Heart-shaped sugar cookies, butter-cream-frosted cakes, and pink candies with sentimental sayings are all perfectly appropriate Valentine's Day treats. But whoever said that the best way to say "I love you" is with chocolate, was clearly onto something.
Sure, the gift of chocolates on Feb. 14 is about as clichéd as red roses, but poll your friends, and chances are, that they both still rank highest on every wish list. There's something about this most romantic holiday of the year that makes even the most unconventional types revert to tradition.
This year, though, instead of merely plunking down the plastic at your local candy store, why not try making your own chocolates? The extra effort will be appreciated, and you just might learn something new.
An ideal choice would be chocolate truffles, which are elegant, intensely rich, and can be adapted to the tastes of your Valentine - for instance, milk or bittersweet chocolate centers wrapped in cocoa powder, flaky coconut, or chopped nuts.
Because of chocolate truffles' sophisticated image and high cost, most people assume they are complicated to make at home. They couldn't be more wrong.
Unlike most candies, chocolate truffles don't require temperature-taking. In fact, you won't need a candy thermometer at all. All you need to create gourmet-style truffles is time (about 1-1/2 hours), patience, and the best-quality chocolate you can find.
And a good recipe, of course. Some are more complicated than others; they aren't necessarily better. In fact, one of the best recipes for chocolate truffles that I've come across calls for only three ingredients (chocolate, heavy cream, and cocoa powder). It is from chocolatier Robert Linxe, of La Maison du Chocolat in Paris.
His recipe is also useful as a base for other types of truffles. And it can be easily adapted. For starters, while he suggests using Valrhona chocolate and cocoa powder, another fine chocolate such as Ghirardelli, Godiva, or Callebaut could be substituted. For a touch of citrus, add orange zest to the cream. Or for a hint of mint, add peppermint extract to the chocolate-cream mixture. And instead of coating the truffles with cocoa powder, as he instructs, try rolling them in ground pistachios or lightly toasted, ground pecans or hazelnuts.
If you don't own a pastry bag with the proper-size tip and haven't got time to shop for one, form truffles with a melon baller, small ice-cream scoop, or between the palms of your hands instead.
One of Mr. Linxe's biggest fans is a woman from Cincinnati, who gave his recipe the highest rating - four forks - on the Epicurious website. "I travel to Paris about four times a year," writes Connie, "and I always go to La Maison du Chocolat for Robert Linxe's chocolate truffles. They are exquisite!"
So there you have it. Homemade chocolate truffles by way of the City of Lights. What could be more romantic?
11 ounces Valrhona chocolate (or another top-quality chocolate)
2/3 cup heavy cream
Valrhona cocoa powder for dusting (or another top-quality cocoa)
Finely chop 8 ounces of the chocolate and put in a bowl. Bring heavy cream to a boil in a small heavy saucepan.
Pour the cream over the chocolate, mashing any big pieces with a wooden spoon. Then stir with a whisk in concentric circles, starting in the center and working your way to the edge, until the ganache is smooth. (Don't beat, or you'll incorporate air.)
Let stand at room temperature until thick enough to hold its shape, about 1 hour; then, using a pastry bag with a 3/8-inch opening or tip, pipe into mounds (about 3/4-inch high and 1-inch wide) on parchment-lined baking sheets. When piping, finish off each mound with a flick of the wrist to soften and angle the point tip. Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes. (If you're not comfortable using a pastry bag, try using a melon baller, small ice-cream scoop, or just roll chocolate into balls in the palms of your hands.)
Meanwhile, melt 3 more ounces of the same chocolate and smear some on a gloved hand. (A disposable plastic glove is fine.) Gently rub each chilled truffle to coat lightly with chocolate. The secret to a delicate coating of chocolate is to roll each truffle in a smear of melted chocolate in your hand.
Toss the truffles in unsweetened cocoa powder so they look like their namesakes, freshly dug from the earth. A fork is the best tool for tossing truffles in cocoa. Shake truffles in a sieve to eliminate excess cocoa. Store truffles in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or in the freezer for 2 to 3 months.
Makes about 60 truffles.
- Adapted from Robert Linxe (posted on Epicurious.com)
The quality of chocolate depends both on the quality of the raw materials and on the care taken at the different stages of manufacture: roasting and crushing the cocoa beans and mixing the cocoa paste or "mass" with sugar and possibly milk.
A good chocolate is shiny brown, breaks cleanly, and is free of lumps, tiny burst bubbles, and white specks. It melts on the tongue like butter, has the true flavor of chocolate rather than of cocoa, and is neither greasy nor sticky.
Cocoa-butter content and price are indicators of quality. For desserts, it's best to choose chocolate with a high cocoa content.
- From Larouss