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Sweets for your sweeties
February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day!

Chocolate and valentines. Valentines and chocolates.

They go together and always have. Well, almost always.

Way back in 1861, the English chocolatier Richard Cadbury slipped some of his finest product into a heart-shaped box. An instant tradition was born.

It's estimated that today more than a billion dollars a year gets spent on Valentine chocolates.

Even before Cadbury, the treat was associated with love. The legendary Casanova ate it daily, so they say.

While modern researchers report that chocolate has the same effect on the brain as falling in love, Mr. Cadbury certainly had the right idea.

How can anyone help thinking about chocolate when the stores have been full of those red boxes since Jan. 2?

I became truly fascinated when on our recent visit to Houston I spotted a chocolate shop, Chocolat du Monde. I went straight in and almost didn't come out. When I did it was with a big sack full of treats (I promise, only one a day) and a better education.

The shop's owner, David Heiland, explained to me how when he lived in Holland for several years, he learned to love the chocolate shops that were on every corner, not only in Holland, but all over Europe. (Remember the wonderful movie, "Chocolat"?)

When David returned to the United States, he opened his own shop, and he learned to make chocolate as well. He serves up homemade fudge and splendid hot chocolate in the shop, plus he carries the finest European chocolates-some of them flown in from Belgium every week.

All this talking and tasting left me wanting to know more about the delicacy. I did a bit of research and learned that chocolate is a New World treat.

Native Americans offered some of their treasured beans to Columbus, but he didn't have the sense to take them. It wasn't until Cortéz got to the Aztec capital that Europeans got their first real taste. The Aztecs called it xocolatl, and the explorers loved it. They figured out how to make it, sent home some beans and voilá! A chocolate shop on every corner.

I'm cooking up some chocolate to serve on this Valentine's Day. I found a recipe for a rich and spicy hot chocolate in one of my favorite books, China Bayles' Book of Days. It has daily entries that are "celebrations of the mystery, myth and magic of herbs." It's by one of my favorite mystery writers, Susan Albert.

If you are like I am and love cooking and mysteries, you'll enjoy the China Bayles series—it's set in the Hill Country of Texas where China owns an herb shop. The books are intriguing for their puzzling stories as well as a bunch of yummy recipes and lots of herbal lore.

China speculates in the Feb. 14th entry that with the chile powder, this may taste like that early Aztec brew. Certainly, it will warm you up.

Hot 'n' Spicy Chocolate
(adapted from China Bayles' Book of Days by Susan Wittig Albert)
½ cup sugar
¼ cup cocoa
1 teaspoon fine-ground chile powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups water
6 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
whipped cream

Blend dry ingredients together in a large saucepan. Stir in water and simmer for 4 minutes. Add milk and reheat. Whisk in vanilla and put into warm mugs. Top with whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg, and add a cinnamon stir stick.

If spicy isn't your cup of hot chocolate, omit the chile powder.

Chocolate cake is a good Valentine dish. You can go from the sublime to the ridiculous. I have a recipe for each.

Sublime Chocolate Surprise Cake
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine (use the highest chocolate content you can find)
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter
3 eggs
3 egg yolks
6 tablespoons sugar
¾ cup all-purpose flour, sifted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter and lightly flour eight 4-ounce custard cups or ramekins.

Melt the butter and chocolate together in the top of a double boiler. (You can use the microwave, but check it often.)

Using an electric mixer combine the eggs, egg yolks and sugar, mixing until light and fluffy. Fold the egg mixture into the chocolate, and then stir in the flour. Divide among the custard cups and bake for 5 to 7 minutes or until the cakes are puffy. The outside should be cooked but the inside still liquid.

Unmold each cake onto a dessert plate and serve with rich vanilla ice cream or raspberry sherbet.

This is worth the trouble. If you are doing it for company, do what I did. Move the party to the kitchen after dinner and pop the cakes into the oven. Have a cup of coffee while they bake, and then eat them fresh and hot.

At the other end of the cooking spectrum, but still mighty good, is this cake you can make in your slow cooker or Crock Pot. The kids will be fascinated and the house smells good all day. It's just as decadent as the sublime version.

Ridiculous Chocolate Surprise Cake
1 package two-layer chocolate cake mix
3-ounce package instant chocolate pudding mix
4 eggs
1 cup water
2 cups sour cream
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 cup chocolate chips

Spray a 4-quart slow cooker with cooking spray (I used the one with flour in it) and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the cake mix and pudding mix. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with the water, then add the sour cream and oil and beat until smooth. Add to the dry ingredients and beat well. Stir in the chocolate chips. Pour into the slow cooker, cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours, until top springs back when touched very lightly with finger. I used devil's food cake mix and bittersweet chocolate chips. It is mighty rich and mighty good. I have a super-sized slow cooker; it only took about 4 hours for my cake to cook.

This is supposed to make 8-10 servings. It may be only one if it's cold outside, the coffee pot is on and I have a new Susan Albert mystery on hand.

If you'd like to visit Chocolat du Monde you don't have to travel all the way to Houston; just go to www.chocolat-du-monde.com. You can learn more about China Bayles and Susan Wittig Albert's other mystery series (there's one about Beatrix Potter, too) at www.mysterypartners.com, plus you'll find some of China's favorite recipes there.


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network