By Naomi Rand

From Ideas That Spark

This year, instead of spending time and money at the bakery or chocolate shop, why not cook up something romantic, simple and surprisingly inexpensive at home. These out-of-the-box treats will make your valentine fall in love all over again.

1. Brilliant Breakfasts

Breakfast in bed is "the romantic ideal," according to Jennifer Hess, a food writer who blogs at But it's not so romantic when you serve everyday fare, she says. Rather than pancakes, make brioche French toast.

Slice the bread in an egg, cinnamon and nutmeg mixture (easy on the nutmeg), and cook in a skillet of sizzling butter until browned and crisp. Serve with warm maple syrup and fresh mixed berries.

Instead of scrambled eggs with toast, try Hess' personal favorite: Eggs Provencale. Line the bottom of an individual-sized baking dish with chopped canned tomatoes; crack two eggs on top; and sprinkle with salt, Provencale herbs, and crumbled feta or soft goat cheese. Bake for 20 minutes at 400 F and serve with a side of long stemmed roses.

2. Amazing Appetizers

Why save the best for last when you can set off sparks before the meal even begins. Whet your sweetheart's palate with pate or pesto dip, and a sliced baguette.

Or make a quick bruschetta: Toast slices of the baguette and top them with a melange of roasted peppers, sundried tomatoes, diced avocados and toasted pine nuts dressed with a dash of oil and balsamic vinegar. For the seafood lover, make a smoked salmon spread with cream cheese, sour cream, dill and horseradish, or serve a selection of smoked fish with crackers. Then, pop open some chilled bubbly and relax together -- a treat all by itself!

3. Elegant Entrees

Romantic meals need one fabulous dish, not a full buffet. So focus on the main event and keep the sides simple. Unusual spices and condiments turn standby entrees into something truly special, without a ton of work required. Buy a boned leg of lamb and rub it with a mix of ground coriander, black pepper, cumin and salt to add a little heat before roasting. Or wrap pork tenderloin in pancetta and serve with fig sauce. "Sear it on the stovetop, finish it in the oven, then slice," says Hess. "It looks terrific and tastes great."

For the ultimate indulgence, serve sweet lobster with drawn butter. (Many seafood departments will have it on special for the holiday, so it will only seem like a splurge.) Make it truly special by adding to the pot white wine and a dash of exotic spices -- Chinese five spice, Provencal herbs or even Cajun rub.

4. Decadent Desserts

No matter what your valentine craves, there's a simple, seductive dessert you can put together in a heartbeat. If he's a cheese lover, buy a block of something exotic or artisanal, and pair it with the perfect dessert wine. Hess suggests Port with Stilton, but the experts at the cheese store can help you choose.

For a fruit aficionado, whip up some heavy cream with a splash of vanilla extract and sugar, and serve it over a selection of choice berries. If it's chocolate he craves, buy a variety of imported pieces and create your own sampler. Or take a dark chocolate mix and top with homemade mint butter cream frosting drizzled with melted chocolate.

For the frosting, you'll need 3 tablespoons of butter, 1 cup of confectioners sugar, ½ teaspoon of mint extract, 2 squares of semisweet bakers chocolate and 2 tablespoons of cream. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter on the stovetop. Remove from heat, add the cream and sugar, and blend until it's creamy and spreadable. Pour in the mint extract and blend again. In the microwave, melt 1 tablespoon of butter with 1 square of bakers chocolate. Ice the cake with the mint frosting and dribble the chocolate, swirling with a fork.

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Naomi Rand has written for Parents, Redbook, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Working Mother and New Jersey Life.