Valentine's Day

When I was younger and always had boyfriends who didn't like me, I was forced to dismiss Valentine's Day as something that didn't matter.

On about February 6th, whichever boyfriend who didn't like me I was with would say: "You don't actually want to DO something for Valentine's Day do you? I mean, do you actually want flowers?!" And I would say "No! Don't be stupid" and then I would be crushed when they really didn't do anything. And I would sit at work on Valentine's Day and watch as all the other girls, (who had been clever and threatened their boyfriends with castration if they didn't get onto Wild At Heart pronto and cough up BIG BUCKS), graciously and coyly receive bouquets of flowers so huge they interfered with their keyboards.

And then I got a nice boyfriend, and his name was Giles. And I confessed to him everything. I said "The thing is that it's not like I'm a spoilt cow and want presents all the time and stuff, but when you're sitting at work and everyone gets flowers except you it's just so *sniff* SO HORRIBLE *HOWL* and you feel SO UNLOVED *waaaaah*." And he said "Okay I'll send you flowers on Valentine's Day."

That year I got a bunch of flowers so ginormous that they prevented me from typing anything for two days and everyone complained about them for the three months I kept them on my desk.

But my point is that Valentine's Day matters. I have a feeling that I'm preaching to the converted, but I want every girl to be able to say to their boyfriend or husband without fear of recrimination "Valentine's Day matters. It might not matter to YOU, but it matters to ME." Not paying heed to Valentine's Day because it's "so commercial" or "so fake" or whatever other excuse they come up with not to put their hands in their pockets, is like refusing to buy Christmas presents. What are you left with? Nothing. £40 (MINIMUM) that you'll only go and spend on drink.

So it matters, it matters to ME. And although there's so much stuff about it and it all gets quite boring, I am going to add my own little devotional act here in anticipation of the great day. So I've got for you one recipe for Red Velvet cupcakes and one plug for a Valentine's Day cookie service.
And for anyone who's still lingering on the edge of Valentine's Day sceptisim, this year it falls on a Sunday, so if nothing happens, there's no-one to see.

Red Velvet Cupcakes
I first came across these when I was working on the features desk of a newspaper. Someone on the desk was writing about the ten best cupcakes and for a week, we were besieged with giant boxes full of massive foamy cupcakes decorated with more and more outlandish sparkly whatnots, little high heels made out of sugar and plastic butterflies. I ate so many (neatly spitting out the plastic butterflies when one accidentally went in) it nearly put me right off sugar. But only nearly.

One day during this onslaught, when we were all lying around on the floor groaning with our hands clutching our tummies, a box arrived from the Magnolia Bakery and we opened it and all went "?"
Inside was a box of bright red cupcakes with white icing. "Red... Velvet... cupcakes..." someone read out from the note attached. I bit into one and it was like biting into... I don't know... I suppose it was like biting into red velvet. It was like cake, but made of silk. And it was red, red, red, with a creamy white icing. It was like a cupcake from outer space. But then I Googled "red velvet cupcakes" and it turned out that they weren't from outer space, they were from America.

Like most delicious things from America, they are made with buttermilk. We don't really cook with buttermilk in this country, which is a shame, because it makes all kinds of really excellent things. They cook with it a lot in Ireland - which is probably, now I come to think of it, how it got over to America in the first place. I understand buttermilk is available pretty much everywhere in Ireland. Here, the only place I've found it is in my local organic wholefoods shop, Earth, on Kentish Town High Street - but I think St Ivel do a version you can buy in larger branches of Waitrose.

You can also make your own, using lemon juice and milk; to one tablespoon of lemon juice you add enough milk to make 225ml in total of liquid and then let it stand for five minutes. I think you need the milk to be at room temperature before you start. I must say that I haven't actually tried this, but I'm reliably informed that it works fine, althoug I think it does go sort of lumpy so don't throw it away in horror if this happens.
Other than the blasted buttermilk, the only other nasty surprise in this recipe, which is from the Magnolia Bakery itself, is the quantity of red food colouring required - it needs 6 tablespoons, which works out as being nearly two of those little bottles of food colouring you can buy.
And try not to be frightened of the vinegar-and-baking powder mixture that happens about half way through the recipe - your cupcakes will not taste like vinegar! I have absolutely no idea what this reaction does to the baking process, but it seems to be quite vital.

Alas, this recipe didn't really work out for me. Neither did the icing. But I have faithfully written out the recipes as they stand - so attempt them at your own risk...

(Makes 24)
500g plain flour
165g unsalted, soft butter
500g sugar
3 large eggs
6 tbsp food colouring
3tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
1.5 tsp salt
330ml buttermilk
1.5 tsp cider or white vinegar
1.5 tsp baking soda.
1 - Preheat oven to 180C/gas mark 4. In a small bowl, sift the plain flour. Set aside. In a large bowl cream the butter until smooth by hand or with an electric whisk. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about three minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
2 - Whisk together the red food colouring, cocoa powder and vanilla. Add to the batter and beat well.
3 - Stir the salt in with the buttermilk and add the resulting liquid to your red batter in three parts, ­alternating with flour. With each addition, beat only until the ingredient that you have added has disappeared, in a kind of folding motion.
4 - In a small bowl, stir together the cider vinegar and baking soda and add to the batter and mix well. The vinegar and baking powder will fizz up like mad so don't freak out if this happens.
5 - Divide the mixture into cases, then bake for 20 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Cool the cupcakes in the tins for 15 ­minutes. Remove from the tins and cool ­completely on a wire rack before slathering on the icing.
For the icing:
6 tbsp plain flour
440ml milk
450g unsalted butter, softened
450g sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract

The recipe I've got forgot to include a method for the icing, but I'd imagine you cream the butter and then add the other ingredients and it'll come out as icing. Alas, I decided to be clever and make a marscapone cheese icing and it went horribly wrong - it tasted fine but started leaking this sort of watery sludge, so we'll skip over that.

Cookie plug
If your arms sore as hell from cooking and can't face all that beating, but you'd still like to give an edible Valentine's Day present, Millie's Cookies are offering a service where you can order a 12-inch heart-shaped biscuit with a personalised message on it (up to 20 characters). It takes 2 hours and costs £14.99; you can ring ahead to your nearest store and collect it when it's ready.

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