The sweetest gift is homemade food

With Valentine's Day next week, the world of commerce is bombarding us with tempting ways to spend our hard-earned cash on gifts for loved ones. But is there a gift more appreciated than one you make yourself? And isn't sharing food like sharing love? So what could be better than a homemade, edible gift?

Offering a box of exquisite and expensive chocolates to your Valentine is a time-honored tradition, of course, and traditions can be difficult to break. But consider this: The custom was welcome and largely benign before food processors began to put 10 percent sugar in peanut butter, 12 to 13 percent sugar in crackers and soft drinks, 24 percent to ketchup, and 54 percent to some notorious breakfast cereals. The high-fat Valentine chocolates used to be a rare and extravagant treat. Today, amid sugar-laden foods and obesity concerns, a box of chocolates may be a bittersweet gift.

Still, a gift of homemade food is a gift of love. Take a look at the recipes here. The sugar and fat content are modest, but the results should please all but the sweetest of sweet tooths. They're also simple enough for the careful kitchen novice to prepare.

So save your money while making your Valentine's gift even more meaningful and personal. You can create a gift of food that's as sumptuous (though maybe not as pretty) as a box of Belgian chocolates.

A chocolate mousse is a universal favorite for young and old. In this recipe strong coffee (decaf is fine) and orange essence provide a blend of flavors to make this one extra special and different.

Recipes to please your sweetie's sweet tooth
Chocolate mousse with a hint of orange zest

2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup fresh-brewed strong black coffee or espresso
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons orange extract
4 egg whites at room temperature
1/2 cup whipping cream, well chilled
Optional topping (or simply use a can of ready-made whipped cream):
1/2 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar

1. Melt chocolate very slowly in a heavy saucepan. When most of the chocolate chips are melted, stir in coffee and continue heating slowly for 1 minute.

2. Put egg yolks in a small bowl set on a kitchen towel, mix well with fork and temper with the hot mix. To temper: Add spoonfuls of the hot chocolate while stirring vigorously. Continue adding chocolate until several tablespoons have been stirred into the yolks. After this tempering you can safely stir the yolks into the hot chocolate without the danger of having them curdle from the heat.

3. Continue heating the mixture very slowly, and keep stirring until the liquid is velvety smooth and free of unmelted chocolate chips. Remove from heat and stir in orange extract.

4. Whip egg whites into the soft-peak stage. Empty the egg whites into a large bowl, then pour the chilled cream into the bowl in which you whipped the egg whites (no need to wash). Whip cream into a firm-peaks stage.

5. Using a rubber spatula, gently blend the whipped cream and whipped egg whites in the large bowl.

6. Slowly fold the blended mixture into the warm chocolate mix. Spoon into eight individual serving containers. Garnish with optional whipped topping. (Whip the cream with the sugar to the firm-peaks stage.)

Makes eight 5-1/2-ounce servings.

– G.E.

Walnut kisses

Simple recipes rarely make delicious creations. Walnut kisses are simple to make using a food processor, and the confections are ready for the oven in 10 minutes. They are heavenly tasting. But be sure that the walnuts you use are not old and stale.

2-1/4 cups walnut pieces
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg, beaten
1 egg white
about 25 extra walnut pieces for topping each kiss

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

2. Grind walnuts and sugar in a food processor until very fine, about one minute.

3. Add flour and pulse a few times.

4. Pour beaten egg and egg white into the bowl of the food processor through the feed tube while the machine is running. Process until the mixture forms a dough, about half a minute.

5. Scrape mixture onto a flour-dusted work surface. Shape it by hand into walnut-size balls (24 to 28 of them).

6. Cover two baking sheets with aluminum foil. Place kisses two fingers apart on the foil. Gently press each one down with flour-dusted fingers to make thick, flattened discs. Press a small walnut piece in the center of each.

7. Bake kisses in preheated oven until lightly brown but still soft to a gentle press of a finger – about 18 to 20 minutes. (If you bake them too long, the cookies will be too crunchy.)

8. Peel kisses off the foil when they have cooled. Makes 24 to 28 kisses.

– G.E.

Instant chocolate mousse

This recipe is heavier on fat and sugar content, but the speed of making it – about 15 minutes – is a plus.

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons hot coffee
Pinch salt
1 pint heavy (whipping) cream
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 chocolate cups or shells (optional)
Small chocolate bar (for garnish)
6 maraschino cherries

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cocoa powder, coffee, and salt. It should whisk easily and have the consistency of melted chocolate. If it's too thick, whisk in another tablespoon of coffee.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer on medium-high to whip the cream for 1 minute. Add sugar and whip for another minute. Add vanilla and the coffee-cocoa powder mixture. Whip on high until stiff peaks form, a minute or so.

Spoon the mousse into a medium plastic bag and twist the top closed. Use scissors to snip off one corner (about 1/2 inch up).

Arrange the chocolate cups on serving plates. (Chocolate shells can be bought at many specialty food and baking shops.) Or fill fancy glasses instead.

If the cups don't sit flat, place a dollop of mousse under them. Squeeze the bag to pipe the mousse into the chocolate cups.

Use a vegetable peeler to shave the chocolate bar over the mousse-filled cups, letting some of the shavings scatter on the plate. Top each mousse with a cherry. (See photo.) Refrigerate if not eating immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

– J.M. Hirsch, Associated Press

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