Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Are you ready?
Here are some recipes to help you out, whether you’re looking for a quick, sweet gift or a romantic meal.
Looking for an easy way to impress? Consider a simple — but still sensational — chocolate bark.
As treats go, it doesn’t get much easier. And the best part is that there are infinite ways to personalize the bark.
You start with a pound of chocolate. It can be white, milk or dark. Then you add your toppings, things like nuts, coconut, dried fruit, or more creative options such as pumpkin seeds and caramel popcorn. Whatever your topping choices, look for contrasts — something crunchy, something tangy, something salty. Of course, because it is the star of the show, be sure to use a good quality chocolate.
VALENTINE’S DAY BARK
Start to finish: 20 minutes
1 pound dark, milk or white chocolate
Start by lining a rimmed baking sheet with waxed paper. Have all your bark toppings ready before melting the chocolate.
If your chocolate is in bars or large, thick pieces, use a knife to carefully chop it up into small bits. Transfer the chocolate to a large glass measuring cup or bowl, then heat in the microwave on medium, stopping to stir every 20 to 30 seconds, until completely melted.
Pour the chocolate onto the prepared pan, then tap the pan on the counter to level the melted chocolate. Immediately sprinkle your choice of toppings over the surface of the chocolate. Allow to cool completely and set up, then break into pieces.
— Large-flake coconut, toasted sliced almonds, cocoa nibs
— Chopped dried cherries, shelled pistachios, chopped chocolate wafer cookies, large flake sea salt
— Honey roasted peanuts, chopped extra-crispy cooked bacon, ground black pepper
— Crushed toffee pieces, toasted pumpkin seeds, chopped dried apricots
— Chopped candied ginger, chopped macadamia nuts, toasted coconut
— Broken salted pretzel sticks, cut up mini marshmallows, caramel popcorn
• From Alison Ladman, Associated Press
My favorite casserole is one that typically is served for breakfast or brunch. It’s called an egg strata, and I love it because it’s easy to prep ahead of time, and bakes up light and fluffy, and yet is substantial and satisfying — a perfect choice for a romantic breakfast in bed come Valentine’s Day.
The other thing that I love about a strata is that you can tailor it to include your favorite flavors, as well as make it sweet or savory. Strata is the plural of stratum, which literally means layers, and you can layer all your favorite ingredients in with the bread and egg custard.
I grew up with the classic cheddar cheese, breakfast sausage egg strata. When I moved to Chicago, I began to experiment with different fillings. I fell in love with this city’s Greek omelet, which is a signature of its ubiquitous diners. I adapted those flavors to create a spinach, feta, onion and tomato strata. Another favorite is wild mushrooms, leeks and brie cheese.
When I am cooking brunch for a lot of people, I like to make two strata — one sweet, another savory. An apple-cream cheese stuffed “French toast” strata is my favorite sweet version, but you could add any kind of fruit. If you make a sweet strata for Valentine’s Day, try stuffing it with strawberries and chocolate for a new twist on everyone’s beloved chocolate-covered strawberries. Just leave out the savory spices and add a touch of sugar and lemon zest to make the stuffed French toast of your dreams.
Letting the strata rest before baking allows the bread to become saturated by the egg mixture, as well as the other flavors. I like to let it rest overnight.
VALENTINE’S DAY BREAKFAST-IN-BED EGG STRATA
Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes (15 minutes active), plus resting time
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup half-and-half
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
3 slices white sandwich bread, cubed
1 pound sage breakfast sausage, cooked, drained and crumbled
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions
Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, half-and-half, salt, mustard, nutmeg and white pepper.
In the prepared baking dish, layer half each of the bread, sausage, cheese and scallions, then repeat using the remaining ingredients to create a second layer of each. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the layers, gently pressing with a fork to make sure all of the ingredients are submerged.
Cover the baking dish with foil, crimping the edges tight. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
When ready to cook, heat the oven to 350 F. Uncover and bake the strata for 1 hour, or until puffy and a knife inserted at the center comes out clean.
• From Elizabeth Karmel, Associated Press
I’ve always believed that when it comes to dessert, a little bit can go a long way. That’s why this chocolate dream of a recipe takes the form of small-ish individual cakes rather than a single, family-sized gut-buster. It’s also why I’ve replaced the butter usually found in chocolate cakes with non-fat Greek yogurt.
What you will taste is chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate, specifically dark chocolate. It’s built into the cake batter, of course, but it also reappears as a melted surprise in the center of each cake. I suggest using bittersweet chocolate that’s between 60 percent and 70 percent cacao.
