Valentine’s Day

gluten-free Mexican hot chocolate cakes for Valentine’s Day

You all blow me away.

This past week has been extraordinary, for a number of small reasons. However, mostly it’s because my life has been imbued with your love stories.

Every day, I have been coming here to publish comments and ended up in tears. Happy tears, mind you. Your vulnerability, generosity, and humor has lifted me — and all the countless others who have been reading — out of these bleak mid-winter grey days.

(The sight above helped too. One of our neighbors down the road put a small red heart up on the grass so everyone could see it on the way into town. Valentine’s Day may be sold as a hokey holiday, but it’s really just a day to talk about love, unabashedly. This small gesture made my day.)

What I love most about all those stories you left in the comments is how quirky, individual, and unexpected every single love story is. Anyone who falls for the Hollywood-swoony version of romance is set up for disappointment. (“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” — William Shakespeare) When we open ourselves to something stumbly and imperfect, we’re changed.

Thank you to everyone who shared, so openly, your stories of love. I have heard from many people that you made their week brighter too.

If you have not gone over to the post and read all the love stories, make some time and sit down. Every single one of them is a gift.

I’ll be honest. When we first thought of asking for your love stories, we thought of it as a way to promote our cookbook, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. After all, it’s the perfect Valentine’s Day gift, right? We gathered other cookbooks, baking supplies, and books with great love stories. All to remind you that you should buy our cookbook.

You know what? We couldn’t do it. After reading the first day’s comments, Danny and I both agreed that choosing some at random and awarding prizes cheapened the whole thing. Your generosity was so astonishing that it would have felt tacky to give away stuff on top of this. We’ll find ways soon to share some good stuff.

For now, we want to just keep spreading this love. Here are some of the incredible blog posts people wrote in response to our call for love stories:

Our fabulous friend Irvin at Eat the Love told the story about he and AJ met, along with a recipe for Bourbon Caramel Rice Crispy Treats with Dark Chocolate

Diane at The Whole Gang wrote about meeting her terrific husband

Krystle at Krystle’s Karma tells the story of her imperfect love

Kylie of Thin Crust, Deep Dish tells the exhilarating story of her engagement

Gwen of Tea and Vino tells her hurricane love story

My dear friend Tamiko of Kiku Girl shares her love story with Josh, for babygirl C on the eve of kindergarten, and for babygirl M

Monique in Texas wanted to share this love story from No Greater Joy Mom

Elizabeth from Retinal Perspectives shares her love for her puppy

Not Ibid reminds us to cherish the person who appreciates us the most

Diana from No Rhyme or Reason writes about how they met, the wedding (part 1), and the wedding (part 2)

Diana Banana shares the joy of being with someone who pushes you to be as healthy as you can

My dear friend Brooke shares her kitchen love letters to her husband

Robyn from Pre-Sifted shares the beauty of someone making her grits

Allison of Your Every Color shares the details of her love

Niki of Life in Recipes writes about the calm contentment of true love

Emily of Revolving Mama writes about landing in love

Erin of Mysteries Internal writes about a simple act that reveals so much caring

Wonderful Jenn of The Whole Kitchen writes a love story in letters

Emily of Nomnivorous wrote a love letter to New York City

Lovely Allison of Sushi Day shares her love story with Son

The wonderful Smith Bites writes about her love, along with beer and quinoa pancakes

Thank you, all of you. Your generosity amazes me.

(And if you wrote a post, and I didn’t include it here, please let me know. I’ll add it in.)

Clearly, there are many ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

When I was younger and single, I could never have imagined that my favorite Valentine’s Day would involve making a mess in the kitchen with my daughter and eating cheese and crackers in the dark with my husband.

We had a power outage last night. The winds whipped around the house, howling, after torrential rain. Lu was asleep in her bed and I was sautéing onions on the stove for the oxtail potpie I was making Danny for dinner as a surprise. Without warning, the house went dark. I looked up, then went to the junk drawer to pull out the flashlight. I kept cooking, the flashlight tucked under my chin and aimed at the stove. The electric heater stayed on, fueled by battery at that point. All around us was darkness.

