Monday, February 9, 2004

Go ahead, sort through bags of colorful candy hearts looking for the perfect one to tell your valentine just how you feel.

“You’re Cute,” “Be Mine,” “Hot Stuff” or “I’m Yours.” Said that already? You could pay a lot of money to get hearts personalized to convey your sweet nothings — and they’re not even made of chocolate.

Nothing speaks of love as much as a custom-made gift, and nothing tastes more of romance than chocolate. If you’re concerned about being cliche, make something that isn’t. Make something that is straight from your heart, and it is sure to heat up the conversation.

If brownies will get you points, up your score by baking them as cupcakes. To make them special, use individual metal cake molds that are about 21/4 inches high and 21/4 inches across at the top (available at cookware stores). But you can use muffin tins, as well. Offer a few on a plate made prettier with a flower.

Want to juice up your thoughtfulness? Add ripe red strawberries to the picture. With their color and shape, they are badges of romance.

The combination of chocolate and strawberry is almost a standard for love. Take a step away from the cliche of chocolate-dipped strawberries by making chocolate strawberry hearts, halved berries dolloped with chocolate cream cheese. Or get in touch with your (or your lover’s) exhibitionist side and go all the way with an almond-crusted tart with a layer each of chocolate and strawberries.

Whatever recipe you choose to create, remember the most important ingredient is love. Made from the heart, any of the following choices will give your valentine reason to start a conversation with all the familiar phrases like “Be Mine” — and maybe some you have never heard before.

Brownie cupcakes

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

2 whole eggs plus one egg white, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

11/4 cups sugar

1 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

Nonstick cooking spray

In small saucepan, melt butter with chocolate over low heat. Stir to blend. Set aside.

In bowl, beat eggs and egg white with vanilla and sugar. Add cooled chocolate mixture. Stir in flour and salt.

Pour into 12 4-ounce individual metal molds or muffin tins coated with nonstick cooking spray. If using individual molds, arrange on baking sheet. Bake in 350-degree oven about 15 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool about 5 minutes, then turn out onto rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 12 cupcakes.

Chocolate strawberry hearts

12 large strawberries, with stems

3/4 cup whipped cream cheese

1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably dark

3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

Cut berries in half from top to bottom. In bowl, whisk cream cheese, sugar, cocoa and cream until completely blended. Fill pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe a star of cream cheese mixture into center of cut side of each berry half. Alternately, use a small spoon to place a dollop of chocolate mixture on each berry half. Makes 24 filled strawberries.

Strawberry chocolate almond tart

Nonstick cooking spray

13/4 cups flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, cut into small pieces and chilled

1 egg yolk

1/4 cup ground toasted almonds

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons Amaretto or other almond-flavored liqueur

6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

1 basket strawberries, stemmed

1/2 cup red currant jelly

Spray a 9- or 10-inch square or round tart pan with removable bottom with nonstick cooking spray.

In food processor, combine flour, sugar and salt and pulse several times to combine. Add cold butter and pulse until fine crumbs form, about 20 seconds.

Add egg yolk, 2 tablespoons cold water and almonds and pulse just to combine. Turn dough out onto surface and gather into a ball. Shape into a flattened disc. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until well chilled, about 1 hour.

Roll dough out on floured surface to ⅛-inch thick square or circle. Fit into pan, pressing up sides. Refrigerate about 30 minutes. Pierce bottom of pastry all over with fork. Bake in 375-degree oven 20 minutes or until golden. Cool.

Meanwhile, in small saucepan, bring cream to simmer. Turn off heat and stir in liqueur and chocolate. Continue to stir until chocolate is completely melted. Spoon into cooled tart shell and spread evenly.

Cut strawberries from top to bottom into thin slices. Starting at outside of tart, arrange strawberry slices, slightly overlapping and working toward center until tart is completely covered. Heat jelly just until melted. Brush berries with warm jelly. Makes 8 servings.

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