Chocolate and strawberries: a winning combo

We came back from a couple of weeks out of town to discover that we’d just about missed our strawberry harvest. We don’t have all that many strawberry plants in our garden this year, but the berries we have ripened in the first week of June, and most had gone to the birds by the time we returned home. That was sad.

Eating the few luscious jewels left to us got me thinking about how nicely chocolate and strawberries go together and especially about my first encounter with chocolate-dipped strawberries.

A William Penn Shop special

For the first four years we were married, my husband and I lived in Philadelphia. In those days (way back in the mid-1970s) we couldn’t buy strawberries all year ’round, the way we can today. They were purely a late-spring and summer treat.

There was a gift store in Center City (which is what Philadelphians call their downtown) called the William Penn Shop, now long gone. For about two weeks every year, when strawberries came into season, the William Penn Shop sold the most stupendous chocolate strawberries. They were so special and so wonderful the shop would take out large ads in the daily papers to announce their availability.

They took the biggest, ripest berries they could find. They dunked them in fondant, coating the berries in a thick layer of creamy sweetness. Then they dunked them in dark chocolate, creating a chocolate shell that was at least a quarter-inch thick. They put each strawberry–now at least as big as your first–in a white gift box.

They cost at least $1 each, which was real money back then when my husband and I were earning about $7,000 a year between us as graduate assistants at Temple University. But every year we splurged because the chocolate strawberries were so incredible.

I couldn’t find anything about the William Penn Shop online, though a few of the other people who follow a Facebook group called Vintage Philadelphia responded to my query with fond memories.

In biological terms, strawberries are not actually berries. They’re actually “accessory fruits”–but who cares? They’re one of the most popular fruits in the world. You can put them on top of your cereal, mix them with yogurt, put them over ice cream, puree them into soup or slice them into salads. Strawberry jam is one of the most popular flavors.

A relatively recent development

As ubiquitous as they now seem, strawberries have been cultivated for only a few centuries.

Before that, people would eat wild strawberries. We have a lot of these in our yard–they’re weeds, but we tolerate them as ground cover because they’re not too bad looking. But I can’t imagine anyone eating the tiny sour fruits.

By the 1300s, Europeans were taking wild strawberries from the forests and growing them in gardens. Charles V, France’s king from 1364 to 1380, had 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden.

A new species of strawberry from North America was introduced to Europe in the 1600s and gradually spread through the continent. The first purely garden strawberry was a mix of the North American berry and one from Chile brought back by the French in the 1700s.

Thomas Wolsey in the court of King Henry VIII may have been the first to combine strawberries and cream.

With lots of Vitamin C and important minerals such as manganese, magnesium and potassium, strawberries are certainly healthful as well as delicious. They may help reduce hypertension and cholesterol.

I don’t know how to duplicate the William Penn Shop’s spectacular chocolate strawberries, but you can easily make something pretty tasty using good quality bittersweet chocolate and a pint of fresh berries. Here’s how!


The Best—and Worst—Strawberry Shortcake

Note from Feed The Spirit columnist Bobbie Lewis: Today’s post is by guest writer Lois Armstrong, who has been a good friend for more than half my life. We met when she hired me to be the publications coordinator at Sinai Hospital of Detroit many moons ago. We worked together again when I was communications director at Hospice of Michigan, where she was a VP. We stayed in touch after Lois, a Detroit native, moved to Phoenix. She is now president of Solstice Living Solutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

My husband’s mom and dad, Betty and Frank, met at church. They eloped when Frank’s formidable mother, Ruth, refused to approve the marriage.

They made a life in Bucyrus, Ohio, where each worked their way up in their professions—she from secretary to insurance underwriter, he from advertising manager to publisher of the local newspaper. Ruth lived with them the whole time. Betty forgave Ruth for trying to keep her away from Frank when they were young and for repeatedly flooding the laundry room when Ruth was old.

Betty’s life came to an abrupt end when she fell head-first off her bicycle and sustained a severe head injury. She was 65. By the time my husband and I arrived at their home, Frank was sobbing with his head in his hands. When he finally looked up he said, “She was such a good person.”

A wonderful baker

Though Betty couldn’t get the meat, the veg and the potato on the table at the same time, she was a wonderful baker. Many of Betty’s recipes stemmed from the time during World War II when Frank was fighting in the Pacific and she kept house for her daughter, my 2-year-old husband and Ruth.

One family favorite was her wartime Strawberry Shortcake. It was made with a scant cup of this and that—sugar and other commodities were rationed—and a pint of strawberries that she could buy, during the war, for mere pennies.

One summer shortly before she died we were all gathered around the table. The strawberry shortcake was served. Frank took a bite, looked up and said, “Betty, in 40 years this is the worst shortcake you ever made.” Betty later reckoned she’d forgotten the baking powder, but at the time, she simply burst into tears.

Even today, when I serve this dessert, as I do often, my husband and I cannot take a second bite without saying, “Betty, in 40 years this is the worst shortcake you ever made.” I’m proud that we loved both Frank and Betty enough to remember them exactly as they were.

Here is Betty’s recipe, which serves 6 to 8.