Tracey Emin’s piece, “I Promise to Love You,” lights up the billboards of Times Square. Photo by Ka-Man Tse.
Every night this February, three minutes before the clock strikes midnight, 15 billboards in Times Square will light up with animated messages of love. These glowing Valentines, scrawled in neon colors over a black surface, are the work of British artist Tracey Emin. “I promise to love you,” writes her invisible hand. And then, “I listen to the ocean and all I hear is you.” (more…)
With a tsunami of advertising since right after Christmas, we are right down to it – the week of Valentine’s Day. So in thinking of the people who occupy our hearts, I give you… flower shops. The watercolor images of the flower shops all around me. The ones I frequent with great pleasure all throughout the year.
And who do we bestow our heartfelt gifts upon? It’s time to start giving that some thought lest you be left behind in the dust – literally. For those of you who have too many to fit your budget, you’re guaranteed to have something for all your Valentines with a stroll down west 28th Street’s flower district. You can say Happy Valentine’s Day in so many ways. Valentine’s Day is not just for lovers but also for lovers of life, and a day to let the people who make your day know it.
While the one I love will probably be at one of the above, I’ll be at the Barney’s Warehouse Sale which, as luck would have it, starts on Valentine’s Day, and then on to the Racked recommended eight in Harlem! So from 110th Street to 125th Street in watercolor, Happy Valentine’s Day.
Our love has been short but fierce. Even though I didn’t believe in it, it was undeniably love at first sight.Your aren’t just the greatest city in the world. You are an organism in yourself. Living. Breathing. Existing.
I came to New York in 2003 in search of something. I didn’t know what it was then and I still don’t. Since then you have molded me into who I am today. You are the reason why I am who I am and why I act like I do. I think fast, walk fast and talk fast. I dream big and I believe anything is possible. You fill me with hope, inspire me, and spark my curiosity. You make me feel so small, so insignificant but at the same time like I am on top of the world. You have forever changed me and for that, I’m forever grateful.
I know I’m not the first one to fall in love with your diverse, loud and quirky people, your passionate fans and rattling subways. And I won’t be the last to love your grand museums full of treasures, tiny bodegas filled knick-knacks as well as your green parks smack dab in the middle of the bustling city.
Each part of the day casts new shadows and sheds light on what was once dark. I love the color of your fading daylight. There is constantly something new to discover in your wonderful city. It’s not just the light that brings changes. When it snows, it’s magical. Mother Nature dusts your every surface, nothing is safe. A white blanket covers all that is familiar, transforming it into something different and new to discover all over again.
I’m not going to lie. I’ve thought about breaking up with you. California keeps calling my name and taunting me with warm winters and a laid back attitude. But once I see the lights of Times Square and the towering skyscrapers I know there isn’t a place in the world quite like you. I could never leave.
So today, I ask you to be my Valentine. To inspire me for another year. To teach me new things. To forever give me a million reasons to keep coming back.
I once got excited about Valentine’s Day. And I do mean “once”, as in, one time in my whole life. The first boyfriend I had was during my junior year of high school, and I was thrilled when he invited me on a trip with his mom on V-Day weekend. Unfortunately, my best friend, whose birthday was on the 13th, was not so thrilled when I asked whether she would mind moving her party to the following weekend so that I could attend. She then didn’t speak to me for a week, which was especially awkward since she drove me to and from school every day, 45 minutes each way. (I had failed my driving test three times.) And after all that, the boyfriend’s mom ended up uninviting me, because she hated me (she didn’t say as much, but it was obvious). Even though I spent V-Day at Buca Di Beppo with my friend-instead of sipping hot chocolate by the fire with my boyfriend-I don’t think she ever forgave me. My friend, that is. I know the mom never forgave me.
Since then, I play it safe, and have practiced rolling my eyes and drawling, “Hallmark holiday” whenever the touchy topic of V-Day arises.
There is one thing that I do appreciate about V-Day, however: that it is considered obligatory to gorge oneself on champagne and chocolate, or even better, prosecco and a gooey, chocolaty dessert. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the way to a woman’s is through her chocolate stomach (yes, we have a separate stomach for chocolate; take note, boys).
