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« The Little Black Dress of Dinner | Main | Tigres to the Rescue »

As Long as There's Chocolate...

Chocolate Panna Cotta with Vanilla Bean Syrup and Crushed Raspberries

Goodness me, what is this? A Valentine's Day post?? Chez moi???

I know you were probably in too much of a chocolate-induced coma to notice, but both last year and the year before I did something pretty sneaky: I put a post up the day after Valentine's and acted as if the holiday had never even happened. I certainly didn't assault you with ideas for luscious last-minute Valentine's Day desserts and I definitely didn't put up photos in shades of pink and red so that even if I changed my mind at the last minute and tried to ignore the whole thing everybody would see right through it and know the truth. So why start now?

Well, I've had a change of heart. In fact, after spending most of my adult life avoiding it as assiduously as possible, I've decided that Valentine's Day is actually - wait for it, this is big - worth celebrating after all.

Now please understand, my issues with Valentine's Day don't come from the hardened bitterness of having spent one too many of them alone. As you know, I'm a married woman, and have in fact spent the last ten years of my life passionately in love. But as much as that deserves celebrating, and as much as I love having an excuse to eats lots of chocolate, there's always been a couple of things about Valentine's Day that I cannot seem to make my peace with.

First, there's the obligation. Maybe it's just my nonconformist streak, but I really dislike people telling me what to do. In particular, I don't like the idea that I'm supposed to show my love for someone on the same day and in exactly the same way as everyone else around the world - flowers, chocolates, dinner, yada yada yada. And I hate it that if I don't, I risk implying that I don't love him. How ridiculous is that? Love should be spontaneous, and surprising, and be demonstrated copiously and frequently rather than on the one day a year Hallmark, Inc. has set aside for that purpose.

Far worse than that, however, is the exclusive nature of the whole affair. I mean just think about it - how many other holidays are there that regularly exclude large numbers of people who want to celebrate them? Do we deny people the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving because they're gluten-intolerant, or they don't like turkey? Do we deny someone the chance to celebrate Christmas because they weren't raised Catholic? Of course not, but somebody at some point decided that Valentine's Day could only be celebrated by those who have romantic love in their lives, and if you don't, well too bad - you'll just have to sit at home, miserable and alone, while all your friends get showered with jewelry and chocolates and overpriced dinners. I mean really, as if being single wasn't hard enough, what with the lack of tax breaks and the necessity of suffering through five days of leftovers every time you make a recipe from a cookbook, old St. Valentine has to pour salt on the wound too.

Nevertheless, the more I insisted on not celebrating Valentine's Day in protest, the more I felt uneasy, like this wasn't the right answer. Sure the day is hokey and commercialized and fraught with discrimination, but I've now come to the conclusion that the last thing we should do is stop celebrating it entirely. There is, by my count anyway, a chronic shortage of love in this world, and maybe, just maybe, what we ought to do is keep celebrating Valentine's Day, but celebrate it just a little bit differently. Here's what I propose. Forget about your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend for the day - they should know how much you love them already, and if they don't, promise them that you'll spend the other 364 days of the year proving it - and instead, spend the day spreading love among people who don't expect it: your co-workers, your neighbors, your parents and children, your friends. Buy them boxes of candy, bake them cookies, invite them over for a fabulous dinner that ends with the kind of indulgent chocolate dessert that normally only people in the throes of romance get to experience on this date. In short, help more people in this world feel loved, not less.

Who knows? I think it might just be crazy enough to work... that is, as long as there's still plenty of chocolate involved.