After I had sautéd the onions and garlic, I realized the oven wouldn’t work. No baking a pie without power. I set them aside, hoping for the lights to come on. Danny was at work, feeding a full house for the big romantic restaurant day. I couldn’t work on this blog post, which I intended to publish before Danny returned home. Without power, I could do no work.

I sat down to read, instead. It was my Valentine’s Day present to myself — time to read without worrying I should get up and do something else. I stretched out on the couch and read by the light of the fake fire in the corner. I miss this most of the time.

Danny came home. He had been working all day, hard, and he was hungry. I had nothing to feed him, at least nothing that I had planned. But we hugged and talked and kissed and laughed about how dark it was outside. And then I went to the refrigerator with the flashlight and found soft goat cheese, pepperoni, French feta. I pulled open the cupboards and found by memory the rice crackers, the almonds, the pears. I tumbled them all onto the coffee table. We shared one knife and had a picnic in the semi darkness, our legs touching, our hands both reaching.

We talked as we ate. And then we talked as we lay on the couch, my head on his chest. Our days are so full that we rarely have time to meander and wander through our memories. We talked about the first time we met, the easy comfortable coffee date in the middle of the day. We talked about those heady first dates, the both of us so grateful for the way we fell into each other’s lives. We talked about the myriad ways our days are different than those, how much we have helped each other grow, how grateful we are.

We ate little Mexican hot chocolate cakes for dessert.

And we talked about Lu. We laughed about that morning, when we were making muffins for her pre-school that day. (It’s our week to make snacks.) When I pulled out the scale and the flours, Lu looked at me and said, “How many grams flours, Mama?”

I started at her for a moment, amazed, then said, “350, my love. Let’s measure them together.”

She helped with everything: the tipping of flours into the bowl, the pouring of soy milk, the stirring with the spatula, the tasting. And when it came time to scoop muffin batter into the prepared tins, she grabbed the cookie scoop, put her hand on my arm, and carefully filled each hole with blueberry muffin batter. We cleaned up the mess later. That didn’t matter. We were together, the three of us (Danny taking photographs), baking in the morning.

That was the best Valentine’s Day present I’ve ever received.

GLUTEN-FREE MEXICAN HOT CHOCOLATE CAKES, adapted from the McCormick Gourmet recipe

The inspiration for making these came from the fact I couldn’t eat them. This happens often.

When I was at the McCormick spice weekend, the good folks there worked to make everything on the menu gluten-free. I so appreciate this. However, dessert the last meal involved these little Mexican hot chocolate cakes. Damn, they looked good. I didn’t suffer. They brought me Saigon cinnamon ice cream instead. I was happy.

And then, when I returned home, I converted this recipe.

They have a lovely taste: chocolate with just a bit of heat, enough to wake up your senses but not enough to make you sweat. (That’s really not so appealing on Valentine’s Day, right?) The texture? Danny took his first spoonful and said, “They’re marshmallowy.” Even if that’s not a word, it’s the right word.

Here’s the better news: these are not only gluten-free, but they are also egg free and can be dairy-free. Everyone should be able to celebrate love with something sweet.

40 grams sweet rice flour
35 grams teff flour
35 grams sorghum flour
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ancho chile powder (we used the McCormick Gourmet one)
1 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon (again, we used the McCormick Gourmet one)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk (you can sub in soy or another alternative milk here. We used soy)
¼ cup oil (we used olive oil)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
boiling-hot water

Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour 6 ramekins. (We use sweet rice flour for this, since it’s already in the recipe.)

Combining the dry ingredients. Mix the sweet rice flour, teff flour, and sorghum flour. Whisk them together to incorporate and aerate. Add 2/3 cup of the sugar, 4 tablespoons of the cocoa powder, baking powder, ancho chile powder, cinnamon, and salt. Whisk them together.

Finishing the cake batter. Pour in the milk, oil, and vanilla. (Don’t worry if the batter feels a little stiff.) Spoon the batter into the ramekins, filling them about 2/3 full.

Combine the remaining sugar and cocoa powder and sprinkle it evenly over the tops of the ramekins. (You might have a little left over. We did. Save it for some oatmeal the next morning.) Spoon 2 tablespoons of boiling-hot water into each ramekin. Do not stir.

