The Procrastinator’s Guide to Valentine’s Day

How to win Valentine’s Day—at the last minute.

February 14th can be a high-pressure situation for those in a relationship, and while I commend lovers who meet that pressure head-on and made their Valentine’s plans weeks ago, I’m not one of them. No, I am a member of The Eleventh Hour Crowd. We procrastinators care about our boo-thangs, but maybe took that “we don’t need to do anything this year” too literally, or forgot to make a reservation at that go-to date night restaurant that is now fully booked, or maybe just started seeing someone and aren’t sure where things stand at the moment and labels are hard and what does a five-dot ellipsis even mean in this texting context?!?

If you somehow ended up in this crowd, and find yourself in a panicked state of day-of Valentine’s Day scrambling, I’m here to talk you off the ledge. If Tom Brady and the Patriots can rally back from a 25-point deficit to win the Super Bowl, then you can definitely rescue Valentine’s Day.

For the uninitiated, here’s a play-by-play of what a procrastinator’s Valentine’s Day looks (and feels) like:

February 14th, 7:00 AM: Wake up. Shake off the cobwebs and delay getting ready for work by scrolling through Instagram feed. Think: Huh, there sure is a lot of overly romantic content on here today. Read: Text from my girlfriend—Happy Valentine’s Day Babe! Realize: Crap, it’s February 14th. Oh no. How did this happen? Text girlfriend back in a panic: . Not smooth.

7:45 AM: Leave for work. Spend morning commute scouring Open Table on my phone, looking for a reservation at one of our usual spots. No dice, unless I can find a casual way to tell my girlfriend that two weeks ago I thoughtfully booked us a 10:15 PM table for a Tuesday night. That’s not going to happen.

Test cook Sasha Marx searches the local convenience store for ingredients to make a last-minute Valentine's Day treat.

9:00 AM: Hope I can cobble together a dinner plan by mentally scanning the contents of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. Remember I have a nice steak in the freezer, and a bottle of red wine on the shelf. I’ll butter-baste the steak! That’s simple (and impressive). Dinner: solved.

10:15 AM: Text to girlfriend: So, I wanted this to be a surprise but I’ve planned a romantic dinner for two at my place tonight! ; )  Girlfriend reply: That’s so sweet, I can’t wait!! Netflix West Wing marathon after dessert!?

Dessert! Remember that I forgot to remember that my girlfriend loves dessert more than she loves me and would be sorely disappointed with just beef, butter, and red wine. I’ll have no time after work to shop for groceries but I do have a free half-hour at noon if I skip eating lunch. I’m high on adrenaline but the thoughts running through my brain are less optimistic: “Can I really make something special, pretty, and quick from stuff at the corner store?”

Test cook Sasha Marx searches the local convenience store for ingredients to make a last-minute Valentine's Day treat.
Happily, the bodega down the street from America’s Test Kitchen sells single tea packets.

12:10 PM: Bust into the convenience store with a crazed look in my eye. Smile reassuringly at the cashier so he doesn’t think I’m there to rob him.

12:12 PM: Take a couple deep breaths to calm down and do a lap of the store. I cruise the aisles to get acquainted with the products at my disposal. I jot down some notes and highlight some key finds: cream cheese, graham crackers, Craisins, pistachios.

Test cook Sasha Marx searches the local convenience store for ingredients to make a last-minute Valentine's Day treat.
The options!

12:22 PM: I set my goal: something familiar in concept, that eats light (nobody wants a sugary gut-bomb cramping their style post-dinner). And no chocolate. Please, I’m more creative than that. Cheesecake mousse it is. I’ll cut the heaviness of cream cheese with whipped cream, and cut the sweetness with tangy cottage cheese. I hate sweet syrupy fruit that gets piled on top of cheesecake, so pineapple rings from the canned aisle are out. I’ll rehydrate the sweetened dried cranberries into a jam. I see that the bodega sells single tea packets! I’ll soak those Craisins with black tea to bring some herbal bitterness for balance. Pistachios for salt and crunch? You bet. For the crust component I decide on a graham cracker, oat, and brown butter crumble. I want turbinado sugar in the crust for added texture and pops of sweetness… but there is none to be found in the store. Pay and exit.

Test cook Sasha Marx searches the local convenience store for ingredients to make a last-minute Valentine's Day treat.
While traditional cheesecake is often served with syrupy sweet fruit on top, Sasha decided to avoid the pineapple in the canned fruit aisle. Instead? Craisins.

12:40 PM: Pop into coffee shop to steal a couple packets of turbinado sugar. Guilt consumes me halfway through my sugar heist (damn you, Quaker college education). Order a guilt espresso. Head back to work.

Test cook Sasha Marx looks for sugar-in-the-raw packets at a local coffee shop to use in a last-minute Valentine’s Day recipe.
To steal some turbinado sugar from the local coffee shop or not to steal turbinado sugar from the local coffee shop?

4:15 PM: Sneak out of work a little early to get a head start on prep at home.

Sugar-in-the-raw packets taken from a neighborhood coffee shop are one of the key ingredients for the last-minute Valentine’s Day dessert that test cook Sasha Marx is developing.
Turbinado sugar: acquired!

5:00 PM: Defrost steak. Decant bottle of wine. Start on dessert. Realize that I want dessert to be layered so that every bite contains a little bit of everything. In the test kitchen, or in restaurant kitchens, I would use a ring mold to help form the perfect shape. But I’m not in the test kitchen. I’m at home. And I’m, to quote a chef I used to work for, “like eggs in a pan: scrambling.” So I cut off the top inch of the cylindrical cardboard canister my oats came in and wrap it in tin foil. DIY hack? Done.

Procrastination Valentine's
Working with DIY ring mold made of a piece of the Quaker Oats container, Sasha plates his masterpiece.

7:00 PM: Bust out the mousse, jam, and crumble. Everything tastes pretty awesome, somewhat to my surprise. Assemble dessert. It looks great, too. Jacques La Merde would be proud. Valentine’s Day disaster averted. I pour myself a small glass of the decanted red (quality control is always important) and toast myself for what a solid boyfriend I am.

7:15 PM: Text from my girlfriend: On my way! I can’t wait to give you your present! Wait, present? Oh no.

Procrastination Valentine's

Recipe: Eleventh-Hour Date-Night Cheesecake Mousse

Field photography by Kevin White.

Styled food photography by Steve Klise.


Cook’s Science Newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter and be the first to learn about new stories, get behind-the-scenes looks at our research and testing, and score exclusive recipes.

Welcome to the community!

Keep an eye on your inbox for the sauce recipes and for our regular newsletter. Thanks for joining us!