I have a friend whose birthday is today – a few days before Christmas. He told me has always disliked having a birthday at this time of year as you tend to get ignored and lumped in with all the yuletide festivities – you know, if you receive a birthday present, it is wrapped in Santa Claus paper that will “do for both” occasions, people distracted with preparations for massive gatherings involving carols and kind of forgetting to sing Happy Birthday.
As I look through my calendar for December, I realize how many of my nearest and dearest have birthdays which fall around the Mega Attention Getting holiday that is Christmas. It starts for us with a family birthday on December 10th, and goes right through to best friend since childhood on January 11th.
Since I am fortunate enough to have a birthday at the BEST time of year – just as spring is in full, heady, fragrant, blooming glory, I think it only fair to make a fuss over those born in the deep mid-winter, a season beautiful in its own way – just really cold.
I am not a big Christmas present person – I much prefer the food – but I do love a birthday – because I think everybody deserves a little attention of their own, a little fuss made over them, a special day. One of the things I confess to liking about Facebook is the deluge of birthday well-wishes.
And I think everyone should have something resembling a cake, something on which to put a candle, light it, make a wish and blow it out.
So today, I am foregoing any semblance of Christmas baking (my freezer is stuffed with it), and devoting myself to creating a special birthday chocolate gift thingy for a very special friend. I sit down to think about his special qualities.
My friend Jay is a big, generous guy, who is known and loved in the Vancouver theatre community. One of those rare souls who has no ego, it always takes him forever to go through any room because he says hello to everyone, inquiring about their families, and is always interested in the projects other people are doing, from the newest apprentice, to the most venerable member of Actors’ Equity. He is also very funny, and has never really grown up.
He has done the voices for some of my all-time favorite National Film Board animation projects, including The Big Snit and Getting Started.
I am smiling and my shoulders are shaking, and I have the feeling I know the perfect thing to make: Peanut Butter and Jelly Cups.
I have, for ages, wanted to try adding the flavor of jelly to my old favorite recipe for peanut butter cups.
I love Maki’s step by step directions for making the peanut butter filling in a zippered freezer bag. It is so clever, neat and tidy, and is, as she says, very therapeutic as you squish the bag’s contents between your hands like an edible stress ball. The body heat from your hands helps to warm up the butter in the mixture, as well.
My technique at this point, veers off from her recipe, as I make the cup itself out of tempered dark or milk chocolate, swirled in a silicon baking cup, a variation on my Mum’s method for:
Wee Chocolate Cups
- To make the cups, melt over low heat, 8 ounces good quality chocolate, either plain (dark) or Dairymilk.
- Using a spoon, and a stack of small paper baking cases, drop a blob of chocolate into the case, and swirl it up and around the inside with the back of the spoon, to coat the whole case.
- Leave a stack of a few to give it structure, and set each cup aside to harden in the freezer.
- When hardened, peel the paper cup from the chocolate, by inserting a clean pin between the layers of baking cup and chocolate.
- Carefully peel away the cup and fill with delicious things!
I then pipe Maki’s delicious mixture into the cups, once the chocolate has hardened and set, and I have popped them out. I leave them to settle, tamping them down a bit with a knife, and put on a backing coat of tempered chocolate.
They have always been a hit, even before I learned how to temper chocolate! Now, they also have a nice snap and gloss.
So wouldn’t they be even better with a lovely layer of pate de fruits, buried in the middle of the peanut butter like a jewel? Oh yes, I think so.
Strawberry Pate de Fruits
I am so glad now that I spent a whole day this summer, washing, carefully, picking through and coring 20 pounds of lovely local strawberries, before freezing them, because I now have only to go to my freezer and extract a bag of them, weigh out 5oo grams, gently thaw, puree and mix with 600 grams of sugar, before boiling them for a full 9 minutes (adding 15 grams of butter at the five minute point).
My kitchen smells heavenly and berry rich, as I take them off the heat and quickly stir in two full pouches of liquid pectin (I used Bernardin brand, this time). I know they are going to set up well, as I can feel a slight thickening as the mixture pours into a parchment lined 9”x13” pan, left to set into thin squares. I put the pan on my marble slab, overnight.
Here is the recipe closest to the method I used for these pates.
The next morning, with my two fillings ready, I temper some Callebaut milk chocolate. I love this chocolate’s caramel-y smoothness. It always seems to slide down the back of my throat. I am using the milk chocolate because I think it might actually taste better with this combination of flavours, not overpowering the delicate strawberry. Now, I am having second thoughts. I do hope the finished cups won’t be too sweet.
The pates have set up beautifully, and are easy to cut into squares to fit the bottoms of the cups. Next time, I am going to try cutting them into tiny circles, to fit the cup bottoms, perfectly.
The recipe has made a generous batch, and I roll the leftover pates in berry (superfine) sugar, which makes a pretty boxful of treats to go with the chocolate cups. My younger son absolutely loves pates, and I make sure to save a box full of extra bits for him.
Before I give them as a gift, I have to make sure these cups are as tasty as I hope.
And I have to say, they are. The smooth textures of the milk chocolate and peanut butter are deliciously offset by the tangy strawberry jelly. It is, of course, possible and probably advisable to eat these cups in a series of small bites, but there is something wonderful about popping the whole thing in your mouth and reveling in the three tastes.
And when I drop them off at my friend’s house half an hour later, in typical fashion for this funny and lovely man, he is so taken by surprise, he wants to give me something as well, and tries to all the way down the stairs.
As I back out of his front door laughing, I can only think, “Oh my friend, you have. You already have.”
Happy Birthday, to all my mid-winter friends. I hope you all get to blow out a candle and make a wish.