Desserts We Love

By Jenna Biter   •   Photography By John Koob Gessner

Somehow, the riotous and violent Roman festival of Lupercalia, meant to dispel evil spirits and bring fertility and purity to the city, commingled with the beheading of one or more St. Valentines and evolved into our modern celebration of romance – Valentine’s Day. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer mentions birds mating in February one time, and, voilà, a celebration of affection and adoration is born. Or something like that.

Regardless of its possibly disturbing and definitely mysterious origins, the lovey-dovey holiday’s current state is as crystal clear as the Swarovski necklace she probably wants. It’s all about reds and pinks, flowers and dinner dates, friendship and romance, and, of course, chocolates, desserts — and chocolate desserts. Lucky for you, we’ve compiled a drool-worthy list of Valentine’s Day-approved confections from restaurants and bakeries in the Sandhills. Whether you’re a two-weeks-in-advance reservation maker or a last-minute “oh-damn” shopper, we have sweets for you and your other half. Or just you.

Ashten’s Restaurant

Pastry Chef: Zarah Wetmore

“I was the kid that wanted the Easy Bake Oven, but my mom and dad said, ‘No, use the real oven,’” says Zarah Wetmore of her baking roots. “I never got a light bulb oven.” And that might be why Wetmore is baking desserts as the pastry chef at Ashten’s Restaurant, and we’re not. Her Valentine’s Day dessert is a sophisticated and romantic take — a pink Champagne and St. Germain (an elderflower liqueur) cake finished in Swiss meringue buttercream that’s flavored with the floral liqueur, as well. It’s a lovely pink color inside, and the cake is garnished with a bit of molecular gastronomy — strawberry caviar. Fun fact: Fruit caviar has nothing to do with fish roe, but it is made with agar-agar, a gelatinous substance that comes from red seaweed. Boil fruit juice with agar-agar, then eye-drop the mixture into oil, where it beads into “caviar.” Who knew Valentine’s Day can be romantic and a learning experience? And, most importantly, delectable.

C.Cups Cupcakery

Owner and Baker: Janell Canino

“I feel like for Valentine’s Day people do a lot of chocolate, and chocolate-covered strawberries are popular,” says owner and baker of C.Cup’s Cupcakery Janell Canino on the inspiration for her celebratory dessert. Allegedly making their debut in 1960s Chicago, chocolate-covered strawberries definitely are a Valentine’s Day favorite, and the combination of chocolate and strawberries makes sense for a romantic holiday — both foods are thought to be aphrodisiacs — even if the scientific community isn’t sold on their efficacy. Lucky for us, we can enjoy this festive combination (amorous powers or not) at C.Cups atop its cheesecake cupcake. “Our cheesecakes are extremely popular, so I figured I’d do a little twist on the cheesecake and do a chocolate truffle,” Canino explains. Her ultimate creation for the lover’s holiday is a chocolate truffle cheesecake cupcake finished with a chocolate whipped topping, chocolate shavings and a chocolate-covered strawberry. It’s a chocolate lover’s dream.

The Ice Cream Parlor

Confectioner: Dixie Parks

The story of the cherry cordial, a confection with a liquid cherry center and chocolate shell, starts with medicinal tonics in the 1400s and continues today with the candy’s popularity during winter holidays and, of course, Valentine’s Day. “My grandfather loved them, and he would hide them in a box when he got them and stow them away, so he wouldn’t have to share,” says Dixie Parks of The Ice Cream Parlor. The mass-manufacture of the cherry candy began in the late 1800s and, by the 20th century, it sparked a fondness for “stashing away” the sweet not unlike Parks’ grandfather. Nostalgia for the candy remains today, and we’re happy it does, because Parks highlights the confection in her spectacular holiday ice cream — chocolate cherry cordial. It’s a chocolate and cherry cordial base with chunks of chocolate-covered cherries and chocolate shavings mixed in. “We tried to do a more sophisticated blend,” says Parks of her Valentine’s Day treat. We think she hit the mark, and, no, you don’t have to share.