As far as gooey, chocolaty desserts go, it doesn’t get much better than a brownie sundae…
…unless the brownie recipe comes from Thomas Keller. (And the ice cream is homemade and flecked with vanilla bean and fresh black pepper, the whole thing tricked out with blood orange reduction, cocoa nibs and flaky salt.) Called “bouchons” for their semblance to corks, these cakes have the nostalgic flavor and slight chew of brownies made from a box, only they’re way better because they’re French. Just kidding. They’re way better because they’re made with high quality cocoa powder, chocolate, butter, and enough salt to make them completely addictive. Their light-yet-dense, moist texture, which comes from whipping whole eggs with sugar until thick and then forcing in an unconscionable amount of butter, is what every brownie wants to have.
I scored this cake recipe from my days at Farallon, where we served the bouchons atop an espresso sauce with milk chocolate ice cream and salted pecans. While we sold more of these cakes than any other dessert, occasionally someone would request it sans sauce, and with vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate. At first I thought this blasphemy, but when I tasted the combination, I had to admit that the fresh, clean flavor of the vanilla complemented the dark richness of the cakes better than the chocolate ice cream did.
Inspired by Molly Wizenberg’s book A Homemade Life, I decided to pair the cakes with vanilla-black pepper ice cream. Molly got the idea from Mallard Ice Cream, a fabulous shop in the fabulous town of Bellingham, Washington, that I had the pleasure of visiting during a trip several years ago. Those were enough creds for me-I made my favorite vanilla ice cream recipe, stirring in the black pepper just before churning as per Molly’s instructions. Don’t fear the pepper; the vanilla comes through as the prominent flavor, with a kicky finish. Blood orange reduction adds a note of brightness to the dish without overwhelming, and cocoa nibs and flaky salt provide addictive crunch.
If you’re bojon this V-day, you probably don’t a have a ton of lettuce to drop at some overpriced restaurant where everybody and their mistress is dining. Instead, why not impress your date by baking him or her these rich little cakes?
On second thought, maybe you should give them to your best friend instead.
Chocolate Bouchons with Black Pepper Ice Cream and Blood Orange Reduction
The amounts of sugar, butter and salt in the cake batter might seem excessive, but I assure you the flavor and texture turn out just right. I once made these gluten-free, by subbing sweet rice flour for the all-purpose, with excellent results. I’ve always used dutch-processed cocoa powder for these cakes, and don’t know whether they’d work with the “natural” stuff; Valrhona and Guittard both make good dutch-processed cocoa. Be sure the melted butter is still very warm when you add it to the cake batter; otherwise, the cakes won’t develop the prettily glazed cracks on top (they’ll still taste great, though!). Make the ice cream base the day before you plan to serve the cakes, as it benefits from resting in the fridge overnight, and needs to firm up for a few hours after spinning. (A wise woman once said, “You can’t hurry ice cream, no, you just have to wait”… or something like that.) If you lack an ice cream maker, or didn’t plan ahead, don’t fret; make a batch of crà ¨me anglaise and grind 1/4 teaspoon or so of black pepper into the cooled custard. All the components can be made in advance; the cakes keep well for several days, and reheat beautifully in the oven or toaster oven. Should you be so lucky as to have 3″ ring molds, use them to bake 8 cakes, omitting the cocoa-dusting step.
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) sugar
2/3 cup (2 3/4 ounces) dutch-processed cocoa powder, plus more for dusting the pans
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) flour
2/3 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and kept warm
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I use 72%), coarsely chopped (a scant cup)
Blood Orange Reduction (below)
Vanilla-Black Pepper Ice Cream (below)
freshly ground pepper
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 º. Brush 10 of the muffin tins with some of the melted butter and dust with cocoa powder. (The cleanest way to do this is to place about a tablespoon of cocoa powder in each tin, and, holding it over a large sheet of parchment paper, knock it around to the best of your ability, tapping out the excess onto the parchment. Use the parchment to slide the extra cocoa into your measuring cup for the cake.)
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until very thick and pale, 5 – 10 minutes. When you lift the paddle from the bowl, the egg goop should form a mound on the surface of the goop in the bowl for a second before disappearing.
While the eggs are doing their thing, sift together the cocoa, flour and salt into a medium bowl.
Beat the vanilla into the egg mixture. With the mixer on the lowest speed, add 1/3 of the dry mixture, beating until combined. With the mixer still running, drizzle in 1/2 of the warm, melted butter, mixing until combined (slowly drizzling in the butter ensures that it emulsifies into the eggs, resulting in a smooth, not greasy, texture). Keep going like that until all the stuff is in there. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the chopped chocolate. The batter should be fairly runny and shiny, like that of brownie batter.
