Black and White
Outside, spring’s white moon
Broods over the jasmine and
Over the streaked skunks,
Darting from darkness
Like shadow puppets,
Black and white in their shy splendor.
Inside, the white cats sleep on their backs,
Their paws bent over their round bellies.
One of them makes little noises
Like the soft breeze
Stroking the skunks
And touching winter’s last white camellias.
A blossom drops in the darkness;
The stars seem like so many petals.
The skunks, the cats and the moon
Breathe the same
When the crocuses emerge from the cold ground, tiny green leaf buds appear in the top branches of the oaks and bright pink blossoms arrive on the bare quinces, what else will happen in February? Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, is February 16, the culmination of the Carnival season and the day before Ash Wednesday when the long austere season of Lent begins. Traditionally, Mardi Gras is a time for lavish parades, dancing in the streets and parties with copious amounts of rich food and drink, lots of music and crowds packed together in frenzied festivity. However, this year there will be no Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. The mayor of New Orleans, La Toya Cantrell, has announced that while Mardi Gras cannot be canceled because it is a religious, not a governmental celebration, it will be very different in 2021. No parades will be permitted, and all public activities will require masking and social distancing. Perhaps we should just stay home and create our own little party.
Another February holiday that cannot be canceled is Valentine’s Day on Sunday, February 14. Like Mardi Gras, St. Valentine’s Day, as it was known traditionally, is also religious in origin. This festival was celebrated by the ancient Romans as the Lupercalia, a fertility rite involving naked men jumping around and sacrificing animals. At the end of the Fifth Century, after Roman Catholicism had been firmly established in the Roman Empire, Pope Gelasius re-named and re-purposed the festival of Lupercalia as St. Valentine’s Day in honor of one, or perhaps two martyred saints named Valentine. Legend has it that in the Third Century, two Catholic priests, both named Valentine, were executed by the Emperor Claudius II on February 14, but not in the same year. One of them is said to have been beaten to death with clubs and beheaded in punishment for secretly performing marriages for young Christian couples to save the husbands from going to war. This story explains why Valentine’s Day is associated with love and marriage, although the strong emphasis on romance among unmarried lovers did not evolve until the Fourteenth Century, a time when Courtly Love was in vogue.
Because historic documentation to substantiate the legend of St. Valentine cannot be found, the Catholic Church removed him from the General Roman Calendar in 1969, but St. Valentine is still listed in Catholic liturgical calendars on February 14 as “traditional,” and this day is commemorated as World Marriage Day. Several miracles are associated with St. Valentine, including the restoration of sight to a blind girl to whom he wrote a letter signed “from your Valentine.” In addition to being the patron saint of lovers, St. Valentine, for unknown reasons, is the patron saint of epileptics and beekeepers. Over the centuries, St. Valentine’s Day became a time for husbands, wives and sweethearts to express their love for one another through letters, handwritten notes, poems and other small tokens of affection.
For the artistically inclined, these little gifts often included symbols and visual images, especially hearts, turtledoves and pictures of Cupid shooting his arrows of love into the heart of the beloved. Red, the color of passion, came to dominate the composition of commercial valentines, and the custom of sending red roses to a loved one added an element of extravagance to the expression of love. Red heart-shaped boxes of fine chocolates soon followed.
In the seventy years of their marriage, Grandpa
Gave Grandma a valentine every year,
And she kept them in her steamer trunk
Under the quilts she made season after season,
Hand stitched from old clothes.
The quilt patterns never changed—double wedding ring, crown of thorns, Dresden china plate,
But the valentines morphed from images of plump pastel Edwardian beauties
To bobbed, red lipped art nouveau kewpies
And even during the Depression, sensible ladies in house dresses
All surrounded by hearts, Cupids, arrows, roses, doves and words of love.
With the trunk at the foot of their bed,
Grandma and Grandpa slept, warm beneath the quilts,
The valentines, in the darkness, always near.
Today, Valentine’s Day has become a hugely commercialized event in which couples are expected to demonstrate their love through extravagant and uber-expensive gift giving, including jewelry, champagne dinners in the finest restaurants, trips to Hawaii and even orchestrated public proposals of marriage. Voices in popular culture have begun to point out the tastelessness of this trend, which excludes single people and stereotypes private expressions of love between two people into public shows of status. While I hesitate to criticize any form of celebration that brings happiness to the participants, I do believe that true love is the secret realm of two people who have found something sacred, often expressed in ephemeral moments of kindness.
Perhaps in 2021 we can reclaim some of the simple purity of Valentine’s Day, a time when we let others know that we love them. Because the coronavirus has not yet been eradicated, big parties and dinners in fancy restaurants are not appropriate, but we can express our affection in quiet, humble ways. What could be sweeter than tea for two with our loved one or any special friend or family member? My niece and co-author Kathleen and I are happy to help. Our “Valentine’s Day Tea” in the February calendar section of “The Tea Book” on this website contains a beautiful tea-time menu developed by Kathleen with a treasure trove of romantic sweets, including Strawberry Charlotte, Battenberg Cake and Chocolate Heart Sandwich Cookies with Sour Cherry Filling. Kathleen’s February 2017 blog, “Valentine’s Day” features stunning photographs of hand-made valentines which she created and equally gorgeous photos of some of the valentines that my grandfather gave to my grandmother, as described in my poem, “Tokens of Affection.” I think you will be happy to know that this entire collection of now historic valentines is protected in Kathleen’s safekeeping. And for those of you who love the elegance of simplicity, this same blog features Suzi’s Sugar Cookies, heart shaped and tinted pink ready to share with your true love this Valentine’s Day.
