Long ago, when I was a starry-eyed 20-year-old, and for centuries before that, Valentine's Day was a celebration for lovers only. As far as we know, it all began in Roman times, when the festival of Lupercalia celebrated Juno and marriage. Later, when the Church linked this event with the day of St. Valentine, a bishop who was executed in 270 A.D. for holding weddings against the edict of the Roman emperor, Feb. 14 became a day for sweethearts to express their affection. Through the years, a card, a rose and a box of candy said it all.
Now, while the basic concept of the holiday hasn't changed, the scope of its meaning has broadened considerably. Yes, lovers still top the list of those we acknowledge in a romantic way. But Valentine's Day has also become a time to take inventory of the many people who touch and brighten our daily lives through acts of kindness, generosity and caring.
You undoubtedly have someone in your life like the friend who picks up the kids at school when your meeting runs late. Or the neighbor who hauls the garbage cans up from the curb for you when the weather is bad. How about the hairdresser who comes in an hour early to squeeze you in on a busy Saturday or the mother-in-law who never says no when you're stuck for a sitter? Nice people who do nice little things that make a big difference in your life.
Valentine's Day is the perfect occasion to reciprocate with a sweet token of your appreciation. My favorite thank-you gifts are a delectable collection of candy and chocolate-coated fruit equal to anything one would find in the finest gourmet confectionery shop. What makes the following recipes even sweeter is that they can be whipped up in a jiffy in your microwave, with ingredients that are a snap to assemble.
To make white- and chocolate- dipped fruits, melt both types of chocolate separately in the microwave. Dip fresh or dried fruits in one of the chocolates to partially cover. Refrigerate until firm and then, if desired, re-dip the fruit in the other chocolate. Perishable fruits such as fresh oranges, grapefruit and strawberries can be refrigerated only overnight, but dried fruits may be refrigerated for at least a week.
I find making candies such as mixed nut brittle easier in the microwave than on the stove. And you aren't left with a scorched saucepan to scour. It is helpful, but not mandatory, to have a microwave candy thermometer. If not, keep a regular candy thermometer in hot water so it will register faster, and remove the candy syrup from the microwave to test. Or, spoon about half a teaspoon of the syrup into a small bowl of ice water. When it separates into hard, brittle threads, it will be at the hard-crack stage, 300 degrees.
Orange pecan truffles are creamy with chocolate, crunchy with ground nuts and bursting with orange flavor. For a change of pace, turn them into raspberry almond truffles by substituting seedless raspberry preserves for the orange marmalade, Chambord for the Grand Marnier and almonds for the pecans. Or experiment with whatever liqueur, preserves and nuts you have on hand.
Double chocolate cream fudge is the fastest fudge recipe I know. The addition of unsweetened chocolate keeps it from being overly sweet, marshmallow creme makes it exceptionally creamy, and the microwave eliminates the need for a candy thermometer. For inexpensive but fitting packaging, wrap the candies in a 10-inch square of white lace or red fabric and tie with red velvet ribbon or strips of white lace. Or, line a decoupaged Victorian tin or acrylic box with red doilies.
For your most special Valentine, pile a combination of all the treats together in a jumbo gift basket with a bottle of champagne and a pair of candles. Add a red rose and three more little things -- the words "I love you." Now that really says it all.
Double chocolate cream fudge
Makes 117 pieces
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter or margarine
3 cups sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
12 ounces (2 cups) semisweet chocolate chips
3 ounces (3 squares) unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1 jar (7 ounces) marshmallow creme
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with heavy foil so it extends 2 inches beyond pan on 2 short sides. Butter or grease the foil.
In a 4-quart microwave-safe bowl or casserole, microwave butter or margarine on high (100 percent) power until melted. Stir in sugar and evaporated milk. Microwave uncovered on high power for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring and scraping down sides every 3 minutes, until mixture boils rapidly with very large bubbles. Remove from oven and immediately stir in both chocolates until melted. Stir in marshmallow creme, nuts and vanilla. Spread into prepared dish.
