It’s kind of fascinating how you can point to any holiday on the calendar at any time of the year and, invariably, there will be food associated with that holiday. And if it’s not about the things you should eat, then it’s the things you should not eat. Or, it’s that you should not eat at all (as in fasting).
Personally, I think holidays are just excuses for eating lots of delicious things that we normally stay away from, or otherwise berate ourselves for indulging in when there’s no holiday to make it permissible.
St. Valentine’s Day is no exception. The number one food for V-Day, of course, is chocolate. What would this lovers’ holiday be without the sweet, dark mistress of passion? And a mistress she is—when she calls you, you come running, even if you have to jump hurdles to get to her. She seduces you with her aroma and her flavor, and when you get a taste of her, you savor her, letting her linger on your palate. And once she whips you into submission, she makes you beg for more. There’s a reason why the Aztecs called it the food of the gods.
Indeed the sensuality of chocolate is such that chocolate scents are now included in body products—lotions, sprays, shampoos—and chocolate flavors in…well, you get the idea.
But how did this dark goddess become so integral to St. Valentine’s Day? One reason—and probably the main reason—is because chocolate is considered an aphrodisiac. This belief was founded on the fact that Montezuma, king of the Aztecs, would drink a beverage made from cacao to enhance his sexual prowess, and chocolate became part of the ceremonial rites in Aztec and Mayan weddings. The idea of chocolate being a symbol of love and sex was further promoted by the lover of all lovers, Casanova. Following in his footsteps, men began giving chocolate to their amours. The first box of chocolate to be given as a romantic gift was introduced in 1868, and its fate was sealed.
If you want to remove the romantic element, the scientific reality is that chocolate contains a chemical called phenylethylamine, which releases dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is known in layman’s terms as the “feel-good drug.” That, plus a dose of caffeine, makes chocolate give people an endorphine-like high.
The other reason for chocolate’s association with V-Day is that when it crossed the Atlantic from North America to Europe, chocolate became a luxury item. Not right away, though— at first, it was not readily accepted because raw cacao is bitter. But when the Dutch added sugar to it, it became the darling of the elite set, especially in France. Since St. Valentine’s Day is all about luxury and special things, it became the “thing” to give chocolate on that day.And so, with all that in mind, I thought I’d offer a recipe for chocolate pudding hearts. You can get these heart molds from kitchen supply shops, gourmet shops (around Valentine’s Day), or online. The end products look so lovely on a plate, decorated with berries, mint, whipped cream, chocolate curls, or whatever garnish you like.
I’m always trying to create healthier versions of desserts, so I opted to use agar agar in place of cornstarch, which is meant to both set the pudding and give it a silky texture. Agar agar is derived from algae and acts just like gelatin. But unlike gelatin, which is an animal byproduct, agar agar is completely vegetarian. It was first discovered in Japan, and if you’re familiar with Japanese cuisine, you might know its Japanese name, kanten. Agar agar continues to be a common ingredient in Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine. And because it’s from seaweed, it contains many of the minerals found in seaweed: calcium, iron, and fiber. It’s known to reduce inflammation, help with lung function, and help with digestion and weight loss. It also improves liver function and aids in carrying toxins out of the body. You can get agar agar at Asian markets, health food stores, and online.
Without cornstarch, this pudding is slightly grainier than typical pudding, but it’s decadent nonetheless. I also created a version using coconut milk, which is thicker and incredibly delicious. The instructions are below the main recipe.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, everyone. If you don’t have a special someone, then just look in the mirror and recognize how special you are. Enjoy the pudding.
Chocolate Pudding Hearts for Two
Using Agar Agar and Maple Crystals
Makes 2 servings
½ cup half-and-half
½ cup milk
2 large egg yolks
½ teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
Pinch fine salt
1½ teaspoons agar agar
¼ cup maple crystals
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Garnishes: Berries, berry puree*, slivered almonds, crushed almonds
Combine half-and-half and milk. Remove 2 tablespoons and place in a small bowl. Add egg yolks, vanilla, and salt. Whisk together. Sprinkle agar agar over top and let sit 5 minutes. Combine remaining milk mixture with maple crystals and cocoa in a small non-aluminum saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then lower heat. Add a small amount to the egg mixture in the bowl and whisk together.
Pour this mixture back into the pan. Cook, whisking frequently, until it comes to a boil. Over low heat, continue cooking and whisking until thickened, about 2 to 4 minutes. Spray 2 heart-shaped molds or other molds with nonstick spray. Pour the pudding equally into the molds. (If you don’t have molds, just pour the pudding into small bowls or martini glasses.) Cover with plastic wrap—gently press the plastic right on top of the pudding to prevent “pudding skin”—and refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours or overnight.When ready to serve, remove plastic and carefully run a knife around mold to loosen pudding. Invert them onto plates and garnish. Clean plates and serve.
*Berry puree: Puree 1 cup berries (strawberries, raspberries) with 1 teaspoon maple crystals. Make a pool of puree on a plate and place pudding on top. Or dollop puree on sides of pudding.
Chocolate-Coconut Pudding: Substitute 1 cup coconut milk for the half-and-half and milk. Garnish with toasted coconut.