As Valentine's Day approaches my mind turns to chocolate. Truth be told my mind almost always turns to chocolate. But in February it's socially acceptable to obsess over all things chocolate all the time.

When I was in the restaurant business my most frequent February dessert request was for Chocolate Dipped Strawberries. I was always amazed that people wouldn't just make their own - they are truly just about the easiest chocolate dessert you can make. There are some techniques however to achieving a perfect looking berry. A double boiler is not essential equipment but a slow method of heating the chocolate remains of paramount importance. If you don't have a true double boiler simply place a sauce pan over another pan of simmering water. And watch your chocolate - when recipes call for stirring constantly this is what they mean. Allow the strawberries to come to room temp, dip (and swirl when pulling out the strawberries) and cool on a wire rack so the excess chocolate drips off the berries.

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You won't find any local strawberries this time of year. And somehow kale and spinach (still available locally) don't have the same appeal dipped in chocolate for most guests. There are some local sources for chocolate however. The Finksburg-based mother and daughter duo of Barbara and Melissa Larkin make wonderful chocolate creations which they sell online or in their shop, The Chocolate Connection. The Larkins know that quality chocolate makes for better desserts, not just for strawberries, but for all your chocolate creations. Buy the best quality you can afford and you're guaranteed success.

A great chocolate cake always tops the list of Valentine's Day desserts. This adaptation of a Barefoot Contessa recipe has been a perennial favorite. My (now) 13-year-old has been making this cake for her father's birthday for almost six years now. Finally our Espresso brownie recipe was a year round favorite. For a dressier presentation top with Starbuck's Java Chip ice cream and your favorite hot fudge sauce.

Chocolate Dipped Strawberries

1 pound Milk or Dark Chocolate (best quality)

2 Tbl. Shortening

1 pound strawberries, washed but with stems on

Using a double boiler melt your chocolate until the desired consistency. Add shortening and mix until combined. Holding the stem of the strawberry immerse the berry into the chocolate mixture. Swirl as you take the berries out and cool on a wire rack. Do not refrigerate berries or the chocolate may crack.

Chocolate Cake

Butter, for greasing the pans

1¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans

2 cups sugar

¾ cups good cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1¼ cup buttermilk, shaken

½ cup vegetable oil

2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Chocolate Buttercream:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 8-inch x 2-inch round cake pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.

Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.

Place 1 layer, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal. With a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the frosting evenly on the top and sides of the cake.

Chocolate Frosting:

6 ounces good semisweet chocolate (recommended: Callebaut)

½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1¼ cups sifted confectioners' sugar

1 tablespoon instant coffee powder

Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes. Turn the mixer to low, gradually add the confectioners' sugar, then beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of the hottest tap water. On low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended. Don't whip! Spread immediately on the cooled cake.

Espresso Brownies

8 1 ounce squares of unsweetened chocolate

1 cup butter

5 eggs

3 cups sugar

1 Tbl. vanilla

1 Tbl. almond extract

2 Tbl. instant espresso grounds

1½ cups flour

1 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 375 or preferably a convection oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 9 x 13 pan. In a stand mixer beat your eggs, sugar and extracts at a high speed for 10 minutes. Melt butter and chocolate in a double boiler. Add melted chocolate mix, espresso grounds, flour and salt to the egg mixture. Bake brownies for 30-35 minutes.

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