There are a couple of different ways to approach your Valentine's Day food plan.
You can keep things low-key, even pointedly cheap. (For 50 of the best affordable spots in Tampa Bay, check out tampabay.com/top50restaurants.) Or the holiday of love (or eye-rolling, depending on how cynical you are) can be a time to think about extravagant foods, items you wouldn't normally eat or cook but that can help woo a special someone.
An informal poll on my social media accounts and with my friends and family in real life revealed that most people who can hack it in the kitchen have cooked something indulgent for or with their loved ones: panna cotta, the puddinglike Italian dessert that's made with gelatin in a mold; lobster bisque; biscuits and gravy; pot pie with short rib.
Most people said different versions of the same thing: It took a lot of work, but it was worth it.
In that vein, I urged myself to tackle a cooking project I never have before: macarons. I'd heard horror stories from friends who have tried to whip up the French pastry, which is essentially a fancy cookie sandwich: two delicate shells held together by a thin layer of filling. (Macarons aren't to be confused with macaroons — note the extra "o" — clusters of coconut flakes and sugar and egg.)
The dessert is multipart, meaning you have to perfect the cookiemaking process and the assembly. A signature of the macaron is that the cookie shells have a precise texture — crisp and crackly on the surface, chewy on the inside — that can be difficult to produce. But I am a macaron nut, someone who can't pass up ordering one whenever they're available, and so the result was indeed worth a few frustrations.
One tip I had heard was to let your egg whites get to room temperature before working with them. For the first batch, I didn't take this tip far enough. You should really be letting your eggs sit on the counter for a couple of hours to ensure the correct temperature.
Another thing, and this one requires a bit of technique: Instead of stirring the cookie batter, you need to fold it, gently turning it over and over until all is incorporated. This allows the macarons to be airy instead of flat and more brittle.
I did not have a pastry bag, so I used the classic trick of cutting a small (start small and cut a larger hole only if you need to) corner off a large zip-top bag and using that to pipe the macaron dough onto the baking sheet. It worked, but I may invest in a proper pastry bag next time.
Using the detailed recipe below, I was able to produce a respectable batch. As expected, they delivered more in the flavor department than in the looks department. They were flatter and less perfectly circular than other macarons I've had, but they were a delightful shade of pink and, filled with a homemade buttercream frosting, had just the right amount of sweetness to serve as a dreamy dessert come Valentine's Day.