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A sweets sampler for Valentine's Day

More than just a bowl of cherries
Most often, it’s sweet. Sometimes, it’s slightly bitter. Usually, it’s a delicate combination of the two. Ah the true nature of love! So it’s quite fitting that on Valentine’s Day — the day set aside to celebrate that love — sweethearts exchange gifts of the bitter, sweet substance, known as chocolate.

For some lovers, it’s just not Valentine’s Day without a box of chocolate-covered cherries. But this year, before you grab a dusty box of the cherry confections off the shelf at the corner drugstore, consider a few hand-made varieties.

Start with New Orleans-based southerncandymakers.com, where each cherry is hand selected for size and grade, and then dipped in freshly made chocolate. “Bigger is usually better (i.e. more plump), though there's a point at which too big means the cherries are easily punctured,” says a company representative. Each confection measures about two inches across, compared to the bite-sized variety found on supermarket shelves.

A lot of love also goes into the making of these oversized chocolate-covered cherries. “Each one is made with TLC by our candymakers right in our French Quarter kitchen and shop,” says the company representative. The Thompson family started the candy business in their kitchen 13 years ago with classic Southern favorites, such pralines. (The sweet Southern confection filled with pecans is pronounced prah-leen, not pray-leen as Northerners have been known to call it.)

But what really sets Southern Candymakers’ chocolate-covered cherries apart from store-bought is they leave the stem on, which almost gives each cherry its own personality. A 12-piece box of chocolate-covered cherries, available in milk, dark, white or assorted chocolate, costs $18.95.

Cordials: Different name, similar concoction
Chocolatiers at Fort Wayne, Ind. debrand.com, also leave the stems on their chocolate-covered cherries but refer to them as cordials. “I don't know if there is technically a difference in the names but I simply chose the name cherry cordial because I liked it better,” says Cathy Brand, who founded the company in 1987.

“The cherry cordials, do not contain liquor — as the name implies — but are surrounded by a sweet cream which becomes partially liquefied by the acid in the cherry,” she adds. Each cherry cordial, which also measures about two inches across, is topped with a hand-crafted chocolate leaf. Six jumbo-sized cherries sell for $13.50. A dozen costs $27. Both are available in milk, dark or assorted chocolate.

Another hot spot for juicy cherries covered with handmade chocolate is St. Louis-based bissingers.com, which traces its roots to 17th-century Paris.

At bissingers.com, the cordials measure about 1 inch across. Each bite-sized maraschino cherry is placed in sugary syrup called fondant, and then dipped in milk or dark chocolate. “They are sweet and juicy, and they drip down your chin if you're not an experience cordial eater!” says a company representative. A 28-piece box of cherry cordials, available in milk or dark chocolate, costs $28.75.

Sumptuous strawberries
Being red and sweet, strawberries also have a romantic appeal, especially covered with chocolate. Sacramento, Calif.-based berries.com Shari’s Berries has made the art of dipping strawberries in chocolate into a science. Since 1989, the company has shipped the fragile berries in specially designed Styrofoam boxes.

The fist-sized strawberries are dipped in dark, milk or white chocolate and then decorated with swirls of chocolate or sprinkled with slivers of almonds, coconut shavings or chocolate chips. There are six standard varieties — milk chocolate topped with almonds, white chocolate with a dark chocolate swirl, milk chocolate with a white chocolate swirl, white chocolate sprinkled with coconut, dark chocolate with mini-chocolate chips and half-white and half-dark chocolate.

Prices range from $32.95 (plus $15.95 shipping and handling) for a half dozen chocolate-covered strawberries in a gold gift box to $79.95 (plus $17.95 shipping and handling) for two dozen in a gold gift box or 12 strawberry roses, fresh strawberries mounted on a slender stick. The strawberry roses, surrounded by fresh baby’s breath and ferns, are delivered in a long horizontal box. Shari’s Berries also markets its products served on silver platters and with other products such as cookies, coffee and even “Barry Bears.”

In contrast, berrygourmet.comsticks to strawberries and does it well. The Clearwater, Fla.-based company limits its selection to eight assortments of chocolate-covered strawberries, priced from $49.95 to $129.95. Sugar-free varieties cost slightly more at $54.95 to $134.95. The most expensive selections are packaged in a keepsake box.

“We dip and ship the same day to ensure a fresh product. If you order today, you can enjoy the strawberries tomorrow,” says Bill Wade, who founded the business with his son 18 months ago. The company only uses long-stemmed strawberries from Florida, California and New Zealand, and real “tempered” chocolate, which contains cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and butter fat,” says Wade.

Classic gift boxes
Some folks just prefer regular old-fashioned chocolates in a box. In this category, the choices are nearly endless. Candied treasures in heart-shaped boxes or pre-packaged samplers abound on the drugstore shelves right now and have their own sentimental appeal. Walgreens still sells the classic Whitman’s sampler online.

Unfortunately, Chicago-based fanniemay.com already closed its cyber doors and plans to shut down its retails shops on Feb. 15. But on the left Coast, there is sees.com which has more than 200 retail shops in the West, Alaska and Hawaii. The San Francisco-based company has lots of chocolates boxed up in heart-shaped boxes for Valentine’s Day.  Durango, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory supports chocolate fanatics across the country at its 200 stores nationwide. Make sure to check out Lucy’s chocolate factory chocolates—an assortment of chocolates, which are packaged in a box that feature the famous scene chocolate factory episode of “I love Lucy.”

High-end chocolatiers, such as Swiss chocolate shop teuscherusa.com and godiva.com, the Belgium chocolatier named after Lady Godiva, also have special collections for Valentine’s Day. Godiva’s best bet is the “heart of hearts,” priced at $12.50. The heart-shaped box holds 14 miniature chocolate hearts.

Decadent truffles
Serious chocolate lovers will seek out truffles, not the dark fuzzy mushroom but the chocolate kind. A truffle is a chocolate that is blended with cream and possibly other ingredients which makes a soft, creamy, rich center, explains Brand of debrand.com chocolates. Truffles are not better than classic chocolates “as long as they are made to the highest quality standards...It is just a matter of preference,” adds Brand.

But one chocolate shop in Portland, Ore. has taken the art to a new level. Each hand-rolled, hand-dipped and hand-decorated truffle takes up to 36 hours to create from start to finish, says Ron Giusti, creative director at moonstruckchocolate.com. Truffles take the shape of miniature ice cream sundaes, banana splits and Italia Espresso/Cappuccino pyramids. Wild huckleberries, chai tea and Grand Marnier are just some of the flavors found in the truffle’s creamy center. “Since all of the truffles are handmade and decorated (by hand), no two pieces are the same,” says Giusti. The company makes about 50 standard and 40 seasonal types of truffles. Remember to review shipping information carefully and, if necessary, pay extra for express mail or negotiate an upgrade for free. Just makes sure it gets to your sweetheart on time so you can both rejoice in your bitter, sweet union.

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