(No) great expectations.

Expectations decrease joy.

Remember when I talked about that? It was regarding John’s trainwreck-turned-lovely homemade birthday cake, but the concept applies to just about everything in life. Give yourself the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised instead of potentially let down or disappointed.

Valentine’s Day is ripe for let-downs, isn’t it? Hopes of a grand gesture or romantic surprise can lead to resentment or hurt feelings. I’ve always felt that on holidays like this one, it’s only fair to be sure that both parties are on the same page when it comes to expectations. Are you expecting a dozen long-stem roses and a trip to the day spa, while he thinks a sentimental card will do the trick? Be sure everyone’s on the same playing field before throwing out penalty flags.

Being our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple, I wanted to recognize our love in a special way, but nothing over the top. I don’t need jewelry. I need memorable. John was on board, so we tossed ideas around. Should we do a fancy dinner date the day before or day after Valentine’s Day to avoid the crowds? Should we head up to Snowbird for a little overnight getaway of skiing, dinner and a couple’s massage? We decided that those options seemed too involved- we’d keep it low-key and local. Maybe a nice brunch together at home first, and then we’d hit the sledding hill in our neighborhood followed by dinner and a drink at the nearby pub. I liked our plan- loose and easy and fun!

Yesterday, I woke up to a cup of coffee in bed, delivered by my Valentine. My other Valentine was extra shmoopy, too.

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John had work to do in his office while I got to work in the kitchen. In my life, it’s been proven that the way to my hubby’s heart is, indeed, through his stomach. One of the ways I show love is through my cooking. Just because it’s brunch at home doesn’t mean it can’t be special. John had tidied up the kitchen for me while I put on a love-filled new dress. I spied the heart-shaped cookie cutter I had tucked into John’s Christmas stocking this year and my brain went to work.

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First off, no brunch in the Howe house is complete without BACON. Is it weird that I spent 10 minutes forming it into holiday-appropriate shapes?

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I put the bacon love into the oven and the house started to smell like brunch. Next up: cinnamon pancakes. I don’t remember the last time I made pancakes, if ever. They are gluten-filled little nuggets, so this was all for John. I followed the directions on the Trader Joe’s box, added vanilla and cinnamon because it seemed like the right thing to do, whisked it all together, and hoped for the best.

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A little butter in the pan, a little scoop of batter… when there were lots of bubbles in the little cake, I flipped it. The little cake was browned and looked perfect! Kitchen experiments- all for LOVE.

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One by one, the stack of pancakes got bigger. I stashed them in a warm toaster oven during the process. The bacon was done, happy little meat hearts on a paper towel, waiting to be enjoyed.

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I had a pile of strawberries to clean up. As I pulled off the greenies, they looked like little hearts. SO appropriate. I cut them in half and exaggerated the heart shape with a paring knife. Only on Valentine’s Day can you be a little bit heart-crazy…why not go BIG?

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I remembered that maple syrup is best when warm, so I got it going on the stove. Meanwhile, I dressed up a few eggs with garlic salt, cracked pepper, crushed red pepper, and plenty of dill. When it was close to chow time, I beat them with a bit of milk and scrambled them, adding chipotle cheddar cheese at the end. Yum!

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Enter the cookie-cutter. The little cinnamon pancakes were the perfect size for a cut-out. Look how cute!

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When it all came together, I surprised myself with a stunning little brunch plate of love. John’s favorite part was the bacon hearts! I snuck a bite of pancake- delicious! I went in with no set expectations- no idea how it would turn out. There was a lot of “let’s see what happens if I do this.” And Valentine’s Day brunch was a success.

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The kitchen hadn’t seen the last of me. Knowing we would be eating out for dinner, I thought a homemade sweet treat for dessert would be fun. I recently picked up a brilliant cookbook, specializing in adult desserts. HELLO.

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John was interested in a chocolate extravaganza involving Kahlua. TWIST MY ARM. I’d picked up some gluten-free flour for baking, but this particular little cake was flourless. Bonus!

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Without the flour, the ingredient pile was kind of small. But there was one important component.

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Chocolate and Valentine’s Day just go together.

I decided to cut the recipe in half, since it was just the two of us. Six cupcakes seemed like enough. I started with butter and sugar in a pan on the stove. The scrumptious little chocolate chips were added, then the vanilla, and it soon became a melty sweet chocolate mess.

