the earth, she says.
Donning a white apron, Salvato brings a saucepan of butter and heavy cream to a boil, then removes it from the heat. She adds chopped-up Van Leer's chocolate, but says chefs can use whatever they like, ``as long as it's chocolate.'' Some people even use Hershey's Kisses.
``It's that easy,'' she says, whisking smooth the truffle mixture, or ganache (ga-NOSH). A rich chocolate smell permeates the air. ``There are probably as many ganache recipes as chefs,'' says Salvato.
Before the ganache ``sets,'' she notes, things such as dried apricots, almonds, walnuts, raspberries, or strawberries can be dipped in it. She dips a dried apricot halfway and lays it down to let the chocolate harden.
Next, the ganache is transferred to a bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and left overnight in the refrigerator or a cool place.
Taking some already ``set'' ganache that she made the night before, Salvato pulls a piece of the hardened, but pliable, chocolate and rolls it in her palms to form a walnut-sized ball. ``I've rolled so many truffles, I could roll air,'' she says with a laugh.
Next, Salvato delicately rolls the balls in cocoa powder, powdered sugar, or finely grated chocolate set aside in shallow bowls. ``Shake off a little cocoa after rolling,'' she advises. That way, people won't inhale chocolate powder when they're about to eat a truffle.
After the ``dusting'' is done, the truffles can be arranged for serving, placed in candy cups (also called petits fours cups), or refrigerated in an airtight container. Not counting the setting time, the whole process takes about half an hour.
Truffles are ``always a big hit,'' Salvato reckons. ``You can make a lot of friends!''