Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays that most people either love or hate. Usually you hate it when you’re single, and suddenly appreciate it when you’re in a relationship. Growing up gay in a small town in upstate New York, for most of my life I was on the team against this holiday. Once I started dating I began to like it, but even then usually thought of Valentine’s Day as an excuse for restaurants to pack as many couples as possible into a tight space and charge a small fortune for a “prix fixe” menu. After a bottle (or two) of cheap champagne and several courses of dinner, I was usually done for the night, and that was that. Now that I’m married and don’t have to try so hard to impress my dates or seal the deal or whatever it is people do on Valentine’s day, I finally have a new appreciation for it. My husband Russell and I usually skip the over-priced meals and crowds and try to re-create the date experience at home. We like to use this holiday as an excuse to brighten our home with fresh-cut flowers, cook a nice meal, drink some wine and, of course, buy some chocolates. My favorite part of this holiday was, is, and always will be the chocolates.
This day hasn’t always been all about chocolates and flowers though. Valentine’s Day has its roots in ancient Rome, and the holiday’s two namesakes were Roman saints who both shared the name Valentine. Though there are some rumors, there is no evidence linking either saint to the romantic ideas people have about the holiday today. Back then this holiday was strictly about martyrdom and religious beliefs. It wasn’t until the medieval era, when the tradition of courtly love flourished in the spring, that people started tying Saint Valentine’s Day to romance and love. Men would pick spring flowers and write love songs to try to woo their fair maidens, but even then sugar was a precious commodity in Europe, so candy wasn’t yet a part of the experience.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that the British chocolate manufacturer Cadbury started marketing chocolate candies for Valentine’s Day. Before then, chocolate was usually consumed as a hot beverage. When Cadbury made some improvements to its chocolate manufacturing technique they were left with an excess of cocoa butter. It was then that they started to produce a wide array of their “eating chocolate” and recognized Valentine’s Day as a marketing opportunity. Richard Cadbury started designing and selling ornate decorated boxes filled with an assortment of his new chocolate candies. Victorians were already in the practice of showering each other with cards and gifts for Valentine’s Day, and Cadbury’s chocolate boxes were a wild hit. Within a few decades these elaborately decorated boxes were everywhere, and their popularity continued to grow until governments started rationing sugar during World War II. By then the idea of candy, chocolate, and heart-shaped everything was deeply tied to Valentine’s day, and continues to be today.
Another Valentine’s Day confection that roots back to Victorian England is the conversation heart. The English had a tradition of writing phrases and sayings on small pieces of paper embeded inside of small colored sugar candies. The Victorians took this fashion even further by creating “conversation lozenges”, which came in various sizes and shapes, and were common all year round. Some of the more common phrases on them included “Can you Polka?” and “How do you flirt?”, but they were even sometimes used as marketing tools with the names of businesses written on them. In 1866 a device was invented to imprint the phrases into the candies rather than hand writing them, and in 1901 the Necco company, makers of Necco wafers, starting cutting their conversation lozenges into heart shapes and marketing them as Valentine’s Day “Sweethearts”. For decades some of the most popular phrases on conversation hearts were “Be mine”, “Kiss Me”, and “I’m Yours”. In the 1990s the company decided to update some of their phrases and retire others, introducing new phrases like “Email Me”, “Hot Stuff”, and Russell’s favorite, “Fax Me”.
When I was trying to decide on a dessert to make for Russell on Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be really fun to try combining these two traditions. I’m not really a fan of real conversation hearts, but I am a big fan of chocolate! So, prepare to have your mind blown, I decided to make conversation hearts made of chocolate! Boom. Rather than trying to make tiny hearts out of real chocolate I decided that little chocolate cakes were where it’s at.
