By Joe Dizney
“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”~ Charles M. Schulz
St. Valentine’s Day was first associated with romantic love in the High Middle Ages, particularly in the time of Chaucer, a very sensual and romantic man. It was ostensibly a celebration of the third-century Roman saint and martyr Valentinius, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that the numerous and confusing hagiographies gelled into the Hallmark event we know today signaled by the appearance of various red heart symbols, prepackaged sentimentalities and flowers.
And of course, sweets. And when we talk of lover’s sweets, the conversation usually comes around to chocolate.
In addition to being a premier comfort food, chocolate, the roasted, ground and processed seed or bean of the cacao plant, is yet another instance of a native Mesoamerican foodstuff whose universal popularity can be directly attributed to the Columbian exchange of foodstuffs between the old and new worlds.
Cultivating cacao for over three millennia, the Mayans considered it a commodity and actually used it as currency in addition to preparing and consuming the sacramental “divine beverage,” xocolatl, as homage to the god of wisdom and life, Quetzalcoatl, an honor and luxury afforded the privileged few.
It was also believed to give the drinker numerous “strengths,” in particular purported aphrodisiac powers. The 16th-century Aztec emperor Montezuma reportedly consumed endless amounts as a precursor to romantic rendezvous.
While the overall sweetening and refinement of chocolate, as it came to be known in the Old World, reached a high point in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, its lusty reputation never really left it. It is rumored that the 18th-century Italian womanizer Casanova had a predilection for dark chocolate as a pre-assignation libido booster. And more chocolate may be consumed at Easter or on Halloween, but the romantic semiotics of its consumption center solidly on Valentine’s Day — think red, heart-shaped boxes.
There’s also been considerable if questionable scientific research done regarding the connection between love and chocolate. In the ’80s, researchers claimed to have solved the mystery of that connection, suggesting a chemical basis: The presence of PEA (phenyl ethylamine), a central nervous system stimulant thought to arouse emotions and feelings of euphoria, was detected in chocolate.
Columbia psychiatrist Michael Liebowitz’s 1983 book The Chemistry of Love sparked a media flurry for its suggested “chocolate theory of love,” which was discounted as somewhat of an exaggeration. As late as 2006, a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine was exploring whether women who ate chocolate had higher libidos than those who abstained. (From chocolate, that is. This too was later discounted for other mitigating factors.)
So I suppose what we’re left with is fantasy, which when you get right down to it, is smack dab in the middle of the province of love and romance. For this Valentine’s Day edition of “Small, Good Things,” I offer you a purely sensual trifle, a creamy smooth pot de crème of chocolate and flowers for your Valentine of choice.
I’ve used white chocolate, not actually chocolate in the strictest sense of the word, being an absolute refinement of the cocoa-making process; it contains cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids and none of the distinctive dark-colored solids. (As most marketed white chocolate is already sweetened, no additional sugar is added. If you were to make this recipe with dark or semisweet chocolate, which is absolutely possible and encouraged, the addition of 2 tablespoons to ¼ cup sugar is suggested.)
The floral seasonings also have reputed-if-questionable aphrodisiac properties. The first, vanilla, the fruit or cured seed pod of orchids of the genus Vanilla, is actually named for a perceived resemblance to female genitalia and, like chocolate, was a component of the Aztec aphrodisiac larder.
And how romantic is this? The bloom of the vanilla orchid lasts for just one day and modern cultivation is achieved only by hand. It is universally the most common flavoring addition to chocolate and is the second most expensive spice (after saffron, also the product of a flower).
Lavender is of course known for its scent and for that alone is worth inclusion. A particularly French provincial culinary seasoning when used judiciously, it has also had a centuries-old reputation as the “herb of love” and was used in ancient times as an herbal additive to promote relaxation and fidelity to the object of one’s affection.
(Again, in the world of debatable scientific research, a study at Chicago’s Smell and Taste Research Center led by Alan Hirsch, testing the effects of 24 different odors, found that the scent of lavender was instrumental in increasing the flow of blood to a specific member of the male anatomy. The effect was even more pronounced when combined with the smell of pumpkin pie, but I’m not really sure where that leaves us.)
Then again lavender, like chocolate, vanilla, flowers and valentine’s cards, may just be a placebo, designed merely to calm or please someone, and isn’t that really what you’re trying to do here?
White Chocolate-Lavender Pots de Crème
Makes four 4-ounce servings
3 large egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
½ vanilla bean pod, split and scraped
2 tablespoons dried lavender, roughly crushed
1 cup coarsely chopped white chocolate
¼ cup hot milk
(Optional: Whipped cream, or sugar for brûlée)
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the cream, the vanilla pod and seeds and the lavender; bring to a low simmer for 10 minutes. (Do not let it boil.) Strain to remove lavender and vanilla pods.
Return the cream mixture briefly to heat to rewarm. Slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the eggs, whisking to temper and combine. Fold in the chocolate pieces and continue whisking until smooth and completely incorporated. Add hot milk and salt. Pour the mixture into four 4-ounce ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Serve chilled.
Optional finishing: A dollop of whipped cream is an easy but unnecessary finish. Better: Dust each ramekin with ½ tablespoon of granulated sugar and brûlée (brown) with a small culinary torch or by running the ramekins under a hot broiler for a couple of minutes until the sugar begins to bubble and caramelize.