When it comes to holidays, my mom is A+. She’s never missed a year of making black eyed peas for New Year’s or corned-beef and hash on St. Patrick’s day. Though her Easter baskets never sported the live bunny I always hoped for, they were top-notch. Solid chocolate bunnies? Duh. She has a wooden Santa display to rival the Macy’s windows, and don’t get me started on her birthday cakes. Legendary. But strangely, though I’d never claim Valentine’s day as my favorite holiday today, if I had to pick one holiday past to pop in on, February 14 might actually be it.
Perhaps it’s because, for the most part, Valentine’s was just another ordinary day—a Tuesday, a Thursday, a Friday in midwinter. It was usually a school day, which meant it would have been easy enough to overlook. But without fail, when we came down to breakfast on that day each year, there would be heart-shaped pancakes, and tiny surprises at each of our places—simple things like I love you stickers or sometimes candy hearts, that graduated to tiny gold heart earrings or pink nail polish from year to year.
My mom wasn’t a note-in-the-lunchbox kind of mom; managing laundry, three meals, school projects, dance classes and every other detail of a family of six was her daily, tangible love note. But to this day, on Valentine’s day there is always a note from my mom—in the lunchbox, or now, the mailbox, making me feel—strike that—know that in a world that isn’t often quick to love, a mother always is.
As much as I love my hubby (and yes, we’ve had some sweet valentine’s dates), this year, for the first time ever, I’ve been irrationally excited about Valentine’s day, mama-style. The other day, I was even lured into a tacky dime store by the sparkly pink display, and left with a sack full of hearts in every form. I’ve been imagining a valentine’s tea for Greta and her 3-year-old playmates, a sweet, heart-shaped-pancake breakfast on Friday and a week’s worth of love-note-laden lunches. Truth: the party probably won’t happen—at least not this year. And, on a weekday, we’re lucky to get hard-boiled eggs eaten before we all have to rush out the door. But the thing about a mother’s love, or any real love for that matter, is that it’s never reserved for just one day.
In the end, Valentine’s is just another reminder to slow down and cherish someone. To take the time to hang tacky hearts in the window, however crookedly, if it means standing behind your little one, arms around them with your cheeks practically touching as she explains the way she sees the world. It means giving in to that one more book before naptime, even though you’re bloody exhausted, or taking a walk hand-in-hand in the bitter cold until you reach the end of the street, where the church bells chime and manage to almost stop time. It means baking your beloved’s favorite sweet, and pulling out the heart-shaped cookie cutters to make them just a touch more special, as if anything you do out of love could be more special at all. Because that’s what we do when we love—we keep trying, and praying if we need to, to outdo ourselves. To love more and better and harder and more purely than we thought we ever could.
STRAWBERRY RYE SQUARES || makes 12 to 36 bars
Recipe slightly adapted from Feast: Generous Meals for AnyEater and Every Appetite
1 ¼ cups rye flour
1 cup barley, whole-wheat white or all-purpose flour
2 cups old fashioned oats
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar (light or dark)
½ cup unbleached sugar
1 large egg, plus 1 egg yolk
Scant 1 cup strawberry preserves (or your favorite jam)
¾ cup lightly toasted hazelnuts or walnuts (or a combination)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly butter a 9 by 13-inch pan and line it with parchment paper with flaps overhanging two edges. Butter the parchment paper.
Whisk together the flours, oats, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
Beat together the butter and sugars in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the egg and the yolk. Add the flour mixture and slowly stir together, scraping the bottom of the bowl to get all the butter or floury bits.
Layer about 2/3 of the dough into the baking pan, pressing into an even layer. Spread the preserves evenly over the top. Drop the remaining dough in small clumps to the cover the jam, letting a little jam peek through. Sprinkle with the nuts.
Bake until the dough is set and golden, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool slightly in the pan, about 5 minutes, and then use the parchment to lift the bars onto a flat surface. Use a heart-shaped cutter, or several of them (I use all different sizes) to cut the bars into shapes, keeping them as close together as possible. This works best while the bars are slightly warm. Let them cool lightly in the cutters before removing and cutting out more (the bars set and firm as they cool). Cool completely and serve with coffee or tea.
p.s. minus the sugar (there's admittedly a bunch) these are pretty wholesome—full of whole grains and nuts—so I feel a-okay about sending these as Greta's school sweet in her lunchbox this week. use whatever wholegrain flours you have, and skip the nuts if allergies are an issue.