VALENTINE'S DAY A gift from the heart

Although store-bought chocolates, flowers and even heart-patterned pajamas are always welcome gifts, all that most of us desire on Valentine's day is a gesture that is truly from the heart.
If you are fed up with commercialism but romantic enough to observe the holiday, look no further than your own kitchen for unique and heartfelt gifts. What could be sweeter than a Valentine's Day gift that tastes sweet, made with your own loving hands? Besides, a few minutes manning the stove can save you hours at the mall.
Great gifts: To make it simple, I came up with three new recipes that make great gifts from the kitchen. The recipes call for easy-to-find ingredients, but they yield impressive-looking -- not to mention great-tasting -- presents that you'll be proud to give. I tested the recipes at home, and my own discerning valentine gave the final version of all three a thumbs-up, so yours is sure to do the same.
First up are Pecan-Bourbon Chocolate Truffles, a variation of the cocoa-dusted truffles my mother used to make for my father each Valentine's day.
If you prefer, substitute slivered almonds for the pecans, and amaretto for the bourbon. Either way, pack the intense chocolate treats in single layers between sheets of parchment or waxed paper in pretty gift boxes, and be sure to store them in the refrigerator.
I like them best after they have been allowed to sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes, when the texture has softened slightly and the flavors are in full bloom. Then again, my valentine seems to think they're just as good straight from the refrigerator.
Sugar Cookie Hearts with Raspberry Filling will suit a sweet tooth of any age -- and what kid wouldn't feel special sharing an after-school plate of these with mom or dad?
Purists might want to use their favorite "from scratch" sugar cookie dough, but I used a tube of purchased dough by Pillsbury, cutting the preparation time way down.
Cookie cutters: Heart-shaped cookie cutters are available at Michaels in Boardman for less than a dollar; there you'll also find many options for wrapping the cookies. A pretty tin, box or bag of cookies is a welcome gift for almost anyone. And of course, other flavors of seedless jam will work in place of raspberry, so if you have another favorite feel free to substitute.
The easiest gift of all is the hot cocoa mix, which requires no cooking on your part. Simply mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, pack it in a pretty bag and attach the instructions to serve it with hot milk. It takes less than ten minutes from start to finish.
For a more romantic gift, give your sweetheart a bottle of Irish cream liqueur (such as Bailey's) to stir into the hot cocoa, and make plans to share a mug that evening.
Many people believe that Valentine's Day was invented by florists, chocolatiers and greeting card printers, for the sole purpose of capitalizing on people's affections for each other.
Legend: In the face of such cynicism, it doesn't hurt those of us who want to celebrate the day to be armed not only with goodies, but also with the legend behind the misunderstood holiday.
Saint Valentine, who was reportedly executed on a Feb. 14 long ago, is the reason behind the holiday we observe today. As one story goes, the Roman ruler Claudius II forbade young men to marry, because he believed single men would be more committed to fighting his wars than those eager to return home to their wives and children.
But Saint Valentine married young lovers in secret, defying Claudius' ban. When found out, Valentine was jailed and later beheaded -- all for defending the sacrament of marriage.
I think a valiant act in the name of love is worth celebrating, don't you? Happy Valentine's Day. May yours start in the kitchen and end sweetly.
1/2cup heavy whipping cream
112-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips
1tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon bourbon
3/4cup pecan halves or pieces, toasted, finely chopped
Toasted pecans and just a touch of bourbon give these treats a Southern accent.
Be sure to use semisweet chocolate; milk chocolate is too soft for this recipe.
Bring cream to simmer in medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Immediately add chocolate chips and bourbon and whisk until chocolate melts and mixture is smooth.
Transfer mixture to medium mixing bowl. Cover and refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours.
Place chopped pecans in small bowl. Using metal spoon, scoop up mound of chocolate mixture. Working quickly with moistened hands, roll mixture into 1-inch ball. Roll ball in chopped pecans to coat. Transfer to glass baking dish.
Repeat with remaining chocolate mixture and pecans. Place dish of truffles in freezer until very firm, about 20 minutes. Store airtight in refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature 10 minutes before serving.
Makes about 20 truffles.
118-ounce roll sugar cookie dough (such as Pillsbury)
3/4cup seedless red raspberry jam (such as Smucker's)
Powdered sugar
Purchased cookie dough makes these sandwich cookies quick and easy to make. You will need a 3-inch-diameter heart-shaped cookie cutter.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Generously flour work surface. Cut roll of cookie dough in half; store half in refrigerator. Using palm of hand, press half of dough into 1/2-inch-thick rectangle on floured work surface. Sprinkle with additional flour and roll out to 1/8-inch thickness.
Using heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut out cookies and transfer to prepared baking sheet, spacing apart. Collect dough trimmings, wrap in plastic and refrigerate. Bake cookies until edges are light golden, about 7 to 9 minutes. Cool on sheet 1 minute.
Transfer cookies to rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining half of dough. Then roll out, cut and bake cookies from reserved cookie dough trimmings.
Bring raspberry jam to boil, stirring frequently. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes. Place one cookie flat side up on rack. Spoon jam over center of cookie. Top with another cookie, flat side down. Repeat with remaining jam and cookies. Sprinkle powdered sugar over cookies. Cool completely. Store airtight at room temperature.
Makes about 18 sandwich cookies.
2cups sugar
1cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4cup Italian Cappuccino Mix (General Foods International Coffees brand; available in the grocery store)
1teaspoon salt
Milk (I use 2 percent)
Irish cream liqueur (such as Bailey's)
A pretty bag of homemade hot cocoa mix with instructions attached (see below) and a bottle of Irish Cream liqueur make a romantic Valentine's Day gift that you can enjoy together. To make hot cocoa mix, whisk first four ingredients in medium mixing bowl to blend.
To make hot cocoa: Bring milk to simmer in heavy saucepan. Measure out scant 1/4 cup hot cocoa mix into each large mug (less for smaller mugs). Add hot milk and stir until mix dissolves. Stir 1 tablespoon Irish cream into each serving, if desired.
Makes about 21/2 cups hot cocoa mix.

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