This year I plan to serve my true love, Wayne Higashi, a Black Bottom Pie for Valentine’s Day. Shortly before New Year’s Day this year, Wayne told me early in the morning that he dreamed that we had Black Bottom Pie for the New Year. I can recognize a hint when I hear one, but I didn’t have the ingredients on hand at that time to create a Black Bottom Pie. He had to wait a while, but I hope he enjoys his valentine.
Black Bottom Pie is basically a single crust refrigerated pie with a lining of dark chocolate on the bottom of the crust and a layer of whipped cream, meringue or custard on top, frequently flavored with rum. This luscious American dessert was developed early in the Twentieth Century. Like many American desserts, its origins are somewhat murky. Some food historians speculate that it is southern, like Mississippi Mud Pie, and that the names of both of these over-the-top pies refer to the dark, swampy lowlands along the Mississippi River. The muddy black imagery in both cases describes the generous amount of dark chocolate lining the bottoms of both pies. Other, perhaps more reliable, sources credit the “Pie King” of Los Angeles, Monroe Boston Strause (1901-1981) with inventing not only Black Bottom Pie, but also Chiffon Pie and Graham Cracker Crust.
Mr. Strause inherited a bakery while still a young man and became an enthusiastic promoter of pies. In 1939, he wrote Pie Marches On, a book of pie recipes aimed at professional bakers and now available only as a pricey collector’s item on Amazon and other online sources. People who own a copy of this book consider it a treasure. Mr. Strause apparently developed Black Bottom Pie in 1926, possibly inspired by earlier southern versions. It is often made with a Graham Cracker Crust, another of Strause’s inventions. The Fanny Farmer Cookbook’s recipe for Black Bottom Pie recommends a crumb crust made from one and a half cups of graham cracker, gingersnap, vanilla wafer or chocolate wafer crumbs mixed with one-third cup each of sugar and melted butter. Fanny Farmer’s filling is a custard fortified with gelatin and whipped egg whites and divided in two. One half, which becomes the “black bottom,” is flavored with melted chocolate, and the top half is flavored with rum. The entire pie is then covered with whipped cream.
I prefer a more intense layer of bittersweet chocolate for my Black Bottom Pie, so I recommend covering the bottom of the crust with ganache. And my filling is a rich custard rather than a light, airy chiffon. The Black Bottom Pie recipe I am sharing here is actually a Banana Cream Pie with a traditional pastry crust and dark chocolate on the bottom. I also like to make this same recipe as a Coconut Cream Pie or even a Toasted Almond Cream Pie. I do agree with Fanny Farmer that the top of this American classic should definitely be covered with a generous layer of whipped cream. The recipe for Vanilla Custard to make this pie appears in my May 2020 blog, “Afternoon Tea with Children and Teens” on this website. I have included the ingredients and equipment needed here for your convenience.
- 1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 4 ounces of bittersweet chocolate (I use Ghirardelli’s 4-ounce bar
- 1 cup sugar
- 6 egg yolks
- ½ cup flour
- 2 cups whole milk (or half and half)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 large ripe banana
For the topping:
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Substitute 1 cup of either toasted sweetened coconut or toasted slivered almonds for the sliced banana and sprinkle over the ganache layer.
9-inch pie pan, pie weights or dried beans and aluminum foil, wire cooling rack, 1-quart glass measuring cup, 2 medium sized heat-proof bowls, heat-proof rubber spatula, medium sized saucepan, electric whisk or hand-held whisk, hand-held electric mixer, plastic wrap, medium sized metal mixing bowl.
Makes: 6-8 generous pieces of pie
Preheat oven to 450°F for the pie shell
- Preheat the oven and follow the directions on the package of refrigerated Pillsbury Pie Crusts for a One Crust Pie Baked Shell. Use a 9” pie pan. Place one round of dough carefully into the center of the pan, press it gently into the bottom and sides and crimp the edges decoratively. Your challenge will be to weigh the shell down, so it does not blister or shrink as it bakes. Use pie weights if you have some, or just press a layer of aluminum foil over the bottom of the pastry and partly up the sides of the pan. Then scatter some dried beans over the foil to keep the dough in its original shape. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the edges are lightly browned, remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Remove the pie weights or foil and beans.
- As the crust bakes, start making the ganache. Break the 4 ounces of bittersweet chocolate into small pieces into a medium sized heat-proof bowl and set aside. Pour 1 cup of heavy whipping cream into a 1-quart glass measuring cup and microwave at 30-second intervals until the cream just starts to boil, watching carefully to make sure it does not boil over. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chocolate pieces and let stand for 2-3 minutes. Stir with a heat-proof spatula until the mixture is smooth and no pieces of chocolate are visible. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cool but not hardened.
- Make the Vanilla Custard using the ingredients listed above and following the procedure at the end of my May 2020 blog on this website. (myteaplanner.com) Refrigerate the custard in a medium sized bowl, covered with plastic wrap, until it has cooled.
- To assemble the pie, spread the cooled ganache evenly over the bottom of the baked pie shell using a rubber spatula. Slice a large ripe banana over the ganache, distributing the banana slices evenly. Pour the cooled custard over the banana slices, cover the pie with plastic wrap, directly on the custard, and refrigerate for 3-4 hours or overnight.
- Shortly before ready to serve the pie, place the beaters of a hand-held electric mixer and a medium sized aluminum bowl in the freezer for a few minutes. Remove the bowl, assemble the mixer, and beat 1 cup of heavy whipping cream on medium speed until soft peaks form. Add 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla and continue to beat on high speed until slightly stiffer, but do not overbeat. The whipped cream should remain soft and pillowy but not runny. Spread the cream completely over the pie up to the edges of the crust and use a spatula to form soft swirls. Serve immediately and refrigerate any leftovers.