Champagne and Chocolate: A Valentine's Love Story
When I was growing up, Christmas did not come to our house until February. There was such emphasis on decorated trees and presents in December that the holiday felt more like an obligation than a celebration. It also underscored what we did not have.
But February was different. In February, I felt a special love for my mom, my dad and my little sister. I felt a special love for chocolates. I felt we had it all.
I waited for Feb. 14 the way other kids did for the December holidays. My dad, the big romantic, loved to give his girls sweets on Valentine's Day. He would bring home Whitman's, Russell Stover, Godiva, Lindt or whatever brand he could find encased in a heart-shaped box.
My mom, whom he affectionately calls "Bubbles," got a candy-filled, red cardboard heart the size of my little sister. Dad gave his two daughters smaller heart-shaped boxes, Sweeties candies and Valentine cards. We gave him lots of kisses.
With barbarian skill, we ripped open our heart boxes. We found sweet and slippery cherry cordials, creamy nougats and pralines. Some chocolates revealed French vanilla creams, decadent coconut and slick licorice. I especially loved the pure chocolate truffle — the bitter shell that broke into a deeper bitter middle.
Then there were centers that we thought were a terrible mistake made at the chocolate factory. They tasted like swill: a mixture of gummy bears and potted plant soil. We soldiered on and our expressions changed from yuck to yum again.
Valentine's Day was a huge treat for my sister and me since we lived with a mother who banned sugary cereals and junk food from our home. On this day, however, we'd be hyper and happy as we drank sparkling cider while my parents shared champagne.
Sitting at the kitchen table with my family, eating our chocolates, watching each others' faces, talking about our day and sharing our Valentine's cards, I felt blessed to be part of a family.
The last Valentine's Day with my family I remember clearly was when I was in the seventh grade. All day at school, I watched my friends carry around the balloons and flowers their boyfriends had given them. I walked home feeling unlucky and unpopular.
When I got home, my dad greeted me with the biggest heart-shaped box of chocolates I had ever seen. He gave me a hug, a kiss and a Valentine's card, and I remember the feeling of his beard tickling my face.
He had just gotten a job at a camera-manufacturing plant. He came home that Valentine's Day wearing his blue lab coat with his goggles on his head. I looked at my dad, all 6 feet 8 inches of him, and I thought he was the best Santa Claus ever.
My family had always struggled to make ends meet, and there were times when there were no chocolate Valentine's hearts. On those days, Mom would bake brownies from a 99-cent mix, and we would still enjoy our chocolate and our time together.
These family Valentine's Days continue to resonate through my adult life. While I was trained in advertising and graphic design, last May I exchanged pixels for pastries and began baking in earnest. I am now a full-time baker, at the oven from midnight to noon. I'm an old-school baker, and do my work early so people have fresh-basked goods when they wake up.
I was alone on Valentine's Day last year, and looked to my kitchen for solace. I noticed an unopened and dusty bottle of champagne in my cupboard. It sat beside a big hunk of Valrhona chocolate. In my refrigerator I found a sack of cold flour and a few rectangles of butter. Without family and friends around, I thought I'd at least evoke the spirit of Valentine's Day. I knew that in February, chocolate and champagne are perfect partners.
Eventually, I pulled from my tiny oven a rich, truffle-like brownie that I call Champagne Chocolate. If you need a little something more, I'd suggest Bittersweet Chocolate Cake.
During my long nights of baking with the oven going full blast, I often think of those special Valentine's Days with my family, when I learned the joy of sharing chocolate.
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