Trim and slice very, very thinly on a mandoline or with a sharp knife:
1 large fennel bulb
As a woman, I can say that I've had more than enough bad chocolate to last for the rest of my life. And flowers and silly stuffed animals and... Valentine's Day seems to have stagnated somewhere in the realm of kitsch, but in a not-so-trendy, jellied salad sort of way. My point is this: don't be like so many guys and think that the heart-shaped box of chocolates is good enough, because if she's really special to you, it's not good enough. I encourage you to put yourself out there and cook for your honey. Even if things don't turn out perfectly (or if they don't turn out at all), she will appreciate the effort. Trust me.
Believe it or not, many show stopping recipes are quite easy. The trick is knowing how to make things easier for yourself. If you know you're going to be cooking something "complicated," be sure to read the recipe beforehand. I don't mean five seconds beforehand, but a few days beforehand. Make sure you have all the ingredients and the tools you'll need. Once you've read the recipe, read it again, and again. Also, note any special prep you'll have to do--for instance, if a recipe calls for butter at room temperature, set it out at least 30 minutes before you plan on starting to cook. Cooking can be quite a pleasant experience if you aren't caught off guard.
For a stunning dessert that is really pretty basic and involves a propane torch (how often do you get to use one of those inside the house?), I propose Crème Brûlée. For a dessert with four ingredients, you can't get much more impressive. A creamy custard with a burnt sugar shell, Crème Brûlée relies on heavy cream for its luxurious texture and egg yolks (see my post on separating eggs) to allow the custard to set up. Think of it as pudding's sophisticated older sister. The burnt sugar crust is what really sets this dessert apart, and the easiest way to achieve it is with a propane torch (the kind you buy at a hardware store). You can also use the broiler in your oven or toaster oven (a little ghetto, but will work fairly well), rotating the crèmes so they darken evenly on top.
This dessert also requires something called a bain marie, which is the French term for "water bath." Nothing too complicated there. All you need to know is how to get hot water from your tap. The water bath allows the crèmes to cook and cool evenly so they don't crack when you take them out of the oven.
Finally, remember that you will need to make this dessert the day before you plan to serve it so that it has time to cool down completely. Just before serving is the right time to brûlé the top. If you have a propane torch you can even do this at the table, making this a very impressive dessert for your special someone.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Heat almost to a simmer:
2 cups heavy cream
Stir with a wooden spoon in a medium bowl just until blended:
8 large egg yolks or 4 large eggs
1⁄2 cup sugar
Gradually stir in the cream. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl or a large measure with a pouring lip. Stir in:
3⁄4 teaspoon vanilla
Pour into four 6-ounce or six 4-ounce custard cups or ramekins (small ceramic cups also work well as long as they're oven-proof) and place in a roasting pan. Have a large measuring cup of scalding hot tap water ready. Set the pan in the oven and pour enough hot water into the pan to come one-half to two-thirds of the way up the sides of the custard dishes. Bake until the custards are set but still slightly quivery in the center when the cups are gently shaken, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool the custards slightly in the water bath, then remove them and let cool to room temperature.
Cover each one tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or up to 2 days. Shortly before serving, gently blot any liquid that has formed on the surface of the custards with the paper towels. Sprinkle evenly over the top of each custard:
2 to 3 teaspoons granulated light brown sugar
Arrange the custards on a baking sheet and place under the broiler. Broil until the sugar melts and bubbles, turning the pan and/or moving the custards around if some cook more quickly than others. Some sugar will remain unmelted and some spots will char; this is part of the charm. If you are using a propane torch, sprinkle the sugar over each custard as above. Ignite your propane torch according to the manufacturer's instructions. Hold the torch so that the flame is not directly touching the surface of the custards, but it should be close enough to melt the sugar fairly quickly. Move the torch slowly over the custards to melt all the sugar, and continue bruleeing until the sugar is a deep, caramel brown color. Serve at once.