We Heart Chocolate
Yesterday, a small group of opinionated chocolate elves with resilient palates joined me in a blind taste test of eight Valentine's chocolate heart samplers. (Somebody's gotta do it.)
The criteria: Assortments for the everyday lover - available nationally at the grocery store, the drug store or the mall. Nothing fancy, artisanal or homemade.
The idea: To get a pulse on the state of mass-produced Valentine's samplers and to determine which, if any, of the contestants would be worth the money, even at the last procastinator's minute.
The scene: A pile of half-eaten chocolates in a "spit cup" for those too harsh to go down the hatch. A lot of chocolate-induced fidgeting, including some teeth experiencing sugar jitters. The work we do is hard labor, I tell you.
The chocolate contestants included:
"Grand Assortment," by Lake Champlain Chocolates, of Burlington, Vt.
What you get: 22 pieces, a mix of truffles, solid and filled in a multi-colored sturdy cardboard heat with a magenta grosgrain ribbon. Enclosed "map" of chocolates.
How much: $27.99
Where: Whole Foods
Tasting notes: While one panelist was wooed by its "silky mouth feel," another found this selection too intensely chocolate. Everyone agreed that the selection looked tantalizing , and even if they may not want to be on the receiving end, they were confident of earned kisses for giving this one.
Rank: 2nd place
Hershey's "Pot of Gold" Premium Assortment
What you get: 26 pieces, mixture of truffles, nuts, caramels and crÃ¨me fillings. Thin, flimsy red heart, very little decoration. Enclosed booklet that includes descriptions of each chocolate. Partially hydrogenated oils (i.e.trans fats) and high fructose corn syrup.
How much: $9.95
Tasting notes: This heart received fairly low marks for its "ordinary mouthfeel," "indistinct texture and cheap ingredients that taste too sweet." None of the panelists was particularly excited to give or receive this heart.
Rank: 6th place
What you get: About 30 pieces, mix of caramels, crÃ¨me fillings, the lone chocolate covered cherry, chocolate covered peanuts. Trans fats.
How much: $9.99
Tasting notes: "Fun to chew on, nice and soft, but not much taste. This should blow my mouth away." On the plus side, "good snap to crunch," good variety and contrast between exterior and interior, particularly with the dark chocolates. Some thought it looked a "bit dusty."
One panelist yearned for the good old days, when all chocolate samplers included paper wrappers for each chocolate, which were missing.
Rank: Was a favorite for one panelist, which helped bring this heart into 3rd place.
Russell Stover Assorted Chocolates
What you get: about 28 pieces, mix of crÃ¨me filled, caramels, toffee. Trans fats.
How much: $9.99
Where: Giant Foods
Tasting notes: "Hard to chew," but one panelist swooned over its toffee crunch bar. "Looks a little battered," "has a classic feel."
Interesting note: In 1993, Russell Stover acquired Whitmans, but it seems that the parent company didn't fare as well as its stepdaughter.
Rank: 4th place
Mrs. Fields "Premium Assorted Chocolates"
What you get: One pound of chocolates, or 28 pieces. Two layers in a reuseable red tin. A mix of caramels, toffee and clusters, including an odd oatmeal raisin caramel, a tribute to company founder Debra Fields. Trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.
How much: $9.99
Tasting notes: Everyone poo-pooed the tin idea, which seems more fitting for cookies. In fact, one panelist said, "Stick to the cookies." Of all the contestants, this one was the toughest to bite into and chew. A few remarked on its "old" appearance and the thick layer of chocolate bloom - the residue that appears when chocolate is stale.
Rank: Three panelists gave this contestant the lowest rating, which meant a swift kick into the garbage pail, (minus the tin, of course) and sadly, into 8th place.
Dove Truffle Valentine
What you get: 16 heart-shaped truffles, enrobed in milk and dark chocolate, in a red velvety keepsake box. As of press time, calls to a Dove spokesperson about truffle ingredients had gone unreturned. There is no information on the truffle line on the company's Web site.
How much: $12.99
Where: Giant Foods
Tasting notes: It was unanimous that uniformity was a problem, not only in selection ("I want an assortment in my sampler") but also in overall taste. Some remarked on a "waxy mouth feel" and a plastic-like appearance. A few tasters found these truffles to be too sweet, with little chocolate flavor.
Background: Known for its ice cream bar, Dove is owned by M&M/Mars.
Rank: 7th place
Lindt Gourmet Truffles
What you get: 8 pieces, a mix of white, milk and dark enrobed truffles, with flavored ganache, two of which are orange.
How much: $9.99
Tasting notes: Although one panelist liked the orange addition, she also noted that 2 out of 8 pieces shouldn't be orange in an assortment. All were nonplussed by the lack of variety, and no one was particularly wowed by the texture, flavor intensity or appearance.
Rank: 5th place
Godiva "True Love Heart"
What you get: 15 pieces, a mix of praline, solids, truffles, cherry cordial
contains trans fats. Cardboard heart decorated with heart-flower illustration. Back side lists contents of assortment. Trans fats.
How much: $23
Where: Godiva store, Pentagon City Mall
Tasting notes: Everyone was impressed by the variety and appearance of this assortment. One panelist mentioned that it "looked expensive." Flavors are "interesting and arresting," chocolate quotient is high and texture is "velvety." This earned high marks all around.
Rank: First place
Now, it's your turn. What would you spend your money on for your sweetie? Do you have a tried-and-true brand of boxed chocolates? Add your bites in the comments area. For more on chocolate, read the results of another chocolate-y taste test, with a focus on chocolate bars.
Coming up on Monday: Red velvet and a wedding cupcake topper update.
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