With the holidays fast approaching, my thoughts turn to sweets, especially chocolate. It makes a terrific gift.
I mean, really, who doesn’t love receiving a box of wonderful chocolate?
A dozen years ago or so, I spent a year researching and then writing two books on chocolate: The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook. My journey through Oregon, Washington and British Columbia introduced me to bakers, ice cream makers, pastry chefs and chocolatiers who make some of the finest chocolate goodies in the Northwest. They taught me about chocolate, including how to work with it (it’s fussy) and how to taste and evaluate great chocolate.
After writing those books and appearing in bookstores and on radio and TV as a “chocolate expert,” people often ask, “What’s the best chocolate?” I asked the same question to hundreds of real chocolate experts — people who work with chocolate every day. The best answer I got came from Iva Elmer, co-owner of JaCiva’s Chocolates and Pastries in Portland, Ore. She said, “I know a woman who loves the chocolate in Almond Joy. For her, that’s the best.
The best chocolate for you is what you like.”
Some love smooth, creamy chocolate like Belgian. Others prefer sharper tastes like those found in Valrhona, El Rey, or Scharffen Berger. You may be a milk chocolate lover or you may prefer dark chocolate, including
ultra-dark chocolate (70 percent-plus cocoa or darker). Chances are good that you love the chocolate of your childhood. I grew up in California with See’s Candies, and, for me, they’re still wonderful.
When it comes to chocolate, you get what you pay for. High quality chocolates cost a bit more.
Premium chocolate often contains more expensive varieties of cocoa beans. It’s conched or blended longer, making it smoother. It also has a higher cocoa butter content. That’s what gives chocolate a smooth mouth feel. Less expensive chocolate substitutes some of the cocoa butter with vegetable shortening, additional sugar, paraffin and vanilla. Look for chocolate that has a velvety smoothness (never gritty or grainy), a quick melt, intense flavor, shiny look and that snaps cleanly when broken.
This year, I’m buying rather than making chocolates for gifts for friends and family. Here are a few artisan chocolate producers to visit — or just have them ship.
Got a favorite chocolate?
Email [email protected] with “chocolates” in the subject line.
• Queen Bee Gardens, Lovell, Wyo.
Chocolates sweetened with honey for a really different taste.
• Fran’s Chocolates, Seattle Wash.
Fran’s makes elegant chocolates and earned the title “Best Chocolatier in the Northwest” in The Chocolate Lover’s Guide.
• Hagensborg Chocolates, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Single-origin chocolate bars with a fun, “piggy” theme.
• Coastal Mist, Bandon, Ore.
An artisan chocolatier that makes uber-fresh chocolates.
• TCHO, San Francisco, Calif.
Varietal, single-source chocolate, made from beans grown in a specific location for particular flavors.