But the glorious, spectacular finale is Ralph's chocolate-covered strawberries. Guests who have sampled these before anticipate them with joy and gluttony. These ripe berries -- dipped to the hull so that they are blanketed in dark, silky, rich chocolate -- are so mouthwatering that you can't eat just one.
I simply couldn't believe that these chocolate-covered berries -- which may sell for $2 or more a piece, depending on where you buy them -- had been made at home. For celebrations such as Valentine's Day, you'd have to fork over about $37 for six.
"Delicious," I said, licking my fingers. "It must have taken you hours to make."
"No way," Ralph assured me. "Give me an hour, and I'll show you."
This I had to see. And so it was, on a weekday afternoon, between meetings and cooking dinner, the show began.
Ralph explained, "We like it easy! Contrary to what everyone says, you do not need a double-boiler. There's no need to temper the chocolate or use a thermometer -- all you really need is a bowl, spoon and the microwave."
Set out on the counter were bags of chocolate chips (some semi-sweet, some milk chocolate), canola oil, a bowl, a spoon and, of course, plump red strawberries. Ralph is adamant about those: "The berries should be ripe, red and firm -- not mushy or overripe. And it's crucial that they be absolutely dry, so that the juices are sealed inside the berry."
Stacey has washed the berries and patted each dry with a paper towel before arranging them in a single layer on a tray. The berries are then refrigerated for 30 minutes. The cool air acts as a dehumidifier to dry up any leftover moisture. If there's even a drop left, the chocolate will not stick to the berries. "That's crucial!" Ralph emphasizes yet again.
The Sevinors use a combination of semisweet and milk-chocolate chips, along with canola oil, which they note "give a nice silky sheen and doesn't crack." For Passover or for a meat meal, pareve chocolate chips may be used.
Ralph warns of the dangers of melting at too high a temperature: "Use no more than power level 2. If your microwave is a lower wattage, then never more than power level 3, or the chocolate will become thick and grainy, and will scorch."
Before dipping the berries, again gently dry underneath by patting with paper towels. Then, lift each berry by the green hull and dip into the chocolate with a swirling movement. The chocolate should completely coat the berry, leaving only the green hull showing.
This chocolate mixture may be used to dip potato chips and salted pretzels, dried fruits or, if you have any leftover chocolate mixture, stir in some broken-up cashews to make a batch of nut clusters.
How to serve dipped berries:
· Arrange on a pretty platter to bring as a house gift.
· Serve two or three on a small dish, garnished with an edible flower as a dessert.
· Use as a decoration for a frosted cake or arrange around the base of a cake.
· Work in as a "crown" for dishes of fruit cocktail, ice cream or frozen yogurt.
· Place a spoonful of store-bought lemon curd into miniature filo shells; top with a chocolate-covered strawberry.
Vary these recipes with butterscotch, peanut-butter or white-chocolate chips.
Ralph's Glorious Chocolate Strawberries
To serve at a meat meal, pareve chocolate may be used. For Passover, use kosher-for-Passover pareve chocolate. Leave onhulls and stems for flair and to help dip.
1 quart strawberries with hulls
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup milk-chocolate chips
2 Tbsps. canola or vegetable oil
Line a large baking sheet with wax paper. Place in the refrigerator to chill.
Rinse the berries in cold water. Pat each dry with paper towels, taking care to dry under the hulls. Arrange the berries in one layer.
Refrigerate for 30 minutes. This acts as a dehumidifier, and removes surface moisture.
Measure the chocolate chips into a 1-quart microwave-safe bowl. Pour the oil over top.
Place in the microwave.
Warm the chocolate at power level 2 for 4 minutes on a rotating base. Remove, lightly shake the bowl and check the consistency. Chocolate should be beginning to soften.
Return to the microwave. Warm on power level 2 for 3 minutes, or until chocolate is soft enough to combine and beat.
Beat with a folding motion for 2 to 3 minutes to incorporate air. Mixture should be smooth and satiny.
Start dipping the largest berries first. Dip with a swirling motion, scraping the excess chocolate from the bottom with a metal spoon. Arrange on the prepared tray, making sure berries are not touching each other.
Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes so that chocolate can harden.
Remove from paper-lined tray by rolling them off. These may be prepared for up to 12 hours before serving.
Makes about 20 dipped strawberries, depending on size.
Approximate nutrients per berry: calories, 111; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 13 g; fat, 7 g; cholesterol, 1 mg; sodium, 7 mg.
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup milk-chocolate chips
1 Tbsp. canola or vegetable oil
1 to 11/4 cups coarsely chopped cashews
20 to 25 cashew halves
Line a large cookie sheet with wax paper. Place in refrigerator until ready to use.
Measure chocolate chips into a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at power level 2 for 3 minutes on a rotating base, or until chocolate is beginning to soften.
Return to the microwave and warm at power level 2 for 2 minutes longer, or until the chocolate can be stirred smoothly. Stir to mix. Beat with a folding motion for 2 to 3 minutes to incorporate air. The mixture should be smooth and satiny.
Stir in enough chopped cashews to make a very stiff mixture.
Place rounded tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheet. Shake cookie sheet to slightly flatten. Place a cashew half on the center of each.
Refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes so that clusters can harden. Place in a fluted paper cups.
Refrigerate until ready to serve. May be frozen.
Makes 20 to 25 clusters.
Approximate nutrients per cluster: calories, 104; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 9 g; fat, 8 g; cholesterol, 1 mg; sodium, 5 mg.
1 cup pareve dark chocolate
2 tsps. canola or vegetable oil
2 drops orange extract
15 to 20 dried apricots
Line a cookie sheet with wax paper. Place in refrigerator to chill.
Place the chocolate and canola oil in a small microwave safe bowl. Microwave at power level 2 for 2 minutes. Check that the chocolate is beginning to soften. Shake lightly. There's no need to stir.
Return to the microwave. Warm at power level 2 or 3 for 11/2 minutes longer, or until the chocolate is smooth when stirred.
Stir in the orange extract. Beat with a folding motion for about 2 minutes to incorporate air. Mixture should be smooth and satiny.
With tongs, dip an apricot into the mixture so that chocolate covers about half the apricot. Place on prepared cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining apricots.
Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Remove with tongs; arrange on a platter. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Makes 15 to 2 pieces.
Approximate nutrient per apricot: calories, 47; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 8 g; fat, 2 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 1 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.