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giving chocolate gifts
We’ve all heard the old sayings about chocolate as a gift: it’s always the right size, it never comes in the wrong color, and the like. But there can be a big difference between any old chocolate given as a present and a well-chosen chocolate gift that will make the recipient a lot happier. In this article, I hope to give you some guidance and offer some suggestions.
First things first! Find out if your intended recipient can eat chocolate. If he or she isn’t supposed to have it, or can only eat a tiny bit, or simply doesn’t like it (and I’m assured that such people do exist), go another route. I know one or two diabetics who do not control their diets as they should, and I would no more get them chocolate than I’d hand espresso shots to a toddler. Please do not purchase chocolate for these individuals!! (That also goes for giving espresso shots to that toddler---don’t do it!)
If your recipient can and does eat chocolate, is he or she knowledgeable about food? If the answer is “yes”, that might complicate your job slightly, but not unduly. Try to find out if he or she has a basic preference in chocolate---that is, if this person likes dark chocolate, milk chocolate, or white chocolate best. There are people who will eat anything labeled as chocolate, and there are others who turn up their noses at one or two basic types of chocolates, insisting that dark or milk or white is the only way to go. Then there are those like me, who fall in between. I prefer dark or milk chocolate, but I’ll consume white chocolate, too…as long as the chocolate is of good quality. It’s also important to discover if your chosen recipient has any special dietary needs, food allergies, or anything he/she really dislikes, as well; it would hardly do to buy a chocolate bar with bacon and then discover that your recipient is a vegetarian, a vegan, or allergic to pork products.
Once you’ve gotten past the basic dark-milk-white preference, it’s time to see if you can ferret out a few more specifics. Does this individual have a favorite chocolatier? If so, you might play it safe and buy from that business, or you can gamble and introduce them to something new. Is your recipient a culinary adventurer? That is to say, is he or she always looking for the newest combination of flavors (chocolate with herbs or teas, for instance) or does he/she enjoy classic combinations (chocolate-orange, chocolate-coffee, chocolate-hazelnut)? Does this person prefer bars to bonbons? Perhaps he/she is a bigger fan of truffles? What about caramels or marshmallows enrobed in chocolate? If you’re looking to make someone happy with a gift, getting as much information as you can is always a good idea. But what if you can’t get much information? It’s not the end of the world, although it does present an extra challenge. More on that later…
There’s something else you have to consider, as well: the time factor. I understand how busy everyone is these days. But if you’re going to purchase fine-quality chocolates from a small-scale business (and I assure you that big chocolate corporations don’t need your hard-earned dollars), you must give the business enough turnaround time. I know I tell you this constantly; that’s because it’s always true and not enough people do it. Especially around the big chocolate holidays (Hallowe’en, the December holidays, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, and, to a lesser extent, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, and Father’s Day), planning in advance can mean the difference between a massed-produced chocolate gift and one that was obviously prepared with time, care, and love. If you are in doubt about whether you’ve allowed sufficient time for your chocolate goodies to be prepared and shipped, ask before you order.
Now, suppose that you don’t have the opportunity to get much information from the person to whom you’ll give the chocolate gift. That can and does happen, so what can you do? In my opinion, you have to make sure your intended recipient can eat chocolate, and you need to find out about any special dietary concerns. Once you’re armed with that knowledge, you can go one of two routes. You can take a chance on buying chocolate for this person (this can work very well if your intended recipient isn’t that particular). There are educated guesses if you decide to go this way. Younger people tend to prefer milk or white chocolate, rather than semisweet or bittersweet. Conversely, these chocolates might be too sweet for an older recipient. Traditionally, within the US, people living on or near both coasts have tended to prefer dark chocolate, while those living in the middle of the US have shown a preference for milk chocolate. While this is still conjecture, it’s better than not having a guess at all.
Alternatively, you can give a gift certificate from a chocolatier who offers a wide variety of products. Giving gift certificates, like giving money, is not my favorite thing to do. But if you need to err on the side of caution, it might be a wise choice. Note that not all chocolatiers offer gift certificates. However, even if you don’t see a gift certificate listed on the chocolatier’s website, it’s a good idea to ask if they have them available.
