By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
The real question for couples on Valentine's Day isn't where to go for a romantic dinner -- it's what to eat afterwards. Specialty cupcakes? Decadent truffles? A plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries? A heart-shaped sugar cookie topped with a personal message written in pencil-thin frosting?
Two Pittsburg bakeries, just blocks apart on Broadway in the heart of the downtown, will be working overtime the next two days to ensure that customers have plenty of choices. They're churning out the aforementioned holiday specialties and will have plenty for sale today and tomorrow during what owners consider one of the busiest 48-hour periods of the year.
Still, the owners were happy to provide tips to the do-it-yourselfer who wants to offer his or her sweetheart a gift not just from the heart, but from the kitchen.
Lori Horton, owner of Celebrations by Lori, at 602 N. Broadway, said one of her biggest Valentine's Day sellers -- chocolate-dipped strawberries -- is simple enough for even a beginner to try. That is, "as long as they have quality ingredients," she said.
"If you want a quality finished product, you have to start with quality ingredients," said Horton, who opened her business in 2000. Quality ingredients means not using almond bark from the grocery store, she said.
"Almond bark is not chocolate," she said. "It's largely paraffin. It has flavoring and filler. Or some people just melt chocolate chips in the microwave. For projects with kids, that's fine. But if you want something to present to someone to represent your feelings, you want it to be quality."
In addition to being a bakery, Horton's shop is unique to the area: It is the only designated baking and candy-making supply business within a two-hour radius.
"If you like Pinterest, you can bring those ideas in and find cute papers to bake cupcakes in; and toppers to personalize them; and heart-shaped cake pans -- really anything and everything to decorate with," she said.
She also offers four levels of decorating classes, from entry-level to intricate design techniques. Tuition is $35 for a four-week class, which is held for two hours one evening a week.
1-pound bag chocolate (can be dark, milk or white)
2 quarts strawberries (amount varies, depending on size of berries)
Wash and pat dry the strawberries. Melt the chocolate using a double-boiler method by placing them in a pan that fits above a slightly larger pan filled with hot water. Stir until melted.
Inexperienced cooks can opt to melt chocolate using the microwave method: Pour chocolate into a plastic or glass microwave-safe bowl. Melt it for 1 minute at half-power, then stir. Continue for a total of 3 to 4 minutes, pausing after each minute to stir it.
Holding onto the leaf of the berry, dip it into the chocolate until it is almost submerged, then remove and allow excess to drip off. Place it on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper to harden at room temperature. Do not refrigerate, because the berries will shrink slightly and pull away from the chocolate.
Add sprinkles while the shell is still wet. Add drizzles using a different color chocolate, such as white drizzles on dark-dipped strawberries, after the dipped shell hardens.
Create the berries as close to presentation time as possible, because "there is a very narrow window of looking fantastic," Horton said. "A lot of people learn that the hard way."
'Beyond the ordinary bake shop'
Sweet Designs Cakery, at 311 N. Broadway, owned by Heather Horton -- who is no relation to Lori, just a coincidence -- is the other local bakery that is in full gear for the holiday.
Horton, a commercial graphics graduate from Pittsburg State University, uses her eye for design when fashioning edible creations, just as she did when she created her store's decor, which includes a black-and-white tile floor, funky colors on the walls and retro furnishings.
Heather Horton learned baking techniques from her mother, who, ironically, took classes from Lori Horton to learn how to make wedding cakes. Heather opened her store in 2009 and strives to take it "beyond the ordinary bake shop," she said, which includes making 3-D sculpted cakes with a modern flair.
She's also well-known by customers as "the cupcake lady," she said, and offers four to eight flavors in the display case on a rotating basis. Her holiday flavors include red velvet and vanilla cherry cheesecake, as well as one that pushes the cupcake envelope: devil's food cupcakes with milk chocolate, buttercream frosting, topped with a heart-shaped piece of bacon.
For those who'd rather make treats than buy them, Heather was happy to share a a Valentine's Day recipe.
Chocolate-dipped heart lollipops
1 container red jelly heart candies
1 bag lollipop sticks
1 bag chocolate (dark, milk or white)
Melt chocolate in microwave-safe bowl a minute at a time for 3 to 4 minutes at half power, stirring between each minute.
Holding one end of a lollipop stick, dip the other end into the chocolate just enough to wet the tip, then push it into the pointed end of a red jelly heart. The chocolate will help the candy seal to the stick.
Holding the stick, dip the red jelly heart into the chocolate enough to cover it. Allow the excess to drip off before laying it on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper. While the chocolate is still wet, sprinkles may be applied for decoration.
As a fun gift for adults, pour a few inches of coffee beans into the bottom of a pretty glass and add a "bouquet" of the heart-topped sticks, which will stand up in the beans. For a children's gift, pour a few inches of jelly beans or other store-bought candies into the bottom of a plastic Valentine's cup before adding a "bouquet" of heart-topped sticks. The bouquet-filled cups can be carefully placed into small plastic bags, available locally, and sealed at the top with ribbons.
"It's really an inexpensive, easy way to do something that looks very fancy," Horton said.