I’ve loved Valentine’s Day since my childhood. I loved decorating a shoe box to collect classmates’ offerings. I loved using clunky safety scissors to cut out pink paper hearts. I loved using the sticky mucilage glue to stick doilies everywhere. More than all of those things, I loved pulling the crinkly wrapper from a cherry flavored, heart shaped lollypop. The boxes of pre-cut cards with slits for those lollypops? Yes, I loved them, too.
I still do.
My favorite Valentine candy now, it might surprise you, is not chocolate but those same deadly-sweet, red-dye-laden, cherry-flavored lollypops. In a pinch, a roll of cherry Lifesavers will do; but I still pine for the original chemical-on-a-stick sugar bomb.
(If you’re wondering, “Did she mean to post this on Valentine’s Day?” the answer is no, she did not. This is a post-Valentine-post. You’ll see.)
By the time I reached what’s now classified as middle school, Valentine’s Day celebrations began to morph into awkward adolescent dances and what we called, at the time, “boy-girl parties.” Sending February 14 cards to anyone other than the object of romantic affection was suspect, at best.
In college I had the good fortune of befriending someone whose birthday happened to fall on Cupid’s day, so there was always a good reason for a February 14 party, irrespective of coupled status (or lack thereof).
After college, when I taught art, drama, and photography to middle and high school kids at a boarding school outside of Boston, it was easy to find creative ways to bring back some of that long-lost elementary school pink-hearted fun or, for the older students, a photo scavenger hunt looking for heart-shaped formations in the natural world.
In my 20s I dated an artist who gave me a lovely painting for Valentine’s Day one year. By the following year we were no longer together, but I still have the painting and continue to enjoy it in different ways, through different lenses as I advance in years.
It was in my 20s, right after that break-up, that my affection for Valentine merriment became what I knew then would be a life-long love, and a cookie recipe gets the credit. And I’ll tell you about that eventually.
In the years before I became a mother, I sent scores of Valentine cards, sometimes accompanied by bags or plates of sweet treats. Some years were more productive than others, but I never skipped what became, and remains, my favorite holiday — even if it’s a made-up holiday (if we’re honest, aren’t they all?).
I re-lived this same February 14 love through my children in their elementary school years, by which time the retail industry had upped everyone’s Valentine’s Day room parent game but before the official onset of “Galentine’s” festivities. For several years when my children, and their compatriots on our block were also young, we had a Valentine’s Day block party during which we made treat bags (or envelopes, or boxes) and cards for the neighbors on the street who no longer had young children at home on Valentine’s Day.
As much as I love our Christmas brunch, I loved this Valentine’s gathering even more. It had every wonderful thing from the red-heart days of my own childhood, combined with every wonderful thing about the group of friends and neighbors who were, and continue to be, my parenting collaborators.
We made soap one year, candy another, my favorite cookies yet another. We made countless cards, sometimes stitching them into felt envelopes. I had a special box of pink and red themed papers, tapes, markers, glue, stickers, and assorted what nots.
After a few hours of crafting and refreshments, we walked as a group from house to house delivering all that handmade love. Those Saturdays were some of my favorite days of my children’s childhood years. Even though we did this same routine for several years, the neighbors were always surprised and delighted to receive their Valentine offerings.
When the children advanced to middle and high school years, the matriarch on our block moved away, and Valentine’s Day no longer held the children’s interest. Once hormones started flowing and all the awkward parts of adolescent and teen years played out in their expected ways, Valentine’s Day got muddled for them the same way it too often gets muddled in general.
It was muddled from the beginning, of course. The origins of the day we now call Valentine’s Day draw from those two relentless forces of the Western world, Catholicism and capitalism. Valentine’s Day replaced the pagan Roman Lupercalia late in the 5th century, and card-giving exploded during the Industrial Age when mass production met a ready market of friends and lovers alike.
It’s a big seller, Valentine’s Day, and it just keeps getting bigger. In 2022 V-D spending was the second highest on record, with $23.8 billion in retail activity.
With all that has happened in the last decade, and in the past few years in particular, I did think Valentine’s Day might finally have evolved past the overly-simplistic, single lens romantic version of Valentine’s Day. If nothing else, expanding the reach of Valentine’s Day just keeps that retail engine churning, making the spending bigger and bigger, right? So it’s in everyone’s interest for love to be expansive and ever-expanding, covering the full range of friendships and collegiality that lives in the broadest definition of love.
A Monday nigh scroll through social, though, told a different story.
To be clear here, I don’t take issue with the displays of sweet, tender, true love. The stories of February 14 first dates that turned into 30 year happy marriages? Adorable. Full stop.
What I’m suggesting, for your consideration, is that the story of love is so much bigger than only that one theme, not just for elementary-school kids but for all of us. None of us gets through life’s inevitable ups and downs without the friendship, support, help, and LOVE of so very many people in addition to a life partner or spouse. Gestures of love, fondness, affection, and appreciation for all of those friends, family members, and colleagues have a boomerang effect, enriching the heart of the giver.
