Valentine's Day is Saturday, but one person who doesn't get mushy about it is food writer Nigella Lawson. Asked for some sweet recipes, she was happy to oblige. First, she felt a need to be clear: This is not her favorite holiday.
It all started with Lawson's teenage days in boarding school. As she remembers it, "The competitiveness about Valentine's Day — and who has the most cards and so forth — means that the tension and stress never quite leave you."
So the young Nigella developed a "lofty detachment" from the holiday.
"However, it's only slightly serious," she told NPR's Renee Montagne. "Because if it's an excuse to cook something delicious, I'll take it gladly."
For instance, Lawson has embraced cupcakes — or as she calls them around Valentine's Day, love buns.
"I just had to call them love buns," she said. "For me, part of writing recipes is the joy of giving titles."
Lawson's love buns are "simply cupcakes with a sort of easy-whip meringue topping."
The topping is fairly simple: egg whites, sugar and corn syrup, along with a touch of salt and cream of tartar to help it maintain its shape.
After that is swirled atop the cupcakes, Lawson adds a gimmick: "these rather fantastic little heart-shaped sprinkles, which I let fall flutteringly onto the cloudy peaks. They almost look like prop cakes, they're so perfect."
And that perfection doesn't have to be stressful, she said.
Valentine's Day recipes "can get so fussy and fernickity," Lawson said, "that actually you do not feel loving toward your loved ones – you just feel vaguely hostile, that you've been doing something so complicated and challenging."
Instead, she recommends aiming for simpler, yet rewarding tasks, like making chocolate cherry cupcakes.
The assembly is easy, as all the ingredients are stirred together in a saucepan before being poured into a cupcake tin. And the recipe can use cherry jam or, even better, candied cherries.
"If you can get those candied cherries, that haven't been dyed rather an alarming bright red, and you can get the ones that are a natural dark red, you've got something rather sultry and enchanting, rather than cute."
And with a topping of heavy cream and bittersweet chocolate, the cupcakes can let anyone join in the recent surge in cupcakes' popularity.
"I think that adults have some sort of yearning for childish things, childish foods," Lawson said. "And I don't mean that disparagingly."
The little cakes, which can seem like they were made especially for one person, satisfy that desire, she said.
Lawson notes that cupcakes also have another advantage — they don't inspire quite as much fretting after you've gone and eaten an entire cake.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Our next guest isn't one to get all sentimental about Valentine's Day. Food writer Nigella Lawson joins us from time to time. This visit, we asked her for some sweet recipes to make and share with loved ones. She was happy to oblige, though she hasn't always embraced the hearts and flowers and rituals of the day.
Ms. NIGELLA LAWSON (Food Writer): Do you know, I think it was because when I was a girl, I was sent for a while - I said sent for a while, it makes me sound like I'm some character from "Jane Eyre" - I was sent for a while to boarding school. If you were at boarding school when you were a teenage girl, the competitiveness about Valentine's Day and who has the most cards and so forth means that the tension and stress never quite leaves you. So in order to arm myself against that, I think I developed a lofty detachment. However, it's only slightly serious, because if it's an excuse to cook something delicious, I'll take it gladly.
MONTAGNE: There's one recipe that's quite in the spirit of Valentine's Day, and that's what you call love buns.
Ms. LAWSON: Love buns, I know, I had to call them - they're really just cupcakes for Valentine's Day - but I just had to call them love buns. For me, part of writing recipes is the joy of giving titles because the thing about cupcakes is they're so easy to make. My love buns are simply cupcakes with a sort of easy-whip meringue topping. And by that, I mean that I put two egg whites, with a bit of corn syrup and sugar, a teeny pinch of salt and cream of tartar, which just helps the egg whites stabilize. And I just whisk until I've got something that looks rather like the clouds do in the sky in a Renaissance painting. And then I just put that in swirly dollops on top of each little cupcake. Then I manage to find - you often get these little, fantastic little heart-shaped sprinkles which I let fall, flutteringly, onto the cloudy peaks. They almost look like prop cakes, they're so perfect.
MONTAGNE: Nigella, this is one that is very easy for me to visualize because I happen to have one right in my hand.
Ms. LAWSON: Oh really?
MONTAGNE: Yeah, our editor Bridget made them and…
Ms. LAWSON: That's fantastic.
MONTAGNE: …it does look like a prop cake.
Ms. LAWSON: Well, fantastic.
MONTAGNE: It is so perfectly shiny it actually looks, I thought, ceramic, almost.
Ms. LAWSON: You know, cupcakes can look so cute. I also think that sometimes, recipes that are particularly for Valentine's Day can get so fussy and finickity that actually, you do not feel loving towards your loved ones, you just feel vaguely hostile that you've been doing something so complicated and challenging.
MONTAGNE: You have - if one were to want to just make one right now, there's a recipe that you have for chocolate cherry cupcakes that is irresistible.
Ms. LAWSON: Well, it's a way of making life simpler in that you're not actually making a cake sponge because you're making this in a saucepan, and it's just butter melted with some chocolate, and then some cherry jam, and then some beaten eggs and some flour. But the point about this is that you're stirring everything in a saucepan and then pouring the batter in a muffin tray. And then they're grown up, I think. These are very grown-up cakes, and I just mix for the topping some equal amounts of heavy cream and bittersweet chocolate. And if you can get those candied cherries, I think they often call them, that haven't been dyed - instead of rather alarming bright red and you can get the ones that are natural, dark red - you've got something rather sultry and enchanting, rather than cute.
MONTAGNE: Here in America, cupcakes have become a big business in the last few years. I mean there's entire stores devoted to all kinds of cupcakes and now gourmet varieties. How does that happen that it's become such a big deal for adults?
Ms. LAWSON: I think that adults have some sort of yearning for childish things, childish foods, and I don't mean that disparagingly. Fondly enough, I noticed this when my own children were teeny tiny and I used to make cupcakes for their birthday parties. And I noticed it was the adults who all gravitated towards them. I also think people like their own little cake they can unwrap and eat, whereas maybe a big cake feels somehow more frightening. People think, oh, what happens if I eat the whole cake - it's OK with a cupcake.
MONTAGNE: Nigella, Happy Valentine's Day.
Ms. LAWSON: And you, may you be given many flowers and cupcakes.
MONTAGNE: Food writer Nigella Lawson, she has one more cupcake recipe to share. It's a treat she calls butterfly cakes, and you'll find it at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.