A version of this story first appeared on Lulu and Phoebe.
There are few things more humbling than finding out what your kindergarten teacher really thinks of you. Even more embarrassing is finding out that she thinks one fewer cookie might be good for you. Mrs. C. was the first person in my life to point out that I was a little large for a kindergartener. Tall by more than what is reasonable, I was built like a little tank. Not zaftig exactly, but certainly not a pixie, either.
My clothes were always a hair short or a smidgeon tight because I grew so fast, and my mother, who sewed all of them, could not keep up for so many reasons. Still, I was happily oblivious until that one fateful Feb. 14, a party day in the kindergarten, where you hang decorated paper bags and each classmate (hopefully) fills the other bags with dreamy (read: stupid) little sentimental cards.
We gathered on the floor in a circle and the teacher handed each of us a single heart-shaped, frosted sugar cookie to take home in our Valentine card bags.
Mrs. C. instructed us to collect our stuff from the cubbies for dismissal then clapped her hands, startling us into a herd running from thunder. The kid next to me jumped at the sound and stomped my bag.
I could hear the cookie crumble through the noise of the herd thumping to the cubbies. These were not the kind of cookies my mother made. I had rarely seen rolled sugar cookies with frosting and this was a really special treat. One that I wouldn’t have to share with three brothers. That is, until the cookie met its demise from a little boy’s shoe.
I was probably crying when I went up to the teacher to show her my footprint-smeared bag and cookie crumbs. She looked at me and sighed as she shook her head. There were no more cookies and even so, it probably was good that I not eat one anyway. I really didn’t need the sweets. I must have looked puzzled because she tweaked the waistband of my skirt to show me that it was a little bit small. Or I was too big.
My best friend came up to stand next to me just that moment. We walked home together. I was half again taller than her, though we were just a few months apart in age. The teacher smiled at her and frowned at me, shaking her head. For the first time ever, I looked at my friend in a new light and understood that school life would be a picnic for that adorable pixie and I might be in for a challenge. A bit of a smartass comic was born that day.
At home it was hard to hide my disappointment. My mother effortlessly coaxed it out of me. Before I could get my coat and boots off and put away, she had mysteriously delivered a single cupcake, white with a little bit of pink frosting and a tiny little red heart on top — right into my hands. She gave me a kiss and told me I was her littlest Valentine and this was just for me.
Although I cannot thank my kindergarten teacher for many things, I can thank Mrs. C. for creating one of the best traditions ever. There isn’t a Valentine’s Day that goes by where a cupcake is not front and center.
This year, easy, fabulously light, and seriously rich-tasting cocoa cupcakes will make their way to our table, topped with a dash of freshly whipped cream and a sweet little cherry.
This recipe is an adaptation from “The Essence of Chocolate” by Scharffenberger/Steinberg with Stephanie Hersh.
Little Valentine Cocoa Cupcakes
Makes 8 cupcakes
2½ tablespoons Valrhona unsweetened cocoa
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter cut in cubes
½ cup filtered water
1 scant cup white sugar
½ cup cake flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg
¼ cup full fat sour cream (don’t skimp)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Heavy cream for whipping
8 cherries or raspberries
For gluten-free variation, substitute flour with:
½ cup gluten-free flour
½ teaspoon xanthan gum
Notes: Use any gluten-free flour you like, but I like the Authentic Featherlight for cakes like this. Using excellent quality cocoa makes a big difference. You can find Valrhona cocoa at Whole Foods or other specialty markets. When loosening the edges after baking, try to spin the cupcake in place to make sure it is totally loose.
Happy Valentine’s Day.