Since so many people order gifts online these days, it’s important to read the website information carefully. If you’re ordering a gift for a holiday, is there a must-order-by deadline? Can you choose the flavors to fill a box of bonbons, or are you limited to a particular number of varieties? What if you want to order a gift assortment but know your intended recipient can’t consume the hot chocolate mix that includes cayenne pepper---can you substitute? Make sure to fill in all necessary information accurately; you can hardly blame a chocolatier for failing to get a product to your recipient on time if you provide an incorrect address or give them an expired credit card number. It’s also crucial to read the chocolatier’s shipping policies. If your recipient lives in a warm climate, or you’ll be shipping during the warmer months, find out if your chocolatier of choice will ship when and where you need the gift to go, and be prepared to pay more for shipping. If you’re ordering close to a holiday deadline, you might need to pay more for speedier shipping (another reason to order early!).
One more thing: please don’t make yourself too crazy over this. I know you’re trying to create a good impression, and ideally, the chocolate you select will be just what your recipient craves. But it’s all too easy to make yourself loopy over choosing the perfect gift. Chocolate should be about spending time with those you love and experimenting with new tastes; it should be about happiness and forgetting your cares for a few minutes. Even if you find you’re 180 degrees off course with what you’ve purchased for the recipient, it’s not the end of the world; perhaps he or she will try your present and discover that it’s pretty good, after all (that’s happened to me, so I can tell you it does occur). And if not, next time you’ll know what this person truly enjoys. If you take nothing else away from this article, I hope you’ll remember that.
Following is a list of some special chocolatiers in alphabetical order. As usual, there are plenty of others I couldn’t fit here or haven’t tried yet, and these are names I don’t write up as often as I should. For more chocolate bar and candy bar producers, see my articles “The Mavericks of American Chocolate” and “Bar Fight”.
Alegio Chocolate, www.alegio.com. One aspect of this business I appreciate is that you’re encouraged to customize your box of chocolates. Right on the homepage, you’re assured that you can do so in five easy steps, and it’s true…barring any hesitation you might have in choosing between flavors. Click on a box size, and available flavors scroll past; you need only click on a flavor and drag it into your virtual box. So whether you like your chocolate with Scotch, honey, cinnamon, or by itself as a varietal, you pick what you (or your recipient) will enjoy. Dark chocolate rules here. Also available are products from Claudio Corallo and Enric Rovira (the latter are almost impossible to find in the US, but Rovira’s Chocolate a la Taza (drinking chocolate) is worth the high price tag).
Artisan Confections, http://artisanconfections.com/. You might almost be shopping for fine jewelry when you step into this tiny, minimalist boutique. The chocolates are displayed as though they were gems, which isn’t so far from the truth. You won’t find anything over-the-top here, just meticulously crafted chocolates which taste as beautiful as they look. Also on offer: a bittersweet hot chocolate, a couple of kinds of barks and bars, and some first-rate fleur du sel caramels. The boutique is in Arlington, VA; you can also order via phone or by e-mail (at this writing, e-commerce is not available).
Black Dinah Chocolatiers, http://blackdinahchocolatiers.com. Working on a remote island off the coast of Maine, a husband-and-wife team has put together a fine line-up of chocolates. There’s something for just about any chocolate preference in their roster, and I like the quirky inventive spirit I see from this duo. Flavors like Blueberry-Black Pepper compete with Lavender and Hazelnut Latte for your attention. I also appreciate their use of local products whenever possible. The café associated with this business is open only from late spring through early autumn; the chocolate aspect of the business is year-round.
Chocolatesource.com, www.chocolatesource.com. Do you do a lot of baking involving chocolate, or do you have a loved one who does? If so, check out this online-only company’s “Baking” section. Not everyone is going to be able to use 22 pounds of chocolate chips or an 11 pound block of semisweet, but I used to order such quantities when I was doing recipe development, and Chocolatesource.com usually had good prices for good-quality products. Of course, they offer smaller quantities, too, but it’s fun to think about five or ten kilos of chocolate no matter how much you go through (you can always split a large quantity with a friend, too). If you’re not in the market for baking chocolate, there’s a whole section devoted to chocolate bars, another to gifts, and a fourth to chocolate specialties. Multiple sugar-free chocolates are available.
