It's hard to go wrong when you give anything chocolate at holiday time. This year, instead of going with mass-market brands, delight the chocolate lovers on your list with the handmade creations of American artisans who have incorporated Old World methods into their own recipes. Many of these purveyors studied chocolate-making with Swiss, Belgian, and French masters in the U.S. and Europe. They learned the value of starting with the highest-quality chocolate and then adding the freshest cream, nuts, fruit, and other natural ingredients. "What I do is combine European techniques with my own American sensibilities," says Michael Recchiuti, a former pastry chef who runs Recchiuti Confections in San Francisco with his wife, Jacky.
Some of the most interesting items are takeoffs, and vast improvements, on familiar childhood treats. If you're a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup fan, for example, you won't be able to resist the Peanut Butter Pigouts made by Linda Grishman and her tiny band of chocolate elves in the basement of her house in Burlington, Vt. The Pigouts, from a friend's family recipe, are bite-size pieces of rich homemade peanut butter mousse covered in dark or milk chocolate. Just as irresistible is the Cow Crunch, Grishman's version of traditional butter crunch, and Moo Chews, her turtle-like creations made from caramel and cashews hand-dipped in chocolate. One-pound boxes sell for $25 or $26, depending on the item.
Recchiuti's nod to nostalgia is a $20 s'mores kit with all the ingredients to make the melted marshmallow-and- chocolate sandwich that has long been a summer camp staple. His kit features one 4-oz. bittersweet chocolate bar, eight vanilla-bean marshmallows, and eight whole-wheat graham crackers dusted with cinnamon sugar, all packaged in an elegant black gift box. Recchiuti credits his wife with the idea: "She came up with it when we were trying to think of a gift item to sell during picnic season at our farmer's market stand." The only thing you add is the campfire -- or oven.
Recchiuti offers a number of other homespun treats. If your passion is hot fudge sundaes, try putting a dollop of his Extra-Bitter Chocolate Sauce ($8 a pint) over vanilla ice cream. His fudge brownies ($15 for six) are dense and delicious. He also makes a more traditional peanut butter-chocolate candy he calls a puck (because it resembles a hockey puck). It's a fabulous blend of dark chocolate, peanut butter, and a shake of the fancy salt called fleur de sel. The pucks are part of a $29 6-piece Recchiuti fleur de sel assortment available during the holidays exclusively through williamssonoma.com.
If you fancy the combination of sweet and salty, Fran Bigelow of Fran's Chocolates in Seattle makes caramels that have a sprinkling of gray salt on top ($20 for 15 pieces). "The French make caramel with fleur de sel inside, so I decided to dip the caramel in dark chocolate American-style and put some gray salt on top almost as a garnish," Bigelow says. The result is a balanced piece of candy -- creamy, salty, and just sweet enough.
Mint and chocolate make another time-honored flavor combination, but too often the taste is undermined by cheap peppermint oil. Jubilee Chocolates, a small Philadelphia company founded three years ago by Kira Baker and John Doyle, solves that problem by using fresh mint grown in a garden by the students at the nearby Drew Elementary School. Relying on local ingredients is integral to Baker's and Doyle's master plan. Their Glenn's Raspberry pieces ($32.50 for 28 pieces) use a purée of raspberries grown by a farmer named Glenn Brendle. Forget all those gooey cherry cordials you may have tasted. These little squares have the essence of a berry patch in every bite.
The world is full of bad chocolate-covered nuts. But just when I was ready to give up on them, I received a small cylindrical container of the cocoa-dusted caramelized almonds made by Xocoatl's master chocolatier Scott J. Van Rixel in Taos, N.M. These crunchy, sweet, and salty beauties sell for $28.95 a pound.
Finally, for those who like to drink their chocolate, a tin of hot chocolate from MarieBelle Fine Treats and Chocolates in New York ($17 for 10 ounces) is sure to hit the spot. Founder Maribel Lieberman uses a single-bean Venezuelan chocolate to create a mixture she pulverizes into powdery chunks. A cup of MarieBelle's intensely chocolate elixir is the perfect way to jump-start the day -- or guarantee sweet, chocolate-laden dreams at night.
By Ed Levine