February may be short compared to all the other months, but it’s certainly not short on days of importance. One day just for a furry animal to tell us we’re no way finished with winter, followed by two presidential birthdays, a day devoted to nothing but thoughts of love, Steve Jobs’ birthday (when did his birthday start making the calendar, I wonder), and assorted other notable February happenings.
If you’re reading this before the 19th, for example, be sure to buy yourself a box of Cracker Jacks to munch on that day, because that’s when the very first prize appeared in those iconic boxes. All of my “kid” years, I loved not only the sugary, caramel-coated popped corn, but eagerly waited to see what prize I’d find inside, always hoping for a ring. I’m not sure what eventually became of the shoebox full of Cracker Jack prizes I accumulated, but I suspect Mom disposed of my collection when I left for college. And yes, I still buy myself a box of Cracker Jacks now and then; no, I don’t keep the prize (unless it’s a ring).
As for the birthdays, we’ve lumped Washington’s and Lincoln’s together now, celebrating them both on President’s Day, but there are numerous other February birthdays of note to acknowledge. How about a Gypsy Rose Lee birthday celebration (I can imagine lots of fun costume ideas for that one); and consider turning on all those new-fangled light bulbs you’re forced to use now in honor of Thomas Edison’s birth 167 years ago. Personally, on Feb. 26, Johnny Cash’s 82nd birthday, I’m going to play all of my Johnny Cash records and CDs, one after another, all day long and into the night. I did love that Man in Black; still do.
As I said in the beginning of this February ramble, there’s not a day this month that doesn’t have some event to commemorate. John Glenn orbiting the earth as we watched, glued to our TV sets; the official birth of the Boy Scouts; and now the entire month devoted to African-American History and Women’s Cancer Awareness. And, by the way, the last day of February marks the official recognition, in 1854, of an upstart new political party. The Republican Party.
Celebrate, or not? I’m not touching that one with a stick.
There are many kinds of love — parental love, puppy love, true love, lost love, everlasting love, long-distance love, teenage love, etc. etc. — and if you’re reading this before Valentine’s Day, you may be planning some sort of celebration of and for your love. For me, this always means coming up with a special meal to show my love how much I care. If Valentine’s Day has already come and gone, so what; a special meal to show you care is welcome any day of the year, right? Here are a couple of my celebration favorites.
I fell in love with this first simple but outstanding treat during travels in Italy, where it is very popular but never exactly the same from one place to another. You can come up with your own variations, as well.
ITALIAN JAM TART
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
¼ t. grated lemon zest (or ¼ t. vanilla)
1 ½ cups flour
Pinch of salt
1 to 1 ¼ cups fruit jam (berry, apricot, cherry; this is where you get creative and if you make your own homemade jam, use whatever your love likes; fig preserves is big in our house)
1. In a large bowl, use an electric mixer with the whisk attachment to beat the butter and sugar together until the mixture is very light in color. Add the lemon zest or vanilla and blend well.
2. In a med. bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add this to the butter mixture and mix by hand just until the dough is thoroughly combined (if it seems too stiff, add a bit of water). Take a scant ½ cup of the dough and pat it out onto a plate and put it in the freezer. (See note below re the more traditional method of assembling the tart.)
3. Press remaining dough evenly into and up the sides of a nine-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. If the dough seems too soft, put it in the refrigerator for a few minutes before pressing into the pan. Refrigerate the tart crust for 15 min.
4. After chilling the crust, remove from ’frig and spread the jam filling you’ve chosen evenly in the crust, starting at the center and working out. The jam should be thinly spread and it shouldn’t look like a pie filling. Remove the reserved dough from the freezer and crumble it into small pieces over the jam.
5. Bake the tart in a preheated 350 degree oven (on rack in center of oven) for 25-30 min., or until topping is golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool on a rack, then remove tart from sides of pan. Cut into wedges to serve, with or without whipped cream or a small dollop of creme fraiche.
Note: In Italy, this tart is traditionally made with a lattice top; divide the dough into two balls, one slightly larger than the other. Refrigerate the balls about a half hour, then roll the larger ball out to make pastry crust in tart pan. Follow directions as above but use other ball, rolled out, to cut out lattice strips to place over the jam filling, lightly brushing the strips with a bit of cream before baking as above instructions.
In my house, love and chocolate go hand in hand. I’ve eaten many versions of Chocolate Decadence over the years; this is one of the best.
1 lb. dark chocolate (70 percent, more if you like; sweet or bittersweet but not unsweetened)
1 ¼ sticks unsalted butter (no substitutes, please)
1 T. sugar
1 T. sifted flour
2 cups whipping cream
1 T. powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla
Chocolate curls, for garnish
8 oz. fresh or frozen raspberries, pureed and strained
1. Cut out a circle of parchment paper to fit an 8-inch round cake pan. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine chocolate and butter in top of a double boiler; set over gently simmering water and stir until melted and smooth. Remove from heat, transfer to a bowl and set aside. Wipe out the top of the double boiler.
2. Combine eggs and sugar in top of double boiler and set over gently simmering water. Whisk constantly until sugar is dissolved and mixture darkens and is barely warm to the touch. Remove from heat; beat on high with electric mixer until eggs have tripled in volume and are the consistency of lightly whipped cream (5-10 min.). Gently fold in flour. Carefully stir 1/3 of the egg mixture into the chocolate to loosen, then fold chocolate into remaining eggs until thoroughly combined.
3. Turn batter into prepared pan and bake until the cake is soft in the center but crusty on top, about 15 min. Let cool completely in pan, then freeze the cake overnight. (It can be kept in the freezer for up to a month.)
4. About an hour before serving, whip the cream with powdered sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. Invert cake onto a serving plate (if it doesn’t want to come out, spin it over heat on the stove top briefly to loosen it). Spread 2/3 of the whipped cream over the top, mound chocolate curls in center and pipe rosettes of remaining whipped cream around edge of cake. Refrigerate until about 15 min. before serving; serve with raspberry puree on the side to be added as desired. Serves 8-10.