Chocolate Panna Cotta with Vanilla Bean Syrup and Crushed Raspberries

I know many of you picked out your Valentine's Day desserts weeks ago, but if you're still sitting around, wondering what on earth you could whip up that would be quick, foolproof, decadent and chocolaty - and more importantly isn't the same old mousse or flourless torte - I have exactly the dessert for you. It blends the silken wobbliness of a great panna cotta with the intensity of dark chocolate ganache, its bitter edge kept just this side of tame by a slick of vanilla-flecked syrup and the tang of crimson raspberries. It's not only delicious, it's downright sexy - which in my book is a plus no matter who you plan on sharing it with.
Serves: 4

For Panna Cotta:
1 tablespoon cold water
1 1/4 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
1 1/2 cups (375ml) heavy cream
3 tablespoons sugar
pinch salt
3.5 oz (100g) fine bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons liqueur of your choice: Frangelico, Amaretto, Bailey's, Grand Marnier, Chambord... (optional, but recommended)

For Vanilla Syrup:
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 1/2 cups (375ml) water

For Raspberries:
1 package (somewhere around 12oz/350g) frozen unsweetened raspberries, thawed
4-5 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Grease four ramekins or small dessert bowls with a little vegetable oil, wiping out the excess. Pour the 1 tablespoon cold water into another small bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin. Let stand for 5 minutes, or until softened.

Stir together the cream, sugar and salt in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When the liquid comes to a simmer, stir in the gelatin mixture. Continue stirring for 30 seconds or until the gelatin is dissolved, but be careful - don't let it boil. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and whisk until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the liqueur. Divide the mixture between the greased ramekins or dessert bowls. Let cool for a few minutes, and then cover with plastic wrap, pressing it onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 8 hours, until set.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Stir together the sugar, vanilla bean, lemon juice and 1 1/2 cups water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until mixture has reduced to about 2/3 cup (160ml) and has the consistency of a thin syrup, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then remove the vanilla bean.

Place the thawed raspberries in a small bowl. Crush lightly with back of spoon. Stir in sugar to taste (they should still be a bit tart). Set aside until needed. 

To serve the panna cottas, fill a bowl with very hot water. Dip the ramekins or bowls into the water for about 20-30 seconds, then unmold onto plates, using the tip of a knife to help coax them out. (Alternatively, you can always just serve them in the ramekins.) Drizzle each one with a couple tablespoons of the vanilla syrup and plop a mound of the crushed raspberries alongside. Serve with the remaining syrup and raspberries on the side for people to add more as they like.


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Reader Comments (30)

You dislike people telling you what to do? I never would have guessed. ;-)

Melissa, this is a beautiful post. You make me very proud.

I think sharing this post would be a way to share love, even if I can't send everybody chocolate!


(And of course you remembered that chocolate and raspberries was Dan's absolute favorite dessert.)

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMom

this sounds perfect for V-day! thank you for sharing it!

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKat

bravo! well said!

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commentertricia

Chocolate and raspberries are what I picked for my Valentine's tarts, although we celebrated early. Well, celebrated... sounds like I'm jumping up and down. Well no, I'm also not a huge fan of this holiday. I loved your explanation for it. I share your view 100%. Another lovely post!

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAran

Oh, Melissa, you're a cruel, cruel woman - I have just posted a recipe for chocolate mousse (albeit the salted butter caramel kind) AND almost flourless torte, and now you're telling me that's totally out of fashion??
Lovely-looking panna cotta - especially with the raspberries..

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPille

I have to say, I have never understood why so many people are passionately opposed to this holiday. I too find its cloying commercialization to be annoying, but that's really no different from any other holiday. Yet, I've always felt a certain fondness for this day, even as a child. In fact, though I'm in my 30s, only in the past four years have I had a romantic partner to share this day with, and it's true that I can enjoy it in a different way now. Before that, however, I did exactly what you propose in this post: I spread love and cheer to every corner possible, running around delivering cookies and candies to friends, family, and perfect strangers. What other day can one do this without looking like a complete nutbar?!?! There is no greater pleasure for me than seeing the smile on the janitor's face when I offer him a friendly chocolate, or when I pass on a card to a coworker, or, indeed, when I open a parcel from my mother that is complete with some favourite childhood memory or treat. To me this has never been a holiday of exclusion, and I feel sorry for those who are not able to "feel the love" in the world around them. Bravo on your post!

