"Just make me a nice card." When I was growing up, this was my mom's standard answer when I asked her what she wanted for her birthday or for Mother's Day. My immediate reaction was always "No really – I'm not just going to make you a card. What do you really want, mom?" I couldn't for the life of me understand how a crayon drawing of something that was supposed to resemble my mom (but didn't) followed by a four-line poem that barely made sense would be enough of a present. Of course at that age my resources were fairly limited. I couldn't drive and my allowance was only a few dollars, so I needed to be creative.
At the last minute, my brother Jay and I would usually decide to put together a "restaurant," in our kitchen, from which we would serve our mom a special (and I use that term loosely) holiday breakfast. I would put together a menu on construction paper, listing every single brand of cereal that we had in the pantry, along with all of the breakfast items that I could think of, even the ones that I had no idea how to prepare. I figured that I could just "wing it" if she ordered one of those. Jay would play the role of the eccentric waiter, and of course I would be the chef. No matter what my mom ordered, I'm pretty sure that we made a huge mess in the kitchen, and Jay and I probably got into at least one squabble over how things should be done (our restaurant didn't exactly have a business plan.) In the end though, even if my mom didn't get the world's most delicious breakfast, she still got what she wanted: something that we put some thought into.
These days, the need to be financially creative might prompt many people to skip their usual fancy Valentine's Day dinner out in lieu of a more economical and special dinner at their own home's "restaurant." True, this might take a bit more planning and effort on their part, but it will definitely be more meaningful than a prix fixe 4-course menu that features unpronounceable items at an inflated price. A homemade meal can be on your terms, with all of your favorite foods enjoyed at the best seat in the house. Although you'll need to do some dishes, you won't need to tip, and you can afford to spend a bit extra on that really good bottle of Cabernet.
It's fun to play around with the Valentine's Day theme by creating heart-shaped food, such as the recipe below. This recipe was inspired by something that I saw in Martha Stewart Living magazine, something that definitely fell into the "good thing" category. I can't remember the exact date of the issue, but I do know that it was published around the holidays. Martha had woven very simple ropes of dough into a long braid and then formed them into wreaths, which she then displayed placed at each guest's place setting for the holidays. How Martha is that? I changed the recipe a bit, adding some seasonings, sugar, and a bit more butter. I also simplified the weaving process, yielding more pieces as a result. Martha used 4 ropes per braid, but seeing as braiding is not really my forte (I never mastered the French braid), I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to braid the four ropes. So, I changed the number of ropes to 3, making the bread much easier to braid but still producing beautiful results.
Once the ropes have been braided, they are very easy to form into shapes. I decided to try a Valentine's Day theme, shaping them into hearts, but you could really use this concept for just about any occasion, providing that your shape of choice is not overly complicated. In other words, I wouldn't suggest attempting an outline of the United States on the 4th of July! Here are my extra tips for making these whimsical woven breads:
- These hearts are best eaten the same day that they are made, within 12 hours of baking.
- If the bread sticks do not brown by the end of baking, increase the temperature to 375F degrees and bake for 5 additional minutes.
- After you brush the hearts with the yolk and cream mixture, you can sprinkle them with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and/or coarse sea salt, if desired. You can also do a mixture of the three.
- Over-flouring the work surface when rolling out the ropes will make the process more difficult. A work surface with too mush flour can be too slippery, and the dough will slide instead of rolling. When rolling, start from the center of the rope, pressing down gently with the palms of your hands and rolling outward, lengthening the rope.
- Don't worry if the ropes are not perfectly uniform in thickness (this is very hard to accomplish.) Braiding the ropes results in a nice even look.
- To make the hearts a bit more heart-healthy, use 1 cup of whole wheat flour in place of regular flour. You can also add flax seeds to the dough or sprinkle the tops with flax seeds.
Savory Braided Bread Hearts
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
3 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
2/3 cup whole or low-fat milk
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons cream
In the work bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, thyme, salt, and pepper; pulse to combine. Scatter the butter pieces over the flour mixture and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. With the machine running, add the milk in a slow, steady stream, processing just until the dough comes together.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and divide it into 15 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and cover the balls with a kitchen towel. Working with one piece at a time, roll each ball into a rope that is 28-inches long and about 1/4-inch thick. Repeat the process 2 times. Place the 3 ropes side by side on a parchment-lined baking sheet and pinch the ends together. Braid the ropes and them shape the braid into a heart, overlapping the ends. Tuck the ends underneath. Repeat the process with the remaining dough. Cover the hearts and let stand for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350F degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and the cream. Brush this mixture onto each of the hearts. Bake the hearts until they are golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Let the hearts cool on a baking sheet on a wire rack.