Have you been on the receiving end of a heart-shaped box? Maybe it was filled with jewelry, but if you're lucky, it was filled with chocolate. And while a box of candy is a tried-and-true way to say "I love you," we might know an even better way.

The Culinary Institute of America's Chocolate Tower Cake is like one big piece of candy for your special someone, with chocolate on the outside and silky caramel on the inside. And there is no better way to express your appreciation and love than with the gift of homemade. Especially if it's chocolate.

High-quality chocolate can be expensive, so it is important to decide when it's worth the splurge. This recipe relies on cocoa powder to flavor the cake layers, so to ensure the richness that you want, a premium cocoa powder makes all the difference. Look for powders that contain a higher quantity of fat than the others.

This cake has a dreamy chocolate and caramel filling, but you can use whatever ingredient your honey loves best. Replace the caramel with raspberry preserves, a creamy coconut filling, or even some chocolate-hazelnut spread. Brush the layers with coffee or orange liqueur, or sprinkle crushed-up bits of toffee or toasted nuts over your filling.

Don't be afraid to get creative. Use melted chocolate to pipe hearts or X's and O's onto parchment paper. Leave them to harden, then use buttercream to stick them to the sides or top of the cake. And if you've added any flavorings to the cake, be sure to represent that on the outside, with fresh fruit, nuts, or coconut flakes.

Valentine's Day falls on a Tuesday this year, so if you're worried about making this recipe after work, just plan for a little prep time. About an hour before you serve dessert, take it out of the refrigerator, pour the glaze over the top and prepare to amaze.

CHOCOLATE TOWER CAKE

Makes one 9-inch layer cake, about 14 servings

Chocolate Cake (recipe follows)

Swiss Meringue Buttercream (recipe follows)

Malted Milk Chocolate Ganache Filling (recipe follows)

Caramel Filling (recipe follows)

Milk Chocolate Glaze (recipe follows)

Freshly whipped cream, as needed for garnish

Toffee bits, as needed for garnish

CHOCOLATE CAKE

Makes two, 9-inch cakes

Servings: About 14

Start to finish: 3 hours, 40 minutes (active time is 2 hours; inactive time: 1 hour, 40 minutes)

2 1/4 cups cake flour

2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon baking soda

3/4 cup cocoa powder

1/4 tsp kosher salt

1 1/4 cups vegetable oil

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup boiling water

1 cup sour cream

1 tsp vanilla extract

4 eggs

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease two 9-inch cake pans (see note) and line with parchment paper circles. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt. Stir to combine. In a small bowl, mix the oil and buttermilk. Add to the dry ingredients, and stir until incorporated.

Add the boiling water and stir. Add the sour cream, vanilla, and eggs, and whisk just to combine, being careful not to overmix.

Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans and bake until the cakes feel springy to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife along the outside edges of the cakes and turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Chef's Note:

The photographed cake was made using three 6-inch cake pans, but 9-inch pans will yield a shorter (but still quite large) cake with more servings. If you prefer a taller cake, make this recipe using three 6-inch cake pans and decrease the baking time to about 30 minutes.

SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM

Makes about 2 quarts

7 egg whites

2 1/4 cups sugar

1 pound, 8 ounces (6 sticks) unsalted butter, soft

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Fill a medium saucepan about 1/3 of the way with water. Bring to a simmer and reduce to very low heat.

Place the egg whites and sugar in the clean bowl of a stand mixer. Place the bowl over the hot water bath and whisk constantly until the mixture is warm to the touch (but not hot, about 140 degrees F.) and the sugar has dissolved, about 4 minutes. If any of the egg curdles, strain the mixture and return to the bowl.

Place the bowl on a mixer fitted with the whip attachment and whip on high speed until a stiff peak meringue forms, about 5 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium and whip until the mixture has cooled, about 10 minutes.

With the mixer on medium speed, slowly add the softened butter. It should be soft enough to easily squeeze with your fingers, but not be melted. Once all of the butter is incorporated, continue to whip until the frosting is light in color and very fluffy, about 5 minutes (see note). Add the vanilla and mix to combine. Set aside.

