CHOCOLATE HAS been so intertwined with worldly love that in the 17th century it was forbidden to monks. And, like other symbols of love, it also has been used as currency. In pre-Colombian Yucatan, according to James Trager's "The Good Book," a rabbit cost 10 cocoa beans, "a live slave 100, the service of a prostitute eight or ten."
In the centuries since chocolate was discovered by Columbus in a new world, many countries have stirred it up to greater heights. The Spanish sweetened and heated it into a drink that eclipsed coffee. The English added milk to it -- as, of course, they did to their tea without such far-reaching repercussions. The Swiss, who otherwise are seldom known for their excesses, share the credit for adding milk but stand alone in conching -- grinding and aerating the shelled cocoa beans -- for three full days to achieve the utmost smoothness. The Dutch and French are said to have invented the process for robbing chocolate of its fat and thereby having two products to sell, one of which is called cocoa. The other -- cocoa butter -- became the base for the chocolate bar.
And the French invested the world's richest chocolate confection -- and the world's richest name for it: truffles. Smooth, buttery chocolate cream rolled in a shell or hard chocolate and dusted with cocoa to look like the gnarled black fungus it's named for, the chocolate truffle has become the after-dinner-mint of the three-star French dinner. And lately it has become so popular in Washington that we were able to find nearly a dozen companies making them, at prices per pound ranging from three chickens to a day of housework.
As a service to the public, in the interest of science, for the good of mankind and in honor of Valentine's Day, we gathered a panel to taste them all.
One of the advantages of buying chocolate truffles rather than the more familiar dipped chocolates is that truffles must be fresh. They just can't hang around in a ribboned box for months waiting for someone to have an anniversary. They grow rancid. Thus, stores take care to sell them fresh -- usually making their own or having them made to order.
Chocolate truffles can be -- and are -- flavored with just about any extract or liqueur, though Grand Marnier and rum are the most popular. We found them with kirsch, pistachio and even -- to nobody's favor -- peanut butter. One had bits of orange peel, another a coating of praline. Most were tiny one-bite nuggets, but a few, notably Suzanne's, were enormous. Most tasters found those intimidating, but one post-tasting glutton thought them an intriguing challenge he kept returning to engage in.
While prices of chocolate truffles are difficult to compare, some being sold by the piece and others by the pound, they range from $7 to $20 or -- it has been rumored -- $30 a pound. Price had little relationship to quality in our tasting. The most expensive were among the best and the worst. Ditto for the least expensive.
The most intensive competition, however, was for being a taster. The food section was deluged with applicants as soon as the numbered plates were set out. The tasting, however, acted much like a Smokenders' clinic. Those who finished the course vowed never to eat chocolate again if only their digestive tracts would forgive and forget this one time.
Here are the results:
Kron, to nobody's surprise, was the clear winner. These dark, soft, cocoa-dusted cubes are the creamiest, butteriest, smoothest of truffles, the texture of pudding.
The most surprising was La Bonbonniere. One of the cheapest, at $7.50 per pound, these were smooth and bittersweet, mellow and intensely chocolatey. I had tasted them last year, and found these much better than that earlier sample. La Bonbonniere is also making marzipan rabbits carrying hearts for Valentine's Day.
Watergate Pastry Shop's two liqueur-flavored truffles tied for third and fourth. The orange in them, and were considered a refreshing change, but the liqueur added sweetness; the rum, less sweet, was slightly preferred.
The worst of the truffles were the two from Sutton Place Gourmet. Plain and rum, they were doughy, floury, gritty and had a chemical taste. One taster found them a cross between dates and peat moss; another called them "chocolate dirt." The Candy Parlour's were also granular and bland and unattractively covered with chocolate jimmies.One taster compared them to chocolate jellybeans. Their Grand Marnier truffles were better.
Three of the truffles were controversial. Neiman Marcus packaged the truffles prettily in a silver basket with a white velvet ribbon (though the tissue stuffed in the bottom made it look as if the basket held more). But the tasters found them too large and bland. Their white powder coating put off some taster. Nevertheless, their creamy, fudgy consistency was nice, and their aftertaste showed innate quality.