Immediately divide the batter among the buttered and cocoa-ed muffin cups (a spring-loaded ice cream scoop makes quick work of this), filling them about 2/3 of the way full. Bake the cakes, rotating once, until shiny on top and a tester comes out with lots of moist crumbs (there may be melted chocolate from the chunks on there, too-don’t let it fool you), about 20 minutes. Let the cakes cool for 5 minutes. Invert a cooling rack over the cakes, then grab the pan and the rack and flip everything over together. Give the pan a rap on the table, then remove it, so that the cakes are sitting upside-down on the rack. Turn the cakes over to cool right-side-up.
To serve, dust the cakes with powdered sugar. Drizzle the blood orange reduction on plates, and place a warm cake atop each plate. Make a small pile of cocoa nibs next to or on top of the cakes, and top with a scoop of ice cream. Garnish the ice cream with ground black pepper, a few flecks of flaky salt and a few cocoa nibs.
The cakes will keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container at room temperature. Reheat in a 350 º oven for 3 – 5 minutes before serving.
The easiest way to measure the black pepper is to grind it onto a piece of creased paper, then use the paper to slide the pepper into the measuring spoons.
Save the egg whites for making brown-butter financier cakes. They will keep in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for several months.
1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
1 cup cold heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly and finely ground black pepper
In a medium saucepan, heat the half and half with the vanilla bean and scrapings until steaming and small bubbles appear around the sides of the pan. Cover and steep for 20 minutes.
Pour the heavy cream into a quart-sized container, such as a mason jar, and set aside. If you have an instant-read thermometer, have it handy.
Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl set on a damp towel to stabilize it. Add the sugar and salt, whisking to combine. Reheat the half and half to a bare scald. Whisking constantly with one hand, pour the hot dairy very slowly into the yolks. (This is called tempering, and prevents the yolks from scrambling.) Pour the mixture back into the pot and set over a medium-low flame. Cook, stirring constantly with a heat-proof rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the pot, until the custard just begins to “stick” (or form a thickened film) on the bottom of the pot (you will have to tilt the pan to see the bottom), or registers 170 º on an instant-read thermometer, 5-10 minutes.
Immediately pour the custard into the container of cold cream, stir to combine, and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
Place the ice cream base in the freezer for 30 minutes, stirring 2 – 3 times, to get it really cold. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, and stir in the black pepper, then process in an ice cream maker. ‘Cure’ in the freezer for at least 2 hours for a firmer, scoopable consistency.
Homemade ice cream is best eaten within the first few days of being made, but will keep for a month or two in the freezer.
Blood Orange Reduction:
Use any leftover syrup to make blood orange sodas; just stir a bit of syrup into a glass of sparkling water (or prosecco!).
1 cup freshly squeezed, strained blood orange juice (from 3 or 4 blood oranges)
1/2 cup sugar
Combine the juice and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook at a simmer, swirling occasionally, until syrupy and reduced by about half, 5 – 10 minutes. You can “test the set” and determine whether the sauce is thick enough to hold a line on a plate by dripping a drop of the reduction onto a chilled plate. Cool and store in the fridge for up to several weeks.
Aphrodite’s Delight truffle assortment from Socola
San Francisco is a foodie town. As a friend of mine said recently, “I feel like every time I get together with people they’re talking about some amazing new concoction.” It’s kind of true. San Francisco is a place with an incredible food culture born out of a year-round growing season and a creative, progressive atmosphere. From it comes some of the most unique chocolate in the world. Recently, I went on an Untapped Cities quest to meet the most interesting and up-and-coming Bay Area chocolatiers, as well as sample their glorious goods. Each told me the story of how they started their businesses: Socola, Trufflove, and The Tearoom.
SOCOLA Socola, the Vietnamese word for chocolate, was started in 2001 by sisters and Bay Area–natives Wendy and Susan Lieu. Wendy makes all the handmade confections with the help of a small staff, and organizes all things production-related. “She’s an Excel empress,” says Susan, paying respect to Wendy’s serious organizational skills. Susan, a ball of energy and ideas herself, takes care of marketing and PR for Socola. What impressed me the most is that the sisters have their own careers outside of the business. In addition to being head chocolatier of Socola, Wendy is also a management consultant. Susan, passionate about social justice activism, works on various projects that have taken her to places as far away as a sustainable cacao farm in Vietnam.
