Valentine's Day without the crowd: Cake and cocktail recipes to help you celebrate at home

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Going out on Valentine's Day can be a royal pain during the best of times. These are not the best of times. The pandemic is hanging around like an uninvited virulent guest. Supply chains are shaky. Restaurants are short-staffed. And the people who are working are oh so very tired.

Anyone who's worked in the restaurant business knows Valentine's Day is the dine-out day for people who rarely dine out. It's also when expectations are highest. And the short-fused dining public seems to have some lofty expectations lately.

You might want to sit this one out. In fact, let me advocate for that.

Instead of booking a reservation during the mad Valentine's Day rush this year, try picking another day to celebrate love. Go out to eat in the days, or even weeks, before the holiday. Or wait until it's over.

Those surrounding days and weekends can often be slower due to the mid-winter slump. Many diners are also saving their dollars to have a big baller Valentine's Day. Capitalize on this. You'll find more tables available at better hours, and your server won't be exhausted from doling out free glasses of welcome champagne. 

Going out? Restaurant industry staff have it harder than ever; being nice is the least you can do

Ever since we became parents six years ago, my husband and I have stayed in on Valentine's Day. I cook something over-the-top fancy because I enjoy it. He buys the wine and pours it, making sure I have plenty to sip on while I cook. We refer to this crucial job as "logistics."

It's fun and more intimate than shouting at each other over the din of the crowd, though the cleanup is an obvious drawback. But there are no babysitters or Ubers needed. I don't even have to dig out my coat. And when we're ready to call it a night, we don't have far to go. 

If this is the route you're planning to take, here's a fun cake recipe and some cocktails to consider. Be sure to visit southernkitchen.com for more recipes, including how to make easy sushi and a method for chocolate-dipped strawberries, made in your Instant Pot. 

Happy Valentine's Day, however you choose to celebrate. If it's staying at home alone making and eating cake, that sounds pretty fabulous, too.

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Red velvet cake

This recipe was created by food writer Anne Byrn, author of "A New Take on Cake." Learn more about Byrn's books at www.annebyrn.com.

Here’s a traditional recipe for red velvet cake, complete with cream cheese frosting. You can always forgo the food coloring and let the natural chemical reaction of the acidic and basic ingredients determine the color of the cake, but then, you might be disappointed come Valentine’s Day that it isn’t red enough.

If you can’t fit all three cake pans on one oven rack, arrange your oven racks to the upper third and lower third of the oven. Place two cakes on the upper rack and one on the lower rack. Rotate the pans in the oven about halfway through baking time.

Hands on time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours

Ingredients

Cake

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter or shortening, at room temperature, plus more for the pans

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

2 tablespoons red food coloring

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more for the pans

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa, plus more for the pans

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 teaspoon baking soda

Cream cheese frosting

12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

8 tablespoon (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

5 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Pinch of salt

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Instructions

To make the cake: Place a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease three 9-inch round cake pans with butter and dust with cocoa or flour. Shake out the excess cocoa.

Place the butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the food coloring and vanilla.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa and salt. In a small bowl, stir together the buttermilk, vinegar and baking soda. On low speed, beat in the half the flour mixture, followed by the buttermilk mixture. Beat in the remaining flour mixture. Scrape down the bowl, and stir to blend the batter one last time.

Divide the batter between the pans and bake until the cakes just begin to pull away from the sides of the pan, 16 to 18 minutes. Let the cakes cool in their pans, set on a wire rack, for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pans and give them a gentle shake to loosen the cake. Flip the cakes onto a plate and then back onto a rack to cool completely, top side-up.

While the cakes cool, make the frosting: Place the cream cheese and butter in a second large bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Beat in half of the powdered sugar and the salt. Beat in the vanilla and the remaining powdered sugar. Increase the mixer speed to medium and continue to beat the frosting until fluffy, about 1 minute more.

To assemble the cake, place one layer on a cake plate. Spread about 3/4 cup of the frosting evenly to the edges. Place a second layer on top and repeat. Place the third layer on top, and spread a thin layer of frosting on the sides and on top, making what is called a crumb coat. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to seal in the crumbs.

Generously frost the top and sides of the chilled cake with the remaining frosting. Slice and serve.

Bramble 75 cocktail.

Bramble 75 cocktail

This recipe, provided by the team behind Bombay Sapphire Gin, uses Bombay Bramble, a tart, magenta gin infused with blackberries and raspberries. Add to that lemon juice, honey and a splash of prosecco, and you have a cocktail worth crushing on.

Ingredients

1.5 ounces Bombay Bramble

3/4 ounce lemon juice

3/4 ounce honey syrup (3 parts honey to 1 part warm water)

4 ounces of prosecco

Instructions

Combine all ingredients except for the prosecco into your cocktail shaker. Give it a quick, hard shake with ice. Strain into a chilled champagne flute or coupe and top with 4 ounces of prosecco.

Garnish with a lemon twist or blackberry on a toothpick. 

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com