Chez Chololat sells layered, fudgy chocolates as truffles; they were smooth, with a nutty flavor like chestnut puree. Some liked them, and others found them strange.
Suzanne's outsized truffles did poorly in the tasting. But buying several at a time brought us an assortment, and most of the tasters cut a sample from one truffle that happened to be cakey and artificial tasting. Those who tasted another rated them higher, and post-tasting samples showed the rest more creamy, buttery and strongly chocolate.
Then there were the middling truffles: The Confectionary; Godiva's Grand Marnier truffles from Bloomingdale's, which were distinctly better than the faintly kirsch-flavored Godivas from Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice. From Buisine a la Carte we ordered mocha rum and praline truffles, but the mocha rum turned out to be mint instead, and very strong on the mint. The praline had a soggy coating that tasted more like breakfast cereal than praline; the interior had better texture than flavor. They did, however, come nicely wrapped with pink tissue inside, a red ribbon and dried flowers outside the flat white box.
They look a lot prettier than a gift package of three chickens.
Tom Kron, whose New York chocolate shop makes those prize Kron truffles, is not surprised by his candies' success. "It's not great secret," he said, "just good chocolate." He was even willing to give out the recipe:
Using equal parts heavy cream and chocolate, whip the cream until it is very stiff, and slowly add melted chocolate. Freeze the mixture until firm, cut into pieces and dip them in chocolate coating (see recipe below). Roll in cocoa. Keep refrigerated until served. One must, of course, use Kron chocolate. And thus, one might as well buy them.
A more specific recipe comes from Gaston Lenotre, France's most famous chocolatier, in his book, "Lenotre's Ice Creams and Candies": TRUFFLES AU CUSENIER (CUSENIER CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES) (50 truffles) 1/2 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream 10 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate, broken into pieces 2 tablespoons Cusenier or other orange-flavored liqueur For the coating: 7 ounces milk chocolate 2 teaspoons cooking oil 1/3 cup confectioner's sugar
To make the truffle cream, place the creme fraiche or heavy cream in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Then remove from the heat and immediately add the chocolate. Cover the saucepan and leave for 5 minutes to allow the chocolate to melt. After the time is up, stir the chocolate with a wooden spoon or spatula to make a smooth cream; then pour the mixture into a mixing bowl and stir inthe liqueur little by little. Leave the trufle cream to cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, removing it from the refrigerator so it will not cool too much. It should be room temperature (68 to 77 degrees) when shaped.
To make the truffles, line a baking sheet with nonstick parchment paper (stick the corners down with a little of the truffle cream).Spoon the cooled truffle cream into a pastry bag fitted with a 5/8-inch nozzle, and squeeze it out in long lines on the parchment paper. Place the baking sheet in the refrigerator for 40 minutes to 1 hour to harden the chocolate; then remove from the refrigerator and cut the lines of chocolate into pieces 1 1/4 inches long. Place in refrigerator while preparing the chocolate coating.
To prepare chocoalte coating, break chocolate into pieces and place in a bowl over water that has just been brought to a boil and removed from the heat. Water should not touch the bottom of the bowl. Add oil to the chocolate, cover and let melt for 2 minutes. Stir; if not melted, let sit longer and stir. Be careful not to let even a drop of water get into the chocolate or it will harden.
When ready to dip the truffles, have the melted chocolate coating in its bowl and the confectioner's sugar in another shallow dish or soup bowl.
Remove the pieces of truffle cream only 10 at a time from the refrigerator. Dip each in the melted chocolate coating, then lift out and place in the confectioners' sugar, using a fork. Set aside, each in a paper case if desired. When all the truffles have been coated, refrigerate them to harden.
To store: The truffles will keep one week in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator, although it is best to add to the box a little extra confectioners' sugar if keeping them for any length of time. Remove them from the refrigerator not more than a half hour before serving.
Notes: The cream must be perfectly fresh. For firmer truffles, increase the amount of chocolate in the truffle cream, or reduce it for softer truffles. Cocoa can be used instead of confectioners' sugar to decorate the truffles.