Baking the cakes. Slide the ramekins into the oven. Bake until the water is fully absorbed and the tops are dry to the touch, about 20 to 30 minutes. (Keep checking. Each oven is different.) Pull the ramekins from the oven and allow them to cool on a wire rack before serving.

Top with whipped cream or ice cream. (We used Coconut Bliss chocolate here.)

Serves 6.

As an aside, the original recipe said this makes 8 ramekins. We found it only made 6. I don’t think we have particularly large ramekins! It might make more in your kitchen, so be aware.

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we want to hear your love stories.

I want to tell you a story.

On New Year’s Day, I received a message from one of my dearest friends. She’s in New York now, far away, but we still talk frequently. All through the fall, however, we barely talked. After we saw her in the city in September, and stayed in her apartment while she was away on business, she sort of disappeared. Oh, there was phone tag and text messages and the occasional Facebook exchange. We were a mite busy as well, so I didn’t worry. The best friends always allow each other space and silence. Still, I missed her.

So when I received this message on New Year’s Day, I was thrilled: “Sweetie, I have the most wonderful news. I’ve never been this happy. Let’s talk soon.”

As soon as I read it, I knew. I turned to Danny, read it to him, and said, “If this is about a new job, I’m going to kick her.”

It wasn’t about a job.

The next day, Lu was taking a nap and I was out for a walk, clutching my cell phone, waiting for my friend to call. There she was.

I could hear the happiness in her voice at hello. She sounded lighter than I had ever heard her before.

You see, my dear friend was heartbroken when she was in her early 20s. Actually, heartbroken isn’t even the word. Heart-stomped-upon-and-smashed is perhaps the more apt phrase. The story of what happened is hers, and I don’t want to encroach on her privacy. Just suffice it to say that it involved a trans-continental four-year romance and a wedding called off a few days before it was supposed to happen because of horrible betrayal. I think, for the first decade after it happened, my friend sealed up tight against the world so as not to get hurt again. By the time I met her, eleven years ago, she had opened just a crack.

We laughed, a lot. The two of us were fast friends the last years I was in New York, and then in Seattle together. We lived in apartments across the hall from each other; we joked that we were living in a sitcom. We grew up together, in a lot of ways. We both opened to the world because we were friends.

And then I met Danny. At first, she didn’t approve. Of course, it makes sense to me now. It all happened so fast. I knew within a few dates that this was the man I would love for the rest of my life. With her history, my friend grew frightened. She closed up again. She didn’t want to hear about it.

Once she met him, however, she relaxed. It was Danny. She recognized us. He adores her too.

The day after our wedding, she left for New York. My heart broke a bit, but I knew she needed to go home.

In all that time I knew her, my friend didn’t really date anyone. Neither did I, before I met Danny. We were the two musketeers. Danny and I broke that up, unwittingly. I hoped that when she moved back home to New York, she would meet a new person, someone who could embrace her and soften her more. But she found a job that sucked up all her time and she seemed to be growing tighter again, instead.

And then this fall of silence. And this phone call.

“I’m in love with a wonderful man,” she told me, her voice full of soft amazement. “And last night, he proposed.”

I screamed with joy, out in the woods, jumped up and down. Yahoo!! And who was he?

“You know him. Do you remember P?”

It all came flooding out. Of course.

My friend has been good, close friends with this man for over 20 years. He is smart, kind, aware, courageous, and funny. The two of them understand each other, deeply. I knew that when I met him, years ago in Seattle. I watched the banter between them, the sympathy and understanding, the history. They were connected, in all the best ways.

My friend had been good friends with this man for years. She had also been friends with his wife.

His wife battled cancer for years. My friend walked with them through those struggles, marveled at their strength, helped them in any way she could. For a few years, it seemed she would be okay. Then, four years ago or so, the cancer came back. Pernicious. Fatal. The man stayed with his wife through her cancer. She died over a year ago.

Several months ago, my friend connected again with her friend. They spent time together as friends. He had moved away from New York, but he returned for visits, again. It made sense. They had been friends for two decades. Why would they not want to spend time together?

But something shifted after the visits and conversations, the connections and laughter. My friend bought her friend a series of cooking classes for his birthday. He called to thank her. And then he said, “This feels like more than an act of friendship.”

