What with the amazingly mild winter we’re having (the garden is already screaming at me!), plus the huge distraction of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, I’ve almost lost track of Valentine’s Day, which is only moments away.

To me, Valentine’s means chocolate, fine wine, maybe diamonds (okay, pearls are good, too) and even lovely scented bubble baths. Well, today we’re focusing on the top of the list, with the addictive dark stuff that has the power to make you feel in love (mmmm, dark, milk, sea-salted, creamy, melted — here I’m a commitment-phobe when it comes to choosing).

Two books that feature chocolate have come my way, so let’s get right to it.

Chocolate Cakes: 50 Great Cakes for Every Occasion
By Elinor Klivans
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2010, $26.95; hardcover, 143 pages

Okay, so there are really only 33 actual cake recipes featuring chocolate. The other 17 are variations on the basic recipes Klivans provides for Devil’s Food Cake and White Chocolate Cake. But that still leaves lots of choice for chocaholic cooks, whether it’s easy snack bread and pound cake, fancy multi-layer cakes, ice cream cake or cheesecake.

Need more tempting? There are recipes for Milk Chocolate Chip-Chocolate Loaf, Hot Chocolate Pudding Cake, S’Mores Cake, Chocolate-Marzipan Crunch Cake, Raspberry and White Chocolate Truffle Cake, Chocolate and Peanut Butter Mousse Cake, Chinese Five-Spice Chocolate Chiffon Cake, Banana-Butterscotch Upside-Down Chocolate Cake, Chocolate-Apricot Pudding Cake with Chocolate Toffee Sauce, Brandied Chocolate Cheesecake with Chocolate-Dipped Figs, Mocha Whipped Cream Truffle Cake, and White Mocha Tiramisu.

Klivans also provides plenty of tips for choosing and handling chocolate, making chocolate decorations, baking equipment you’ll need, and storage guidelines for your precious treats. A recipe is included at the end of this post.

Chocolate: More than 50 Decadent Recipes
By Dominique & Cindy Duby
Published by Whitecap, 2009, $19.95; softcover, 128 pages

The Wild Sweets Wizards are at it again with their latest book, this time featuring their favourite ingredient.

The Dubys, based in Richmond, B.C., are pioneering chocolatiers widely known for their Wild Sweets products, particularly their amazing chocolates. But they are also  teachers and culinary scientists, delving beneath commonplace ingredients and experimenting with  taste, texture and temperature to come up with intriguing flavour combinations and tasting experiences that could baffle the average person who might only crave a good caramel or truffle.

Here, teaching hats firmly in place, they’ve produced an accessible book for anyone wanting to increase their chocolate-making skills. They include a detailed chapter on selecting and tempering chocolate   plus they offer flavour-matching charts and wine-pairing suggestions. They also suggest that such mass-market chocolate as Lindt is a quality product suitable for their recipes, as long as it is the right type.

The recipes include chocolate-based drinks, mousses and creams, baked treats, and ganaches and creams for enrobing with tempered dark or milk chocolate. There’s no hand-holding here, however, no chatter about the method or what the end-product might look, smell or taste like, which I always find helpful as well as conducive to trying a particular recipe. Each recipe does include a photo clearly showing what you’re supposed to be making, but it would have been nice, for example, to hear a little about why they paired fresh ginger with milk chocolate in a panna cotta, or what fresh lime zest adds to the flavour and/or texture of dark chocolate pots de crème.

If you are looking to increase your repertoire of great home-made chocolates, there are recipes here for the following fillings: Cigarette Cookie Almond Praline; Fleur de Sel Soft Caramel; Almond, Sesame & Vanilla Praline; Maldon Salt Ganache; Candied Orange Marzipan; Passion Fruit, Coconut and Cardamom Ganache; Crystallized Ginger Ganache; Lemon Macadamia Praline; Espresso, Fennel and Sambuca Ganache; and Four-spice Cocoa Nib Truffles.

Here are two recipes, one from each book. Happy Valentine’s Day!

SALTED CARAMEL AND PECAN CHOCOLATE CAKE

Says Klivans about this recipe: The chocolate cake layers are filled and covered with caramel sauce that has a small quantity of salt, and the top is heaped with pecans that have been toasted in butter, salt, and sugar. Salt, she says, plays its usual role of enhancing flavour while creating a subtle sweet and salt combination.

Devil’s Food Cake
1½  oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1½ cups cake flour
½ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
¾ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup plus 1 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1 qt. vanilla ice cream (opt.)

