I’m going to make some wild assertions on love and romance, and then I’m going to tell you to cheat. And I’m going to finish it all off with a chocolate and caramel tart that would make the angels weep. Happy Valentine’s Day.
My love isn’t like a red red rose. It’s a weed, that sets down roots that slowly, quietly spread until it’s impossible to unanchor. It’s not pretty to look at, but it’s pretty damn unmoveable. It’s not a box of Milk Tray. Or a fancy supper. It’s not poetry: it’s prose. Quiet, meandering prose. It’s having the confidence to speak aloud, without caveat or censor. It’s unattractive snorting laughter. It’s less Louboutins, more slippers. I don’t serve scallops or oysters or steak when I want to show my love.
It is old hat to talk about food as love, but it’s an aphorism that holds true. It wouldn’t take a psychologist to determine that I show my love through food and cooking and feeding. And the longer I spend on that food, the greater the love. For me, love is slow, and slow food is love.
And if slow food is love, love is stew. Ugly stew. Simmered for hours on end, drenched in wine. Served with unphotogenic mash and, maybe, a shock of something green. It is curry, so hot that your ears steam and your nose runs, that demands to be paired not with a delicate bottle of white brought by your date, but with bottles, plural, of really cold beer. It is crumble that can only properly be eaten in pyjamas, on the sofa, with enough custard to fill a bath tub. It is soft, buttercup-yellow, homemade pasta with sauces so full of garlic and (if I get my way) smoked salmon that no one but your true love will sit next to you for a week.
(Although I confess here that the meal served with the most love in our house is an enormous take-away pizza, offered in place of any kitchen effort whatsoever, and proffered at moments of weariness or sadness or existential despair.)
But love and romance are two different things. Food is love. But Valentine’s Day isn’t about love; it isn’t about weeds, or quietness or ugly stews, it’s about romance and passion and scallops.
There is a good reason, I think, that romantic or aphrodisiac foods don’t require much if any hands on time: oysters slurped raw; scallops, briefly introduced to the hottest bit of the pan before being whisked onto a plate; strawberries, maybe dunked in melted chocolate if you’re feeling fancy; asparagus plunged into hot water and back out again.
Romance is not slow-cooked, or simmered, or par-boiled. It is seared and sizzled and bruleed. Valentine’s day should not be spent in the kitchen. It should be spent with the object of your desire. It is not romantic to watch someone mash potatoes. No one has ever been filled with lust by watching the object of their romance worry over meringues. I am giving you permission to get out of the kitchen, as quickly as possible. This pudding is made completely in advance; if you buy pre-cooked there is absolutely no baking, and a maximum of ten minutes hands-on cooking. And when I say ‘cooking’, I really mean ‘melting and pouring’. And it’s a sexy pudding: handsome, glossy, ever-so-slightly bitter chocolate, giving way to oozing caramel, all on a vehicle of shortcrust butter pastry. It looks far more impressive than it deserves to, and is completely delicious to boot.
So cheat. For the love of God, cheat. Cheat with wild abandon. Cheat joyfully and repeatedly. Do it without guilt or judgement. Do not chain yourself to the stove. Do not faff about with heart shaped shortbread, or souffles, or, melting fondant puddings. Make this pudding, fast and fuss-free, and serve it without apology.
This is the ultimate cheat’s dessert. More so than a shop bought pudding, more so than a cheese board, because you are actually making this yourself. You put (a very small amount of) effort into the deception. Supermarket cheesecake is a regrettable one-night stand. This is an affair.
Incidentally, this recipe will make more toffee sauce than you need, but it freezes. If you don’t stand over the jug spooning it directly into your mouth, that is. And if you don’t, you’re a stronger person than I am.
Think of the sauce you pour over a sticky toffee pudding, but slightly thicker, and you’re getting close to what goes in this tart. It’s technically, I suppose, a butterscotch sauce, but it’s not what we think of as butterscotch, that pale corn-coloured, one-note sweetness. Here, the muscovado sugars give this sauce a caramelly depth, and the generous pinch of salt stops it being too sweet. Think of this as salted caramel without the bitter notes and, more importantly, without the faff of making caramel. I like making caramel, but no matter how many times I make it, it’s always a little bit of a worry: will I scorch it, will I take it too far, will that slight bitterness turn acrid? It requires judgement, and that makes me twitchy. This does not make me twitchy: it makes me confident verging on cocky.
One tart about 8 inches across will feed far more than you and your Valentine, but really, in what world is chocolate caramel tart for breakfast a bad thing?
It goes like this:
Cheat’s Valentine’s Chocolate Caramel Tart
Makes: 1 large tart, or six individual tartlets
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 20 minutes if you’re baking the pastry yourself
1 packet of pre-bought pastry or pastry cases
For the toffee sauce
115g unsalted butter
60g light muscovado sugar
55g dark muscovado sugar
150ml double cream
Small pinch of salt
For the chocolate ganache
150g dark chocolate
120ml double cream
1. If you’re using pre-cooked pastry cases, you can go straight to step 5. If you’re using pre-bought raw pastry, take it out of the fridge 45 minutes before you want to use it, and leave it at room temperature.
2. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees. If you’re using raw pastry, flour a rolling pin, and roll it out a bit thinner than it comes in the packet. Roll the pastry up onto the rolling pin, and drape it over the tin or pie dish. You need overhang of the pastry, so that when it shrinks on baking, you’re not left with a sad, reduced pastry case, but trim off any large overhang or heavy bits, that are unnecessary or may cause the pastry to be too heavy and put strain on the case. Prick all over with a fork. Spread baking parchment over the base of the tart, and cover with baking beads or dry rice.
3. Bake for fifteen minutes, then carefully remove the baking parchment and baking beans or rice, and return to the oven for another 10-ish minutes until the pastry is golden.
4. Whilst the pastry is still warm, use a very sharp knife (I use a bread knife) to cut off the overhang neatly.
5. Now, make the toffee sauce: put all the ingredients in a medium-sized pan, place over a low heat until the butter has melted, then increase the heat until the mixture gently boils. Allow it to boil for about four minutes, until the mixture has thickened a little (although it will still be very runny).
At this point I transfer the toffee sauce into a jug, because it makes pouring easier. Pour into the pastry case(s) until the case is about half full. Pop in the fridge to chill down. You’re ready for the next stage when you can gently touch the toffee sauce with a fingertip without stickiness.
6. Chop the chocolate into pieces as small as you can manage, and place in a large, heat-proof bowl. Heat the double cream until it boils gently for a couple of minutes. Keep a close eye on this or it can bubble over the edge. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and whisk gently until glossy.
[Don’t panic if your chocolate ganache seizes: you’ll know if this happens, because it will look greasy, almost gelatinous. If this happens, use an immersion or stick blender whilst slowly pouring cream into the mixture until it is smooth and glossy.]
7. Spoon the chocolate ganache over the tart and smooth. Sprinkle a little coarse salt over the tarts if you fancy. Leave to cool completely, but not in the fridge.
8. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
Creme fraiche is great with this tart: thick enough to literally and figuratively hold its own, and will simultaneously offset the sweetness of the toffee sauce, and cut through the richness of the chocolate. Creme fraiche always strikes me as impossibly grown up, in a way that I can’t really justify, and for that reason it seems ideal for sophisticated romance. And then I use the rest of the creme fraiche up a distinctly unsophisticated, unromantic smoked salmon pasta sauce.