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Gourmet Chocolate-Covered Caramel Apples

4 crisp apples, firm, unbruised and WITH STEMS,
    each weighing 6 1/2 to 7 ounces
12 ounces soft and fresh wrapped caramels
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons hot water
12 ounces good-quality chocolate (milk, semisweet, or
    a combination), chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons solid vegetable shortening
About 1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans, chopped
    medium-fine) OR toffee chunksWash and dry apples well, and set out on a kitchen towel at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. This is especially important if the apples have been refrigerated; they must not be refrigerator cold when dipped.Unwrap caramels and place in small heat-proof bowl. Place over simmering water on low heat (water should not touch bottom of bowl); stir frequently until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and hot water. All at once, add hot water; stir until incorporated (this will take a couple of minutes). NOTE: Some caramels are more stubborn about melting than others. If you cannot get your caramels smooth while melting or after adding the water, turn the caramel mixture into a powerful food processor fitted with a steel blade, and process briefly just until smooth. The caramel mixture should be a very thick, gooey sauce. Cool until just slightly warm, stirring occasionally.While the caramel cools, dry the apples again if any condensation has formed on them. Now, you`ll need one or two dipping bowls. Ideally, these should be just about as deep as the apples are tall (no deeper); they must be able to accommodate the width of the apples, but shouldn`t be more than an inch or two wider. Ideally, use a bowl that is perfect for width, but a bit too shallow.Prepare a pan by lining the bottom with baking parchment cut to fit. The pan should be able to accommodate all four apples without their having to touch. If you absolutely cannot get baking parchment, line the pan bottom with several layers of plastic wrap. DO NOT use wax paper or foil (even if the foil has been greased), as the caramel will stick to either.When the caramel is just slightly warm, scrape it into the dipping bowl. Place one apple into the caramel. If your bowl is a bit too shallow, like mine, you`ll have to use a flat knife to spread the caramel to cover the sides of the apple as well as the top, stopping about an inch out in all directions from the stem. You must work fairly quickly here, as if your apples are below room temperature they`ll thicken the caramel. If the caramel becomes too thick to work with, you can re-heat it over hot water, then cool it again.Pick up the apple by the stem and remove it from the caramel — you`ll probably have to pull hard. With the knife, scrape off any extra caramel — you want a thick coating, but if it`s too thick you won`t have enough for all of the apples. Hold the apple by the stem and allow the excess caramel to flow back into the bowl for a minute or two, then place on the parchment-lined pan bottom. Repeat with other apples. If a stem comes out of the apple while you`re working with it, don`t despair; if you`re dipping the apple, wedge a knife or spoon gently under it. Lightly dampen your hands, then pick up the apple, scrape off excess caramel, and place on the parchment. The sides of the apple will have a thinner caramel coating where your hands touched it, but that can be fixed later. Place the apples in the refrigerator to chill for 30 to 60 minutes. The caramel should set up considerably during this time.After 30 minutes, look at the apples. If any have pools of excess caramel gathered at the bottom, are covered unevenly with caramel, etc., this is the time for repair. Take one apple by the stem, and try to peel it off the parchment paper. It should come off; if so, replace it, and do the same to the rest. If any apple sticks to the parchment, dampen your hands lightly. Place one hand over the apple and lift the whole thing from the parchment. Quickly, with your dampened hands, work the caramel into shape over the surface of the apple, covering any thin spots, etc. Don`t fuss too much with the apples — remember you`re going to cover them in chocolate. If you can peel an apple off the parchment by the stem, you can work the caramel into shape over the surface as above. Return the apples to the parchment (don`t let them touch), and then to the refrigerator. Wash and dry the dipping bowl you used, or have another ready.In medium heat-proof bowl, place chopped chocolate of choice and shortening. Place bowl over hot water on low heat (simmering water if you use dark chocolate), and stir often until almost melted. Remove from heat and hot water; stir until melted and smooth. Cool until just slightly warm. While chocolate cools, tear off a sheet of wax paper about one foot long. Place on your work surface. Place the chopped nuts in a mound on the wax paper. Additionally, prepare a pan by lining it with aluminum foil; the pan should be large enough to accommodate the apples without having them touch.When the chocolate has cooled sufficiently, scrape it into the dipping bowl. Remove the apples from the refrigerator. You`ll have to work quickly here; the apples are cold and will set the chocolate rapidly. Take an apple by the stem, peel from the parchment, and place into the chocolate. With a flat knife, cover the apple thickly with chocolate right up to the stem. Remove the apple from the chocolate by the stem; hold it over the dipping bowl while you scrape off any excess chocolate with the flat knife. Place the chocolate-covered apple into the nuts; gently pat nuts into the apple up the sides to about the widest point of the apple. Remove apple from nuts; place on foil-lined pan. Repeat with remaining apples. If you have trouble peeling an apple from the parchment, do not dampen your hand here — just place it over the apple and tear the apple off the parchment, then quickly place the apple into the chocolate. You might lose some caramel during this process. If an apple loses a stem, cover it in chocolate as above, then gently wedge it out of the bowl using the flat knife and a fork or spoon; scrape off any excess chocolate as best you can. You`ll probably have some leftover chocolate.Chill apples until chocolate is set. It is the nature of these apples that caramel might leak through the chocolate covering in one or two places. You can ignore it, or, if it bothers you, scrape off the caramel "leak" and patch it with a bit more melted chocolate — be careful if you use the chocolate you melted to cover the apples, as if it`s re-melted it can become grainy. When cold, store apples airtight.Present these wrapped individually in plastic wrap. Gather the ends of the plastic wrap at the top of the apple, and tie them together with a bow of colored ribbon.To eat these, bring to room temperature first (it`s not absolutely necessary, but some people like to, and they`re far easier to slice). Remove any wrapping; slice with a large, sharp, straight-edged knife.
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