I imagine my friend in that moment, terrified and exhilarated both. Would she open to this? Could she be honest?

She said yes, even though she didn’t know what he would answer next. She said yes.

So did he.

And now, they are madly in love, together, and engaged. I think every day about the two of them, about their connection and friendship, their courage in loving again. This is no one’s perfect Hollywood-ending love story. This is the hard choice — to love again in spite of enormous heartbreak. I think every day about the joy in my friend’s voice and I start laughing.

She opened.

They are getting married this summer, in the backyard of a dear friend of ours, here on our island. Lu might even be a flower girl. And I will be crying.

I’ve been thinking about my friend’s story in the midst of this Valentine’s Day week. I see all kinds of websites offering chocolates and roses, singing telegrams and lingerie. Ew.

I never liked Valentine’s Day when I was single. In spite of the fact I knew it was a Hallmark holiday, I still felt bad that other people were out there celebrating their love with champagne and truffles, arms intertwined around each other, and I was home in my pajamas.

Now that I’m married to a wonderful man, with whom I am more in love every day, I still spend the night of Valentine’s Day in my pajamas. Danny will be cooking (“…for the people!” as Lu likes to say), not home until late. I’ll be reading bedtime stories to our daughter, laughing and hoping she’ll go to bed early enough that I can finish a blog post before midnight. Danny will arrive home late, and we’ll kiss. I’ll have some dinner for him — the earlier the kid’s bedtime, the more elaborate the dinner will be — and we’ll sit on the couch and talk about our days, perhaps with a Law and Order: SVU on the television. Probably there will be mashed potatoes.

That’s my love story at the moment.

We all could use more love right now. When could we not use more love? But these are fractured days, full of bad news that only seems to multiply with the internet and 24-hour-news cycles. However, there are heroic stories and small moments of glory happening all the time.

I think of my dearest, oldest friend in the world, whose father has been in my life since I was 14. He’s not doing well. In fact, last week, we all thought he was dying. I walked around with joy in my heart for one friend and grief in my heart for the other. The day she told me it didn’t look good, she said, “I just miss him already. I want him back now.” We cried together on the phone. Last week, however, he had an unexpected recovery. An astounding recovery for an 80-year-old. We’re not out of the woods yet, but it’s much easier to deal with today. I think of my friend, all her siblings, her father’s partner gathered around his bed, willing him to breathe. And now, cheering him on as he learns to use his swallowing muscles again.

That’s love.

I think of my friend who visited us on Sunday, bearing pie. We all enjoyed our time together, in one of our boisterous brunches, filled with kids running through the house and bouncing on the bed. As our friend was leaving, she realized someone had left our gate ajar. Her dog was nowhere to be found. She and another friend and Danny went running, calling through the neighborhood. No luck. We all grew anxious. Lu went into her room and came back out, the dog following her. She had fallen asleep in Lu’s room. We ran outside, calling in joyful voices. Our friend came running back. The look on her face as she embraced her dog was grateful relief.

That’s love.

If you can read this story about Liam Witt, and his courageous battle with cancer without any complaining, and not cry, you are made of brittle stuff. “He loved to bake cakes so he could decorate them. He loved Valentine’s Day because he always loved telling people he loved them. He did that every day.”

And I am moved by the mother love and patience of my friend Lecia, who created incredible Valentine’s Day cards with her sons.

Love stories. I want to hear more of them.

How about you?

So here’s what we’d like to do for Valentine’s Day. We want to hear your love stories.

Write your most important love story, on your blog, or in a comment here. We will compile them all next week, on Valentine’s Day, to create a far more nuanced meaning for the day.

Imagine the effect of reading hundreds of love stories, one after another.

We have some prizes to give away, including copies of our cookbook (it’s sort of made for Valentine’s Day, in a way), cookware, baking supplies, and other books about love. We have a few details to share. We’ll tell you about those later. That’s not what this is about right now.

We just want to hear your love stories.

PAN-SEARED BEEF TENDERLOIN WITH BALSAMIC ONIONS AND PORT SAUCE

This is a dish from our cookbook, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. I suppose we should make you buy the book to learn how to make this dish, but that doesn’t seem in the spirit, does it? We want to share it here with  you now, in case you would like to make a lovely dinner at home for the one you love. (Pssst. That’s much better than a restaurant, any day.)

