While Ben and I have never placed a lot of emphasis on celebrating Valentines Day, I do see it as a nice excuse to be a little cute. In high school he was sweet enough to send me flowers whenever the 14th of February rolled around. This made me very embarrassed, but secretly I was thrilled to be one of those girls who were lucky enough to get a bunch delivered to the school. As we grew up we would always naturally save the date to spend together. Perhaps we would go out for dinner, or if the date fell on a weekend we may go for a picnic. But it was never a very lavish affair - never any diamonds or big boxes of chocolates....hang on a second here, maybe that doesn't sound so bad? Just kidding, I love our way. This year, with Valentines Day falling on a Monday, we decided to have a casual night in. It is always nice to spend a night together with some wine, indulgent food and snuggles, so I was loving the excuse to make that little extra effort. I was pressed for time, with a super busy work week, and so I couldn't spend hours preparing dinner. But I knew I wanted to try something special, and something new!
We also put a $10 limit on presents (we tend to do that a lot and I like it, it really encourages creativity). I originally planned on getting Ben a really delicious BBQ sauce from a gourmet grocer. However in the end I decided to steer clear of food related gifts - just for a change! Instead, I visit out local cheap junk style store, and bought him a lint remover (a personal joke, he's always saying we need one) and a little golf putting game. Just something fun.
Ben was a little more sentimental, and had a picture framed, taken in Hoi An during our recent trip to Asia. I love it, we look so happy. He also bought me one red rose, ahhhh love.
Side note: as children, mum would always get us kids something small and sweet for Valentines Day, and she still does. This year she gave me this gorgeous cookie-cutter set in a cute tin. She's the best.
Over the weekend, Jamie Oliver tweeted a link to his recipe, Spaghetti Vongole. This is a dish that Ben and I adore. While travelling Italy in 2009, we fell in love with al dente linguini with mussels and clams. It is very likely our most beloved meal, the taste and the memories send us instantly into a euphoric state of unadulterated happiness. I knew that this was the dish I had to make.
With the main covered, I went searching for something else. Usually, for a two course meal, I opt for entree and main - desserts at restaurants rarely grab me. However for Valentines Day, you can't go past dessert. You simply must have a silky, sexy pot of sumptuous sweets to share. No dessert on Valentines Day? That's against the law, right?
So what was I going to make?...
I wanted to cater to Ben's tastes, so mum's fabulous suggestion of coeur à la crème was out of the question, as Ben is a bit funny about sweet cheeses. I also wanted to avoid anything too rich and heavy, and hence not conducive to a *cough* happy time, so that crossed self-saucing chocolate pudding off the list (dammit). I contemplated a lemon tart, but did not want to commit to the time requirements of making my own pastry, as well as attempting lemon curd for the first time - this all felt a little too stressful for a busy Monday. Souffle for me equal stress, so that was out too.
Then a sweet thought occurred to me...crème brulée! Sure, this luxurious French dessert doesn't exactly follow on thematically from the very Italian main... but crème brulée is one of Ben's all-time favourite desserts! It felt right.
So I set out to make my very first crème brulée...gulp! A little preparation and cooking in the morning, and into the fridge it went to chill for the evening. Although I didn't have any prior attempt to compare my crème to whilst it was cooking, I was quite pleased with how it came together. And I actually really enjoyed the process. As a side note: Is there anything more delicious than vanilla bean? So incredibly sweet and fragrant, I find it powerfully intoxicating.
During a work break I dashed out to purchase clams from Extra Fresh, in Bentleigh. I had a super busy work day and couldn't travel far for produce, plus I have been pleased with their salmon steaks in the past. They did not have any clams, however they did have mussels, so I purchased 800g (this is more than the recipe calls for, however I anticipated that some wouldn't open and would need to be discarded).
Before I knew it, early evening was upon me. I quickly made pretty our dining table...
then got to preparing dinner.
I started cleaning the mussels, when suddenly one sneaky mollusc made very clear he was still alive - as I was pulling out the creepy hairy part, it initiated a tug-of-war game. This officially creeped me out, so I resolved to hand the rest over to Ben when he arrived home.
You see, overcoming my fear of cooking with mussels and clams is on my list - my list of culinary skills that I want to develop this coming year. Although I wussed out during the preparation process and ran to Ben for support, I am still giving myself a giant 'tick', as I know I will be far more confident next time I cook with these creepy, yet delicious, little suckers.
In all honesty, I was actually pleased I could share the cooking process with Ben. We had a lot of fun drinking Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc and reminiscing about our Italian adventures.
This dinner came together so quickly, and was a lot of fun to make (once the cleaning and de-hairing was out of the way). And it was even more fun to eat, together at our table with fresh flowers, candles, wine and B.B. King playing in the background. It was a perfectly romantic and scrumptious meal.
The rest of our night involved Man Men, our couch and more wine. Between episodes I rose from our comfy nook to put the finishing touches on the crème brulée. At this point what I had prepared was a complete surprise, and Ben was guessing I had made some sort of tart for dessert. Excitedly, I whipped out the blow-torch that my parents had kindly given us (thanks mum and dad!), and began to create my brulée. After about 5 seconds I called Ben into the kitchen, as I did not want him to miss out on this fun! As soon as he saw what I was doing his eyes light up in excitement - not only for the promise of his favourite dessert, but also to have a turn of the blowtorch. Crème brulée is such a fabulous dessert to make, I love to see sugar caramelise - it's like magic!
I did a little sugar experiment with this crème brulée. Mum informed me that she likes to use caster sugar for the top, whereas the recipe I used called for brown sugar. I made two serves, so I did one of each. I feel that the caster sugar gave a more solidified top and a more definite 'crack' when attacked with a spoon. The brown sugar gave a more intense, rich flavour to the top, which I did not favour. All in all, I prefered the caster sugar topping, however Ben enjoyed the brown one equally - easily pleased? Perhaps. What are your experiences in this area? I would love to hear your thoughts!
So here is the finished product, my very first crème brulée. I must say I was quite pleased with the result. Next time, I would want my crème mixture to be smoother (perhaps I stirred it inadequately or I may need to use a sieve). I would also like it to be a little more 'set', however I chilled the mixture for 9 hours (as opposed to the 5-6 recommended in the recipe) so I am not sure what else I should do. Perhaps it all depends on the cooking process while in the oven. Again, I would love any tips. I can tell that I am gong to be making many more crème brulée in the future, as despite my few little misgivings, it was utterly delicious!
Divine, luxurious, vanilla-infused custard with a delightfully crisp, caramelised top. I was so pleased with the 'crack', I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. And I noticed that Ben was wiggling his toes as he ate his dessert - my job was done :)
So that is how we spent Valentines Day this year. I must say it was one of our best nights in. I hope you all had a little love and happiness on Monday too. Scrap that - I hope you all have a lot of love and happiness in your everyday life.