Valentine's Day and chocolate — it seems the two always have walked hand in hand.
Who would have dreamed chocolate started out centuries ago as a bitter drink?
But that's the story, said culinary herbalist Sarah Liberta, who gave a history of this favorite treat at her recent "Chocolate: The Herb of Romance" seminar held at White Oak Plantation and Farms, where she is director of education.
Chocolate has been around at least 5,000 years, with origins in the Amazon rain forest, Liberta said. Harvested by the Aztecs and Mayans, the cacao trees' seeds, cocoa beans, were first used to make a beverage.
"And it wasn't very pleasant, without sugar, although it was flavored with spices," Liberta said.
Initially, the cocoa beans were thought to be so precious that the drink was consumed only by the upper class. Explorer Hernán Cortez later brought chocolate from the New World back to Spain, where sugar was added to it, and hot chocolate was the new "hot" drink.
"In the 1700s, chocolate houses became gathering places like coffeehouses," Liberta said.
The first chocolate suitable for eating came along in the 1840s. Chocolate candy was perfected by English chocolatier John Cadbury. In 1868, his son Richard Cadbury designed the first heart-shaped box of chocolates, a move to sell more candy.
"Forever now, chocolate on Valentine's, chocolate as an expression of love, all come forward," Liberta said.
Want to whip up a last-minute decadent Valentine's treat? You're in luck.
Liberta has put together what she calls her "easiest ever chocolate recipes." Here are a few:
Easiest Ever Brownie Cookies
Light and crunchy, these deeply chocolate cookies are addictive.
1 (18-ounce) brownie mix (Liberta prefers Ghirardelli)
⅓ cup water
⅓ cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
¼ teaspoon espresso powder
1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Line 2 baking sheets (about 12-by-18 inches) with parchment paper or silicon liners and set aside.
2. Place all ingredients into a large mixing bowl and whisk until just combined.
3. Pour half the batter onto each of the prepared baking sheets. Spread batter into as thin a layer as possible.
4. Bake for 25-30 minutes.
5. Cut into neat squares or rectangles while still a bit warm, then let them cool completely and break into random shapes.
Easiest Ever Chocolate Fudge
A two-ingredients winner. Add a third, such as a splash of Frangelico, Kahlua, Amaretto, Framboise or another liqueur, and you have infinite possibilities.
1 can sweetened condensed milk
3 cups bittersweet chocolate chips
1. Butter an 8-inch square cake pan and line with parchment paper, also buttered.
2. Combine milk and chips in a microwave-safe bowl or 2-quart measuring cup. Microwave on 50 percent power for 30 seconds and stir; repeat at 30-second intervals until chocolate is fully melted. Stir gently to combine thoroughly.
3. Pour into pan and smooth with an offset spatula.
4. Allow to cool on counter then put in refrigerator for 2 hours to set.
5. Remove from pan and peel away paper. Cut into small squares and serve.
Easiest Ever Chocolate Mousse
Yields 8 servings. Just two ingredients — chocolate and whipped cream — combine to create a rich, luxurious dessert that comes together in minutes.
1 pint heavy or whipping cream
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
1. Place mixing bowl and beaters in freezer to chill 10 minutes before whipping the cream.
2. Melt chocolate in the microwave at 50 percent power, stirring every 30 seconds until all lumps are melted and chocolate is smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.
3. Remove bowl and beaters from freezer and whip the cream to soft peaks.
4. Add about ⅓ of the melted chocolate and fold gently with a rubber spatula until well combined. Mix the remaining chocolate into the whipped cream, folding only until combined. Do not overmix or you will deflate the cream.
5. Place mousse in a large pastry bag and pipe into decorative serving cups or simply spoon into serving cups or glasses.
6. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.
Easiest Ever Chocolate-Coated Mint Leaves
Yields 1 cup. These dainty bites make a nice little after-dinner treat or a simple decoration for a cake, pudding or other dessert.
6 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate morsels
1 cup freshly picked mint leaves
1. Line a tray with parchment or waxed paper.
2. Wash mint leaves and pat dry with paper towels.
3. Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler. Using tweezers or forceps, dip each leaf in chocolate, allowing excess to drip over the pot, and place the leaf on the paper.
4. When all leaves are dipped, place the tray in the refrigerator until leaves have hardened.
5. If not using right away, store leaves in layers separated by paper in a hard plastic container and keep refrigerated or frozen until ready to use.