Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own. – Robert Heinlein
His blue-green eyes stared up into mine, yearning and self-doubt flitting across his regard, that fairy dance of desire and yet-to-be requited love. “Pale eyes, green and blue,” he claimed, “reveal all, bare the soul, expose the heart. Dark eyes,” he said as he glanced in the direction of my own, the color of chocolate, “so cruel, punish with their hidden mysteries, cards held close to the chest.” His gentle look met mine across the table, that tiny wooden table in that tiny wine bar fronting the Seine on that warm summer afternoon. Love confessed over a warm lentil salad left untouched until the words he wished to hear escaped from my lips, my vow made amidst the noise of bottles and glasses, the noise of knives and forks against plates, noise never heard by two lovers caught up in their own tale of love.
The words were uttered, low and nervously, hands sliding across the white paper atop the deep mahogany wood, fingertips brushing fingertips, relief washing across his face and washed down with ruby red wine, the color of our hearts. Words handled carefully like fragile, paper-thin glass figurines that would shatter in a million pieces if dropped, light as air, delicate as porcelain, yet heavy with significance because once whispered these words could never be taken back. I knew that he would grab them up and cling to them and never let them go. They would be his forever. Yet utter them I did because I knew. And he gathered me up and took me home to stay.
“One thing you should know about me,” he declared as I watched him dress, crumpled sheets pulled up to my chin, drunk on love, “you will never receive chocolates from me. I will shower you with gifts, buy you jewelry, fill your arms with flowers, but I will not buy you candy. Chocolate is a vice like cigarettes and alcohol and I will not feed any vice.” And as Valentine’s Day approached he stoutly proclaimed his disdain for this “American holiday, this commercial invention by some ad man or company created for the sake of making a few bucks off of a gullible public.” “And,” he would exclaim, “I certainly don’t need someone else to designate one particular day, tell me when and how I should tell you that I love you! I can do that when and how I please!”
Yet that first Valentine’s Day together a single chocolate heart was placed atop my pillow, with all the care of a newborn babe. One single chocolate heart filled with a thousand words, words that said “I love you” silently yet louder than if he had screamed them from the rooftops. With that one beautifully wrapped chocolate heart he let me know that he understood that this single gesture meant more to me than his contempt for the signs in shop windows and the ads on TV, the French adaptation of this very American celebration. He understood that expectation fluttered underneath my bold claim of agreement with him, my outward expression of disinterest for this special date, expectation fluttering like a schoolgirl’s heart as she places that shoebox decorated with pink crepe paper hearts and white doilies on the altar of her school desk as she silently utters a prayer.
Valentine’s Days have come and gone, 28 of them, to be exact. 28 years filled with roses and tulips, carnations and peonies, stunning jewels and breathtaking adventure. As shop windows fill with pink macarons or heart-shaped candies, boxes tied up in red ribbon or fluffy white stuffed animals dressed up in satin bows, our routine never changes. Grumbles and moans emanate from my man, my lover, the most eternally romantic of souls, at the very first signs of cherubs, putti, Cupids, roses and hearts. He curses, fist shaken heavenward, as the date rolls around. “Why, oh why do the French feel the need to appropriate this silliest of meaningless events? Send this dang-blasted holiday back where it came from! You Americans and your unadulterated nonsense! Am I supposed to fall for this? You really don’t expect to celebrate this with me, do you?” Of course I say no, why bother?
And year in and year out we enter into that great philosophical debate Do we or don’t we? To Valentine’s Day or not to Valentine’s Day? The discussion ensues and I am led to believe by those willing to convince me that this day is no day at all, that if I surrender, give in to the commercial greed and false proclamations of so many admen, I somehow put our love at risk, laugh at the seriousness of the glue that holds our couple together, relinquish our passion to someone else who dares dictate how and when we declare our love. The skeptics surround me on every side, closing in, yet I glance up and smile sweetly, nodding in ostensible agreement all the while dreaming of romance.