I asked how their remarkable and rapid journey-they are both successful 20-something entrepreneurs-influences their approach to making chocolate. Says Susan, “A general attitude of non-snobbery is really important to us. We’re on this earth for who knows how long; we might as well have fun and be gluttonous. We try to create things we’re excited about sharing with our friends.” Wendy, the pastry-school grad, chimed in, “I would like to add that with all this whimsy and fun, the technique [and craft] are still really important [to us].” She went on to fill me in on their family history, and how they came to be where they are now. Their parents were boat people who fled Vietnam in 1983 after the war; neither one had finished high school. After living in refugee camps for two years, they came to the U.S. They opened a nail salon and landscaping business, and taught themselves everything from scratch. Wendy concludes, ”The do-it-yourself spirit of entrepreneurship that we have is very much in the vein of being Vietnamese.” In a sense, Socola is both an homage and a testament to their heritage. Recognized as role models within the Vietnamese community in the U.S., the sisters spoke at a Culture Camp organized by the Catalyst Foundation last summer for Vietnamese adoptees. Susan recounts, “It was really special to be a part of bringing happiness to this community.”
Tasting Impressions: I sampled a tea assortment (that included matcha, masala chai, jasmine and earl grey truffles) as well as an assortment of some of their standards and current seasonal flavors. Overall, plenty of delicious dark chocolate truffles, not too sweet (which I personally love!), lots of depth, very creative flavor combinations. You can find their truffles online or at select San Francisco stores, including Bi-Rite and Whole Foods. Here are some of my favorites:
Burnt Baby Burnt (burnt caramel, sea salt, and dark chocolate). An assuredly deep flavor experience, each salt crystal is a separate bubble of salty flavor, which dissolves into the chocolate and resurfaces in the next crystal. Luxuriously warm aftertaste.
Sriracha Flying Rooster. Instantly zings the tip of the tongue and leaves a ring of smoky spice in its aftermath. The chocolate is tertiary; hot and spicy are the point.
Inside scoop:For Valentine’s Day, Socola is offering a truffle assortment called Aphrodite’s Delight, which includes Burnt Baby Burnt and Hot Lava flavors.
TRUFFLOVE Trufflove is the brainchild of Australian-born Carmen Brooks, chocolatier and creator of some seriously wonderful chocolates. She makes truffles with whole, fresh ingredients, emphasizing the local products of the region. Watch also for drops of liqueurs and spirits in her truffles. She adds enough to bring out the flavors of the truffle but not enough to be perceptible. Here’s Carmen’s story of how she got into the chocolate business: “I wanted to make a truffle tower for my wedding, so I made that.
Truffle Tower by Trufflove
Then, while waiting for my work permit I made chocolates to pass the time. I came up with my own recipes, and they kept getting better and better. By the time the months had passed it took to get a green card, I had 12 flavors.” Although running a chocolate business involves far more than just making chocolates, Carmen’s favorite aspects include making chocolate and meeting new people through professional networking.
A box of Trufflove
Tasting Impressions: Trufflove’s 12 truffle flavors include many different hues of chocolate. Often a dark shell contrasts with a creamy white center, or a crunchy nut coating contrasts with the ganache center. This perfectly balanced contrast between ingredients was my favorite aspect of the truffles. I sampled the twelve-piece tasting collection which you can find online or at select San Francisco locations. Here are some of my favorite from the collection:
Bourbon, Maple, Pecan. Milky chocolate center wrapped in a shell of slightly smoky-spicy nuts. The order of flavors: salt, bourbon, vanilla, chocolate, chili. The heat is not subtle. It permeates the experience in the best possible way and goes to the back of your throat. The chocolate flavor lingers on the tongue, while warm vanilla coats it all.
Whiskey and Honey. The center is a perfect ganache with just the right cocoa content to balance a shell of puffed brown rice. It has the satisfying depth of a true, unadulterated dark chocolate. Complete with firm outside and smooth center.
Inside Scoop:Carmen will be at Rainbow Grocery February 12th at 3 pm for a chocolate demo!
Zurich-born Heinz Rimann is head chocolatier of The Tearoom, a Bay Area chocolate company founded in 2007. The Tearoom specializes in combining chocolate and tea. I chatted with him about his career in chocolate, and how he makes his fabulous tea-infused chocolates. How did he come up with this creative take on chocolate? His response: “Tea and chocolate are my two favorite things, so I thought I’d put them together.” A career in the food and hospitality industry, the open-mindedness of American chocolate consumers, and an attraction to the Bay Area led Rimann to open The Tearoom here. It was interesting to speak to him about chocolate, because his native Switzerland is world famous for its chocolate. Switzerland has one of the highest rates of chocolate consumption, but consumers are more traditional, and well-known brands like Lindt, Cailler, Camille Bloch dominate the market.
