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! (more…)

Deep Dark Chocolate: Decadent Recipes for the Serious Chocolate Lover
By Sara Perry
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast, 2008 softcover. $20.95; 196 pages.

“Dark chocolate is more than a quintessential comfort food. It is the new coffee: an affordable daily luxury with its own menu of intensities, flavors and special infusions.” Sara Perry

There aren’t many people who disagree with Perry’s view. I know only one — he hates chocolate of any kind — but he’s a fine person otherwise.

Dark chocolate is for everyone — for moms and dads, for friends and lovers and for aunties and grandparents. Keep it away from the dog (the theobromine will make dogs and cats sick), but give it to someone who’s had a rough day and it soothes the ragged edges like nothing else. Chocolate has a rich, decadent, almost sinful side to it, but thankfully, it has its good sides too.

Chocolate brims with healthful flavonoids as well as mood-enhancing substances that replicate falling in love. There’s a small jolt of caffeine in there, too, but a whole pound of chocolate contains only the same amount as an 8-oz. cup of coffee, says Perry.

Perry describes all the forms of dark chocolate takes, from unsweetened or bitter baking chocolate to cocoa powder, then offers a list of chocolate-related terms that explain both its properties and its origins. For best results, use quality whole chocolate, chips, buttons or cocoa, she says.

If you’ve never worked with good quality dark chocolate in baking and cooking, it pays to read the chapter Baking Tips and Deep, Dark Chocolate Secrets before you proceed with any recipes, Perry suggests. Chocolate can be finicky, and though disasters such as seized chocolate (caused by even the tiniest bit of moisture as you try to melt the chocolate) can be fairly easily remedied,  you have to know what you’re doing.

The recipes here are divided into cookies and brownies; cakes, pies and tarts; puddings and custards; chilled desserts; sauces; breakfast delights; candies; and drinks and range from chocolate espresso cookies to chocolate gingerbread to chocolate bread pudding to bittersweet chocolate-rum icebox cake.

Perry says the following cookies were created for a friend who had just discovered her sweetheart had grown sweet on someone else, hence the name. The chocolate surely helped ease the pain a little. And you can take out the “Not” if your romance is still intact. These dipped cookies are best within 3 days and should be stored at room temperature, says Perry. Undipped cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks, or frozen up to 2 months.

He-Loves-Me-Not Valentine Hearts

1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup ground almonds
¼ cup premium unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tbsp. premium unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
Large pinch salt
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp. pure almond or vanilla extract

Dipping chocolate
3 oz. premium dark chocolate, chopped
1 tsp. vegetable shortening

In medium bowl, whisk flour, almond meal, cocoas and salt until well blended. Set aside.

In stand mixer  or with a hand mixer set on medium speed, beat butter until creamy. Add sugar and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in almond extract until well blended, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary. On low speed, slowly add dry ingredients and beat until just blended, again scraping down the bowl as necessary. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap on the counter and scrape the crumbly dough onto one half the wrap. Fold the wrap over the dough and knead 3 or 4 times. Flatten dough into a disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 300 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or leave it ungreased. Remove dough disk from fridge, unwrap and cut in half. On pastry cloth or a lightly floured board with cloth-covered rolling pin, or between 2 sheets of heavy-duty plastic wrap, roll out one half the dough to a ¼-inch thickness. Using a two-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut a cookie, pressing the cutter straight down into the dough. Repeat, cutting cookies closely together to avoid rerolling. Using a spatula, carefully transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate cookie sheet and bake until firm to the touch, about 12 minutes longer. Repeat with remaining dough.

Pull parchment paper with cookies onto counter and let cookies firm and cool slightly before transferring from parchment to wire rack to cool completely. If not using parchment, let cookies firm and cool slightly on the baking sheet before transferring.
To make dipping chocolate: Place chocolate and shortening in tall, deep heatproof bowl and set in a wide pan or skillet of hot water. Set aside for 5 minutes, stirring 4 or 5 times, and let chocolate melt completely. Stir until smooth.

Meanwhile, place two wire racks on sheet of parchment or waxed paper to catch drips. Dip half of each cookie into chocolate and allow extra chocolate to drip back into bowl. Place cookies on racks to set, for up to 2 hours, depending on room temperature. For a fast set, after 10 minutes, you can slip the wire rack into the fridge to chill for no longer than 5 minutes. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
– From Deep Dark Chocolate