- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Paper Mexican flowers and trailing ribbons decorated the plate handed to the bride-to-be along with a napkin folded to suggest a female form. She turned quizzically toward the hostess, her longtime friend Emily, who was quoting Virginia Woolf: “One cannot think well, love well, or sleep well If one has not dined well.”

The two women, both nearing 28, have been friends since they were 12. Emily wanted Sara Kate’s shower to reflect that she grew up in Southern California in a home painted in the palette of Mexico, filled with the smells of Mexican cooking and spiced with folk-art figurines from travels to Mexico — but she wanted it to have an added twist.

“You know ‘Like Water for Chocolate,’” Emily said, trying to sell me, the mother of the bride, on the idea of tilting the meal in yet another spicy direction. “Let’s do all aphrodisiac foods.” She suggested that the meal would have added meaning if it were prepared by me.

It’s enough to plan a wedding held on the opposite coast, where my daughter planted herself after graduating from college there, but I’m a pushover for the metaphors and magic connected with food. So I became the cook for the only celebration to be held on my daughter’s home ground. “You do the research,” is all I had to say to Emily.

Luckily, I had returned recently from Oaxaca with a base for mole negro and lots of Mexican chocolate. Those were the seeds for a menu that grew into an erotic banquet for 25 women.

We started with three drinks: a tequila-spiked passion-fruit-juice punch, hibiscus-flower tea that Emily dubbed “flirty flower water,” and a cinnamon-infused coconut liquado, a light milk or fruit-based drink popular in Mexico.

Raw oysters with a side of tomatillo salsa were offered in honor of the goddess of love, who purportedly arose from an oyster shell. Casanova reportedly lapped up 50 of the bivalves each morning, the vitamin of choice to help drive his obsession for love affairs.

Nearby was a salsa of mangoes, a symbol of love in Indian culture; mango leaves are used to decorate newlyweds’ homes as a wish for fertility. This was used to top quesadillas oozing with melted brie and candied walnuts, the nut a symbol of fertility.

We took turns piling Sara’s pretty plate with the foods and the lore associated with amorous claims. First a mushroom, symbol of maleness, empanada in a crust made from corn — for male virility and fertility.

There was asparagus, which reportedly was a favorite of Zsa Zsa Gabor. (Please, Sara, not that many husbands.) Some convents forbade the vegetable because it is reminiscent of male sexuality.

The salad was of lettuces, which were believed by Romans to be powerful aphrodisiacs and to promote childbearing powers. The salad also contained nasturtium blossoms because flowers, representing the female, are designed to attract pollinators.

Lavender blossoms were crumbled into the salad as well because they could lend strength and courage to a woman during childbirth. They also are thought to bring good luck and peace into the home. These were tossed together in the oil of avocados. The sensuous texture of the whole avocado, Emily had heard, was enjoyed by Mae West each day.

Cubes of turkey breast were simmered in a mole that was supposed to be mixed with love and a sensuous rhythmic motion as described in the book “Like Water for Chocolate.” (We trust my souvenir was mixed in that manner in Oaxaca.)

Each of the mole’s infinite ingredients is a metaphor for gifts or talents any bride or groom might like to bring to marriage: chilis bring blood and heat to the surface of the body; the ring form of onions symbolizes eternity and is given as a wedding offering in Greek culture; nuts stand for fertility, and some symbolize things unmentionable in this story; garlic is reported to be a sexual stimulant; and chocolate, well, let’s save those legends for the dessert course.

Once Sara’s plate was piled full of food and stories, the other guests helped themselves and ate with abandon, picking up asparagus spears with fingers, letting the Mexican crema that topped the empanadas drip and dribble and seeming to enjoy every texture and flavor of the mole with newly informed pleasure.

After lunch, we walked to a nearby park, where a circle of drums and percussion instruments awaited. For an hour, drums pulsated, rattles shook, cymbals shimmied, and women swayed.

Now we needed chocolate like water. No one passed on the bitter love bites: truffles of dark chocolate made in a Mexican style with almond paste and a scent of cinnamon.

Sweethearts, shortbread cookies that sandwiched dulce de leche — caramelized sweetened milk with a texture of silk — produced loud swoons from the least inhibited guests. These were downed with Mexican iced mochas, a recipe that started with the pouring of boiling water over chocolate — the same high temperature as the passion a bride or a groom might pour into a marriage.

Guests left with paper-flower-topped cans of the dulce de leche to take home to pour over ice cream or fruit or … .

Bitter love bites

1 cup whipping cream

2 cinnamon sticks, preferably Mexican cinnamon

1 pound bittersweet chocolate, chopped

3 tablespoons almond paste, broken into small pieces

About cup unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting

In medium saucepan, heat cream to scalding. Add cinnamon and simmer 10 minutes. Remove and discard cinnamon. In heat-proof bowl, combine chocolate and almond paste. Pour hot cream over mixture. Let stand about 1 minute.

Whisk just until well-blended. Allow to cool at room temperature until mixture is firm. Re-whisk to soften slightly. With a spoon, scoop up rough balls, about 1 inch in diameter, and place on waxed-paper-lined tray. Chill.

Place about cup cocoa powder on plate. Roll chilled truffles in cocoa to coat lightly and evenly. Makes about 48 truffles.

Sweetheart cookies

2 cups flour

cup confectioners’ sugar

cup unsalted butter, cubed, chilled

Dulce de leche (recipe follows)

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

In food processor, combine flour and confectioners’ sugar. Add butter and pulse until mealy. With machine running, slowly add cup cold water to form dough. Transfer dough to surface and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least 30 minutes.

On floured surface, roll dough to -inch thickness. Using a 3-inch heart-shaped cutter, cut out hearts, re-rolling scraps. Cut out a smaller heart in the center of half of the cookies. Transfer cookies to baking sheets, cover with plastic wrap and chill about 30 minutes.

Bake in 350-degree oven 12 minutes or until lightly golden. Transfer to cooling racks and cool completely. To assemble, spread about 1 teaspoons dulce de leche on solid hearts. Dust heart cutouts with confectioners’ sugar and place over solid hearts. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Dulce de leche:

This is adapted from a recipe by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

Remove label from can. Place unopened can in deep saucepan and add water to cover completely by 2 inches. Bring water to simmer, then reduce heat and simmer 3 hours, adding more water as necessary. Using tongs and a mitt, carefully turn can over. Cook 2 hours longer. Allow to cool completely in water, then refrigerate. Makes about 1 cups.

Mexican iced mocha

1 tablet (about 3 inches in diameter) Mexican chocolate, chopped (see note)

2 cups hot coffee

2 cups cold milk

Ice cubes

Place chocolate in heat-proof bowl or pitcher. Pour hot coffee over chocolate. Whisk to melt chocolate completely. Chill. Add milk and a few ice cubes. Whisk until frothy. Makes 1 quart.

Note: Mexican chocolate tablets are available in 18.6-ounce packages in some Latin American markets and some supermarkets.

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