Chocolates!

Randy Olmstead with a box of his chocolates.

Some people eat chocolate as a part of their everyday lives, while others only eat it on special occasions. Both types have a tendency to binge around the holidays. Meanwhile, there's no more likable gift than a box of chocolates for those hard-to-please relatives, holiday party hosts and, well, for your own therapies post-shopping.

But which chocolates are best?

The market seems flooded with selections at this time of year, but there can be a world of difference among the options. I personally have professional training as a cook, but I am no chocolatier and I have minimal chocolate experience. So I called up Randy Olmstead, chef/owner of The Perfect Truffle in Frederick, and asked him to sample some chocolates with me. When we got together, I brought five boxes of chocolate, which we tasted along with his selections from The Perfect Truffle.

If you're looking for a quick solution, which chocolate to buy depends on your target chocoholic. For all purposes, The Perfect Truffle produces a clearly superior product, with both creative and traditional fillings made with top-shelf ingredients. The result is a chocolate selection I'd be proud to give or receive. Bon Vivant is also an excellent choice, especially if you like the look of fat truffles as a sign of abundance. Carriage House and Despina Leos/Candy Kitchen make old-fashioned chocolates for people who liked their chocolates sweet and friendly on the tongue. Godiva has the advantage of name recognition, although it's not always matched by quality when it comes to the actual product. Finally, Russell Stover makes some inexpensive chocolates available in virtually every supermarket and drugstore, so they're an option for emergency chocolate needs.

When choosing chocolates, Olmstead suggests looking at the exterior of the morsels first. "Look for visual appeal -- like all foods, you eat chocolate with your eyes first." The best chocolates are made with couverture -- real chocolate containing various percentages of cocoa mass and cocoa butter, without any vegetable fats added. By law, couvertures must contain at least 32 percent cocoa butter. Such chocolates have plenty of shine, they snap when the chocolate is broken into, and they have a rich aroma. Most of the chocolates we tasted were made with what Olmstead calls compound -- some or all of the cocoa butter was replaced with vegetable fat, making a softer chocolate mixture that's easier for the chocolatier to use. (The Perfect Truffle and Bon Vivant chocolates are made with couverture; some of the chocolates in the Godiva selection are also made with couverture.)

Olmstead suggests tasting a chocolate slowly to evaluate its quality. "Let it melt a little in your mouth. Cocoa butter melts in such a way that the flavor of the chocolate will fill your entire mouth." Look for fresh flavors in the fillings, and a supple, creamy texture. Labels on commercial chocolates can help indicate the quality of the products; preservatives and lower-quality compounds may result in unpronounceable items on the ingredient lists.

Olmstead explained that careful chocolatiers pair their chocolates and fillings. "Different chocolates have different profiles -- 'dark chocolate' doesn't mean much as a description, because every dark chocolate tastes different." Olmstead uses seven different dark chocolates in his truffles for this reason; each has its own profile that matches to different flavorings.

The best way to decide on what chocolates to buy is to taste them yourself, but if you're not up to the task, we sampled some Frederick-area offerings for you. Here are the results of our taste tests, along with details on pricing and packaging.

The Perfect Truffle

$18 / 12 piece box

Packaging: Gold box tied with gold stretch ribbon. The box was placed in a crepe paper bag with the Perfect Truffle logo.

Flavor and appearance: The chocolates are packaged on a plastic tray. These chocolates are notable for their gloss; they are the only ones we sampled that literally shine. A raspberry truffle had a thin, crisp shell that yielded to a rich, tart raspberry flavor. A peanut butter piece was tempered with hazelnuts. A two-layer "Irish coffee" truffle had a strong flavor of whiskey on top, with a mellow coffee ganache on the bottom. The Perfect Truffle was the only chocolatier we sampled who used flavors like passionfruit and pistachio in their selections. A photographic "cheat sheet" is available online.

Available at The Perfect Truffle, 16-A N. East St. (Eveready Square), Frederick (opened Saturday, Dec. 1). Also at Frederick Cellars, 221 N. East St., Frederick.

Bon Vivant Chocolates

$22 / 12 piece box

Packaging: Gold box tied with sheer purple ribbon and decorated with a seal emblazoned with the diamond-shaped Bon Vivant logo. The box was placed in an unmarked white gift bag.

Flavor and appearance: The chocolates are arranged in a plastic tray. Many of the chocolates have a rustic, generous appearance, with one truffle crusted with large numbers of nuts. An amusing orange-cream piece tasted just like a Creamsicle. A peanut butter truffle filling was a little gritty. The Java truffle uses locally roasted Mayorga coffee as a flavoring. A brochure is available with descriptions of the chocolates.

Available at Bon Vivant Chocolates, 402 W. Green Street, Middletown, VA.

Despina Leos/Candy Kitchen

$15.95 / per pound (a request for a "1- pound assorted box" was met by a box weighing 1.21 pounds)

Packaging: Gold-striped square box with a burgundy "Despina Leos" label on the front. The box was placed in a sheer plastic gift bag with the Despina Leos and Candy Kitchen logos.

Flavor and appearance: The chocolates come packaged in ruffled paper cups. A coconut chocolate was amazingly fresh and aromatic, deeply satisfying with its tropical flavor. A dark chocolate caramel was enormous and chewy, making the piece hard to eat. A mint-filled chocolate had a sharp herby flavor. There is no "cheat sheet" to indicate the varieties in the assortment.

Available at Candy Kitchen, 52 N. Market St., Frederick.

Carriage House Candy

$12.99 / 1-pound box

Packaging: The chocolates come in a long, slim box wrapped with gift wrap and tied with a simple curling ribbon. The box was placed in a translucent purple plastic gift bag.

Flavor and appearance: The chocolates are nestled into individual ruffled paper cups. Some of the fruit fillings have an artificial flavor. The caramels were delicious, including a chocolate caramel with a rich butter flavor. Carriage House uses a compound coating on their chocolates, and some of the milk and white chocolate pieces are very sweet. There is no "cheat sheet" to indicate the varieties in an assortment.

Available at Carriage House, 9807 Kelly Road, Walkersville.

Godiva

$38 / 36-piece box (15.25 oz)

Packaging: Two-layer gold box tied with a simple gold ribbon. Christmas- or Hanukkah-themed dcor is available for an extra fee. The box was placed in a gift bag with the store logo and packaged with tissue paper.

Flavor and appearance: The chocolates come in two plastic trays that are specially formed to hold the different shapes and sizes in the assortment. Some of the shapes are unusual, such as a starfish-shaped chocolate. A white chocolate piece filled with raspberry jell had a very goopy filling, making it hard to eat the chocolate in two bites without making a mess. A two-layered piece with chocolate and nut caramel filling was delicious, rich and nutty. A dark chocolate ganache-filled truffle had a bitter flavor that fought with the more mild coating. There is a "cheat sheet" with photos of each piece for easy identification.

Available at Macy's, Francis Scott Key Mall.

Russell Stover Private Reserve

$14.99 / 11.75-oz. box

Packaging: Gold and red foil square box surrounded by gold ribbon. The box was placed in a plastic "CVS" shopping bag.

Flavor and appearance: The chocolates are arranged in two plastic trays; there is a lot of "air space" (the selection is not as generous as it looks from the size of the box). An almond nougat was very sweet, with an almost Milky Way-like soft filling. The raspberry caramel had a good fruit flavor, like an old-fashioned raspberry cordial. Some of the chocolate coatings have an artificial aroma. A lemon-filled piece reminded us of furniture polish. There is a "cheat sheet" with photos of each piece for easy identification.

Available at CVS and other stores.

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