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterShanti

i, as a single individual, have actually had a fabulous vday - if only for those things -

i feel immensely loved by my friends and family - and how can you feel lonely when you know that you are loved?


February 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteranita

haha i always spend valentines with my girlfriends, much funner, lots of chocolate and chick flicks. no stress!this year we pigged out on tea at the balmoral. the cakes are YUM! though seriously, just looking at your dessert makes me CRAVE panna cotta!

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermystika387

Wow, and here I thought I had the perfect last-minute Valentine's Day dessert with my Dulce de Leche Chocolate Tart but I do believe you have outdone me. Bravo!

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJennie

May I just say one thing, Melissa?
I love you.

as a single girl in this Noah's Ark aka V-Day, this really hits home.

I wrote something about it actually, on my journal on OkCupid.com.

if you wish to read my post, here's the link to my journal:

February 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermalka lev adom

Excellent post! My daughter is only 14 and she is already feeling the pressure of Valentine's Day. I agree that we should show the people we love that we love them all year long, not just on one day. But, it is a great excuse to eat a lot of chocolate! ;)

FYI, your photo is on Tastespotting, but the link does not take you back to this post.

Lovely Panna Cotta!
I love you all year long...

February 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGabi

Melissa, your desserts are always gorgeous. Restaurant fare, beautifully plated... I love how the syrup and the juice from the raspberries meet at the center of the plate, two distinct pools...

February 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEllen

Chocolate panna cotta is one of my all-time favorite things. This one looks beautiful!!

Happy Valentine's Day :)

February 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSues is not Martha

A great idea indeed Melissa. And what a lovely dessert. I mean, I would always find an excuse for a second Valentine's celebration for such a sweet treat. And guess what, I just had to make chocolate creme caramel ;-)

February 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbea at La tartine gourmande

Je comprends pas l'anglais et c'est bien dommage car ça a l'air délicieux!

February 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMélanie

A lovely idea, Melissa. I'll be grateful for any excuse to eat this dessert!

February 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRosa Jackson

That's really well written Melissa, I totally agree with you!

February 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbindiya

For quite a while, I've been trying to make my peace with this kind of holiday (for not really celebrating it in my part of the world doesn't protect you from falling into the whole expectations trap). However, stupid me has never been able to come up with such a different kind of attitude towards it. Thanks for this eye opener!

February 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEva

Lovely, both the post and the dessert.

February 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

I am so making it tonight- I´m sure it doesn´t have to be Valentines day to create such divine desserts :) Thank you for your post and a lovely picture!

February 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBritta

Oh, my...this looks divine...chocolate pannacotta, raspberries, vanilla syrup? I think I may faint! lol Gorgeous.

February 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercanarygirl

*Paz licking lips*

;-) Paz

February 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaz

Your posts and pictures are amazing. As long as there is chocolate i can feel a little bit happier in my daily routine, says I and bite dark cacao choco.

March 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBri

What a stunning, delicious dessert. Chocolate and raspberries together are heavenly.

April 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPatricia Scarpin

Because of my religious dietary restrictions I cannot use gelatin. Can agar agar be used instead of powdered gelatin to make the panna cotta?

May 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterzainab

Hi Zainab - I've never tried that myself, but I know other people successfully substitute agar agar in panna cotta. Why not give it a try? Even if it doesn't completely set it will still be delicious.

May 17, 2008 | Registered Commentermelissa

Made this for Valentine's Day 2009, which I celebrated with my sisters. It was gorgeous and delicious and well received, thank you!

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJacqueline

Oh, it's probably too late to help Zainab, but I'd like to note that I used this vegan gelling agent and it turned out well. The instructions on the box said *not* to soak it in cold water like you would gelatin, so I just whisked the powder directly into the hot milk/sugar.

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJacqueline

I think raspberries and chocolate are the best thing since sliced bread. I could eat raspberries or chocolate all day by themselves, you put them together and I'm in heaven. This picture makes me want to lick my computer. Good Job.

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDigital Scales

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