Pavlova with Cocoa-Cream Filling & Raspberry-Mango-Passion Fruit Sauce
Ten stress-free gourmet ideas for Valentine’s Day
By Carol Ritchie
The New Year’s health kick resolution is slowly fading and St. Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching. Even for those strongly dedicated to keep to that healthful eating regimen (bravo!), a one-day exception is warranted to treat your sweetheart to sweet indulgences. But splurging on the diet is not the only concern. Just coming up with inventive, new ways to celebrate can cause a lot of anxiety. No worries! Here are ten food ideas to keep your gourmet plans and preparations seductively stress-free:
1. Breakfast in Bed
Start the day with a special treat for your loved one. A simple gesture that strays from routine can create lasting memories. Although a change in menu for a day would be nice, even the same breakfast simply served unexpectedly on a decorative tray in bed is a pleasant surprise for a morning celebration. While freshly cooked eggs or pancakes are always a treat, a unique breakfast entrée that is easily prepared (and actually quite healthful) is a favorite of mine - an adaptation of Bircher Muesli: a wonderful blend of 1 cup uncooked quick-cooking oats, 1/2 cup orange juice, 4 ounces plain yogurt, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 chopped apple, 1 sliced banana, 1/2 cup sliced strawberries, 2 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds and 2 tablespoons maple syrup. It is essentially a great variation on a yogurt parfait.
2. A Lunch Date
If schedules and geographical proximity permit, plan a “luv u lunch,” a special rendezvous to share a homemade treat at an inimitable location. A brown bag lunch date with the one you love. Prepare something simple, yet exceptional, like roast beef or smoked turkey on rosemary ciabatta with gourmet chips, fresh fruit and a surprise chocolate delicacy. Include unique taste treats; perhaps something memorable from past dining experiences. Use this time to reflect, reminisce and create new memories.
3. An Elegant Dinner at Home
How can preparing an elegant dinner at home be stress-free? Keep it simple. Fresh foods do not require a lot of preparation to be served as an elegant meal. A surf-and-turf menu may seem complicated and too much to handle at home, however, with freshly purchased seafood and a small selection of prime meat, seasoned lightly and prepared using simple cooking methods, dinner is ready to serve in no time. I like to grill or broil beef filet medallions and grill or poach lobster tails. Another nice seafood option is simply prepared bacon-wrapped scallops: wrap a slice of bacon around each sea scallop, secure with toothpicks and broil on a baking sheet for 10 minutes (turning once at the 5-minute mark) until bacon is crispy and scallops are cooked through. A few steamed fresh vegetables, a crusty loaf of French bread and a few nibbles of a favorite chocolate dessert complete the elegant dinner at home lovingly.
4. Dinner and a Show
Maybe an event is planned to celebrate with your sweetheart. Whether it’s the theatre or a movie, a concert or a sporting event, a simple connection between the theme (or story location) of the show and your planned dinner will make the occasion one to remember. If the movie takes place in New Orleans, plan a Cajun/Creole meal. If the concert is an oldies music revue, plan an old-fashioned malted milk and burger meal. Coordinate the evening theme and the date will be all the more memorable.
5. Cooking For Two
The entire idea of a Valentine’s Day date is sharing a special occasion with a special person. Getting there is half the fun. What if the preparation leading to the shared meal is part of the celebration? Make dinner together! A shared kitchen adventure can be very romantic and quite often, yield unexpected results. Spaghetti and meatballs is a great dinner option - making pasta from scratch and forming meatballs are kitchen prep activities that are best when shared with loved ones. Hopefully a very delicious outcome is preferred and achieved, but nevertheless, the memories created are worth the effort. If this seems stressful, then try a more structured and guided direction - consider enrolling in a couples cooking class and let the pros handle the stress while you enjoy an entertaining and relaxing cooking adventure with your loved one.
6. Heart-Shaped Foods
While this might seem cliché, obvious or even corny, it will always be noticed and most certainly appreciated. Cutting, molding or arranging foods into heart shapes for serving presentation can be applied to nearly anything edible. The creativity of your imagination is your only limit. For those lacking in that capacity, there are a multitude of gadgets available to assist the artistic-impaired. From heart-shaped cooking utensils (such as baking pans, pancake forms and muffin tins) to heart-themed table service ware (such as dishes, napkin rings and placemats), one can create a very special meal overwhelmed with love-inspired cupid hearts!
7. Cookie Bouquets
With Valentine’s Day being the busiest day of the year for florists, flowers of course are the popular choice for loved ones. However, as a cook, my bouquet of choice has to be made with cookies! This was all the rage quite a few years ago, but a cookie bouquet still gets quite the attention when delivered by a local favorite bakery. While placing an order to let the professional bakers handle the artistic details seems the quick and easy route, it is worth noting that a cookie bouquet is really not any more difficult than making sugar cookies at home. If you are a cookie baker, then this option only requires wooden skewers placed in [heart-shaped] cookies before baking. Decorate as usual and arrange in a large glass or decorative vase to surprise your cookie-loving loved one!
