A Sweet Valentine’s Day

I love my husband. I love endless chocolate. I love Valentine’s Day, road Valentine's dessertstrips and the great state of Tennessee. Not to mention literacy and newspapers. So you know where husband JP and I had our Valentine’s Day date this year: at the “For the Love of Literacy” dessert tasting in Selmer, Tenn., where all of these favorite things converge into one can’t-miss extravaganza. The Independent Appeal newspaper, in Selmer, hosts this wildly popular annual Valentine’s event to benefit the McNairy County Literacy Council. It’s sugar & chocolate & all-things-yummy beyond your wildest high-fat-content Valentine's cakedreams. Businesses, churches, book clubs, other non-profits and both professional and amateur bakers bring out their best recipes to woo the judges for best-of titles and sway the crowd for people’s choice votes. It’s all chocolate, all evening and you’d better start slow or you’ll regret it later. JP and I have learned to be discriminating — Valentine cookiestwo cake pops instead of three, three pieces of fudge instead of four and only one trip back for more Strawberry Surprise or double-mocha espresso brownies. But it’s all for a good cause. I mean, that’s the ONLY reason I ate all those mini peanut-butter cupcakes and had to sample the tiramisu twice. I’m passionate about literacy like that. Also, I did pick up on some dessert trends, because I had to have some excuse for circling the room eight times I always am on the food-reporting beat for you. For example, classics such as the no-bake chocolate-oatmeal cookies seem to be making a comeback, items with organic and natural ingredients are on the rise and, as always, appearance and decorations are key. The things I do just to keep you all updated …

Happy Mother’s Day (Cupcakes)!

Beautiful flowers? Sweet treats? Decadent chocolates? Why not surprise Mom with all three, in one. After all, Mother’s Day is the day when moms can have their cake — such as these gorgeously decorated chocolate and vanilla cupcakes from Yummies bakery in my town of Tuscumbia, Ala. — and eat all the icing off before anyone else, too.

I Love Presents. And My Daughters

Gift-giving is an art. Some people just naturally know how to do it right and always give the exactly right thing at the exactly right time. People such as our two daughters. I’m not sure how or from whom they learned the subtleties of perfect gift-giving — it’s sort of how they inexplicably learned to do hair and make-up so well that our house always was crowded with girls on prom afternoons wanting my daughters’ expertise while my approach to hair and makeup pretty much is a comb and maybe some mascara. But, happily for me, my daughters graduated beyond my meager attempts at gift-giving brilliance and excel on their own. Of course, Older Daughter knows that any gift involving our two grandsons — almost 4-years- and 4-months-old — makes me melt into a puddle of grandmotherly love, so naturally the collection of photo books she’s been giving us on gift-giving occasions is on my Things-To-Take-Out-of-the-Burning-House-After-the-Cats-But-Before-My-Shoes. Younger Daughter, however, doesn’t have adorably precious babies (yet), so she has to rely on her own natural creativity and sweetness when coming up with presents. And for this past Valentine’s Day, she truly outdid herself. My gift bag included coffee beans she knew I’d love, a smooth and silky dark-chocolate bar and two oh-so-cute gifts a couple of her friends made — a jar of chocolate body scrub and a tiny notebook from recycled paper and discarded boxes of tea, tied with a scrap of found ribbon. Love, love, love. Both daughters and gifts.

Valentine’s Day Desserts — and a Worthy Cause

Oh my cookies! And cupcakes. And brownies. And fudge and cheesecakes and truffles and trifles and all sorts of all things yummy and sweet and delicious. Imagine walking into a room filled with every bite-sized dessert imaginable, and your only responsibility was to wander around and eat as many as you could. Imagine Butterfinger Cake and chocolate gelato chased by peanut-butter balls and chocolate-covered strawberries. Imagine strawberry-lemon parfait topped off with a pina colada Italian ice. A Valentine’s Day fantasy? A dessert lover’s hallucination? A never-to-come-true unattainable dream? Nope. This was a reality — at least it was for one night at the Community Center in Selmer, Tenn., where the local newspaper, the Independent Appeal, hosted a fund-raiser for the McNairy County Literacy Council. The council had lost much of its United Way funding, and Independent Appeal publisher Janet Rail was determined to help make up the difference. So the Independent Appeal asked folks to bring their best desserts to the community center, set up some tables and brought in a band and for $5 you could buy a ticket and enter Dessert Paradise. Almost 25 churches, clubs, businesses, restaurants and other groups were there, tempting you with chess squares and cake pops and peanut brittle and other things you didn’t even know you wanted until you saw them and had to have some. I believe I said “Just one more trip around the room to make sure we didn’t miss anything” at least 12 times and we still didn’t sample everything. Here’s hoping this becomes an annual tradition — and a successful fund-raiser. Because I’m willing to do my part and attend every single time.