Leave at room temperature or refrigerate until firm enough to cut.
Using foil as handles, remove from pan and invert onto cutting board. Peel off foil. Turn right side up and cut into 1-inch squares. (Fudge may be stored airtight at room temperature up to 1 week, refrigerated for several weeks, or frozen.)
Orange pecan truffles
Makes about 36
8 ounces (8 squares) semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine
1/2 cup orange marmalade
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1 cup finely ground pecans
In a medium-size microwave-safe bowl, melt chocolate and butter or margarine, covered, on high power for 1 to 3 minutes, stirring every minute until smooth. Stir in marmalade, chopped pecans and liqueur. Refrigerate, covered, until firm.
Scrape a teaspoon across surface of the chocolate mixture to pick up enough for a 3/4 -inch ball. Roll ball in ground pecans. Place in bonbon papers, if desired. Repeat with remaining chocolate. Store in airtight containers in freezer. Serve frozen.
@4 Note: Truffles may be frozen for several months.
White and dark chocolate-dipped fruits
Makes 25 to 30 pieces.
3 ounces ( 1/2 cup) semisweet chocolate chips (or 3 squares finely chopped)
3 ounces white chocolate, preferably Tobler Narcisse or Lindt Blancor, finely chopped
fresh strawberries with leaves
oranges, cut in half and sliced
grapefruit, divided into segments
Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. Place dark and white chocolate in microwave-safe bowls, such as 6-ounce custard cups. Microwave uncovered on medium (50 percent) power for 1 to 4 minutes, stirring every minute, until melted and smooth. Holding stem end of strawberry, dip one side of each in dark chocolate. Place on prepared baking sheet and chill until firm. Dip other side of strawberry into white chocolate, remelting it on 50 percent power for 30-second intervals until smooth. Refrigerate. Dip half of orange slices, grapefruit segments or dried fruits in chocolate in same manner.
(Strawberries may be refrigerated overnight. Dried fruits may be refrigerated up to 1 week.)
Microwave nut brittle
Makes 1 pound
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup coarsely chopped mixed nuts, such as hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, peanuts
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
Generously grease or butter a large baking sheet. In an 8-cup microwave-safe bowl, stir together sugar, water, corn syrup and salt. Microwave, uncovered, on high power for 7 minutes, stirring every 2 minutes. Attach a microwave-safe candy thermometer to the side of the bowl, making sure that the bulb is immersed in the syrup. Microwave, uncovered, on high power until the thermometer reaches 300 degrees, the hard-crack stage, about 1 1/2 to 5 1/2 minutes, depending on the wattage of your microwave. (Or, use a regular candy thermometer kept in a bowl of hot water and measure outside microwave. Or test a small amount in cold water. It should separate into hard, brittle threads).
Stir in nuts, butter or margarine, vanilla and soda until nuts are well-coated. The mixture will foam up. Immediately scrape onto baking sheet. Spread into a thin layer.
When just cool enough to touch, butter your hands and stretch candy into a 12-by-13-inch rectangle. When cool, break into chunks with hands.
(Candy may be stored in an airtight container for several weeks.)
Marlene Sorosky is a Baltimore-based cookbook author. revised version of her "Cooking for Entertaining" (HP Books) will be released in April 1994.
* To melt semisweet chocolate in the microwave, heat it in a Pyrex cup uncovered at 100 percent power until smooth when stirred (or melt at 50 percent for a longer time). It's easiest to stir with a wooden skewer.
* Appearance alone won't tell if semisweet chocolate is melted. It HTC will hold its shape until stirred.
* If chocolate is overheated, it will "seize," or become grainy. Once scorched, it cannot be retrieved.
* Chop squares of chocolate into small pieces so they will melt evenly.
* White chocolate is tricky. For best results, use an imported variety, such as Tobler Narcisse or Lindt Blancor. Buy it from a store that has a quick turnover and use it as quickly as possible. It does not keep well.
* Melt white chocolate uncovered at 50 percent (defrost) power.
* If white chocolate is old and turns gritty or lumpy when melted, strain it through a fine strainer.