When I was very young, my father owned a Tex-Mex restaurant. (Apparently, one of the first of its kind in the New York area.) What I remember best are the cowhide booths; soft swirls of brown and white I could trace with my fingers. I remember fresh tortilla chips and runny, spiced salsa. I think I ate swordfish every time we visited, which was often.
And then dessert. There was, on the menu, something dubbed the “piñata”: an oblong ceramic dish, a mess of bananas and chocolate chips baked under what must have been sweet empenada dough. It arrived piping hot, a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting over the top. Even though there could not be a less fancy dessert, I have never forgotten it.
It’s no secret that Valentine’s Day is one of our most commercial holidays. Perhaps for this reason, there seems to be an undue amount of pressure placed around the day. As with New Year’s Eve, we build up unrealistic expectations for ourselves and our partners, maybe nowhere more so than in the kitchen.
But this is silly, obviously. Our focus shouldn’t be on some terrible price fixed menu, or a stuffed bear. The day should be about simple enjoyment, whether you are with a romantic partner or not. Tonight, the Frenchman and I will cook together, at home. The menu is nothing fussy or overly time-consuming. It will consist more of good ingredient assembly than actual, onerous cooking. Here it is, for your reading pleasure:
a bite to start: For Christmas, Paul’s grandparents gifted me a flight of pâtés: rabbit, duck, and pork. Tonight we will open the tiny jar of duck rillettes, to spread across toast with onion jam, also from a jar.
appetizer: Last weekend, we took a walk in the snow. We happened by the fishmonger, whose Valentine’s Day sale was loudly proclaimed in hearts across the store window. Who are we not to jump on a bargain? We reserved ourselves a lobster tail, which the fishmonger steamed for me this morning and delivered chilled. I’ll lay the cool tail over soft toast, alongside a creamy lobe of burrata cheese and a generous smear of (store-bought) pesto.
main: We’re going with chicken legs, generously salted and peppered, seared in olive oil, and then cooked with as many garlic cloves as I can bear to peel. The pan is deglazed with white wine and sherry vinegar, some chicken stock, and then everything moves to the oven to finish cooking. Boil the pan juices until thickened, and stir with freshly chopped rosemary.
cheese: The Frenchman is..you know..French, after all. We’ll each get half a pear, drizzled with honey, scattered with fantastic blue cheese. Maybe I’ll sprinkle on some candied walnuts I have in the cabinet.
There will, of course, also be wine: half bottles of Champagne, white, and red.
a note about the dough: Use what you like! This might be pie or tart dough, homemade or store bought, or empenada wrappers, or puff pastry. The salient detail is that the bananas and chocolate chips are cooked encased inside the dough, so they melt and you have something hot and lovely to break open.
a note about the occasion: For when it’s not Valentine’s Day: Speaking from firsthand experience, kids love this dessert. They can also help put it together. It might be simple, but you can dress it up with really good (dark chocolate) chips, and sea salt.
a note about the topping: If you don’t want to plop ice cream on top, you could also use whipped cream. Greek yogurt would lend a pleasant tang, or try a dollop of Mexican crema or sour cream.
a note about the bananas: if your bananas are ripe, it is not necessary to cook them ahead of time. Although, this is a matter of personal preference: if you want a softer banana filling, cook them in a pan with the butter, sugar, and salt over medium heat until they yield. Take them off the heat, and stir in the chocolate chips.
There isn’t really even a recipe here, it’s so simple. I would say: 1 banana, 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1/4 cup chocolate chips, and 1 pinch of salt per person.
Slice the bananas into a bowl. Toss with the butter (melted), the sugar, the chocolate chips, and the salt. This is your filling, ready to go.
I rolled out 1-pound of pie dough, which yielded me about 6 hand pies. You could also spoon the chocolate-banana filling into individual ramekins, or 1 large ramekin, and seal the top with dough. Try empenada wrappers, or puffy pastry, too.
If you have extra filling, save it–you can warm it to eat with yogurt or oatmeal for breakfast. Over the weekend, when you have more time: over waffles, pancakes, or french toast.
For a fancy, last minute touch–brush the crust with milk or eggwash, and sprinkle decorating sugar or sea salt over the crust, and then score. My hand pies took 30 minutes to bake at 350F. Take yours out of the oven when the crust turns golden brown.