As Long as There’s Chocolate…

Chocolate Panna Cotta with Vanilla Bean Syrup and Crushed Raspberries

Goodness me, what is this? A Valentine’s Day post?? Chez moi???

I know you were probably in too much of a chocolate-induced coma to notice, but both last year and the year before I did something pretty sneaky: I put a post up the day after Valentine’s and acted as if the holiday had never even happened. I certainly didn’t assault you with ideas for luscious last-minute Valentine’s Day desserts and I definitely didn’t put up photos in shades of pink and red so that even if I changed my mind at the last minute and tried to ignore the whole thing everybody would see right through it and know the truth. So why start now?

Well, I’ve had a change of heart. In fact, after spending most of my adult life avoiding it as assiduously as possible, I’ve decided that Valentine’s Day is actually – wait for it, this is big – worth celebrating after all.

Now please understand, my issues with Valentine’s Day don’t come from the hardened bitterness of having spent one too many of them alone. As you know, I’m a married woman, and have in fact spent the last ten years of my life passionately in love. But as much as that deserves celebrating, and as much as I love having an excuse to eats lots of chocolate, there’s always been a couple of things about Valentine’s Day that I cannot seem to make my peace with.

First, there’s the obligation. Maybe it’s just my nonconformist streak, but I really dislike people telling me what to do. In particular, I don’t like the idea that I’m supposed to show my love for someone on the same day and in exactly the same way as everyone else around the world – flowers, chocolates, dinner, yada yada yada. And I hate it that if I don’t, I risk implying that I don’t love him. How ridiculous is that? Love should be spontaneous, and surprising, and be demonstrated copiously and frequently rather than on the one day a year Hallmark, Inc. has set aside for that purpose.

Far worse than that, however, is the exclusive nature of the whole affair. I mean just think about it – how many other holidays are there that regularly exclude large numbers of people who want to celebrate them? Do we deny people the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving because they’re gluten-intolerant, or they don’t like turkey? Do we deny someone the chance to celebrate Christmas because they weren’t raised Catholic? Of course not, but somebody at some point decided that Valentine’s Day could only be celebrated by those who have romantic love in their lives, and if you don’t, well too bad – you’ll just have to sit at home, miserable and alone, while all your friends get showered with jewelry and chocolates and overpriced dinners. I mean really, as if being single wasn’t hard enough, what with the lack of tax breaks and the necessity of suffering through five days of leftovers every time you make a recipe from a cookbook, old St. Valentine has to pour salt on the wound too.

Nevertheless, the more I insisted on not celebrating Valentine’s Day in protest, the more I felt uneasy, like this wasn’t the right answer. Sure the day is hokey and commercialized and fraught with discrimination, but I’ve now come to the conclusion that the last thing we should do is stop celebrating it entirely. There is, by my count anyway, a chronic shortage of love in this world, and maybe, just maybe, what we ought to do is keep celebrating Valentine’s Day, but celebrate it just a little bit differently. Here’s what I propose. Forget about your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend for the day – they should know how much you love them already, and if they don’t, promise them that you’ll spend the other 364 days of the year proving it – and instead, spend the day spreading love among people who don’t expect it: your co-workers, your neighbors, your parents and children, your friends. Buy them boxes of candy, bake them cookies, invite them over for a fabulous dinner that ends with the kind of indulgent chocolate dessert that normally only people in the throes of romance get to experience on this date. In short, help more people in this world feel loved, not less.

Who knows? I think it might just be crazy enough to work… that is, as long as there’s still plenty of chocolate involved.

Chocolate Panna Cotta with Vanilla Bean Syrup and Crushed Raspberries

I know many of you picked out your Valentine’s Day desserts weeks ago, but if you’re still sitting around, wondering what on earth you could whip up that would be quick, foolproof, decadent and chocolaty – and more importantly isn’t the same old mousse or flourless torte – I have exactly the dessert for you. It blends the silken wobbliness of a great panna cotta with the intensity of dark chocolate ganache, its bitter edge kept just this side of tame by a slick of vanilla-flecked syrup and the tang of crimson raspberries. It’s not only delicious, it’s downright sexy – which in my book is a plus no matter who you plan on sharing it with.
Serves: 4

For Panna Cotta:
1 tablespoon cold water
1 1/4 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
1 1/2 cups (375ml) heavy cream
3 tablespoons sugar
pinch salt
3.5 oz (100g) fine bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons liqueur of your choice: Frangelico, Amaretto, Bailey’s, Grand Marnier, Chambord… (optional, but recommended)

For Vanilla Syrup:
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 1/2 cups (375ml) water

For Raspberries:
1 package (somewhere around 12oz/350g) frozen unsweetened raspberries, thawed
4-5 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Grease four ramekins or small dessert bowls with a little vegetable oil, wiping out the excess. Pour the 1 tablespoon cold water into another small bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin. Let stand for 5 minutes, or until softened.

Stir together the cream, sugar and salt in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When the liquid comes to a simmer, stir in the gelatin mixture. Continue stirring for 30 seconds or until the gelatin is dissolved, but be careful – don’t let it boil. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and whisk until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the liqueur. Divide the mixture between the greased ramekins or dessert bowls. Let cool for a few minutes, and then cover with plastic wrap, pressing it onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 8 hours, until set.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Stir together the sugar, vanilla bean, lemon juice and 1 1/2 cups water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until mixture has reduced to about 2/3 cup (160ml) and has the consistency of a thin syrup, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then remove the vanilla bean.

Place the thawed raspberries in a small bowl. Crush lightly with back of spoon. Stir in sugar to taste (they should still be a bit tart). Set aside until needed. 

To serve the panna cottas, fill a bowl with very hot water. Dip the ramekins or bowls into the water for about 20-30 seconds, then unmold onto plates, using the tip of a knife to help coax them out. (Alternatively, you can always just serve them in the ramekins.) Drizzle each one with a couple tablespoons of the vanilla syrup and plop a mound of the crushed raspberries alongside. Serve with the remaining syrup and raspberries on the side for people to add more as they like.