- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Every February, loved ones, lovers and classmates exchange candy, flowers and gifts in the name of St. Valentine, a mysterious saint in whose honor we celebrate the day.

Though the history of Valentine’s Day and its patron saint may be shrouded in mystery, what we do know is that the entire month is associated with romance.

One legend contends that St. Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men, his crop of potential soldiers.

Feeling the decree to be unjust, Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform secret marriages for young lovers. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Another legend suggests that Valentine actually sent the first Valentine’s Day greeting card himself. While in prison, he supposedly fell in love with a young girl who may have been his jailor’s daughter.

She visited him during his confinement, and before his death, which occurred on Feb. 14, about 207, he purportedly wrote her a letter signed, “From your Valentine,” an expression still in use today.

Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is questionable, the stories emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and, most important, romantic figure. It’s no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France, and today, tokens of affection range from candy hearts and chocolates to diamonds and champagne.

Somewhere in between the penny candy and champagne, homemade sweets are always a genuine sign of affection, and this year — thanks to some spicy recipes from McCormick’s new Gourmet Collection — you can show your love with updated versions of old favorites.

For the chocoholic in your life, try a batch of brownies laced with two kinds of chili peppers, or cabernet-infused molten chocolate cakes with a hint of exotic Saigon cinnamon.

On the lighter side, poached pears scented with thyme, lemon and maple are easy but elegant, and mixed berries topped with peppery zabaglione or balsamic syrup are guaranteed to turn up the holiday heat.

Chipotle chili brownies with caramel sauce

BROWNIES:

1 family-size package brownie mix

1½ teaspoons ground ancho chili pepper

½ teaspoon ground chipotle chili pepper

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup chocolate chips

CARAMEL SAUCE:

½ cup sugar

1/4 cup water

½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Pinch of salt

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the brownies: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a 9-inch square baking pan. Prepare brownie mix as directed on package, stirring in ancho and chipotle chili peppers, cinnamon and vanilla with dry mix.

Gently stir in the chocolate chips. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with fudgy crumbs. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan.

To make the caramel sauce: In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the sugar, water, lemon juice and salt to a simmer. When the mixture begins to bubble, cover and boil for 3 minutes.

Uncover and continue to boil for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the mixture begins to turn brown. Whisk in the cream and brown sugar, reduce the heat to low, and cool for 2 to 3 minutes, or until thick. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Stir in the vanilla just before serving.

Cut the brownies into 16 squares and serve with the caramel sauce, if desired.

Makes 16 brownies.

Cabernet-chocolate molten cakes

4 ounces semisweet baking chocolate

½ cup (1 stick) butter

1 tablespoon cabernet sauvignon or other red wine

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 large eggs

1 large egg yolk

6 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees . Butter four 6-ounce ramekins and put them on a baking sheet.

Microwave the chocolate and butter in large microwaveable bowl on high for 1 minute, or until the butter is melted. Whisk until smooth. Stir in the wine, vanilla and confectioners’ sugar until well blended. Whisk in the eggs and egg yolk, and then the flour and spices.

Divide the batter among the ramekins. (Mixture can be prepared up to 10 hours ahead. Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate; bring to room temperature for 30 minutes before baking.)

Bake for 13 to 15 minutes, or until the sides are firm but the centers are soft. Let stand 1 minute. Carefully loosen edges with a small knife and invert the cakes onto serving plates. Sprinkle with additional confectioners’ sugar. Serve immediately. Makes 4 cakes.

Cinnamon-thyme poached pears

4 large ripe firm pears, such as Bosc, Bartlett or d’Anjou

1 cup pear nectar

1 cup water

3/4 cup maple syrup

2 cinnamon sticks, slightly crushed

1½ teaspoons dried thyme leaves

4 strips lemon peel

Peel and core pears from the bottom, leaving stems intact. (Use a melon baller to core the pears; push the smaller end of a melon baller into the bottom of the pear and then turn it to bore a hole and scoop out the seeds and fibrous core.) Cut a thin slice off the bottom of each pear to provide a flat, even bottom. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, bring the pear nectar, water, maple syrup, crushed cinnamon, thyme and lemon peel to a boil. Add the pears and arrange them standing with stems pointing up. Reduce heat to low and then simmer, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the pears are tender.

Remove the pears from the saucepan and place in the center of a serving plate. Continue to cook the poaching liquid for about 15 minutes longer, or until reduced to 3/4 cup. Serve pears drizzled with the sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Mixed berries in peppered balsamic syrup with vanilla mascarpone

BALSAMIC SYRUP:

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

½ teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed

VANILLA MASCARPONE:

½ cup mascarpone cheese

½ cup heavy cream

4 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

4 cups mixed berries, such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries

To make the syrup: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the vinegar, sugar and crushed peppercorns to a boil. Boil for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the syrup is reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Transfer to small bowl, cover, and cool completely.

To make the vanilla mascarpone: Beat the mascarpone cheese, cream, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and vanilla in large bowl with electric mixer on low speed. Beat on medium-high speed until thick and soft peaks form. Cover. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Meanwhile, mix berries and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in medium bowl. Add cooled balsamic syrup and toss gently to coat well. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Divide the berry mixture among 6 serving bowls and spoon the mascarpone cream over the top. Makes 6 servings.

Mixed berries with peppercorn zabaglione

4 cups mixed berries, such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries

1 cup sugar

6 egg yolks

1/4 cup Cointreau or other orange-flavored liqueur

2/3 cup Marsala wine

1 teaspoon McCormick Gourmet Collection Peppercorn Melange, crushed

½ cup heavy cream

Mix the berries in a large bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Whisk the sugar and egg yolks in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water until smooth. Do not let the bottom touch the water, and make sure the water does not boil.

Gradually stir in the Cointreau and Marsala. Whisk over double boiler for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture is pale yellow, fluffy and thickens to ribbon stage (mixture hangs in thick ribbons from a spoon that is dipped into it). Remove from heat. Gently stir in the crushed peppercorns. Cool the mixture completely in an ice bath.

Whip the cream with an electric mixer until medium-stiff peaks form. Gently stir into the cooled egg mixture and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Spoon the berries into 8 stemmed glasses and spoon the zabaglione over the top.

Makes 8 servings.

Margaret M. Johnson is the author of five Irish cookbooks and is writing “Tea and Crumpets” for Chronicle Books.

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