One of the tricky things about cooking with eggs is that while it’s easiest to separate yolks from whites while they’re cold, it’s best to add them to recipes at room temperature (they generate more volume that way).
So, how do you warm them up without wasting a lot of time? First, go ahead and separate the eggs when they’re fresh out of the fridge. Then put the whites in one bowl and the yolks in another and float each bowl in a larger bowl of hot water. Ten minutes later, the eggs will be at room temp.
You can keep the batter in the fridge for several days before baking.
I’ve topped these little cakes with a very simple — but very flavorful — raspberry sauce. There are exactly two ingredients: raspberries and sugar. You just buzz them in a blender, then strain out the seeds. Working in batches, put some of the pureed sauce in a medium-mesh strainer set over a bowl, then bang it until the only things left in the strainer are the seeds. Discard the seeds, add more sauce and continue.
WARM DOUBLE CHOCOLATE CAKES WITH RASPBERRY SAUCE
Start to finish: 3 hours 20 minutes (30 minutes active)
For the chocolate cakes:
1/4 cup sugar, plus 8 teaspoons for coating the ramekins
4 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, divided
2 large eggs, whites and yolks separated and brought to room temperature
1/3 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt
For the sauce:
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries (if frozen, thaw, drain and retain the liquid)
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
Coat eight 1/3- or 1/4-cup ramekins with cooking spray. Sprinkle about 1 teaspoon of sugar into each, swirling it around to coat the bottom and sides, then dumping out any excess.
Finely chop 2 1/2 ounces of the chocolate. Cut the remaining 2 ounces into 16 pieces, roughly the same size, then set those aside.
Bring a small saucepan of water to a bare simmer. Set a medium stainless steel bowl over it and add the 2 1/2 ounces of finely chopped chocolate to that. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is melted.
While the chocolate is melting, in another medium bowl use an electric mixer to beat the egg yolks with 1 tablespoon of the sugar until they are thick and lemon colored, about 4 minutes. Set the bowl aside and clean the beaters well.
In a third medium bowl, use the electric mixer to beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar, a little at a time, and continue beating until the whites hold stiff peaks. Set aside.
Remove the melted chocolate from the heat. Add the yogurt and stir well. Add the egg yolk mixture and stir well. Add one third of the egg whites to the chocolate mixture, stirring well, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites until they are just combined with the chocolate mixture. Divide the batter among the prepared ramekins. Cover and chill for 1 hour.
While the cakes are chilling, heat the oven to 325 F and prepare the sauce.
In a blender, puree the raspberries with the sugar. Strain and discard seeds. Thin the sauce with water or with the reserved raspberry liquid (if using frozen berries) until the sauce has a nice pouring consistency.
Remove the ramekins from the fridge, tuck 2 pieces of the cut chocolate into the center of each and bake in the middle of the oven for 15 to 18 minutes, or until just springy when touched. Let cool for 5 minutes, then unmold or serve in the ramekins. Serve drizzled with the raspberry sauce.
• From Sara Moulton
Not planning to go out for Valentine’s Day? Time to start planning a special menu for a romantic night in.
This dish is warm and comforting, and rich with flavors that say “you’re special.” It cooks up in a gratin dish, so you can assemble it ahead of time, then when you’re ready to eat, just pop it in the oven. While the gratin bakes, assemble the salad and serve everything together with a crusty baguette. Simple, special and perfect for an evening in.
CRAB AND HEARTS OF PALM GRATIN WITH ARUGULA AND CHERRY SALAD
Start to finish: 45 minutes
For the gratin:
14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained
14-ounce can hearts of palm, drained
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated fontina cheese
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
12 ounces lump crab meat
1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon butter, melted
For the salad:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon maple syrup
2 cups baby arugula
1/4 cup fresh or dried cherries
2 tablespoons toasted almonds (optional)
Sea salt and ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 375 F. Place 2 shallow individual-sized casserole or gratin dishes on a baking sheet.
Chop the artichoke hearts and hearts of palm into 1/2-inch pieces. In a medium bowl, gently stir together the artichokes and hearts of palm with the thyme, lemon zest, cream, fontina, white pepper and crab. Spoon the mixture into the gratin dishes.
In a small bowl, stir together the breadcrumbs, paprika, salt and melted butter. Sprinkle over the gratins. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until bubbling and golden.
While the gratins bake, make the salad. In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, mustard and maple syrup. Add the arugula, cherries and almonds and gently toss to coat. Serve topped with sea salt and black pepper.
• From Alison Ladman, Associated Press