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If I were Martha Stewart I would have had Valentine’s Day all figured out by now.

I would have already bought all my gifts. Each present wrapped in understated silver paper, with a tiny antique angel affixed to a corner, or something earthier - plain brown kraft paper with a black cursive ’V’ done in calligraphy. I’d have a meal planned - several light courses beginning with a vivid green soup, each bowl topped with one perfect orange nasturtium, and ending with a magnificent dessert. I’m thinking of a layer cake, a towering, multi-layered confection that would serve - by its sheer magnitude and lofty splendor - as a symbol of my affection.

But I have not purchased or planned a single thing this year: no gifts, no soup, and no big, magic cake. It’s not that I don’t love my family. I do. But, for me, Valentine’s Day is often fraught with misunderstanding.

Browsing through a cookware shop a few years ago, I spotted a heart-shaped cake pan. A beautiful, silver, heart-shaped pan. The idea of baking a heart-shaped cake, a layer cake for Valentine’s Day, was beguiling. For a family like mine, who celebrate few holidays (we do an ersatz Passover-Easter extravaganza in April featuring matzoh ball soup and a leg of lamb), the thought of celebrating a sentimental holiday - a holiday that had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with love - was appealing.

By Valentine’s Day, I had pored over each cookbook in my collection. Wanting a recipe that was old fashioned and homey, I settled on a plain vanilla cake. As it baked, the kitchen filled with the warm aroma of vanilla and sugar. The cake emerged from the oven light and tender, and as it cooled I nibbled on a few moist, delicious crumbs. I sliced it into four layers, then spread each layer with whipped cream. Pillowy swirls of the cream covered the outside of the cake and a few raspberries were dropped atop nonchalantly; I wanted the effect to be special but still humble.
The meal preceding the cake came and went; I don’t remember much about it. And then, out it came. Four layers high and hovering like a white cloud, that cake was a stunner. I placed it proudly before my family.

"Wow," said my daughter.

"Oooh," said my husband.

They liked the cake. They thought it was pretty, and poked at the fluffy cream frosting, licking their fingers. But neither recognized it as a heart. The layer of whipped cream, applied so carefully over the surface, had obliterated most of the curves at the top of the cake and softened the point at the bottom. "It’s a heart!" I said. "Don’t you see? It’s a heart-shaped cake for Valentine’s Day!" They looked at me and then back at the cake. There was silence for a moment.

"Mom," my daughter whispered. "That is not a heart."

I’ve baked cakes in the heart-shaped pan since then. I made a birthday cake with pink icing for my mother. I even baked one for myself, once, while my family was away, but I was only going through the motions. My heart just wasn’t in it any more.

This year, enjoy Valentine’s Day and let someone else do the cooking - and baking. The following stores and restaurants are offering specialty items, or serving prix fixe, or a la carte dinners for Valentine’s Day. (All of their chefs would know a heart-shaped cake if they saw one.)

The Fratelli Ravioli stores in Park Slope and Boerum Hill make a heart-shaped, cheese-filled ravioli. No one will mistake them for plain, round ravioli. They can be purchased by the pound for $5.99, or you can try the Valentine’s Day special: one pint of tomato vodka sauce, 16 ravioli and two tiramisu for $15.99.

Copper in Cobble Hill is offering a four-course a la carte dinner. There’s a crispy duck on currant pancakes appetizer, and a salad of baby field greens, grapes and manchego cheese tossed with sherry vinaigrette. For the main course, there’s a pheasant with rose petal sauce, asparagus with raspberries and potatoes rosti (potato pancakes), and for dessert - a warm chocolate souffle. Isn’t that romantic?

Smith St. Kitchen in Boerum Hill, known for its innovative seafood dishes, is serving a three-course, prix fixe dinner for $50 per person. There’s an extra charge for an optional caviar or oyster selection. Appetizers like seared Hudson Valley foie gras and a fried oyster salad with fig vinaigrette sound delectable. Entrees take the meal a notch further with a poached Chilean sea bass or a Steelhead trout with wilted greens in a shallot vinaigrette. For dessert - warm chocolate cake with bourbon ice cream and chocolate sauce will leave you sighing.

In France, they kiss on the main boulevard. For romantic evenings in Bay Ridge, locals head to Provence en Boite, a patisserie and bistro, where a special $49 prix fixe dinner will be served. Three courses, with three selections each, include cauliflower soup and a rack of lamb with thyme sauce and Provencal vegetables. For dessert - heart-shaped petits fours.

Marco Polo restaurant on Court Street in Carroll Gardens is serving an Old World Italian dinner. A la carte dishes range from retro to more modern fare. There’s an oysters Rockefeller appetizer - the shellfish are topped with spinach and mozzarella. Pastas can be ordered by the half order or full order, and include classics such as a simple penne with sauteed prosciutto, onions and fresh tomato sauce.

If you’re a little old fashioned, Marco Polo’s quarter-pound lobster or the roasted pork loin with applesauce will appeal to you. Those still counting points on Weight Watchers may opt for the red snapper or a veal scaloppini with baby artichokes and white wine. And for everyone, there’s a heart-shaped cake; their version has layers of chocolate and raspberry mousse and is topped with fresh raspberries.

"Brooklyn’s Famous Landmark Restaurant," Gage & Tollner, in the Fulton Mall, is serving a surf and turf blowout. On the surf side: the restaurant’s legendary crab cakes and she-crab soup. For $35.95 a "seafood extravaganza" for two includes chilled lobster halves, jumbo shrimp, oysters and clams on-the-half-shell. On the turf side: beef Wellington, steak au poivre and duck a l’orange. Their heart-shaped dessert, also chocolate and raspberry mousse, comes with marinated blackberries.

How about one-stop dining and a movie? On Feb. 14, the BAMcinematek will show a special screening of director George Cukor’s "Holiday" (1938). Featuring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, the film is billed as "a tale of class, sophistication and romance," perfect for Valentine’s Day. The BAMcafe, catered by J.A.M. catering services, is offering a $30 prix fixe dinner (plus $9 movie ticket). Start with sherried oysters or a spinach salad. Entrees include filet mignon Oscar with crabmeat, asparagus and hollandaise sauce. For dessert - a molten chocolate cake for two.

Finally, some maternal advice: make your reservations early or plan on takeout.


Where to GO

, 243 Degraw St. at Clinton Street, (718) 797-2017

Fratelli Ravioli, 200 Court St. at Warren Street, (718) 330-1183; 169 Seventh Ave. at First Street, (718) 369-2850; and 169 Lincoln Place at Seventh Avenue, (718) 783-7833

Gage & Tollner, 372 Fulton St. at Jay Street, (718) 875-5181

Marco Polo Ristorante, 345 Court St., at Union Street, (718) 852-5015

Provence en Boite, 8303 Third Ave. at 83rd Street, (718) 759-1515

Smith St. Kitchen, 174 Smith St. at Warren Street, (718) 858-5359

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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