ON TOP OF the list of guilt foods, right next to cotton candy and cream cakes, is chocolate fudge. Fudge is too sweet, too fattening and self-indulgent.
But if you are going to hurl yourself into a fit of feckless consumption, choose a fudge that is smooth, moist, sweet and worth the damage it may do.
The essential factor in making fudge, according to confectionary cultists, is to beat the candy quickly, scraping the sugar off the sides of the pan, but to stop stirring once it reaches the boiling point. After that the sugar crystalizes and the fudge becomes gritty.
The end product should be firm, smooth-textured and a velvety brown, not a milky buff, color. It should not be polluted by nuts, frosting or pre-cut in little squares. Maple nut, vanilla, peanut butter and other derivations are merely derivative.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to get agreement on these characteristics. Half of our tasting panel leaned toward a more crystalized fudge, and the other half toward a chewy Tootsie-Roll type. Some like milk chocolate, and others dark chocolate with nuts.
Because of the individual prejudices of the tasters, an argumentative but democratic compromise method was used to test the 12 fudges below. Only one fudge-Crumpets-pleased both factions.
Crumpets Candies, 1237 Wisconsin Ave. NW-Dark brown semi-sweet bliss. As it softly slithers down your throat, the blending of chocolate and sugar dissolves like edible feathers. Made by Naron of Baltimore. $3 a pound.
Penny Patton's Mansion Fudge, Garfinckel's Stores and select boutiques-in a fancy white box wrapped with a lilac ribbon is satin-smooth fudge. From a recipe more than 200 years old, it is wickedly rich, caloric but somewhat bland. The readers' choice. Very flashy price- $9 a pound.
Betty Moore's Fudge, Woodward and Lothrop stores-Moist but firm consistency, on the sugary side. Heady vanilla scent. $2.20 per pound.
Li-Lac, Georgetown Wine and Food, 1015 Wisconsin Ave. NW-Wondeful smell and dark chocolate color, but a bit sticky-sweet and chewy. This handmade fudge was chosen as one of the best in Manhattan by the New York Post $5.99 per pound.
Safeway Fudge, sold at Safeway delicounters-Chewy, smooth and not too sweet. Unfortunately a little flabby A faint smell of its environment-a styrofoam dish covered in plastic wrap-but nicely priced at $1.69 per pound.
Gifford's, 8101 Georgia Ave NW and other locations-A successful compromise between creamy and gramy. Rich, dark brown color with a distinct chocolate aftertaste. A very competent fudge at $4.80 per pound.
Russell Stover, 1039 Connecticut Ave. NW and Springfield Mall-One of the stickiest (too much corn syrup?), no chocolate blast and soggy nuts. $3.50 per pound.
Cox's Fudge, The Farm Womens' Cooperative, 7155 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda-Made lovingly by hand, this batch needed a few more beats to make it easy to dance to. Grainy and sugary, but with a strong chocolate taste. A little too hefty. $3.40 per pound.
Avignone Freres, 1777 Columbia Road NW-Covering chocolate fudge with dark or milk chocolate fudge with dark or milk chocolate fudge with dark or milke chocolate is just too much of a muchness. This cloying sweet can be bought for $4.60 per pound.
Fannie May, 640 17th St. NW and other locations-Fannie may, but our tasters didn't. Chewy, plastic and oily. More like melted frosting $3.95 per pound.
Barbara's Delicious Fudge, Yes, Inc., 1015 Wisconsin Ave. NW-This health food concoction isn't fudge at all. It's cookie dough made from very unfudgelike things such as honey, peanut butter, oats, almonds, wheat germ and yeast. Great if your like raw cookies 40 cents for 2 ounces.
The Confectionary 1625 K St NW-Harge's Baltimore fudge has a gooey homogenized, marshmallow texture and a pale milk chocolate color. Tastes like a Milky Way $3.20 per pound. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Robert Soule for The Washington Post