My grumpy inner child (I think her name’s Myrtle; she doesn’t come out often) longs to dismiss Valentine's Day as the Madison Avenue-produced frenzy of fluff I know it to be. But the strength of my testy convictions is curiously and invariably out-muscled each Feb. 14 by my softer, squishier side. Hence I've spent the morning constructing homemade valentines (I love a paper doily) for my son’s nursery school mates and taking photos for this V-day blog entry.
Let's face it: how could a winter's day dedicated to the sanctioned consumption of chocolate be all bad?
An old French proverb proclaims that "Without bread, without wine, love is nothing." Chocolate should have been added to the list, but the sentiment is solid: sharing food crystallizes feelings of love, packing far more symbolic punch on Valentine's Day than flowers, jewelry and perfume combined.
My suggestion for V-Day 2008? Stick with the chocolate theme, but maximize its inherent bravura. Make chocolate pots de crème. More specifically, make my recipe for chocolate pots de crème, which are as good to eat as they are good for you.
Pots de crème (pronounced "poh duh krehm") are fancy, individual cups of custard. In lay terms, it is the most delicious chocolate pudding ever. Silky, seductive and distinctly sublime, pots de crème are at once elegant and comforting. Every silken spoonful articulates, "I love you." Savoring the leftovers says, "I love me."
I have developed a lot of recipes over the years, but the ones I make over and over are the ones I like best—which means the easy-to-make ones, like these elegant pots de crème. I have lightened the caloric and fat profile significantly, but the flavor and consistency hold true to the authentic versions. This one is best served chilled, so plan on making it tonight or tomorrow morning if you plan on serving tomorrow night.
Displeasure is not a possibility with pots de crème; I can still remember the ecstasy of my first taste of the confection more than a decade ago. The recipe is a classic for Valentine's Day and any other special occasion because it yields divine results and necessitates few ingredients, no fancy equipment and minimal preparation.
The opportunity for folly in this recipe is easily avoided. If you slosh and stir all of the hot milk into the eggs at once, le voila: chocolate scrambled eggs (intriguing, yes; edible, doubtful).
To avoid such congealing, follow my directions for adding a small amount of the hot milk mixture to the eggs before adding all of the milk. This slowly raises the temperature of the eggs (a process called “tempering”). Once the egg-cream mixture is added to the remaining milk, keep the heat very low to avoid curdling.
You don’t need anything but a spoon come serving time; except, perhaps, a paper doily valentine beneath each cup.
Enlightened Chocolate Pots de Crème
This recipe comes from my most recent cookbook,Enlightened Chocolate, published October 2007 by Cumberland House Publishing.
2 large eggs
2 and 1/2 cups fat-free milk
2/3 cup sugar
5 tablespoons good quality unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1/8 teaspoon salt (preferably fleur de sel)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until lightly beaten. Set aside.
Combine the milk, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook until sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally (about 3 minutes). Stir in the vanilla and chocolate, stirring until chocolate melts.
Gradually add 1/4 cup hot milk mixture to eggs, stirring constantly with a whisk. Add egg mixture to milk mixture in pan, stirring with a whisk to combine. Pour into 8 (4-ounce) ramekins.
Place ramekins in a 13x 9-inch baking pan. Add hot water to pan to a depth of 1 inch.
Bake 32-35 minutes or until a knife inserted in center comes out clean. Remove ramekins from pan; cool completely on a wire rack. Chill 8 hours or overnight. Makes 8 servings.
Nutrition per Serving (1 pot de crème):
Calories 278; Fat 5.2g (poly .3g, mono 1.8g, sat 2.7g); Protein 15.2g; Cholesterol 60.4mg; Carbohydrate 45g.
Spirited Chocolate Pots de Crème: Stir in 1 tablespoon of liqueur, brandy or bourbon to hot milk mixture in place of the vanilla.
Chocolate-Orange Pots de Crème (see photo above--a garnish of orange zest is a perfect finish): Stir in 1 and 1/2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest to hot milk mixture before adding chocolate and vanilla.
Mocha-Javanaise Pots de Crème: Add 2 teaspoons instant espresso to hot milk mixture before adding chocolate and vanilla.
Mayan Chocolate Pots de Crème: Add 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon to hot milk mixture before adding chocolate and vanilla.
Camilla's Chocolate Health Notes:
Dark chocolate (i.e., bittersweet and unsweetened) and unsweetened cocoa powder have excellent health-giving properties becasue they are packed with a particular type of antioxidants called flavonoids (also commonly referred to as bio-flavonoids). Scientists are further discovering that it is likely the large amounts of a subclass of flavonoids found in chocolate and cocoa products—flavonols—that boast the strongest antioxidant activity and may contain other health-promoting attributes.
And no, you weren’t imagining that sense of calm that enveloped you the last time you savored a few pieces of dark chocolate. Granted the sensory pleasures—taste, smell, mouth feel—associated with eating chocolate had something to do with the soothing effects, but there’s more to it than that.
One explanation has to do with magnesium. Chocolate has a high level of magnesium, about 56 mg in a 2-ounce bar of dark chocolate. Stress causes the body to deplete its supplies of magnesium, ultimately leading to biochemical imbalances. It is hypothesized that the magnesium in chocolate helps restore the body’s magnesium balance, resulting in a mild sedative effect.
Chocolate also contains a compound called anandamide, a neurotransmitter that targets the same brain structures as THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. Now don’t get too excited—to make a substantial impact on the brain’s own natural anandamide levels, experts estimate you would need to eat several pounds of chocolate. It’s more likely that chocolate works indirectly to produce a “high”.
As well as anandamide, chocolate also contains two hard-to-pronounce, and even harder-to-spell chemicals (N-oleolethanolamine and N-linoleoylethanolamine) known to slow the breakdown of anandamide. It’s thought that chocolate might therefore work by prolonging the action of this natural stimulant in the brain.