Chocosphere, www.chocosphere.com. How do they do it? Year after year, Chocosphere, an “umbrella” site, adds more and more chocolate producers to their roster. And these aren’t any old manufacturers; these are names you know in the chocolate world, as well as names with which you should be acquainted. If you’re looking to give chocolate bars, you’ll be overwhelmed with choices here, but you’ll also find brandied chocolates, cocoa powder, wrapped tasting squares, hot chocolate, and more. Kosher, organic, and Fair Trade ™ selections, as well.
DePaula Confections, www.depaulaconfections.com. I double dog dare you to look through John DePaula’s website list of chocolates and not find something that makes you say, “Wow, that looks really good!”. Confections run the gamut from the exotic (Rose Litchi and Butterfly of Taiwan Oolong Tea) to the more conventional (Caramel Fleur du Sel and Grand Marnier), but you’ll never find commonplace chocolates here. The care that goes into creating these products is apparent as soon as you open the box.
Gateau et Ganache, http://gateauetganache.com/. Not only do Anni Golding and her kitchen elves produce some lovely bonbons in fine flavor combinations; they also make awfully good handmade marshmallows. The latter are available in several shapes and flavors, some seasonal (the Cranberry and Pumpkin Spice, for instance, are autumn selections). About those bonbons: they’re carefully executed, without a lot of the extraneous nonsense flavors that are so prevalent these days. The focus is on dark chocolate here. Bonbon assortments range from stocking stuffers to the truly spectacular. Event favors are a specialty here.
Kee’s Chocolates, www.keeschocolates.com. Kee Ling Tong has created a wonderful roster of chocolates that are almost---almost!---too pretty to eat. Not everything is available every day, so if there’s a specific piece you have in mind, check to make sure it’ll be available. My favorite piece here is the Crème Brulee Bonbon covered in dark chocolate; I’ve never had anything else quite like it. You’ll find some unusual combinations here (the Honey Kumquat and the Black Sesame Truffle, for instance), but there’ll be something to delight you even if your palate isn’t quite so adventurous. Important note: this business has no e-commerce. Kee’s Chocolates does ship their products, but only from around Thanksgiving until sometime in March. Plan ahead, or, better still, visit either of the two small boutiques in New York City.
Laurent Vals Handcrafted Chocolates, www.laurentvalschocolates.com. In the past, the use of color on the exterior of chocolates was a turn-off for me, because it often masked inferior quality. But times have certainly changed. This small-scale chocolatier uses color to good effect, so the chocolates catch your eye. But Laurent Vals understands that chocolates need to do more than just catch your eye; they must capture your attention with their taste, as well. These chocolates succeed in doing so to an admirable degree. I particularly like the Sunset (caramel ganache with candied orange confit, covered in milk chocolate) and Alexandre’s Toffee (a toffee-coffee ganache in dark chocolate) pieces.
Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, http://omanhene.com. This is one of the chocolates that started me writing about chocolate. Omanhene has been around for years, yet it’s still relatively unknown in the US. That’s too bad, because they make my favorite dark milk chocolate…yes, a dark milk chocolate. It’s a milk chocolate with a 48% cacao content. It’s satin-smooth, with great flavor, and comes gift-boxed or in less-fancy packaging to use at home. For those of you who work in the chocolate/pastry industries, it’s got a great melt. I used to date a guy who sometimes used Omanhene to “correct” the less-than-optimal characteristics of other chocolates with which he worked. Cocoa powder and hot cocoa mixes, too. Note that at this writing, their 80% chocolate is out of stock until further notice, although this chocolate in their larger baking size may be available before the end of the year.
Sahagun Handmade Chocolates, www.sahagunchocolates.com. You won’t find an enormous selection here. What you will find is a smallish roster of carefully thought out, delicious chocolates, sometimes in unusual combinations. The Sun Drops, for instance, are bittersweet chocolate spheres filled with sunflower seed butter and raw blackberry honey. And, while salted buttery caramels are everywhere these days, not everyone offers them in a bittersweet shell, or with a corn-syrup-free caramel. Chocolatier Elizabeth Montes has also come up with a coffee bar, composed of coffee, cocoa butter, and sugar. Called, appropriately enough, KA-POW!, this is offered in a choice of four coffee varieties.
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.