I started with my favorite recipe for Devil’s Food Cake from Russell’s birthday, but decided to ice them with a traditional American buttercream. For fancy layer cakes I’m usually a bigger fan of meringue buttercream because American buttercream tends to be too sweet and have a slightly gritty texture, but I thought it was the clear choice for these cakes. Since they’re so cutesy and retro, and since they’re the size of large cupcakes, I thought this old school classic would be the perfect complement. I baked three 9-inch layers of Devil’s Food Cake and used a 4-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut out twelve Devil’s Food hearts. Then I filled, stacked, and iced the hearts to make 6 mini heart layer cakes. To make the cakes look just like traditional conversation hearts, I chose pastel tones for my icing and piped on phrases in red.
Not only are they completely adorable, they’re totally delicious. Super moist, tender & chocolatey cakes covered with rich sweet & creamy icing. Heaven. The recipe below makes 6 cakes, which each feed 2 people at least, so they’re perfect for a party. If you wanted to just make 2 heart cakes you could cut hearts from one layer and freeze the other two layers of cake for another use. If wrapped good and tight in plastic, these cake layers should keep for up to a month in the freezer.
I really hope you give these a try. They might be a little advanced for beginners, but if you are a confident crumb-coater and can pipe a straight line, I promise you can handle it.
Conversation Heart Mini Cakes
butter and flour for pans
2 cups peanut oil or vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups hot water
3 1/4 cups cake flour
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
4 large eggs
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter three 9 inch round cake pans, line bottoms with parchment paper, butter paper, and dust pans with flour. Whisk together cocoa powder and hot water until smooth.
Sift together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda; set aside. Beat oil and sugar together on medium-low speed until combined.
Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in vanilla and cocoa mixture. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture in two batches, alternating with buttermilk and beginning and ending with flour. Beat until just combined.
Divide batter between pans, and bake until a cake tester inserted into centers comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes. Invert cakes onto rack, peel off parchment, and let cool completely.
Classic American Buttercream
just enough for six 4″ heart cakes
2 cups unsalted butter (4 sticks or 1 pound), room temperature
6-8 cups confectioners sugar, SIFTED
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
4-6 tablespoons milk
Beat butter for a few minutes with a mixer with the paddle attachment on medium speed. Add first six cups of confectioners sugar, one cup at a time, with your mixer on the lowest speed until the sugar has been incorporated. Increase mixer speed to medium and add vanilla extract, salt, and 4 tablespoons of milk and beat on high for 3 minutes. If your frosting needs a more stiff consistency, add remaining sugar, a cup at a time. If your frosting needs to be thinned out, add remaining milk 1 tablespoons at a time. For these hearts you want the icing fairly stiff.
Assemble the heart cakes
Wrap each 9″ cake layer in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour, or over night. Level each layer with a sharp bread knife or cake leveler, and using a 4″ heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut four hearts out of each layer, giving you 12 hearts. Keep the heart cut-outs cold in the refrigerator while you’re working on each cake.
Divide your icing into 7 bowls. You’ll need about a cup of icing for each of the six cakes, and about 1/2 a cup of icing for the seventh bowl which you’ll use for the writing. Color the writing icing bright red, and then color each of the 6 remaining bowls whichever colors you prefer. Keep in mind that conversation hearts come in pastels so go easy on the food coloring. Fit a piping bag with a medium writing tip, I used a Wilton #7 , and fill the bag with your 1/2 cup of red icing. I used CK Products gel colors (available here) to avoid thinning out the icing. A little goes a long way, so use sparingly.
Working with one color at a time, spread about 1/4 cup of icing on the top of one heart cut-out and layer with another cut-out. Using another 1/4 cup of icing spread a thin layer to cover sides and top of the cake. This is called the crumb coat, and since these cakes are cut-outs they produce a lot of crumbs. This step is very important if you don’t want visible crumbs in your icing. Once your cake is completely crumb coated, refrigerate while you work on remaining five cakes. Repeat until all 6 cakes are crumb coated and each has refrigerated for a minimum of 30 minutes or more.
Working with the same color the cake was crumb coated with, ice each cake with remaining 1/2 cup of icing. Use a small offset icing spatula to get a nice smooth finished surface. Once iced, write your favorite conversation heart phrase on top with red icing. Repeat with remaining five cakes. Take pictures and show your friends, family, co-workers, first grade teachers, and college RAs.