Danny made this in our kitchen, in the home we had just started sharing, back in June of 2006. He went to slice up some bread, some bread with gluten. (He had his own drawer and knew to not kiss me directly after he ate it.) I asked him if he had to eat bread that night. (I wanted to kiss him.) He said, over his shoulder, “Honey, you’re marrying a chef. He’s going to eat bread.”

At that, I turned his face toward me and asked him, “What did you just say?”

He blushed and stammered. We laughed. I knew he’d ask when the time felt right. (We had only been together for 2 months but we knew.)

When I took a bite of this meal, and he saw my joy in tasting it, he got down on one knee.

Let me tell you, however — and I’m going to make you buy the book for the entire story — love stories in real life are rarely as perfect as they are in the movies. Danny’s proposal involved South Park and farting. And it was wonderful.

“I made this dish for Shauna the night I proposed (even though I didn’t know I was going to) because I knew she would love it. The first time I ate this flavor combination was at Gramercy Tavern. As I worked, I set aside some scraps to eat later. There’s a rich meatiness to the balsamic onions, as well as the tender beef, and the veal stock in the port sauce rounds it all out. All the textures and flavors blend together.

This dish is one of my favorites to cook for people I love. The night I first made it for Shauna, she swooned. And I didn’t need the bread after all.”

Balsamic onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper

Beef tenderloin
2 pieces beef tenderloin, 3 to 3[1/2] ounces each
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil

Port reduction sauce
1 cup port
2 cups veal stock (you can also substitute chicken stock, see below)
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons butter

Caramelizing the onions. Set a large sauté pan over high heat. Pour in the olive oil. When the oil starts to smoke, add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have wilted and shrunk, have turned brown in color, and smell sweet, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the brown sugar to the pan and cook, stirring, until the sugar begins to melt into the onions.

Finishing the onions. Pour the vinegar into the pan and cook, stirring occasionally and tasting continually, until the liquid is reduced and thickened, but not burnt, about 7 minutes; if you reduce it too much, it becomes tarry with a burnt taste. Instead you want a strong balsamic flavor, followed by the sweetness of the onions. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Set aside.

Searing the beef tenderloin. Season the tenderloin medallions with salt and pepper. Set a large sauté pans over high heat. Pour the canola oil into the hot pan. Put the tenderloin pieces in the hot oil; don’t crowd the pans, or the beef will boil in the oil, and that wastes a good piece of beef. Cook until the bottom of each piece has a lovely brown crust, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip over the tenderloin pieces. For medium-rare doneness, the medallions should have a little firm push at the center when pressed, but with softness all around, and the internal temperature should be 150°. Remove the pans from the heat, transfer the beef to a plate, and allow the beef to rest while you prepare the sauce.

Reducing the port. Pour ½ cup of the port into each pan, scraping the goodness from the bottom. When you have deglazed both pans, pour the contents of one pan into the other. Set the pan with the port over medium heat and simmer until the port is reduced by half its volume.

Finishing the sauce. Scoop the balsamic onions into the reduced port. Pour in the veal stock. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half its volume. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Drop in the butter and whisk the sauce until the butter is fully incorporated.

To serve, spoon the sauce with the onions onto each plate. Place a tenderloin piece on top of each serving.

Feeds 2. (You could easily double or triple the amount of beef if you wanted to cook for more people. You will have plenty of onions and port sauce.)

Variations: This dish would work well with rib-eye, porterhouse, or top sirloin steaks in place of the tenderloin. If you don’t want to use veal stock, you can substitute chicken stock, but the sauce might take longer to reduce. You might also have to thicken it with a cornstarch slurry (cornstarch mixed with cold water, then mixed into the stock for 1 to 2 minutes).

Suggestions: Whenever we eat this, we serve it with potato puree. In fact, these potatoes really should be part of the dish.

You will probably have some balsamic onions left over. The next day they can also top lamb, hamburgers, or chicken, or make a simple quinoa dish better.  The port sauce is great on roasted vegetables, pasta, brown rice, or anything you want.

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