8. Delectable Desserts
You can’t go wrong with a favorite mouth-watering dessert on Valentine’s Day. Maybe the entire focus is on a delectable dessert to let that special someone know how sweet they are! Although chocolate is synonymous with Valentine’s Day, there are plenty of sweet options without chocolate that say “I love you” when lovingly prepared and shared. Bananas Foster, ignited at the table is an unforgettable treat (just don’t set off the smoke alarms - that too, however, would be unforgettable!). Or for another banana idea, a Banana Split for two, topped with strawberries and hot fudge (well, couldn’t stay away from chocolate for long!) is a romantic joy requiring two spoons but only one large dish! For an elegant, delicious and delightful dessert that is slightly less sinful, try my Pavlova with Cocoa-Cream Filling and Raspberry-Mango-Passion Fruit Sauce (see recipe). Pavlova, named after famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, is a popular meringue dessert from the Land Down Under and is very light and delicate. Traditionally, a pavlova is topped with whipped cream and fruit. This version, inspired by Australian chef Jean-Paul Bruneteau's “rolled wattleseed pavlova,” is rolled like a jelly roll and filled with a cocoa whipped cream, served with a luscious raspberry and tropical mango-passion fruit sauce and garnished with fresh raspberries and strawberries to treat a sweetheart on St. Valentine’s Day.
9. From Cocoa to Kisses
Like flowers, the ubiquitous pleasure for Valentine’s Day is undoubtedly chocolate. The only time you’ll go wrong with this option is when your loved one cannot or does not eat chocolate (sinful!). For all others, satisfaction is merely a truffle away! From hot cocoa with marshmallows and liqueur, to chocolate kisses in a candy jar, you’ll find chocolate options awaiting at every turn. For traditional tastes, chocolate-dipped strawberries are simply scrumptious and a box of chocolates is the gift that keeps giving - at least for a few days hopefully! For a creative twist, celebrate with a molten chocolate cake on this memorable occasion.
10. When All Else Fails!
Reservations. If cooking is basically not your thing. Or your schedule simply will not permit time to prepare. Don’t forget to make reservations! Even as a cook, I have no problem enjoying a meal that someone else has prepared. It is often a welcome relief from my busy schedule and is very much appreciated. While I would like to see others sharing cooking adventures and enjoying great food made at home, I can understand that a stress-free meal on Valentine’s Day might be best suited at your favorite restaurant. Just don’t forget to plan in advance so your table is not taken, since many people resort to this idea on this special day of the year.
While Thanksgiving can take the prize for most celebrated food day of the year, St. Valentine’s Day is not far behind. A delicious dinner (or breakfast, lunch or dessert!) is almost always the celebration of choice with a loved one on Valentine’s Day. Wake up to breakfast in bed and a cookie bouquet, meet for a gourmet sack lunch and a box of chocolates, cook an elegant heart-shaped dinner together before a show or make reservations for a delectable dessert. Incorporate any of these ideas into your plan this year and enjoy a delicious time spent with your sweetheart.
Pavlova with Cocoa-Cream Filling and Raspberry-Mango-Passion Fruit Sauce
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup sugar
6 egg whites
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided use
2 cups frozen raspberries
1 cup mango-passion fruit nectar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
Sprigs of fresh mint
For the topping: Place almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar in a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until crumbly in texture, about 15 seconds; reserve.
For the meringue: Preheat oven to 300°F. Line a nonstick (or shiny) jelly roll pan with parchment paper; reserve. Using an electric stand or hand mixer, beat egg whites until foamy, about 30 seconds. Add vinegar and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add half of the sugar gradually until stiff peaks form, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add remaining sugar all at once and beat for 30 seconds. Using a spatula, spread egg whites evenly in the prepared jelly roll pan. Sprinkle reserved nut topping over the whites and bake for 20 minutes. Using a knife, loosen the sides of the baked meringue and turn it out onto a large piece of foil. Peel off the parchment paper and allow meringue to cool for 15 to 20 minutes.
For the sauce: Purée the raspberries in a food processor fitted with the metal blade, about 30 seconds. Using a rubber spatula, press the purée through a fine-mesh sieve (catching the liquid in a bowl, and discarding the strained seeds). Whisk together the nectar and cornstarch in a medium saucepan. Add the strained raspberry purée and bring to a boil on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture has thickened, about 3 to 4 minutes; reserve.
For the filling: Using an electric stand or hand mixer, beat whipping cream on medium-high speed until stiff, about 4 to 6 minutes. Add cocoa powder and powdered sugar and beat for 30 seconds. Spread cocoa-cream filling evenly over exposed surface of the meringue. Roll the “pav” jelly roll-style into a large pavlova log, and using a sharp knife, cut the pav crosswise into 8 serving slices.
To complete the dessert: Spoon 1/4 cup of the raspberry-mango-passion fruit sauce onto a serving plate, top with a slice of pavlova, and garnish with fresh fruit (raspberries, strawberries) and fresh mint sprigs. Repeat with remaining sauce, pavlova and garnishes for up to eight servings.