Caramel Sauce
1½ cups heavy cream
¾ cup water
2 cups sugar
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. vanilla extract

Toasted Salted Pecans
2 cups pecan halves
2 tbsps. unsalted butter, melted
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt

Devil’s Food Cake: Position rack in middle of oven. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter bottom and sides of one 10-inch cake pan. Line bottom with parchment paper and butter the paper.

Put chocolate in heatproof bowl (or top of a double boiler) and place it over, but not touching, barely simmering water in a saucepan (or bottom of double boiler). Stir constantly until chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove from over the water and set aside to cool slightly.

Sift flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter and brown and granulated sugars until smoothly blended and creamy, about 2 minutes. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl as needed. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing until each is blended into the batter. Add vanilla and beat for 2 minutes. On low speed, mix in the melted chocolate. Add flour mixture in three additions alternately with the buttermilk in two additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture and mixing just until the flour is incorporated and the batter looks smooth. Pour the batter into prepared pan.

Bake just until the top feels firm when lightly touched and toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Use a small, sharp knife to to loosen cake from sides of pan, and invert cake onto the wire rack. Carefully remove parchment paper and place paper loosely on the cake. Let cool thoroughly, then discard paper.

To make caramel sauce: Put cream in small saucepan and warm it over low heat. Adjust heat to keep cream warm while you cook the sugar. Combine water and sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with at least a 3-qt. (2.8L) capacity. Cover pan and cook over medium heat until sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Uncover pan occasionally and use a wet pastry brush to brush down any sugar crystals that have formed on the sides of the pan. Uncover, increase heat to medium-high and bring mixture to a boil. Boil until mixture turns a dark golden colour, tilting pan slightly to ensure that the sugar cooks evenly, about 10 minutes. Once caramel begins to change colour, it reaches the dark golden stage quickly, so watch it carefully and remove it from the heat immediately when it is ready.
Use a wooden spoon to slowly stir the hot cream into the hot caramelized sugar. The mixture will bubble up vigorously, so be careful. Slowly stir the mixture until the cream and caramel are smoothly combined. Set sauce aside for 5 minutes to cool. Stir in salt and vanilla. You will have about 2 cups of caramel sauce. Set the sauce aside to cool until it is thick enough to cling to the cake when spread, about 1½ hours. Or cool the sauce for about 30 minutes, cover, and refrigerate for up to a week. Warm sauce over low heat just until it is soft enough to spread on the cake.

Toasted salted pecans: Preheat oven to 325°F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. In medium bowl, stir pecans and melted butter together. Sprinkle sugar and salt over the nuts, stirring to coat them. Scrape nuts onto prepared baking sheet, spreading them in a single layer. Bake for about 15 minutes, stirring once after 8 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Assembly: Transfer cooled cake layer to a serving plate so that it is top up. Tuck wax paper strips 1 inch or so under the cake all the way around to keep the plate clean. Use a long serrated knife to cut the cake layer horizontally into two even layers. Carefully slip the removable bottom of a tart pan or springform pan between the layers, lift the top layer, and set it aside. Pour ¾ cup of the cooled caramel sauce over the centre of the cake and spread it evenly. Carefully slide the top half of the cake layer over the caramel filling, centering it over the bottom layer, and spread with ¾ cup of the caramel sauce. Leaving a 1-inch plan edge around the top of the cake, spoon the pecans onto the cake, mounding them toward the centre. Spoon remaining ½ cup caramel sauce over the nuts. Remove paper strips and discard. Use a large, sharp knife to cut the cake, carefully wiping it clean after cutting each slice. Serve with vanilla ice cream, if desired. Cake can be covered and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days. Serves 10.
From Chocolate Cakes: 50 Great Cakes for Every Occasion

DARK CHOCOLATE BANANA JAM

Delicious on scones or other sweet breads, particularly on a lazy, relaxed weekend morning (hello, Valentine!). Or pump up that peanut butter sandwich any time with some chocolatey goodness.

4 medium sized bananas, peeled and mashed
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsps. orange juice
½ tsp. ground cardamom, toasted
3.6 oz. (100g) 70% dark chocolate

Combine bananas, sugar, orange juice and cardamom in large saucepan and cook on medium heat, about 5 minutes. Place chocolate in tall, narrow container. Pour banana mixture over chocolate and blend with an immersion blender until mixture is smooth. Pour mixture into a clean container fitted with a lid and store in fridge for up to 3 weeks. Serve with sliced brioche, challah, or other sweet bread. Makes about 3 cups.

-From Chocolate: More than 50 Decadent Recipes