The bigger the mess, the better the taste

After our first date Jeff walked me to my front door, and we stood there awkwardly making small talk until I finally invited him in. While he perched uncomfortably on the futon that served as both a sofa and a bed in my tiny studio apartment, I made my way into the kitchen and asked, "Can I get you something?" I immediately regretted my offer when he said yes.

I stared into the fridge. Three apples, a carton of milk I was certain had gone sour, and a half-eaten loaf of stale bread stared back at me. "How about some tea?" I asked, hoping that I had at least one tea bag.

Thankfully, Jeff loved tea, and, even better, he took it black, so I didn't have to explain the sour milk situation to him.

Several more dates - and several cups of tea - later, I let Jeff in on my little secret: I could not cook - at all. I was surviving on fruit, granola bars, and takeout. He stared at me in mock disbelief before bursting into laughter. He finally understood why I'd never offered him anything other than tea.

On our next date, Jeff arrived at the door with several bags overflowing with groceries and told me that dinner would be at home tonight. Using the only pot in my cupboard - a hand-me-down frying pan - and knives that were almost too dull to slice through butter, he produced a fantastic supper: a crisp, green salad, warm garlic bread, and shrimp pasta with cream sauce, which I still beg him to make today.

Jeff's adeptness in the kitchen inspired me to try cooking. I called my grandmother and asked her for her banana bread recipe. A trip to the grocery store and a few new baking dishes later, I stood in the kitchen prepared to tackle my first baking project. I measured and mixed ingredients, poured the creamy batter into a loaf pan, and slipped it into the preheated oven. Forty-five minutes later, I smelled the banana bread baking in the kitchen and congratulated myself on my accomplishment.

Twenty minutes and three magazine articles after that, I realized the smell coming from the kitchen was no longer of warm bananas, but burnt bread. I'd lost all track of time and forgotten about my banana bread.

Supportive of my effort to learn my way around the kitchen, Jeff showed up for our next date with a timer and a lot of encouragement. Feeling inspired, I spent the next few months experimenting in the kitchen. I baked a few loaves of delicious banana bread, made an apple crisp that I'm still telling people about, and stocked my fridge with "real" food for the first time in my adult life.

After a few months of success in the kitchen, I gained enough confidence to try more complicated recipes. I had been raving about double chocolate chocolate-chip cupcakes a friend baked and decided it was time for me to try replicating them at home as a surprise for Jeff.

I read over the recipe several times (determined to avoid any mistakes) and with all of the ingredients laid out on the kitchen counter, I carefully began to blend the ingredients exactly as the recipe instructed.

I set the timer, and soon thereafter, pulled a batch of perfectly baked cupcakes from the oven.

I could barely contain my excitement, and when Jeff walked in the door that night, I practically shoved a cupcake into his mouth.

"Sweetie, these are delicious," he said.

"I'm really proud of how well they turned out," I told him, beaming. "But they were so messy to make. I hated all of the flour and chocolate and eggs getting under my fingernails and all over my hands."

Jeff stared at me for a moment, confused. "How did you get batter underneath your fingernails?"

"The recipe said they had to be mixed by hand," I told him.

Jeff stared at me in disbelief before breaking into laughter. He laughed until tears fell down his cheeks.

Finally he told me that "mixing by hand" meant using a wooden spoon instead of an electric mixer.

I felt like a complete idiot. But before I could say anything, he looked at me and sweetly said, "These cupcakes are the most delicious creations I've ever tasted, and the fact that you mixed the ingredients together with your hands just means they were made with extra love."

I fell in love with him at that very moment.

Now that we're married, Jeff has graciously taken on the responsibility of cooking for both of us. Instead of takeout, we feast on lasagna, burritos, perfectly cooked steaks, and, my favorite, shrimp pasta.

I'm still learning, but more important, I'm still trying.

And every Valentine's Day I make a batch of double chocolate chocolate-chip cupcakes, plunging my hands into the messy dough with childlike glee and smiling to myself because I know they're being made with extra love.

Double Chocolate Chocolate-Chip Cupcakes

1 package (4-1/4 ounces) instant chocolate pudding mix
1 package (18.25 ounces) devil's-food cake mix
1 package (12 ounces) chocolate chips
1-3/4 cups milk
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix by hand for 2 minutes. Place paper or foil liners in muffin pans and pour in batter until they're three-fourths full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes (until toothpick stuck in cupcake near the center comes out clean).

Makes about 18 cupcakes.

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