Cream-filled chocolates on Valentine’s Day seemed like the right thing to celebrate today. Nothing says love like the taste of sweet chocolate with a creamy surprise inside, at least that’s what Hallmark wants us to believe (and a sparkly card too). I’m not a huge Valentine’s Day guy. I never go overboard, but I do like to something nice for Lola to mark the day. Something that will at least say I didn’t forget about her. Flowers are always nice, but I think they are more special on other days and not part of the VD hype. Usually I stick with the simpler things: a thoughtful card, a sweet gesture, a special dinner – that kind of stuff. Early in our relationship Lola said that she was always envious of the big box of candies that they have during Valentine’s Day. There was something about having this fun-shaped box filled with chocolate that was all yours and you could eat all you wanted. It was not a usual Lola desire so it stuck out in my mind. So I have given her the heart-shaped box of chocolates throughout the years and she always savors it. She’s a fun person to give a gift too.
I remember one year when we were living in New Hampshire. It was Valentine’s Day and Lola’s sister Katie happened to be visiting us. When we woke up that morning, I had given Lola a giant heart-shaped box of chocolates while we were still in bed – a surprise for her to wake up to on Valentine’s Day. She naturally busted it open and had her first bite. While that was happening, we heard Katie was awake and shuffling in the hallway, so we called her in to our room and before she opened the door, we made it look like we were naked underneath a sheet with just a box of chocolates. I’m sure that image is still etched in Katie’s memory somewhere. If I recall, there was a big snowstorm that day too, so we were snowed in, although we did manage to sneak out for a quick breakfast trip to Friendly’s. Funny what you remember.
Chocolate on Valentine’s Day is only about 150 years old. While chocolate has been around for a long time and often associated with love and matters of the heart, chocolate to eat rather than drink is a somewhat newer concoction thanks to the combination of cacao powder, cacao butter and sugar that was developed by British chocolate maker J.S. Fry & Sons in 1847. After seeing that success, rival candy makers Cadbury created fancy boxes in which to present chocolates that they fancied up even more by filling with creams and ganache and other such goodness. They came up with the heart-shaped box in 1868 specifically for Valentine’s Day, and the rest is candy history. American chocolatiers Russell Stover would later go on to lead the market in candy in heart-shaped boxes and today are responsible for almost half of all such candy sales. U.S. consumers alone will shell out nearly one billion dollars every year for candy on Valentine’s Day, 75% of which is chocolate. No wonder Willy Wonka could afford a glass elevator. (Source: How Chocolate Became A Sweet (But Not So Innocent) Consort To Valentine’s Day by Jeff Koehler for NPR)
I have some history with Russell Stover. My first job was at the local drugstore in my hometown which among other things, was a seller of Russell Stover candies. That used to be something of a prestigious honor because only the finest places would sell this special candy. Nowadays, finding Russell Stover isn’t that hard. When I was working there, we would get a shipment from Russell Stover once a month or so and when the Valentine’s Day shipment came in, it was all hands on deck. If I remember correctly, and there’s a good chance I don’t, we would get hundreds of cases of the stuff. They would come in big, oddly shaped boxes that were specially made to accommodate the heart-shaped boxes. They were heavy too. They would stack them on the back of the truck, and me and my fellow stock boys (that was our title), would create a muster to get them into the building, down the conveyor belt and stacked in the basement in some kind of orderly fashion. Eventually they’d all have to be brought back upstairs so they could be put on display. My boss called it a cardboard jungle. When you worked the register on Valentine’s Day, it would be insane with dudes just throwing money at you so they could get their wives, girlfriends or goomah something they’d be happy about. We had similar Russell Stover shipments for Mother’s Day, Easter and Christmas too, but Valentine’s Day was always the biggest.
I felt that I have been doing a good job at making candies lately, so I decided to try to make my own. Sure, Lola still loves the joy of a box of chocolates, but I thought something homemade might be better. I found a recipe from Land O Lakes for chocolate covered buttercreams. They looked good, the recipe seemed pretty easy and I happened to have everything I needed right in house. I started by making the buttercream center which combines butter, cream cheese, sugar and vanilla. When that was ready, I rolled pieces of the mixture into little balls and then popped them in the fridge to chill and set.
This was kind of like making my peanut butter balls, just a different filling. Later in the day, I melted some chocolate with a little bit of shortening and then carefully dipped each one of the balls into the chocolate to cover them. I then placed them back on a sheet pan and returned them to the fridge to set. Before I did, I gave Lola one. Lola had no idea what she was about to taste. When she saw it, she asked if they were peanut butter balls and I said no, they are something different. Then she just popped the whole thing in her mouth. That’s not typically how she tastes things, but they were a little melty, so I am sure she just wanted to get the whole thing out of her hands before they caused a big mess. When she tried it, there was a look of concern that overcame her face. She said that it was not what she was expecting. It tasted ok, but the texture reminded her of when she was at the hospital after our niece Waverly was born and she had to change the diaper with our brother-in-law Pete. The texture of the chocolate covered cream reminded her of that first dark, ugly poop that dropped from the bowels of our newborn niece that Lola bared witness to. The horror. That’s not the best review you want to hear, but she was only saying that it was all a texture thing. It tasted fine. The cream did melt a little when it got dunked in the melted chocolate, so there really was a texture issue. It wasn’t solid enough to enjoy. I returned them to the fridge so they could set.
Later, after they had properly set, we tried them again. Lola was eager to give it another try which meant that it really didn’t taste that bad the first time. Had it been a taste thing, she would have never taken another bite. This time she was able to bite into it and take her time to enjoy it. This time, it was really good. The cream had set up so it was nice and firm on the inside. It was sweet, the sugar coming through, and tasted like frosting. That’s what it essentially was – chocolate covered frosting. How can you go wrong? The texture was much better now too. No more meconium feels to it. There’s an advertising campaign I’d like to see.
That was my Valentine’s Day gift to Lola. It wasn’t exactly the same as a big heart-shaped box of chocolates. There’s still something special about that. Holding the lid open slightly and getting that whiff of chocolate. Picking the one you want. The unknown of what’s in the center. The thrill of tossing aside ones that you don’t like because it’s your own box of chocolate and you can do that. That’s the heart box candy thrill. I’m not sure if she was disappointed in my chocolate covered buttercreams, but in truth, they were a nice little creation. What says love more than making your own? Was this the equivalent of getting her a coupon book for free hugs? I don’t know. There was some effort here, some love to share, so I think that made it somewhat special. If she still wants the heart candy, I can get them today (for 50% off). Now that’s love.
Next Up: National Gum Drop Day