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I separated the egg and beat the yolk and white separately. Some Kahlua mingled with the yolk before the chocolate mixture went into it. The stiff egg whites got folded into the chocolate. And then it all went into the cupcake pan. Super easy!

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Famous last words.

As I gathered the ingredients to make a homemade caramel sauce for later, I peeked into the oven to check on my little cakes.

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Ya, that doesn’t look like the photo in the cookbook AT ALL.

Maybe my measurements were off. Maybe I miscalculated when I halved the recipe. Whatever I did, I did it wrong. I said to myself, “At least I nailed brunch.” And then I finished making the caramel sauce, which would now apparently be a fabulous ice cream topping.

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Have you ever made caramel sauce? I was surprised at how easy it was! I picked a Pioneer Woman recipe, and the only ingredients were brown sugar, butter, half-and-half, and vanilla. (Kahlua makes an appearance in the team photo here, but later got cut from the roster.) Sugar, butter, and cream into a pan, whisking lightly as the mixture came together and thickened up. A bit of vanilla, a little bit thicker, and it was done. And delectable.

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I gazed wistfully at my failed little cakes before I tossed them, and decided to taste the center of one. SO GOOD. It was kind of like a molten gooey brownie. Why would anyone waste a molten gooey brownie? I scooped the center of each cake out and set it aside in a bowl. It had cooked for plenty of time to be safe to eat. I wasn’t sure what to do with it (aside from dig in with a spoon), but it was too yummy for the garbage can.

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The big event was upon us. Gorgoza Park is a sledding hill right across the valley from our neighborhood. We’d driven past almost daily for a year, and in winter, watched as big tubes full of kids slid down the hill. We’d been dying to check it out!

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A couple of yurts dotted the lot. We bought our tickets in one of them, after signing a waiver form. I walked past the first aid hut, wondering if my health insurance was up to date.

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We selected our tubes, seeking out the new-looking ones (apparently, those were the fastest).  The hill looked relatively un-steep from the side, but groups of people sliding down were letting out shrieks. We hopped on a moving sidewalk that we rode to the middle of the hill, and then sat in our tubes and hooked onto a pulley that dragged us to the top. Up, up, up we went, getting a good view of our neighborhood.

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I tried to squelch my nerves, knowing this was going to be a blast. For our first ride, we went separately. John opted to get a running start, leaping onto his tube and riding down the hill on his stomach. I decided to go the traditional route and ride down on my booty. The track was smooth and slick, and I was unprepared for the speed of my ride. Within seconds, my tube turned around and I rode down the hill like lightning- BACKWARD. I may or may not have scream-laughed the whole way down.

Just like a couple of 5-year olds riding a slide for the first time, John and I laughed, grabbed our tubes, and said, “Can we go again?”

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The next couple of rides, we went tandem. Double the weight meant that we went a LOT faster. I wondered if there was a way to tuck my legs in, imagining one of them getting snagged on the snowbank as we whizzed past.

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My favorite is John’s laugh at the end. Boys will be boys, won’t they?

After a few times up and down the hill, we were cold and hungry. We stopped for a Valentine’s kiss and a snowy fist pump in the air before heading to O’Shucks for dinner.

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O’Shucks is the kind of place that occasionally has local bands, has many beers on tap, and serves you a fishbowl of peanuts when you sit down (shells on the floor, please). As our toes and fingertips began to thaw, we clinked glasses to our sledding adventure. The list of hot dogs tempted me, but I opted for fish tacos (no gluten in corn torts!)

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We headed home to find a movie to watch, and I said, “This is the best Valentine’s date ever!” We had no clue what to expect from our trip to Gorgoza Park, but ended up having an incredibly fun time.

Back at home, I divided up the melty gooey brownie, added some ice cream, and topped it with homemade caramel sauce. It paired perfectly with a rented movie, jammies, and glass of red wine. Before we called it a night, John surprised me with a  couple of cards, a gift certificate to the spa, and a fun little quiz book. (It’s called, “How Well Do You Know Your Groom?” I totally NAILED it.) I’d already had the best day with my Valentine- a thoughtful surprise was icing on the cake.

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Maybe the reason it was such a great day was because we kept the possibilities open…though any expectations I could have had certainly would have been exceeded.

Mostly because of the bacon hearts.

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I hope your day was filled with love.

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