When planning the perfect finish to a romantic Valentine's Day dinner, I'll admit you really can't go wrong with chocolate.

No one, save the rare cocoa haters among us, would turn down a piece of flourless chocolate cake, a bowl of silky mousse or a towering slice of torte decorated with chocolate curls and drizzled with hot fudge sauce.

Yet chocolate is such an expected part of the holiday, what with the ribbon-wrapped boxes of truffles and long-stemmed covered strawberries, that presenting an alternative dessert can be a delightful surprise.

And what better place to start than an angel food cake, on a day devoted to Cupid?

I'm normally an advocate for homemade cakes. By the time you get a box mix, measure out the oil and flour and crack in a few eggs, you've practically gone to as much effort and dirtied as many dishes as starting from scratch. And unless you're after the specific taste of a mix cake, the little bit of extra effort is worth the vast improvement in taste and texture.

Angel food is a horse of a different color. I have separated the dozen or so eggs, I have beaten the whites into a perilous froth, I have sifted the cake flour. I have poured the whole thing into a tube pan, fingers crossed, and tasted the final product.

It's not worth it.

The homemade version might be slightly better — I admit I did not conduct a blind taste test — but you can't beat the convenience of adding a little bit of water to a mix and popping it in the oven.

Either way you go about it, the master plan is to lop the top of the cake off, hollow it out and fill it with a delicious mixture of cream cheese, strawberries and sweetened condensed milk.

With this airy, fruit-based dessert, you can save your chocolate syrup for other activities.

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Strawberry Tunnel Cake

• 1 prepared angel food cake

• 1 8-ounce package cream cheese

• 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

• 1/3 cup lemon juice

• 1 teaspoon almond extract

• Red food coloring, optional

• 1 cup chopped fresh strawberries

• 2 cups heavy cream

• 2 tablespoons powdered sugar

• 1 teaspoon vanilla

Invert cake onto serving plate. With sharp serrated knife, cut 1-inch slice crosswise from top of cake and set aside. Hollow out center of cake, reserving pieces, leaving 1-inch walls on either side and bottom.

In large bowl, beat cream cheese until fluffy. Mix in sweetened condensed milk, and add lemon juice, almond extract and food coloring, if desired. Tear reserved cake into bite-sized pieces and add; mix in strawberries.

Whip cream, powdered sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form; fold 1 cup of whipped cream into strawberry mixture. Fill cake with strawberry mixture and replace top layer of cake. Frost with remaining whipped cream, adding food coloring if desired.

Chill for 3 hours before serving.

Chef's notes: You can hollow the cake out with a knife. I find using my fingers and tearing it out in chunks is far easier. Don't let the walls get too thin or the filling could blow them out — and don't overfill the cake, either.

Given that strawberries aren't in season right now —do remember this cake for the summer months! — they can be easily replaced with a cup of strawberry jam. Substitute heavy cream with a 12-ounce container of whipped topping. Use a sharp serrated knife to cut and serve the cake.

Technique

The correct way is to use a ruler to score the cake in 8 to 12 spots around its edge. Use a serrated knife to connect the scores, rotating the cake into blade with one hand, drawing the knife toward with the other. Continue sawing and rotating until the cake cut.

The fast way is to eyeball it. Either way, cutting a vertical notch in the cake will line up the newly split layers in their original orientation. If you end up with a lopsided cut, this will guarantee thick meets thin for an even finish. To transfer the top layer, slide a thin cookie sheet or cardboard round underneath it.

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