Today, February 17, is Random Acts of Kindness Day — yes, another made-up holiday. Whether or not you missed out on casting a wide net of L*O*V*E on Monday, today is another chance to do something in the spirit of kindness and love, to share your heart with the world. If you didn’t sent Valentine cards, didn’t deposit anonymous little “happys” in your co-workers’ mailboxes, then today’s just as good a day for that as any.
Any day is a good day for that kind of gesture.
Which, finally, gets me to the cookie part. In February 1989 I clipped a cookie recipe from Bon Appétit and pasted it into my black cooking journal with a note that I still can’t decipher.
The recipe title is “Sugar Hearts,” but that’s a terrible title, and since I can’t find it in BA’s online archive, I’m renaming it and giving it a few tweaks.
I’ve made these cookies more times than I can count, and now that I’ve also made more than a dozen similar kinds of sugar cookies, I have a theory about why these remain a favorite: They’re not fussy. There’s nothing delicate or difficult about them. They turn out exactly the same, every time, no matter the weather. Children (or inexperienced bakers) can make them quite easily. They look very impressive and are always suitable for gift-giving.
And they’re delicious. Not too sweet. Sturdy, but not dry. Tender, but not crumbly. The chocolate is what makes them look fancy, but that part, too, is really very simple. It bears noting that it’s worth using very good chocolate, but they’ll turn out just fine with Nestle semi-sweet morsels. Just don’t use something labeled “chocolate flavored,” for heaven’s sake.
Cut them in any shape you like, but hearts are always adorable, even when it’s no longer Valentine’s Day. Maybe especially then, so you can spread a little love, any time of the year.
Most of all, now that you’re finally at the end of this long patchwork of stories, is this: Every time I make these heart-shaped cookies (which I do sometimes, randomly, and not just on Valentine’s Day) I feel so very happy myself. Baking is a kind of meditation — in this case, a gratitude meditation. Give it a try; see for yourself.
Chocolate-dipped Sugar Cookie Hearts
makes about 48
(adapted from “Sugar Hearts;” Stephanie Young writing for Bon Appétit, February 1989)
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 c. confectioner’s sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. almond extract
4 c. all purpose flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. table salt
12-16 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate
- Sift flour, baking power, and salt, and set aside.
- Using a stand mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter until it’s light and fluffy. Add sugar and beat again until the mixture is pale and light. Add eggs and and extracts and mix well (don’t worry that it suddenly looks lumpy).
- Stir in dry ingredients and mix well. Gather dough into a ball (yes, all of the dough – though you can separate into two separate batches and handle only half at a time), flatten into a disk in between sheets of parchment paper and chill until firm. (NOTE: I’ve rolled out this dough after only 20 minutes in the refrigerator, when I was in a hurry. All that flour makes it pretty sturdy.)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees if convention, 325/330 if convection.
- Sprinkle counter with a mix of flour and confectioner’s sugar and roll dough to about 1/4 inch thickness (a little thicker than the original recipe calls for, which is why this version yields fewer total cookies). Cut into hearts and place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone mats (both work equally well).
- Bake about 15 minutes, pulling them from the oven right when they’re just about to brown around the edges.
- Let cookies cool completely on wire racks. NOTE: Save the silicone mats or parchment sheets; you’ll need them again.
- Melt chocolate in a double boiler. If that sentence sounds intimidating, then this is your moment to conquer that fear. Pour the chocolate into a heat-safe bowl (I use a metal one), and set the bowl over a pan of simmering water — making sure the bowl covers the entire opening so steam doesn’t get water into the melting chocolate. Stir the chocolate as it melts from the rising heat. I promise you this is easier than it sounds. Don’t rush it. Let it be calming. It’s chocolate, for heaven’s sake. Enjoy this part. (NOTE: the original recipe calls for adding shortening to the chocolate, but I gave that up after trying it once with just chocolate and preferring the result)
- When the chocolate is melted (even if you cheat and use the microwave – which I do not recommend but I accept that you might do it anyway), it’s time to dip the cookies. Here’s how I do it: I bring the bowl of melted chocolate to the counter where the cookies are cooling. Holding the bowl in one hand, I tilt it slightly and use a rubber spatula to scrape it into a nice, deep pool of melted goodness. Holding the bowl in one hand (my left) I dip the cookies, one by one, covering half of the front half with melted chocolate, letting the excess drip back into the bowl, and then setting the chocolate-covered cookie back on the parchment sheet or mat.
- There is no wrong way to do this. When you run out of chocolate, then you have the bonus of plain cookies for people (like my daughter) who do not (yet) enjoy chocolate.
- Slide the sheets/mats back onto cool cookie sheets if needed, and then slide the sheets of chocolate cookies into the refrigerator to set (or wait patiently until they set at room temperature – it will take longer than you’ll like, but it will happen eventually).