Meat and Greek Eatery

Owners: Oresti and Brittany Arsi

Baklava, popular in the historic Levant, is a staple of Greek cuisine. “We do it a little bit different than a traditional Greek baklava,” says owner of Meat and Greek Eatery Oresti Arsi. The local restaurant’s recipe for the classic is layered with phyllo dough, brown sugar, a syrup with a complex formula, and a nut mixture of walnut, pistachio and thyme honey that’s imported from Greece. Then, it’s cut into a heart shape and served with a syrup drizzle for romantic flair. Order it to taste Arsi’s twist on this classic, or just to enjoy good baklava. More of a chocolate fan? Opt for Meat and Greek’s other celebratory dessert instead (page 72). It’s a dome layered with cake and chocolate mousse, and covered in a shimmery golden shell, courtesy of Arsi’s cousin, who runs Yia Yia’s Bakery in Baltimore. “We love how it’s sparkly,” says Oresti. And so will she.

The Carolina Dining Room at The Carolina Hotel

Executive Pastry Chef: Shelly Taylor

The Carolina Dining Room’s Shelly Taylor began her pastry career in Scottsdale, Arizona, before it took her to the kitchens of Pebble Beach, California, and Maui, Hawaii. The next stop on her baking trajectory brought her back to the continental U.S. to our very own Pinehurst, and that’s great news for your Valentine’s Day plans. Taylor is showcasing a milk chocolate mousse dipped in a chocolate hazelnut crunch, and it’s accompanied by a flourless chocolate cake, salted caramel, fresh raspberries, vanilla Chantilly whipped cream and a beautiful chocolate curl. It’s everything you want in a date-night dessert — sophisticated flavors, chocolate and more chocolate all served to you in the crystal-chandeliered dining room of The Carolina Hotel. “We’ve been here for five-and-a-half years, and I love it,” Taylor said of her time in the area. “I don’t think we plan on moving anytime soon.” With desserts like this, we hope not.

Lynette’s Bakery and Café

Owner and Baker: Lynette Bofill

If you love, hate or don’t care about Valentine’s Day, Lynette Bofill of her eponymous bakery and café has you covered. Her smorgasbord of festive treats is sure to satisfy everyone from love and friendship fanatics to holiday curmudgeons. Heart-shaped sugar cookies finished with vanilla icing and buttercream writing boast traditional mushy gush like “XOXO” or “I Love You,” and anti-holiday wit like “I Tolerate You” or “Stupid Cupid.” Bofill laughs. “I have some friends who hate Valentine’s.” Well, these satirical cookies will certainly please them. She also has M&M brownies with multicolor candies for friends, red and pink candies for lovers, and plain brownies for people who just want a brownie. And her 6-box of cupcakes? It’s for anyone who likes delicious. The sextuplet features strawberry champagne, dark chocolate raspberry injected with jam, honey graham, red and pink confetti, triple chocolate, and red velvet with cream cheese frosting. Yes, please.

Thyme and Place Café

Dessert Chef: Jari Miller

“We come from an area with a large Italian influence,” says Thyme and Place Café’s Jari Miller of her time in Syracuse, New York. But she doesn’t notice that influence much in the Sandhills, and she’s trying to establish it here via Italian desserts. “At Christmastime we did Italian cookies, which were a huge thing for us when we were in Syracuse,” Miller gushes. “We shipped 3,000 pounds all over America every Christmas.” Fast-forward to the present, and Miller’s Valentine’s Day confection for Thyme and Place is, you guessed it, Italian. It’s a cannoli cake iced in buttercream and topped with traditional pistachio and chocolate chip cannoli, maraschino cherries, a chocolate ganache drizzle and red heart decorations to set the mood. The inside is equally as mouthwatering — two layers of moist vanilla cake with the bottom layer hollowed out and filled with cannoli cream. Yum. If Italian desserts are all this good, we’re on board.  PS

Jenna Biter is a fashion designer, entrepreneur and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jenna.l.knouse@gmail.com.

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