Sweets for the Sweet
A Valentine's Day Dessert Roundup
Valentine's Day already? Seems like we just got finished with Groundhog Day. Time again to celebrate the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia, dedicated to honoring Lupercus, the god in charge of keeping the wolves away from the city. This early-spring festival traditionally fell on Feb. 15 and was highlighted by a ritual in which young Roman women inscribed their names on slips of paper, which single men drew at random from jars. Pick a slip and voilà!--instant girlfriend for a year. (Hey, there are worse ways of pairing off. Club Charles at closing time can be a real wrist-slitter.)
Of course, the Church had to muck up this perfectly fine pagan holiday by transforming Lupercalia into the feast day for St. Valentine. One version of the St. Valentine saga holds that he was an early Christian priest beatified as the patron saint of lovers for secretly performing weddings for Roman soldiers, who were barred by then-Emperor Claudius from marrying on the grounds that men with families wouldn't want to go fight in Gaul for, oh, 20 years or so. Valentine was arrested for his clandestine nuptials and beheaded on--you guessed it--Feb. 14. The two holidays were merged and now if Cupid sees his shadow on Feb. 14, you're gonna get lucky. Or something like that.
It doesn't really matter how what I've come to fondly refer to as "V.D." came to us from out of the mists of time, though--since Hallmark got hold of it, your ass is grass if you have a sweetie and don't make with the flowers, card, and candy. You're on your own with the flowers and the card, but as for the candy, the fruits of Kirchmayr Chocolatier (9630 Deereco Road, Timonium,  561-7705) will get you out of almost any jam.
Even the air outside of Kirchmayr's small, elegant store is redolent with the rich odor of cacao. Smooth cordials, liqueur-spiked truffles, dark chocolate, white chocolate--it's all a girl can do to keep her composure in such a heady atmosphere. Fortunately, there are helpful clerks and a variety of assortment options that render rational thought unnecessary. For Valentine's, Kirchmayr provides a selection of chocolates and truffles, beautifully presented in an edible chocolate-heart shell, for $12, $16, or $22, depending on size. For $26, you can splash out on the Cadillac of candy hearts: a heart-shaped container molded from chocolate, filled with 14 truffles flavored with the romantic likes of champagne, amaretto, and Cointreau and packed in a red, black, and gold gift box.
Kirchmayr's chocolates are world-class: silky in texture, intensely flavored, and of a quality unmatched by mass-produced chocolates, even pricey Godivas. The store is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Understandably, the hand-wrought wares sell out quickly Feb. 14, so it's wise to arrive early--on the 13th, if possible--and forewarned with the knowledge that the shop accepts only cash and checks, no credit cards.
For a sweetly old-fashioned Valentine's lunch, consider the Woman's Industrial Exchange (333 N. Charles St.,  685-4388). WIE is offering a special Valentine-inspired menu that includes desserts appropriate for the day--an "Apple of My Eye" baked apple and a "Sweetheart Cake for Two." If plans call for something more ambitious, Latin Palace (509 S. Broadway,  522-6700) has an all-inclusive dinner/dancing deal on the 14th: food, champagne, roses for the ladies, and free salsa lessons for $39.95 per couple.
Everyone has a different notion of the ideal romantic meal, so I'll just suggest a couple of sweet spots for après-dinner drinks and dessert. The Joy America Café (American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway,  244-6500) offers a terrific nighttime view of the Inner Harbor; softly lit, low-key ambience; and, most important, outstanding desserts. The bread pudding made from spiced banana pound cake is a favorite, but if chocolate is in order the white chocolate-mango sundae or the dark chocolate crème brúlée are suitably opulent options. The Joy America has an expansive roster of ports, sherries, cognacs, and dessert wines to facilitate the exchange of amorous glances over the rim of a raised glass.
Hampden's Common Ground (819 W. 36th St.,  235-5533) is a funky, casual coffeehouse that's especially nice for an intimate dessert date. There are plenty of candles, smooth tunes on the stereo, and you're allowed to linger as long as you like (so long as it's not past 5 p.m., when Common Ground closes on Valentine's; the place is open till 8 Friday and Saturday evenings). The compact dining area and small tables mean you'll be sitting nice and close, and the wonderful desserts--outstandingly flaky fruit pies, a delightfully creamy tiramisu--are served in generous portions just perfect for sharing. Because wherever you end up on the 14th, you'll want to follow the Valentine's Day code: one dessert, two spoons.
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