EASY, quick, delicious and a bit of romantic fun were my key words to come up with a suitable menu for Valentine’s night.
There are heart-shaped cake moulds, plates, dishes and cookie cutters which make the imagery easy, and after that it’s about being clever with the basics and romaticising them a little.
Starters can be a little Neufchatel cream cheese which comes in a heart shape. This is delicious on toast or crackers, with a drizzle of honey or grind of black pepper or sprinkle of smoked paprika. My choice of duck breasts for main course isn’t only because they can look like hearts, but they are easy to prepare.
If chocolate is an aphrodisiac, we must be careful not to counteract its effects by using recipes that are too heavy, so my light biscuits can be served with ice-cream or yoghurt flavoured with a little vanilla extract, or fresh fruit. They are also delicious with coffee or, if you don’t use too much chocolate, a dessert wine. The apple and chocolate cakes here are light. The nutty apples are delicious for breakfast too.
I have added coffee to a simple shortbread/sablé biscuit recipe and dipped them in dark chocolate for the night that’s in it. The flavour is not of full-on coffee, but the hint makes them very more-ish. In an airtight tin, they will keep for weeks.
250g plain flour
200g butter, cut into small cubes
100g icing sugar
Pinch of salt
1 dssp instant coffee granules
2 egg yolks
Topping: 100g dark chocolate discs or bar cut into squares
Preheat oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3.
Place the flour, butter, icing sugar, salt and coffee granules in a bowl. Using your fingertips, rub the ingredients together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Or pulse in a blender. Add the egg yolks and mix until a dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to a thickness of a 50c-piece. Cut out heart shapes, improvising with a piece of card and cutting around it if you don’t have cookie cutters.
As you gather up the leftover pastry and bring into a ball, it can be rolled out thinner than the first batch and you will get a texture that will crisp up nicely as a contrast to the more substantial first batch.
Place on a sheet of greaseproof/parchment/silicone on two or three baking trays and bake for 10-12 minutes, until firm and golden. Cool a little on the tray first, then transfer to a wire rack.
As the oven cools down, place the chocolate in a bowl and allow it to melt for a few minutes.
Tilting the bowl, dip the biscuits into the chocolate to coat each half or in whatever shape you fancy, scraping the underneath on the side of the bowl to avoid drips.
Place on the wire rack to harden.
These are delicious with coffee or, if you don’t use too much chocolate, a dessert wine is also suitable for an after-dinner treat. Store in an airtight container.
2 duck breasts
1 large onion
1 large leek
Hand-sized piece of broccoli
4 cloves garlic
3cm piece of fresh ginger
1 tbsp sweet chill sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
Cut out a notch in the fatter top end of the duck breasts. You will be surprised at how quickly they come to look like hearts.
Dust the skin with salt and place, skin side down, on a large, hot, frying pan. No need for oil. After a minute, turn over and brown the flesh side. Turn back onto the skin and turn the heat down and allow the fat to melt.
In the meantime, cut the onion into thick slices (you want them to have some bite when finished) and add to the pan along with the garlic, sliced thinly and with any green, bitter shoots removed.
Slice the leeks thinly and add to the pan.
Cut the carrots and parsnips into batons about 3cm long.
Grate the fresh ginger.
At this stage the duck has got a 10-minute head start, so add the carrots and parsnip and ginger. Toss around so they are coated in the duck fat. Cover with a lid (or a plate or foil). If necessary you can now turn off the heat and leave it until five minutes before serving. Or continue to cook until the carrots and parsnip are still a little firm when pierced with a knife.
Ten minutes before serving, cut the stalks off the broccoli and cut into 3cm batons, discarding the tough outer skin. Add the stalks to the pan. Cook the noodles, according to instructions on the pack. If you prefer your duck very pink, remove at this stage and keep warm in foil. Five minutes before serving cut the broccoli florets the size of a 50 cent piece and add to the pan.
Add the sweet chilli sauce and stir. Replace the lid and cook for three minutes until the broccoli is lightly cooked and still bright green. Add in the cooked noodles and finish with the soya sauce.
* Tip: If you keep the duck warm, the skin may go soft. To crisp it up, place on a hot pan for a few minutes just before serving.
Serve the vegetables and noodles topped with the duck.
150g caster sugar
1 tbsp cocoa powder
2 medium eggs
175g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 large cooking apple, cut into 2cm cubes
Heat oven to 180c 350f, gas 4.
Use heart shaped moulds/tins or lay out paper cases on a baking tray. They are also good in madeleine moulds.
Beat the butter, sugar, cocoa powder (not drinking chocolate) and salt until creamy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then the milk, gradually. Add the flour and baking powder through a sieve and mix gently. Peel and chop the apple into approx 2cm cubes. Add to the mixture. Place a dessertspoonful into each cake mould so the mixture comes to about two thirds up. Place in the oven immediately and bake for 20-25 minutes until risen and firm to the touch. Allow to cool a little, then turn onto a wire rack. A grating of chocolate on top looks great.
Handful slivered almonds
1 dessp marmalade
Use the same recipe as the chocolate and apple cakes, replacing the cocoa powder with a teaspoon of vanilla extract. While still warm, paint the cakes with the marmalade. Fry the almonds in a dry pan until golden, and sprinkle onto the cakes. They will stick perfectly.
You’ve two egg whites left over from the biscuits so make a meringue. Write a greeting, some heart shapes, or a marriage proposal! Bake as you would meringue cakes, allowing 15 minutes.
2 egg whites
115g caster sugar
Beat the egg whites and sugar in a clean, grease-free bowl until holds its shape. Spoon or pipe onto parchment paper or silicone sheets. Bake at 150c 300f gas 2. Small, flat heart shapes will take about 20 minutes, larger meringues about 40 minutes. They should feel dry with no stickiness. Allow to cool before removing from the parchment.