Let it be proposed that Valentine’s Day is the most unnecessary and overblown of holidays. A day dedicated to the celebration of romantic love seems about as necessary to me as a holiday honoring English-speaking communities or Protestantism – aren’t most days already dominated by these things and their looming cultural reach? As if it didn’t suck enough to be a single adult in America the other 364 days a year, there has to be one oh-so-special day in the darkest part of winter when a huge swath of the human population is reminded of what pathetic losers they are. And those of us who are fortunate enough to be in happy, committed relationships (such as yours truly) are badgered into believing that cheesy jewelry and heart-shaped tchochkes are the only legitimate ways to validate our commitment to each other.
Valentine’s Day was a lot more fun in grade school, back when boys and girls considered each other gross and inscrutable. My tiny grade school had a deeply egalitarian ethos; every kid in a class exchanged a valentine with every other kid, so everyone gave and got the same number of valentines. The highlight of the holiday, back then, was the opportunity to eat sugar cookies with red sprinkles on them, collect those little candy hearts to see how many different messages you could get, and of course, eat lots of chocolate. It was also the only time of the year when the school’s art teacher let us use pink and red together. The rest of the time, she said they clashed.
In short, it was a celebration of cordiality (albeit enforced cordiality – little kids do have to be taught to be nice to each other), friendship, and food – with just enough decadence to make it memorable.
In the spirit of THAT Valentine’s Day, which I vastly prefer to the pressure-driven adult version, I’m serving for dessert this year a simple chocolate-y treat that makes enough to share with several good friends, along with that special somebody in your life (should there be such a person). It’s a riff on a Valentine’s Day chocolate shortbread recipe presented recently in the New York Times: while the original recipe featured a chocolate shortbread base topped with layers of cherry jam and chocolate ganache flavored with rum, my version switches out the jam and rum for something with an even greater aphrodisiac (and conversation-starting) effect: a hot jelly made from datil chiles, a Florida specialty.
Datils, grown commercially in the U.S. only in the area around St. Augustine, Florida, have a distinct pineapple-passionfruit-like aroma and serious chile punch that marries well with chocolate. (Any other hot, fruity jelly would produce a similar vibe.) The combination of chocolate and chiles is traditional in Mexico – indeed, some of the earliest recorded versions of chocolate drinks drunk by indigenous people there were flavored with chiles – and it’s a combination that works. And unlike those cloying supermarket chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, this chocolate treat actually tastes interesting – and is a suitable accompaniment to either a steamy relationship or a heated political debate with friends.
And this brings me to another pet peeve about Valentine’s Day: every relationship is unique, so why are we always pressured into commemorating these special bonds with the same mass-market crap as everyone else? This guy I dated, before I met my husband, used to bring me big bouquets of roses fairly frequently. “Guys get girls flowers because we can’t think of anything else,” he told me on several occasions. Wow, how romantic.
But once, he actually did come through with something personal and thoughtful, and ironically, it was the evening when we finally broke up. He was a good guy – honest and well-intentioned – but we were wrong for each other in every respect: different tastes, values, politics, and goals in life. We finally realized that we liked the idea of being together more than we actually liked each other.
The week before our breakup, I had accidently left the lights on in my car when I parked it at work, and when the workday ended, I found my battery was dead. A quick call to AAA solved the problem, but my then-boyfriend was surprised that I didn’t have a set of jumper cables in my trunk. “You could have been back on the road a lot faster if you’d just gotten a jump from someone else in the office,” he told me.
But on our last evening together, we stood, still shell-shocked at our decision, in the parking lot of his condo complex. He gave me a long hug, then ran to his car. “Wait—I have something for you,” he yelled from across the parking lot. He opened his trunk and ran back with a set of jumper cables—the ones he always kept in his trunk.
“I want you to stay safe – always,” he said, thrusting them into my hands. “I wish I could love you forever.”
And this is the story of the most romantic (pre-engagement ring) gift I ever got: a set of used jumper cables. And this is also why most Valentine’s Day propaganda makes me want to hit someone: because I understand what the spirit of love really is – and you can’t find it in a pre-printed card.
TORRID CHOCOLATE GANACHE SQUARES
This recipe is such a close adaptation from the original New York Times recipe that I’ll just provide a link to the original plus instructions for my little hack:
Bake the chocolate shortbread base as instructed in the original recipe. Replace the cherry jam with datil jelly (if you can find it) or other hot pepper jelly, preferably from a fruity chile such as a habanero. Likewise, instead of mixing two tablespoons of rum or other liquor into the finished ganache, melt two tablespoons of the datil (or other hot pepper) jelly into the cream while you’re heating it to make the ganache. Mix the heated cream with the chocolate as instructed in the recipe. Pour the ganache over the baked shortbread base, then garnish and chill as directed in the original recipe. (If you're sharing this with kids or hard-core V-Day traditionalists, top the ganache with red sugar instead of fleur de sel.)