A love of chocolate

Are you hoping your sweetie will recognize your relationship on February 14 with a heart-shaped box of chocolates? Or will you be the one paying a premium for a fancy box to express your love?

Among the people you can thank for this wonderful Valentine’s Day tradition of giving chocolate: Montezuma, Hernan Cortes and Richard Cadbury.

Chocolate comes from cacao, an ancient Mexican word meaning “God food.”  The Mayans brewed a spicy, bitter drink from the seeds of the cacao tree. The Aztecs lived farther north, where the cacao beans wouldn’t grow. They prized the beans above silver and gold, and used them as currency (100 beans could buy a canoe!).

Like the Mayans, the Aztecs enjoyed the drink made from cacao beans, which they called Xocolatl. The Spanish conquistadors corrupted the name of the bean to “cocoa” and the name of the Aztec drink to “chocolat.”

Cortes was probably the first European to encounter chocolate. Bernal Diaz, who accompanied him on to the court of Montezuma, wrote of the encounter:

“From time to time they served him [Montezuma] in cups of pure gold a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving with great reverence.”

So that explains how chocolate came to Europe, but how did it get inextricably meshed with Valentine’s Day?

The food of love

By the 1840s, Valentine’s Day had become a holiday to celebrate romantic love throughout the English-speaking world. The Victorians loved to demonstrate their love through elaborate cards and gifts.

The Cadbury company had been making chocolate in England since the 1820s. In 1854 the company received a royal warrant as manufacturers of chocolate and cocoa to Queen Victoria.

Richard Cadbury, son of the company’s founder, improved the drinking chocolate by developing a press that extracted the unpalatable cocoa butter from the whole beans. He used the cocoa butter to produce what was then called “eating chocolate” (as distinct from most chocolate, which was still consumed as a drink).

Richard Cadbury began selling his chocolates in beautiful boxes he designed himself. When February rolled around, he created heart-shaped boxes and decorated them with roses and cupids. He promoted them not only for the chocolates inside, but for the boxes that could then be used to store keepsakes. Original Victorian-era Cadbury boxes are valuable collectors’ items.

It probably wasn’t too hard a sell for Cadbury. Few of us don’t enjoy a piece of good chocolate – and there’s some science behind behind our appreciation of it. Not only is it good for your heart, because it’s rich in antioxidant polyphenals, but there are amplereasons why chocolate gives most of us an emotional boost.

Chocolate  increases the brain’s level of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical. If you find yourself craving chocolate when you’re “down” and perking up when you eat some, you’re not just imagining the change. Serotonin contributes to many positive emotions, including increased sexual excitation, desire and responsiveness. Women may be more sensitive to the benefits of chocolate because they have more serotonin in their systems, making chocolate the perfect gift to give a gal on Valentine’s Day.

Here is a wonderful and very easy chocolate mousse recipe for Valentine’s Day or anytime. I got it from a friend soon after we were married and have been making it ever since. Be sure to use good quality chocolate chips. Top it with a dollop of real whipped cream and you have something that will make your sweetheart (of either sex) swoon!


Eat Pie, Love Life

Right after Christmas I read a wonderful story in the Detroit Free Press about a woman who loves to make pies.

Linda Hundt, a Michigan State grad, spent the 1990s and more working full-time as an aide to former Michigan governor John Engler. She liked her job–but her passion wasn’t in politics, it was in pies.

While still working for the governor, Linda found the time to bake 60 pies a week in her church’s kitchen. She sold them from a refurbished food case on the front porch of her farmhouse.

She finally left politics in 2002 and a few years later, with the help of a home equity loan, Linda opened the Sweetie-Licious Bakery Cafe, an almost-too-cute pink-drenched shop in DeWitt, a small mid-Michigan town. There’s another branch in Grand Rapids and one coming soon in the Detroit area.

A national pie champ

Over the years Linda managed to win 16 first-place ribbons and one Best of Show in the Crisco National Pie Baking Contest, a 100-Year Anniversary Innovation award from Crisco and the Food Network Pie Challenge. She’s been written up in dozens of local and national publications.

I smelled a good Feed the Spirit topic, but it got even better when I went to Linda’s website. There I learned that she had also published a cookbook called–surprise!–Sweetie-licious Pies: Eat Pie, Love Life. I had to have it. And I love it!

A Valentine of a book

I decided to write about Sweetie-Licious this week because Valentine’s Day is upon us. Linda’s book is like a hardback Valentine, all pink and frothy, full of super-saturated color photos and gushing with love. If the recipes don’t make you yearn to sink your teeth into one of those pies, Clarissa Westmeyer’s gorgous photos will.

My daughter took one look at the book and burst out laughing, saying it looks like something from the 1950s. It’s true: just look at this photo of Linda and her mom, Joan McComb, opposite the book’s foreward. In the book at least, Linda always wears shirtwaist dresses (usually pink or red) with poufy crinolines and a June Cleaver-style apron. But that’s part of the fun of the book.

In her introduction, Linda, 50, describes how she got her start in baking with a Kenner Easy-Bake Oven. It was her favorite Christmas gift when she was 6.

The Easy-Bake was destroyed in a house fire when Linda was a young adult. Years later, Linda’s husband bought her another one for Christmas. When she opened the package, she said, “all the joy and love I’d felt from cooking and baking throughout my life came rushing back. I realized that my mission in life, my dream of changing the world one pie at a time and loving people through my food, all started from that little oven.”

While in high school, Linda made her first pie, coconut cream, for her boyfriend, John Hundt, who is now her husband.

Recipes and values to live by

After telling her personal story, Linda launches into the recipes. First there are recipes for crusts and toppings. One surprising detail: Linda recommends freezing the pie crust before filling and baking it. Another surprise: Linda doesn’t make double-crust pies. Many of her recipes call for a crumb topping. Other pies are topped with caramel, whipped cream or meringue or simple garnishes.

Then come more than 50 recipes for pies, each with a beautiful photo, and each with a story – about a person who made that particular pie or a person who really loved it.

The recipes are divided into chapters – not divided by the type of pie but by values Linda holds dear, qualities like Character, Faith, Gratitude and Joy.

All about love

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ll tell you what Linda has to say about Love, in her final chapter:

Finding love in all things in life is, I believe, truly life’s purpose. A heart bursting with love brings happiness to all who encounter it. Love fuels us, and when we find the “loveliness” in everyone, the world is simply sweeter. Hugs, deeds words, and kind gestures are all expressions of this most powerful virtue.

But baking a pie for someone may be the ultimate testament to love, as the love you bake in it will be crimped into every corner of the crust and suffused in every bite of filling!

So if you haven’t already bought that overpriced heart-shaped box of chocolates or ordered a dozen red roses, consider baking a pie for your sweetie this week. He or she will taste the love.

A true honey pie

I chose Linda’s West Virginia Honey Pie for this week’s recipe because the title is so appropriate for Valentine’s Day and because I’d never seen a honey pie before.

She created this recipe in memory of pleasant summer days spent with her grandparents at their farm in West Virginia. Her grandfather, a retired coal miner, enjoyed hunting, vegetable gardening and caring for bees.

Her grandmother would make pans of cornbread that Linda would drown with Grandpa’s golden wildflower honey. “My daddy always claimed that we all should work as hard as honeybees, as he too kept bees as a teenager during World War II,” Linda said.

(Come back next week for another Sweetie-Licious recipe in honor of President’s Day.)