Valentine's Day is my least favorite holiday for dining in a restaurant. Mother's Day clocks in as a close second. The meals that I have enjoyed the least in my life have fallen on the two most sentimental holidays. I gave up dining out on these occasions too many years ago to count. That, however, does not mean I forgo celebrating these holidays.
I vaguely remember my husband and I celebrating Valentine's Day in a darkened restaurant early in our marriage. Our expectations were high for a spectacular night out. It was Valentine's Day after all, and we were together, and in love. Due to the the seating at capacity in the dining room, and a bar overflowing with people, the kitchen struggled to keep up with the offering of the full menu. The service was slow, the food lukewarm, and just about everyone in the room, servers and guests, all looked like they would rather be doing anything else, including cleaning a bathroom, than to be caught in a situation where you want to be having the time of your life, but you're not. Then the bill comes. There has got to be a better way to celebrate I thought.
Similarly, one fateful Mother's Day in Los Gatos, California, I excitedly made reservations at a well-regarded restaurant that was making good use of a two-story Victorian near the downtown. My daughter was about three at the time; a very active three. Maddie was never a child who played contendly by herself. No two ways about it, she was high maintenance and in constant need of attention. Our family and friends were seated on the second floor. Big mistake. Our portly waiter was well into a double shift, and he was sweating like an ice bucket on a sweltering day. As the saying goes, women perspire and men sweat, and was he ever sweating! Rivulets of water dripped down his cheeks, and he tried to whisk the profusion of moisture away with whichever sleeve was available. He was such a nice guy, that to judge him would have been a guilt-inducing exercise, which is an emotion that I generally try to avoid at all costs. I felt true empathy for Mr. Waiter because he managed to maintain a smile and welcoming attitude even though the poor guy had been trudging up and down the stairs for hours on end balancing heavily-laden trays on his shoulders, all the while precariously dodging patrons while hustling to and fro. He was, Donna Summer-style, working very hard for the money.
Again, the wait for our food seemed interminable with my child trapped in a chair wanting, or should I say begging, to be entertained. It was a full house... literally, and the kitchen was completely overwhelmed. When our dinner finally arrived, my increasing appetite came to a screeching halt when I saw a droplet of sweat break free from the deluge on our waiter's forehead, and just like in the movies, the drop made a slow motion arc onto my plate. Splat. The check for that disappointing dinner, also, inevitably landed on our table. There has got to be a better way to celebrate I resolved.
The better way, I discovered, is for me to celebrate at home. All that is required is a little advance planning and to keep things simple. Those that know me well will laugh at the end of the last sentence. Simple is not my forté. I finally know this about myself and will admit it freely. Simplicity is my goal even though I am a woman who enjoys excesses. A menu that can be mostly made in advance is what I desire. I may start with big thoughts of grandeur, but I am learning, as I age, to whittle my grandiose plans and the menu into something much more manageable than what I initially see in my mind's eye. The pace at home is leisurely, the music is to my liking and we can really relax and enjoy ourselves. I also relish not paying nearly double the retail price for a favorite wine.
Valentine's day isn't only for couples. The commemoration of love is for friends and family, too. For several years, I hosted Valentine's Day parties that included both married and single friends, and our children. This is when I would dress the long tables in inherited antique lace cloths and drag out every piece of crystal I own, plus the silver, and the good china. The tables are not complete until I have sufficiently overdone the flowers and candles. I heard that there is a concept that one can encounter too much of a good thing, but in my own experience, I haven't tripped upon it yet.
A few years ago, we celebrated Easter with another couple and their children at El Conquistador, a golf resort nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson. The big draw was eating on the patio with a huge buffet to please both the young, the older and the oldest. I especially appreciated the elegant ice sculptures. The Easter bunny visited and the kids were able to swim in the pool all afternoon. We had a lovely time, but it was attached to a significant price tag, and although the amenities were outstanding, the food was, at best, mediocre. When the opportunity arrived the next year to repeat the experience, I opted to stay home without the slightest hesitation. I had a nice time the year before, but given the choice I'd much rather stay at home, or be invited to a friend's house.
A key part of my simplicity plan is to make dessert a day ahead. Amaretto Mousse is a perfect ending for just about any holiday. It is light as air and smooth on the tongue. All that is needed is to unmold the mousse onto an edged serving tray and pour the velvety raspberry sauce over the top and allow it to drip over the sides. The presentation has literally made friends swoon and exclaim with oohs and aahs. Of course, the heart shape is perfect for Valentine's Day. Try it out for Mother's Day, too. Mothers everywhere will love the sentiment.
Amaretto Mousse with Raspberry Sauce
Sure the mousse can be portioned into cups, tops swirled with a spoon, and then left to set-up in the refrigerator. But for a much more dramatic effect, give shape to the mousse in a large heart mold. Unmolded and served with a satiny raspberry sauce, this gorgeous dessert will induce a collective swoon from your guests.
To keep you gloriously unencumbered on the day of your soirée, or romantic interlude, both the mousse and the raspberry sauce can be made a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
Although the title proclaims Amaretto, the mousse is actually flavored with almond extract, mirroring the taste of the popular liqueur. I imagine that the mousse could be imbued with the flavor of other extracts as well. Coconut, orange and lemon come to mind, but I have never given those options a try.
To fill a large mold, double the recipe for the mousse, but not for the sauce.
3 Tbsps boiling filtered water
1-1/2 cups whipping cream
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Raspberry Sauce, makes 3 cups:
2 12-ouce packages frozen raspberries, thawed
1/2 cup cold filtered water
the juice of one small lemon
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 Tbsps cornstarch
1/2 cup hot filtered water
1 Tbsp Chambord, optional
whipped cream (I made mine with the Isi Whip-It!)
Large heart shaped mold or small individual heart shaped molds
1. To bloom the gelatin: in a small bowl sprinkle gelatin over cold water; let soften for a few minutes. Add boiling water and stir until dissolved. Set aside, stirring every so often.
2. In a medium size bowl, beat egg whites until light. Add sugar a little at a time until incorporated. Add the almond and vanilla extracts and the gelatin emulsion. Beat together for about one minute until mixed well.
3. In a separate medium size bowl, beat whipping cream until stiff. The beaters will leave a trail through the cream. Gently whisk the whipped cream into the egg whites until completely combined. the mixture will be thick with body.
4. Scoop the mousse mixture into a large heart mold or multiple small heart molds that have been generously coated with spray oil.
5. Refrigerate the mousse in the mold or molds until set, or overnight.
6. For the raspberry sauce: purée thawed raspberries in a food processor with 1/2 cup cold water. Strain liquid through a sieve into a sauce pan with the aid of a rubber spatula. This will take about 5 minutes. Discard seeds. Mix raspberry juice with lemon juice and sugar. Stir over medium heat until warm. Mix cornstarch and hot water until smooth and then add to raspberry mixture. Continue to stir until thick and bubbly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Strain the sauce again, if desired to remove more seeds (for the life of me, I can never get all the seeds out of the sauce - I've learned to live with it). Stir in Chambord, if using. Transfer to a container, press plastic wrap directly onto the service to avoid having skin form. Refrigerate until cool, or overnight.
6. To serve, use a table knife to loosen the edges of the mold(s). Invert the mold(s) on an a plate with a rim. Pour raspberry sauce over entire mold and let drip down sides of mousse. Garnish plate with fresh strawberries, raspberries and/or blueberries. A few scattered mint leaves or edible flowers go nicely as well. And, if you want to go over the top, pipe whipped cream around the perimeter to accentuate the heart.