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Happy Valentine’s Day!

Rich chocolate treats (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

It’s time for … sweet chocolate indulgence! On Valentine’s Day, we all love chocolate! Whether you’re cooking at home or going out on a special date, a kid in school or an office employee, chocolate will probably be part of your day.

Yes, Valentines is a romantic holiday for lovers. But it has become much more. We wish happy Valentine’s Day to our friends, relatives, co-workers. Schoolchildren exchange cards, candy and cupcakes at classroom parties. Many adults share Valentine chocolates in their places of employment. We celebrate love for everyone.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there have been at least three saints named Valentine: a Roman priest, a bishop of the Italian region Terni, and an African martyr, all of them quite obscure. The most famous of these, to whom legend ascribes much valentine lore, was a priest who lived during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. According to the legend, the Emperor outlawed marriage in order to recruit more soldiers for his army, because he felt single men made better fighters. Valentine performed secret marriage ceremonies in defiance of the law; for this terrible crime, he was executed on February 14th, 269 AD. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius I made it an official Saint’s Day.

Feb. 14 first began to be associated with romantic love during the Middle Ages, when lovers began to exchange notes on Valentine’s Day. But it was retailers in the second half of the twentieth century who turned this day into a commercial bonanza. Today, more than one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making it the second-largest holiday for the greeting card industry after Christmas. It is the number one selling occasion for florists, and competes with Easter and Halloween for candy sales. More than 35 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate candy are sold each year in preparation for Valentine’s Day.

It was not until 1847 that the British firm S. Fry & Sons blended sugar, cocoa powder and melted cocoa butter to produce the velvet smooth chocolate candy bar we’re familiar with today. Until then, chocolate was drunk rather than eaten. The first heart-shaped box of chocolates appeared just 14 years later, in 1861. It was the idea of Richard Cadbury, and by 1868, Cadbury’s was mass-marketing chocolate candy. The first milk chocolate was invented by Daniel Peter in 1875 in Switzerland. It wasn’t until 100 years later that chocolate hearts wrapped in bright red foil and small, heart shaped boxes of chocolate candy became common Valentine’s Day gifts.

Chocolate is the original “feel good food.” The complex substance contains over 300 naturally-occurring ccompounds, many of which we’re only beginning to understand. For example, phenylethylamine stimulates the brains pleasure centers, and tryptophan elevates serotonin, creating feelings of elation and ecstasy. Although these chemicals are only present in small amounts, they stimulate the release of endorphins, natural hormones that affect the brain’s neurotransmitters and generate feelings of pleasure.

Chocolate not only makes you feel good, but is good for you. Researchers claim the delicacy discovered by Aztecs which has become a favorite of millions around the globe is as healthy as it is tasty. It contains flavonoids, natural antioxidants that help reduce the risk of blood clots, heart disease, and some cancers. Chocolate also contains essential minerals like magnesium and copper, a mineral many Americans are deficient in. Although chocolate is high in saturated fat, the main fat found in chocolate is stearic acid, which does not raise blood cholesterol levels the way many other saturated fats do.

The problem with chocolate is that it is naturally bitter, so it is mixed with sugar. When European explorers brought cacao beans across the ocean in the 17th century, Europeans combined them with sweet flavorings instead of hot spices, as the Aztecs did. The high fat and high sugar content of chocolate candy makes it a calorie-dense treat that can contribute to obesity.

To pamper yourself, your sweetheart, or just friends and family this Valentine’s Day, prepare home-made chocolate creaations. Delightful chocolate desserts include brownies, cookies, fudge and cake as well as pudding, mousse and fondue.

Midnight cranberry-almond bark

A fancy confection that is easy to make, chocolate bark is a flat, thin sheet of chocolate. You can use any kind of chocolate (dark, milk, or white) or marble dark and white chocolate. Nuts, dried fruits, even pieces of cookies, chips or pretzels can be added, so the variety of what you can come up with is endless. For best results, it is important to use high quality chocolate in chips or squares.

Ingredients:

12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1 cup slivered almonds

Directions:

Line a large cookie sheet or tray that has edges with wax paper or foil (shiny side up).

Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler over simmering or steaming water. Chocolate needs to melt gradually, over low and indirect heat, while being continually stirred. If the heat is too high, the cocoa butter will separate. If too low, it won’t melt. When fully melted, it should be slightly thicker than maple syrup. Make sure all the utensils are at room temperature, clean and dry. Moisture can make the chocolate grainy.

Stir in cranberries and almonds. Spread the mixture evenly on a lined cookie sheet. Refrigerate until firm. Break into pieces.

Rich chocolate treats

An ideal Valentine’s treat, these chewy, gluten and wheat free chocolate cookies will fill your home with an intense chocolate aroma when you bake them.

Yield: 20 to 24 2-inch cookies (or more smaller cookies)

Ingredients:

3 cups walnut pieces

1 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 large egg whites, at room temperature

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast walnuts on a large rimmed baking sheet until fragrant, about 7 minutes.

While walnuts are toasting, combine the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder and salt in the food processor with the steel blade. You can also do this in a large bowl but a food processor is easier. Use 2 bowls to separate the eggs (reserve the egg yolks for scrambled eggs or another use). Add the vanilla to the egg whites and beat lightly.

Remove walnuts from the oven, and cool slightly. Lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

When walnuts have cooled slightly, remove one-half to 1 cup and set aside. Add the rest to the food processor with the cocoa and sugar. Process slightly to chop. Then add the egg whites and process just until batter is moistened (be careful not to over beat or it will be stiff).

Chop the reserved walnuts coarsely by hand, and stir into the batter. Place dough by teaspoonfuls onto the parchment covered baking sheets. Bake approximately 15 minutes until the tops are glossy.

You can store these in an airtight container for 3 or 4 days (if you don’t eat them all sooner). They’re similar to brownies.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as Author

Yvona Fast.