THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
Nothing says Valentine’s Day quite like chocolate; lovely, elegant handmade chocolates wrapped in shiny gold foil, snuggled up together and smartly tucked in a box all tied up with ribbon. Or decadent rivers of dark sauces and creams smothering something so special, so ooey, gooey, luscious as a single portion of cake, mousse or torte, something that sends shivers down our spine. Or is it a fragrant bouquet of roses that speaks louder than words? Plump, velvety red for passion, delicate yellow for constancy and friendship, orange for burning desire… placed in the open arms of the one we love, roses symbolize what Valentine’s Day is all about. Or, hmmmm…. could it be jewels, brilliant, glittering gems, a circle of diamonds or a deep red ruby, the color of our heart, that one dazzling, never-ending band slipped onto a finger or pendant clasped around the neck like a warm embrace binding us forever to that special someone. Candlelight and surprise, warmth and tenderness expressed in the most personal way possible.
Nothing says Valentine’s Day like ranting and raving, furrowed brows and “I warned you a long time ago how I felt about this faux holiday!” sneers. Astonishment and dismay at all the gaudy baubles and cheesy cards, cheap red velvet boxes and clichéd decorations, each more over the top than the next, stuffed into shop windows, the more the merrier simply to sell just another corny, vapid celebration. Obligations, anticipation, withering looks if desires and expectations are not met with enthusiasm, doubt and disappointment if flowers are not delivered, tiny, sentimental gewgaws not slipped across candlelit tablecloths, if our perfect, romantic notions are met with indifference and disgruntled sidelong glances and snide comments.
But I’m an old romantic at heart and that lovely no-man’s land between my birthday and Valentine’s Day is filled with hope, hints and baking. Almost anything goes, from treating myself to one more, teeny tiny, self-indulgent gift to creating cookies, cakes and puddings in feminine heart shapes, dotted and dusted with shimmering pink and red sprinkles. As the only girl in the house – yes, female, woman, there are more politically correct and accurate designations depending upon the topic discussed – but when it comes to birthdays and Valentine’s Day I am still a giggly, whimsical, hope-filled, dreamy, wide-eyed girly girl… so as the only girl in the house I have the undisputed right to pull out all the stops (well, within reason), the pink and the pearly, the shimmery and the frou-frou. I ignore the rolled eyes and smirks, the snorts of derision and the turned backs and I just carry on my merry way towards Valentine’s Day. Nothing is ever acknowledged nor is anything promised. Au contraire! They swear up and down year in and year out that Valentine’s Day is just a bunch of hogwash, a load of hooey, a hackneyed, silly, expensive just another day that deserves no more attention in this house than does Halloween.
But don’t I know them better than that? They know I have a weakness for love and romance and Valentine’s Day has just always been another chance for them to circle me with whimsy and enchantment and shower me with attention. And really anything will do. From those long ago days of my ugly duckling youth when every St. Valentine’s would slip by unrequited, and the shoebox decorated with care and emotion placed squarely on the corner of my grade school desk remained empty of vows of undying, undeclared love and my dreams sadly unfulfilled, veritably dashed to the ground, my need has grown each and every year, my expectations increase enthusiastically with each dinner, bouquet of flowers or jewel I receive against all odds. Each year they assure me that I can forget all about any special gallantry, no consideration would push them to treat the 14th any way other than as just another day. But I know better than that…
And so I tiptoe ahead through forbidden territory, these two weeks sandwiched between my birthday and St. Valentine’s Day. And hearts are the theme once, twice, over and over again. Call me corny, saccharine or just plain cheesy, I don’t care… hearts come pouring out every February. Cookies this week as we hunker down and snuggle up against the cold. Winter has settled in much to my delight, a fine layer of snow covers the ground slowly turning to slush and I wait for a second round of flurries tonight to set things right: a beautiful romantic white glimmering in the black of night. An evening en famille watching an old black & white comedy or a Hitchcock thriller, and a platter of freshly baked buttery sugar cookies enjoyed with the evening’s final glass of wine will suit me just fine.
My first Valentine recipe is heart-shaped cookies edged in pink and red. I mean, how much more romantic can one get than this? And bonus: they are absolutely divine: buttery, tender, full of flavor, not too sweet (just sweet enough, like the ideal sweetheart), the cherry-scented sugar crystals, rose petal nibs and colored sprinkles adding a wonderful crunch and a beautiful dazzle. Wrap them in ribbon and offer them to the one you love.
BUTTERY SUGAR COOKIES
Always tender, never crumbly or dry and less cloyingly sweet than other butter cookie recipes.
2 sticks (1/2 lb, 225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
2 large eggs
1 Tbs Amaretto, optional
½ tsp vanilla – increase to 1 tsp if omitting the Amaretto
3 ½ cups (525 g) flour
1 lightly beaten egg
Colored sugar crystals, sprinkles/jimmies or sugared flower petal nibs
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter and the sugar until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition just to incorporate.
Beat in the Amaretto and vanilla and then about a third of the flour until smooth. Gradually beat in as much of the remaining flour as possible using the electric beater, then stir in the rest with a wooden spoon or a spatula.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead quickly; if you haven’t stirred in all of the flour you can knead in the rest quite easily. Once you have a smooth, homogeneous dough, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Working with about half the dough at a time, roll it out to a thickness of not less than 1/8-inch (no less than .3 cm), being careful that the dough is very evenly rolled out. Carefully cut out shapes with your cookie cutters. Gently transfer to a cookie sheet (I use unlined, ungreased cookie sheets with no problem at all). If you want to decorate, just gently lift the cookies one by one, brush around the edges with a beaten egg, then dip in the decorative sugar before placing on the cookie sheets.
Bake for about 10 minutes. They will be set and appear cooked but they will NOT brown. You’ll know they are done because they will slide right off the cookie sheet when just nudged with a spatula. Remove from the oven and gently lift each cookie off of the baking sheet and place on a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before enjoying.