Sixteen years ago at Hershey's chocolate factory in central Pennsylvania, a 10-year-old girl watched a huge swirling tub of dark, creamy cocoa and imagined an enormous mixing bowl dripping with brownie batter, just waiting to be licked.

Not able to resist temptation, she plunged her fingers into the vat, prompting the sanitary-conscious factory to fine her parents.

"I wanted to dive in," said Joan Steuer, 26, who has been immersed in the stuff ever since. Today, she is the editor of Chocolatier magazine, a glossy periodical devoted to fine chocolate.

Published by Haymarket, the quarterly is chock-full of everything you could ever possibly want to know about chocolate and the industry that manufactures it, from easy-to-follow recipes -- rated according to difficulty with chocolate-kiss-shaped figures -- to exotic travelogues of places like Perugia, Italy, home of Perugina chocolates. Page after page features luscious desserts that can make even a modest chocolate lover's mouth drool.

Targeted to the "yuppie" market, Chocolatier caters to a "national indulgence," and that, hints its editor, may be the secret of its success. The $3-an-issue magazine has attracted more than 125,000 subscribers since it was launched last September, and sells nearly 300,000 copies of each issue at the newsstands.

"People are really gung-ho about chocolate and we are saying, in essence, that chocolate is okay," said Steuer, whose office is dotted with tempting samples sent to her from publicity-seeking manufacturers.

As editor, she must taste every delectable morsel featured in the magazine, from chocolate fettucini to a $600 Monopoly set made entirely of chocolate. For each issue, Steuer consumes four to five desserts and two to three pounds of chocolate daily for two consecutive weeks.

Sounds divine, doesn't it? But what about the extra calories?

They can be a problem, admits the surprisingly slim Steuer. "Ever since I took this job, I've resorted to dresses with elastic waistbands," she quips, yanking at her dress. Seriously though, she exercises regularly to keep her weight down.

What about chocolate causing acne? "It's an absolute myth," she says defensively, citing a series of academic studies to prove her point.

Chocolate is nutritious too, she notes. One and one-half ounces of chocolate contain 9 percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance of calcium and riboflavin, 6 percent of protein, 3 percent of iron, 2.4 percent of Vitamin A, 1.9 percent of thiamine. Not bad for a 220-calorie indulgence.

Steuer stresses that she is not a "chocoholic," however. "I love chocolate, but I'm not at the point of salivating at checkout counters. I can live without it at times too," she chuckles.

Besides, she shrugs, her taste buds are trained to savor chocolatey details that mere chocolate-gulpers miss -- details like texture, visual appeal, flavor, density and aftertaste.

She rarely orders chocolate desserts when she goes out, though. When you've had the best, well . . . nothing quite satisfies. "I'm very, very picky," she acknowledges.

A self-confessed perfectionist, Steuer and her colleagues picked though eight crates of strawberries for the first issue's cover featuring a chocolate-dipped berry, only to end up splicing two of them together. For other covers, they scrutinized 200 scoops of ice cream and devoured about 100 dozen chocolate chunk cookies.

Steuer's childhood in Cleveland was literally surrounded by chocolate. Her mother owned a small catering firm that specialized in appetizers and chocolate desserts.

Once a week on "invention day," Steuer would take over the kitchen. "I would announce that I was going to make turkey tetrazzini or meatballs, but somehow, they always tasted like brownies," she laughs.

When she was five, her grandmother gave her "fudge lessons," which she deliberately fouled up so she "could lick the dishes clean."

In 1980, after graduating from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where she majored in American studies and Spanish, Steuer joined J. Walter Thompson, a New York City advertising firm. She left three years later because of a broken hip acquired in an aerobics class. While recuperating, she began writing two books: one on the art of brunch and the other on her favorite topic -- chocolate. They will be released next spring by Simon & Schuster and Harper & Row, respectively.

Her least favorite dessert is milk chocolate-covered caramel, but her ideal one is harder to pinpoint. "It would have to be a real light, creamy mousse which is not too sweet," she says, pondering the question seriously.

"Or it could be a real deep, dark, rich fudge brownie," she adds, licking her lips as if she could taste it.