In every long-term relationship, there comes a Valentine's Day (or perhaps a birthday) where one confronts an uncomfortable truth: Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates make boring gifts. In fact, most of the classic sweetheart presents show no creativity. Twee little pastel parcels of cupcakes? So 2010!
In this gallery, selections span the spectrum from messy DIY to hipster to downright spicy. We hope it inspires you next time you want to give somebody a little sugar.
By Lena Katz
Bomboloni | The International Charmer
These adorable little Italian cousins to the doughnut could overtake macaroons as the "trendy" mini-dessert of the moment, but there are a couple hurdles to overcome: First, almost no one in the United States knows what they are. Second, they're hard to locate. Still a specialty item found only in select big-city Italian delis and bakeries (most famously New York's Bomboloni Café, pictured here), these delicious and decadent morsels inspire endless debate among fans, and instant fascination from dessert-lovers who see them for the first time. A diminutive morsel that makes a big impression - worth seeking out if you want to impress.
Photo Credit: Bomboloni Café
Budino –| Silky Smooth
And yet another winner from the Italians: Budino is Italian pudding - however, because it's usually only available in Italian fine-dining restaurants, and Kraft has never offered it up in powder form, it's got a much better rep than regular pudding. If your significant other always leans toward the flan, crème brulee or panna cotta on the dessert menu, then budino will be a sweet end note on a special night: Salted caramel for the savory-loving palates, Meyer lemon for those who like a bit of tart. (Psst: If you don't know where to find this dessert, any restaurant with a Mario Batali connection is a good place to start the search.) Chill in your refrigerator with a nice bottle of Prosecco, and serve by candlelight, to share.
Photo Credit: Flickr/racingmix
Sweeties on a Stick | Just Too Cute!
If your partner 'oohs' and 'ahhs' over baby animal pictures on Facebook or anything else done en miniature, the sweetie-on-a-stick shtick is just right for them. Cake pops (pictured) are easy to find and often delicious, but if you don't want to be suspected of gift-shopping at Starbucks, you may want to go for something a bit less mainstream, like mini-waffles on sticks, or chocolate-covered salted caramels on sticks. For extra points, find anything heart-shaped, pink or featuring a smiley face.
Gourmet Candy Bars | Party Chic
Party planners report that fancy candy bars are increasingly in demand on dessert buffets or as favors. In its gourmet rendition, this dessert resembles nothing you've ever seen in a drugstore candy aisle. Artisan producers like Chuao Chocolatier or Dagoba Organic Chocolate use only the finest ingredients to create intensely rich and flavorful bars: Chuao's signature is the chile-infused Spicy Maya, while Dagoba satisfies sweet-tart desires with its Beaucoup Berries Bar. For something even more specialized, get a treat handmade from the gourmet sweet shop in your town.
Photo Credit: Chuao Chocolatier
Chocolate Fondue | Get Creative, Get Involved
Intimidating at first, chocolate fondue is actually among the most fun of all desserts, especially for people who like to assemble their food. This gorgeous fondue kit from Godiva includes all the gear, and the chocolate too. To dip, try not just strawberries and cookies, but also bananas, oranges, dried apricots, rum balls, or gourmet handmade marshmallows. This is a great treat to share with other twosomes, and always a hit at bachelorette parties as well.
Photo Credit: Godiva
Sticky Pudding | The Winter Warmer
When the weather outside is frightful, sticky puddings are so delightful. Just ask Brits, Canadians, or any other destination that has to deal with frigid rains, thick slush in the streets, and a shortage of daylight. While the traditional English version can be tooth-achingly sweet and chewy, contemporary versions like the sticky date pudding pictured (served at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge) are smaller and more delicate, but still rich and dense enough to hit the spot on a damp, cold night. Plus, it's usually not a bad thing for couples to get a little bit sticky...in the proper setting, of course.
Photo Credit: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Dessert Pancakes | Surprise, It's Hollywood
If your sweetheart has a stack of tabloids hiding somewhere in the house or a shameful Access Hollywood addiction, do we have the sweet surprise for you: The red velvet pancakes pictured here are the signature dish at The Griddle Café on Sunset and Fairfax, in the heart of Tinseltown. So many TV stars, tabloid regulars and gorgeous wanna-bes frequent these tables and gorge on layer cake-sized, whipped cream-covered, zillion-calorie pancakes, a single visit can change one's mind about the whole "Hollywood doesn't eat" myth. And if you can't make it to Hollywood (or can't spend two hours waiting for a table at the restaurant), the Griddle now sells Red Velvet panCAKE Mix online.
Photo Credit: The Griddle Café
Buns | The Indie Sensation
Looking for the dessert equivalent of the indie movie It Girl? The bun is it for 2012. With its British beginnings, nonchalant disregard for dietary restrictions, and hipster fan club, the bun is the pastry equivalent of Adele, just before she went mainstream. It remains to be seen whether this trend will go big the way the songstress did...but Brooklyn's trying pretty hard to make it happen. And in the meantime, it's a quirky treat that can brighten up a hipster morning. (Pictured: blueberry lemon mini-buns from Jane's Sweet Buns.)
Photo Credit: Jane's Sweet Buns
Vegetable Desserts | Trendsetting and Tasty
When trend reports identified vegetable desserts as a trend to look out for in 2012, we cringed. Then we remembered that both Bradley Ogden and Thomas Keller have incorporated beets in chocolate cake desserts recently, and they're not the only ones. So yes, desserts that incorporate vegetables can be an unexpected treat, when done right. Another case in point, the butternut squash crème brulee served at gourmet Indian restaurant Junoon in Manhattan, and pictured here. For couples who like trying new things together, bond over the oddness of this new dessert trend and see whether you agree with the experts.
Photo Credit: Junoon
Pie | When You’re Home
For reasons not immediately visible to the naked eye, pie is a dish with a lot of emotional undertones. When you give it to a stranger, it says "I have good intentions, and traditional values." When you give it to a significant other, it says "We're a family." (Probably one with children.) Visually, it isn't as flashy as some sweets, but technically, it's among the most difficult to make. Enthusiasts compare pie-making to a science...or to meditation. Writer/baker Beth Howard, who made the pie pictured here, published the memoir Making Piece on Harlequin Nonfiction this winter. It tells how she dealt with the untimely death of her husband through baking and gifting pies. Recipes are included.
As we said before, pie is not a dish to underestimate. It may not be the prettiest, but it signifies the most. Only give it if you're sure.
Photo Credit: Making Piece