If There’s Chocolate, It Must Be Easter

Hoppy Easter! Hope your day is filled with chocolate and eggs and family and fun. I’m just happy that my two daughters are grownup and in their 20s now and I didn’t have to spend Easter Eve hemming little smocked dresses and desperately trying to concoct matching  hair bows. Not that I ever was so unorganized and frazzled that I waited until the last minute to finish Easter dresses. No! Not me!!! Oh, OK. Definitely me. The best thing about Easter, of course, is being with family and friends. (The availability of unlimited chocolate goes without saying.) My family gathered this past weekend to celebrate the joint birthdays of our oldest — my dad, turning 77 — and our youngest — my nephew, turning 1. Photo ops! But with young ‘uns, you never know what you’re going to get. Three-year-old grandson Capt. Adorable is good for about two shots of holding still and saying “cheese,” but then he’s done with you and on to more important things. So I just click away, sort through everything later and hope for the best. Such as this shot of the Captain and his cousin, the Birthday Boy. (We think they’re cousins, at least — the Captain’s mom is the Birthday Boy’s daddy’s niece. Is that right?) It took me a couple of times before I realized that both boys are intently studying the backs of their books. Must be a family trait. And I love the shot with most of my favorite girls in it — daughters and sisters-in-law — and my two absolute favorite little guys. Even though it wasn’t Easter, it was wonderful family time. There even was plenty of chocolate. But, thankfully, no hemming of dresses.

Chocolate and Coffee

I know, I know — I’m sorry! Y’all who passionately pointed out that if I’m going to talk about cool Nashville food and uber-cool Hillsboro Village then I can’t not mention Olive & Sinclair Chocolate and bongo Java’s newest eatery, Hot & Cold.  I have an excuse for not mentioning Hot & Cold: We didn’t go in, even though I’d read good things about it in Nashville Scene. On the day we were in Hillsboro Village, the weather was miserable and I was in a hospital funk after sitting for days with my dad in a nearby cardiac-care unit (he’s home now and doing incredibly wonderful) and all I wanted was a cup of good coffee and even though Hot & Cold supposedly had good ice cream AND good coffee I was cynically suspicious that this was true so we bypassed it for Fido, Hot & Cold’s older brother coffeehouse and a steady and reliable source of the good stuff. But I will not make this mistake again. Next time, we’re going in. But I have no excuse for not mentioning Olive & Sinclair Chocolate– made in small  bean-to-bar batches in Nashville. I simply forgot to talk about it because I was too busy savoring every smidgen of the Coffee and Sea Salt bars we bought.  I won’t make that mistake again, either — next time, I’ll get the Double Chocolate Nibs, too.



Food

Chocolate Pots de CremeI don’t know which I liked better — this gorgeously rich and smooth chocolate pots de creme or the adorable little china “pots” it came in. This was dessert at a recent cooking class I took in Decatur, Alabama. Cookbook author and former restaurant owner Betty Sims teaches classes in her home each fall. This year she led off with “Celebrating Julia,” a menu based on Julia Child recipes. Betty has stayed at Cooking With Friends in France, http://www.cookingwithfriends.com/, a culinary program in Child’s former Provence chateau, and she has some great stories and photos. And great recipes, like this one for Chocolate Pots de Creme.

Chocolate Pots de Creme

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Warm 2 cups heavy cream, two cups half-and-half and 4 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips in a 2-quart Pyrex cup in microwave for 2 minutes on high. Whisk and microwave 2 minutes more until steam rises and chocolate is melted.

Whisk 6 egg yolks, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder and pinch of salt together in a bowl. Add warm chocolate mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and strain into a measuring cup with a pouring spout (to get rid of  lumps). Spoon off any foam. Divide mixture among six 3-ounce pot de creme molds or oven-safe ramekins. Cover each mold tightly with a lid or foil (although Betty didn’t do this and said it wasn’t necessary). Arrange molds in a baking dish, being careful not to let molds touch each or sides of dish (again, Betty didn’t do this and said it wasn’t necessary). Transfer dish to oven and add hot water to reach about halfway up outsides of molds.

Bake 35 minutes, then check for doneness. Custard should be just set but still quiver like gelatin. If necessary, bake another 3-5 minutes. When custards are set, remove from water bath and cool for 30 minutes at room temperature. Chill until completely cold, preferably overnight. Garnish with whipped cream.