Chef's Note:

Temperature is important in this recipe, but luckily, any issues are easily fixable. If your frosting is too warm, it will be runny instead of fluffy. Just place it in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes, and then return to the mixer. If it is too cold, it will appear curdled. Just be patient and continue to beat it until the mixture warms and the frosting reaches the desired consistency.

MILTED MILK CHOCOLATE GANACHE FILLING

Makes about 3 cups

2 cups chopped milk chocolate (or chips)

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup malted milk powder

Place the chocolate in a medium heat-safe bowl. Set aside.

Bring the cream to a boil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Remove from the heat and add the malted milk powder. Stir until well combined, taking care to break up any lumps.

Pour the hot cream mixture over the chocolate and let rest for 5 minutes. Gently stir the mixture until it is smooth and creamy. If any unmelted chocolate remains, you may need to gently rewarm the mixture over a hot water bath. Set the filling aside to cool completely.

Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Whip on medium-high speed until thickened, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

CARAMEL FILLING

Makes about 3 cups

1 1/2 cups (1 1/2 8-oz blocks) cream cheese, room temperature

1 3/4 cups caramel sauce or dulce de leche

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape the bowl frequently to prevent lumps.

Add the caramel sauce and salt and mix until smooth, about 1 minute. Set aside.

MILK CHOCOLATE GLAZE

Makes about 2 cups

1 1/2 cups chopped milk chocolate

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1 tablespoon vanilla extract or flavored liqueur

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon red food coloring

Prepare a double boiler over very low heat. Place the chocolate and corn syrup in a medium heat-safe bowl. Melt the chocolate over the double boiler, stirring until the chocolate is smooth.

Remove from the heat and add the vanilla and cream, mixing gently until smooth. Stir in the red food coloring, then set aside to cool slightly.

ASSEMBLY

With a long, serrated knife, using a sawing motion, carefully slice into the equator of each cake to make two thin layers (if you prefer, you can keep the layers whole for a two-layer cake; you will have leftover filling in this case). It is helpful to rotate the cake as you slice.

Transfer about half of the buttercream, the caramel filling, and the ganache filling to piping bags fitted with large round piping tips (809, or similar).

Place a bottom layer of cake on a cardboard cake circle or cake plate, with the cut side up. Pipe a ring of buttercream on the edge of the cake. Pipe a ring of caramel filling within the buttercream ring, and then a ring of ganache filling within the caramel. Repeat until the cake layer is completely covered with filling.

Place the next layer, pressing gently to level the layer. Repeat the piping to fill the layer. Continue with the third cake layer and filling, until the final layer is placed on top.

Use the remaining buttercream to frost the cake, smoothing the top and edges with a large offset spatula. Refrigerate the cake until the buttercream is firm, at least 30 minutes.

Warm the glaze over a hot water bath, if needed, so that it feels slightly warm to the touch, but not hot. Slowly pour it over the center of the cake (go slowly, as you may not need it all) and spread to the edges with an offset spatula, allowing it to slowly run down the sides. Refrigerate for at least 10 minutes to set the glaze (if any has dripped onto the plate, it will be easier to clean up once it is set). Garnish with whipped cream and toffee bits before serving.

Nutrition information per serving of cake: 399 calories; 223 calories from fat; 25 g fat (5 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 74 mg cholesterol; 348 mg sodium; 40 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 22 g sugar; 6 g protein.

Nutrition information per serving of the buttercream: 550 calories; 463 calories from fat; 52 g fat (33 g saturated; 2 g trans fats); 139 mg cholesterol; 35 mg sodium; 23 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 23 g sugar; 2 g protein.

Nutrition information per serving of ganache: 290 calories; 142 calories from fat; 16 g fat (10 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 35 mg cholesterol; 123 mg sodium; 32 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 24 g sugar; 6 g protein.

Nutrition information per serving of caramel filling: 215 calories; 104 calories from fat; 12 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 27 mg cholesterol; 185 mg sodium; 25 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 15 g sugar; 1 g protein.

Nutrition information per serving of the glaze: 131 calories; 62 calories from fat; 7 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 20 mg sodium; 16 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 14 g sugar; 1 g protein.

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.