Go ahead, just try and convince me. I surrender to your words. Wrap me in your arms and tell me that the day means nothing to you at all, that no one can put limits or restrictions, obligations or rules on the expression of your feelings. Tell me that you desire me every day and you need no one at all to hand you an opportunity to show me just how much. But (just this once) recognize this day with a gift or a sign, no matter how small, just because you know what it means to me, a single sentimental gesture to acknowledge the expectation that trembles within me, and I promise you that in return I will agree with you about the nothingness of Valentine’s Day every single day for the rest of the year.
Marriage is a dinner that begins with dessert. – Toulouse Lautrec
- 1 lb (500 g) blackberries, cleaned
- 1 - 2 Tbs granulated white sugar and more to taste
- 3 cups (750 ml) cream or a combination of heavy cream, light cream/half-and-half and milk, either whole or lowfat
- 2 tsps (1/4 oz, 8 g) unflavored gelatin powder
- ½ cup (100 g) sugar, 1 tsp replaced with 1 tsp blueberry hibiscus sugar (or similar) - alternately, use all white granulated sugar and make vanilla panna cotta
- Select and put aside 6 or 12 whole blackberries for decorating/serving.
- Either cook the blackberries with 1 tablespoon of the sugar over very low heat, pressing and mashing the blackberries as they cook until soft and the sugar is dissolved, about 8 – 10 minutes. Add more sugar, one teaspoon at a time, until the berries and juice is sweet enough and to your liking (how much sugar you add will depend on the natural sweetness of the berries as well as how sweet you like them. If mixing with the panna cotta, it is better to under-sweeten them. Once cooked, allow the berries to cool for about ten minutes or so, then press through a fine strainer, pushing them through with a soft spatula until only seeds are left; discard the seeds and impurities. Taste the resulting liquid coulis and again add a bit more sugar if desired.
- Or purée the berries in a blender or with an emulsion mixer. Cook the berries over very low heat with one tablespoon of the sugar until the sugar is dissolved (if they are very juicy, you can cook for a few minutes, stirring or whisking, until slightly thickened. Strain the berries through a fine mesh strainer, pushing them through with a soft spatula until only seeds are left; discard the seeds and impurities. Taste the resulting liquid coulis and again add a bit more sugar if desired.
- Allow the coulis to cool. This can be done ahead of time and chilled in the refrigerator before preparing the panna cotta.
- In a medium-sized, heavy-bottom saucepan, place half (about 1 ½ cups or 355 ml) of the cold cream or cream-milk blend; sprinkle the gelatin on top and gentle press down into the liquid with the back of a spoon or whisk. Allow to sit for 5 minutes to soften.
- After the 5 minutes, turn the heat under the saucepan to low and gently allow the liquid to warm; once warm allow to cook for 5 minutes, whisking constantly, until the gelatin has dissolved completely (you won’t see anymore golden spots on the surface of the liquid). Do not allow the liquid to boil.
- Replace 1 tablespoon of the white sugar from the half-cup with the 1 tablespoon of the flavored sugar. Add both the ½ cup of sugar and the remaining cream or cream-milk blend to the saucepan and heat. Continue cooking over low heat, whisking constantly, until completely warmed through and the sugar has dissolved. Do not allow the mixture to boil.
- Stir in the vanilla.
- Let the panna cotta mixture cool to tepid or room temperature before pouring into serving glasses.
- Once the coulis is cooled and the panna cotta is at least warm or tepid, you can assemble the desserts. Have 6 or 8 glasses (depending on how much panna cotta you like to serve as a dessert – I made 6), transparent ramekins or cups ready. Pour 2 tablespoons of the blackberry purée/coulis in the bottom of each glass.
- Place the panna cotta liquid in a container with a spout, like a large measuring cup, for example; pouring from a spouted container simply allows dividing the liquid between the glasses with more ease and less mess. Carefully and slowly fill each glass with panna cotta almost but not quite up to the rim or as much as desired for one serving. If poured slowly, the dark coulis will swirl into the lighter panna cotta (see photos).
- Cover each glass tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours to overnight to set.
- To serve, simply drizzle a bit of the blackberry coulis on each panna cotta, top with one or two whole blackberries and serve.
- Leftover coulis is perfect on yogurt, ice cream or cake.