Professor Plum eat your heart out
This week was Valentine’s Day and as a treat (hopefully) for Professor Plum I decided to cook her a special Valentine’s dinner. So, I bought a couple of lamb hearts, because nothing charms a girl like offal, right? In fact, as it was Valentine’s Day, I decided to go for a whole heart theme throughout the three course dinner, eating hearts certainly worked for Daenerys Targaryen. I mean, what could be more romantic than this?
It’s not just animals that have hearts, though, plenty of vegetables are equipped with them too. There’s such a thing as a Two–Hearts Salad, after all, so that seemed a perfect simple starter for a Valentine’s heart dinner. Of course, there are far more than two vegetables that have hearts (last week’s chicken soup featured celery hearts, after all), but a Two-Hearts Salad is typically made with artichoke and palm hearts. Palm hearts were not available in our local supermarket, so I had to make do with just the artichoke. To this I added leaves from romaine hearts (so it was two hearts after all) and a lemon and dijon mustard dressing (because Colonel Mustard’s Valentine’s dinner should really feature mustard somewhere).
The only thing with that was that it was a little unexciting for a special occasion starter, a little too simple. I needed to add some sort of garnish to liven it up. A couple of years ago I made Professor Plum a Valentine’s cake, which I decorated by making a bunch of chocolate roses, using the same sort of moulding chocolate plastic method that I used on her birthday cake. Perhaps if chocolate roses could liven up that chocolate cake, then what my salad needed was for me to make some salad roses.
So, that’s exactly what I did. Some of these Two-Heart Salad recipes suggested adding tomatoes, it would bring a bit of colour (red being appropriate to the occasion and all) and it’s a good salad flavour. I just took things one step further and made the tomatoes into roses by peeling them into strips and then winding these tomato strips into a spiral shape that suggested rose petals.
The simple starter out of the way, it was on to the heart of the matter, as it were, the more challenging main course. I’ve only ever cooked heart once before. Like a lot of offal, it’s unfashionable and the meat tends to be tough unless cooked for hours. Nevertheless, it can prove a tasty dinner if prepared properly, so I was hoping that something a little offbeat like this might prove a winner. Given the convenient cavities inside, heart is almost always cooked stuffed, giving additional flavours to the dinner, a practice I decided it would be best to follow given my inexperience with cooking it. All I had to do then was to decide on just what to stuff it with.
The various different recipes that I found online for stuffed lamb hearts suggested traditional stuffings of sausage meat, sage, onion and mushroom, the sort of stuffing you might have with a Sunday roast. Which is all very well, I thought, but doesn’t quite feel like a special Valentine’s Day treat. I wanted some slightly more unusual ingredients to fill my heart with and alighted on something that seemed more appropriate to the occasion. Carrying through the rose petal theme from the tomatoes in the first course, I thought of using roses in the stuffing, specifically ras-el-hanout, a Morrocan spice mix often used on lamb that contains a huge variety of ingredients including coriander, ginger, paprika, cardamom, cayenne, cloves, nutmeg, and, yes, rose petals. That would be much more Valentine’s Day appropriate.
Having decided to use the ras-el-hanout, I could then be lead by what other flavours might work with a slightly Moroccan style lamb to go into my heart stuffing. Then I was reminded of the previous experimentation I had done with different varieties of stuffing for Christmas Dinner. Yes, Professor Plum had distinctly dismissed the sage and onion stuffing in favour of another, the one with dried apricots. Given I was making this dinner as a special treat for her and the apricots were just the kind of thing to work with lamb and Moroccan spices, I knew I had just what I wanted. So, I made a stuffing softening onions and garlic in butter and added breadcrumbs before mixing all of that with chopped dried apricot, ras-el-hanout and a little egg to bind it all together, stuffed this mixture into the cavity of my twinned hearts and wrapped them both in bacon ready for cooking.
The rose petal spice mix and sweet apricots in the stuffing made me think about food that added sweet flavours to savoury courses and doubled as terms of endearment and I knew that there had to be some honey in there as well, which would compliment the Moroccan influence on my dish. So, I made a sauce to braise the hearts that used honey, white wine, chicken stock, and chopped tomatoes (the ones in the starter were just peeled, so here was a use for the rest of the tomato flesh), seasoning it with some fresh rosemary, which the packaging assures me is a “symbol of love”. After slowly cooking for two and a half hours in this sauce, I served the stuffed heart with some rosemary mash, which fit with the love symbol’s use elsewhere in the dish.
Finally, then, to dessert and the third heart of the evening. As you can see above, I had made Professor Plum a heart shaped cake for a previous Valentine’s Day, but that “heart” shape was really the sort of shape of a cartoon heart such as you get on all the cards and decorations on a day like this. It wasn’t actually shaped like a heart, not a real one. So, inspired by this concept, I decided to make this year’s heart shaped dessert genuinely heart shaped, a cake that looked like the real heart that we had just eaten for our main course.
To make something around the same size as our lamb’s hearts, and an individual dessert for each of us, I began by making chocolate cupcakes (I was going for a classic chocolate and cherry flavour combination). To make the heart shape I then iced the cakes in buttercream and wrapped them in fondant icing. I’m not really used to working with fondant, to be honest I find it sacrifices flavour for ease of decoration, so I cheated and bought some ready to use stuff from the shop that I then dyed red using food colouring. When shaping the fondant into a convincing heart look, the Lily Vanilli recipe above suggests using an image of a heart to work from, but I had something even better. As I was baking my cake earlier in the afternoon, I could work directly from the real thing to try and mould my fondant into a genuine heart shape.
The next stage was to coat the heart in something to make it glisten and shine like the real thing. The original concept suggests using piping gel, which I guess is something you would have to get from more of a specialist supplier than the supermarket. Anyway, I made my own vague equivalent by making a sugar syrup by dissolving sugar in water over heat and then adding gelatine and red food colouring. This worked pretty well when painted on the heart, certainly giving the thing more life. Finally, for the blood I made a sweet, dark cherry sauce to go with the chocolate cake inside and dripped it into and around the heart itself before serving Professor Plum her third heart of the evening.
To top it all off there was one final element, the box of Valentine’s chocolates that I made for Plum were also all heart shaped (the cartoonish kind, not anatomical) and were perfect for that final part of the whole heart dinner. Carrying the rosemary flavour from the main course, I infused whipping cream with rosemary and used it to make truffles, which I then coated in tempered white or dark chocolate in a heart shaped mould. And that was it for my Valentine’s heart dinner for my Valentine’s Day sweetheart.
Generally I was really pleased with how this went. The starter was fairly unremarkable, but nice enough. Those tomato roses were the real making of it. The dessert looked really fun and actually quite realistic, although, as predicted, the amount of fondant needed to shape it into a heart somewhat overwhelmed what was otherwise a good tasting chocolate cake and sweet, sticky cherry sauce. The real star of the meal for me, though, was the heart itself. The Moroccan spice influence on the stuffing and the sauce really worked and after well over two hours the meat in the lamb was well cooked. I don’t eat offal a lot, but on the basis of this maybe I should.
Of course, the most important thing when cooking a Valentine’s heart dinner is not whether you liked the food yourself, but how it went down with the one to whom you gave your apricot stuffed heart. So, how did Professor Plum enjoy it? Was she romanced or disturbed by my bleeding heart? I’ll let her have the last say on that…