Tasting Impresions: Balance and flavor are the true feats of Tearoom chocolate. Eating this delightful tea chocolate is like drinking a cup of tea while eating chocolate, only better! The Tearoom sells not only truffles but also bars of tea-infused chocolate. I sampled the assortment of tea-infused chocolate bars, available online. Here are some of my favorite flavors:
Earl Grey Green + Dark. Delicately perfumed, it has a perfect balance between the tea and chocolate flavors.
Caramel Almond. Very warm almond caramel flavor, with just a hint of salt. I personally love slightly salty baked goods, and this chocolate reminded me of that delightful balance.
Interested in comparing different approaches to making chocolate, I asked each of these wonderful chocolatiers the same questions. Here are their responses.
Untapped Cities:Do you get a lot of requests for certain flavors? What trends have you noticed in the public’s taste?
Socola: People love the salty caramel.
Trufflove: Peanut butter and salty caramels are popular here as opposed to in Australia, where we enjoy things like chocolate-covered licorice and orange-chocolate. I think there’s also more of an inclination in general nowadays to buy something that’s very small and very good quality, as many people are trying to avoid overeating.
Heinz Rimann: Sometimes customers will really focus in on one particular flavor, like a lapsang souchong blend I made, or the matcha truffle. But now the big thing is caramel with just a touch of sea salt!
UC:What sources of inspiration do you have for coming up with new flavors?
S: Our flavors are inspired by the people we love, among many other things.
T: Certain [food] dishes can be inspirations, for example, a cashew chili and pineapple fried rice I had recently-[I] thought it would be awesome in anything. Sometimes I just come across an ingredient or a liqueur that interests me, and that can inspire a new recipe.
HR: I look at trends. Or, I’ll eat something interesting and think maybe that could work…I always have new ideas ready to develop.
UC:What is the most crucial part of the truffle eating experience?
S: That they be visually appealing, that the ganache is dense and melts in your mouth. Creativity and flavor are super important, too.
T: The way that you experience the flavors should be identifiable. Sweet, salty, then spicy is normally the order you taste and your brain perceives flavors. Texture is also important-biting into it, how it stays or melts in your mouth. Another factor is whether it stays together in your hand. There are a lot of things to consider when you try to make a nice chocolate.
HR: Both texture and flavor are important, and in the case of my chocolate, the tea not overpowering the chocolate or vice versa. There has to be a perfect balance. Sometimes you taste the tea first, then the chocolate, sometimes the other way around.
UC:Finally, since I’m writing about chocolate in San Francisco what is your most popular truffle here?
HR: Dark chocolate!
S: Vietnamese Coffee and Burnt Caramel with Sea Salt are the most popular.
T: The response to spicy chocolates has been really strong. Bourbon maple and spice pecan is what San Francisco loves.
If you’re searching for a sweet for your sweetie on Valentine’s Day, look no further! Chocolates from these three unique producers can be ordered online or found in Bay Area stores.
This Valentine’s day, seduce your special someone in true French fashion with a visit to the former residence of Serge Gainsbourg at 5 Bis Rue de Verneuil in the seventh arrondissement.
Gainsbourg is a national treasure known just as much for his sultry singing and prolific songwriting as he is for his famous love affair with Brigitte Bardot and marriage to Jane Birkin. His former home is a living tribute to both sides of his reputation, covered in street art, quotations from his music and personal messages of love.
Gainsbourg grew up an ugly duckling with the nickname Cabbage Head. Just the same, he landed ladies like Jane and Brigitte so you know he was doing something right.
He entered the music industry and quickly gained notoriety for his poetic style, experimental records and for releasing a song (Je T’aime ”¦ Moi Non Plus) that featured the sounds of Jane Birkin having an orgasm. The Catholic Church condemned it; the radio banned it; but the youth of the sexual revolution embraced it and catapulted him to international stardom.
Gainsbourg’s eccentric, artistic and amorous style is synonymous with French sexuality. Think Olivier Martinez, Carla Bruni and I’m including Johnny Depp here because he lives in Paris and fits the profile.
Visitors to the Gainsbourg home are mostly local Parisians and usually only a few at a time. That won’t be the case this Satuday, February 19 as the fan group Gainsbourg.net organizes a FlashMob there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Gainsbourg’s death. Contact [email protected] They say they would love to have some Americans join them. Leave a comment if you’re interested. I certainly am.