Cupid's arrow dips into a pot of chocolate fondue

When Jennifer Guberman wanted a romantic Valentine's Day dinner several years ago, she and her boyfriend decided lobster was the way to go.

That was the easy part.

"For some reason he thought they should be in water," she says, "but he put them in fresh water, in the bathtub."

The lobsters were barely alive by dinnertime, Ms. Guberman says, but even so, neither she nor her boyfriend could stomach killing them.

"As we were arguing about who was going to put them in the boiling water, they got away and started crawling around behind the fridge," she says. A scene right out of "Annie Hall."

In the end, the couple ended up going out to dinner.

It's that time of year again. A Hallmark-filled month when pink hearts and lacy cards stand in the shop windows, and men suddenly feel goaded into buying roses and cooking elaborate dinners for two.

More often than not, though, the high expectations only lead to disappointment, at best, or disaster, at worst.

Take the story of a friend of mine. Knowing him to be something of a gourmet, a woman he was dating decided to cook him a royal Valentine's Day meal. Most of the meal was a disaster. The coup de grace was dessert. She had attempted Chocolate Mousse - in an ice-cube tray.

"While pulling them out of the refrigerator," says my friend, "she dropped the tray, and those little brown cubes bounced around the kitchen floor like art-gum erasers."

Not quite the meal either was ho-ping for.

So, given the likelihood of disappointment, will couples forgo roses and hearts for a more sensible celebration?

Probably not. And since there's nothing quite so intimate as a home-cooked meal, many will still try gourmet creations at home.

One idea in vogue lately: Do the cooking at the table, making time for lingering conversation as you savor tasty morsels.

Long considered a relic of the 1970s, when fondue pots were trendy and beleaguered brides tried to pawn off extra gift sets on unsuspecting relatives, fondue is making a comeback.

"Fondue is great because it's such an interactive meal," says Stav Birnbaum, a young New Yorker who asked her parents for a set last May, and has since given four fondue parties.

Indeed, one legend has it that the cheese version was started out of a desire for connections. During the Reformation, supposedly, Catholics and Protestants in Switzerland demonstrated a spirit of reconciliation by sharing a meal: One side contributed the cheese, the other put in the milk. And voila: Fondue was born. ("Fondue" is French for "melted.")

Since then, oil and chocolate versions have developed, so that fondue devotees typically have a three-course meal - all cooked at the table.

For evidence of its burgeoning popularity, take the Melting Pot restaurant chain. A fondue franchise with nearly 50 restaurants in 18 states, it has seen a huge resurgence of interest in the do-it-yourself meal. Four or five more restaurants are slated to open in the next couple months, says marketing coordinator Tommy Robertson.

"It's like a new trend," says Mr. Robertson. "It allows people to actually get to know each other. It's more intimate."

He says the cheese/meat/chocolate meals are not only popular with groups, but also with couples. The Melting Pot was voted the most romantic restaurant in several cities, and Valentine's Day is one of their busiest days.

Robertson credits some of the fad's resurgence with the fact that fondue - at least as it's served in restaurants - has changed in the last 30 years. In addition to the standard beef and chicken, skewers can be loaded with sea bass, lobster, duck, and filet mignon. Broth, rather than oil, is often an option, and six or seven chocolate-fondue variations exist.

With a fondue pot and a little time, however, the meal is just as easy to create at home.

On Valentine's Day, fondue can be the main attraction at either an intimate dinner for two or a festive group gathering. And, unlike lobsters, it can't run away from you.

Fondue tips and etiquette

When making cheese fondue, coarsely grate the cheese, rather than cutting it into chunks. It will melt quicker and makes a smoother fondue.

Remember that chocolate contains caffeine, although mixing it with cream and sugar dilutes it considerably.

Pay attention to the heat. If the pot gets too hot, the cheese will become stringy and is apt to scorch on the bottom.

When dipping food in any type of fondue, swirl it well to keep it from sticking.

Double dipping is a faux-pas once you've taken a bite.

The heated oil for a meat fondue is very hot so be careful when moving the pot from stove to table. Remember that the dipping forks can get extremely hot, so be sure and remove the food from the fork. Don't place the fork in your mouth.

Never fill a pot more than one-third full of liquid or sauce.

Different fondues need different pots. Oil and broth pots should be metal, and narrow and deep. Cheese and chocolate pots can be ceramic or enamel, and wider and shallower.

Chocolate is the classic dessert fondue. Strawberries are most commonly used as dippers, although almost any fruits such as apple slices, banana, chunks of fresh pineapple, and melon balls will do. So will chunks of poundcake.

Chocolate Fondue

6-ounces unsweetened chocolate, cut into pieces

1-1/2 cups sugar

1 cup cream

1/2 cup butter

Melt chocolate in a saucepan on the stove, over low heat. Add sugar, cream, and butter. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened - about 5 minutes. Pour chocolate into a ceramic or enamel fondue pot and place it over low heat.

Using fondue forks, spear fruit or cake and dunk into fondue.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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