During the last days of my favorite thrift store’s liquidation sale, while I was digging through the ancient remnants of a decimated sheet music selection, the owner of the shop approached me. She had saved a paper bag full of vintage valentine decorations for me. The only person happier about this than I was, of course, was Isobel.
Valentine’s Day is the perfect excuse for me to indulge my passion for all things heart-shaped, especially food. Last year Isobel and I celebrated by making heart-shaped sandwiches and quesadillas lunch, and this year I decided we’d celebrate with dessert. I’m a novice baker and I wanted an easy activity I could do with Isobel, so instead of making a cake from scratch we’re using a brownie mix, small cake pans, and even smaller vintage Jell-o molds.
It used to be that gelatin desserts (and even savory dishes, such as aspic) were all the rage and it was not uncommon to serve your guests their own personal little mound of Jell-0, sculpted into clever floral shapes or tiered towers, by way of an aluminum Jell-o mold. I found a stash of these little tins from, I don’t know, maybe the 1940s?, years ago while thrifting. I bought them all, including several heart-shapes, without really having a specific purpose in mind and they’ve been rattling around in my drawer, unused, ever since. I found more recently which I bought for Isobel’s Easter basket last year and they’ve dutifully helped us make many a pretend cake. While going through my actual heart-shaped cake tin I thought, why not, let’s try baking little cakes in the Jell-o molds, too. To my surprise it worked out beautifully.
I have several heart-shaped cake pans that Wilton made in the 1970s (too many, in fact, I’ll be unloading some in the shop, soon) but I’m almost certain you can find them brand new at craft or baking supply stores. I’d feel bad about giving you a recipe for something you couldn’t do without a specific, sort of uncommon piece of vintage equipment, but just the other day while I was browsing my Valentine section of the grocery store I found small paper cake pans meant for just this purpose. They’d be disposable, of course, but you can get the job done.
If you are going to skip the restaurant experience on Valentine’s day (the worst night to go out to eat in my opinion, with Mother’s Day a close second), then these babies would make the perfect dessert for a dinner at home with your sweetie or your family. They can be made earlier in the day and left to cool and as dinner grows closer.
- a boxed recipe for brownies that you like, we like the simplest mix from Ghirardelli
- since we’re using a mix, you might also need an egg or oil, as mine did
- heart-shaped pans or paper molds
- almond, mint, or orange extract, optional
- frosting or whipped cream, for decorating
- sprinkles, conversation hearts, etc, for the top
- canola or other neutral oil, for the pans
– Preheat the oven to the temperature stipulated on the box. Coat your pans liberally with oil. If your cake sticks it will crumble, and all your heart-work (heh) will be wasted.
– Combine your brownie mix with the necessary ingredients as listed on the box. Mine required one egg, some water and oil. This was the part Isobel loved best because she likes to pour and stir.
– I like to add a drop or two of an extract to my brownies. Something so small and simple can make them so sublimely good. My favorite is to add a bit of almond extract. It doesn’t make them taste nutty so much as it makes them taste complex. Adding mint extract gives them a grasshopper or thin mint cookie flair, and orange extract makes them taste Christmas-y.
– After the mix is thoroughly combined, pour them into your greased tins. I mixed my batter in a bowl with a spout, but the the mixture was so thick I opted to use a ladle to fine-tune the portions. After each ladle-ful, gently shake the pans back and forth to help the batter “settle” and level off.
– Leave plenty of room for the batter to rise in the oven. I didn’t do that with one of my little tins and the crust puffed over. Not a big deal for the most part, but when I turned the cakes out of the pans the overfull cake stuck to the edges and the heart-shape crumbled. The photo above clearly shows the crumble damage that results from too much batter-to-pan ratio.
– Baking times were approximate, but you want to aim for a completely done cake. I happen to love a soft, squidgy, underdone brownie, but in order for these cakes to keep their shape they need to be completely baked through. Test doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake. It’s done when it comes out clean, with no crumbs or batter streaks. My larger cake took about 35 minutes at 350, while the smaller ones took 25 minutes.
– I let my cakes cool for ten minutes on a rack before I attempted to remove them from their pans. They looked like nothing so much as heart-shaped musical notes on a staff and they drove Isobel and the cats mad with their scent. When cool I used a toothpick to lightly trace around the edges of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Then I just turned the pan over, gave it a little shake, and out popped the heart-shaped goodness.
– I bought gross pink frosting and sprinkles so that Isobel could decorate her own mini-cake. She eschewed the poisonous-smelling flamingo pink frosting in favor of the milk chocolate kind, but had very little patience for decorating. After slathering on a bit of frosting and pelting it with sprinkles she considered her masterpiece done and ate it with glee.