If you’re looking for a delicious box of high-quality chocolates to give to your one-and-only this Valentine’s Day (or any other holiday, for that matter), the one we like the most is Recchiuti Confections’s Black Box ($45 for 16 pieces). We came to this conclusion after evaluating 11 brands, including our 2014 picks, and taking suggestions from Sweethome commenters over the past year, as well as fellow Sweethome staffers.
Unlike many of the boxed chocolates we’ve tried, the Recchiuti offer a full sensory experience, which is part of the reason to give boxed chocolates in the first place. The flavors really set this selection apart from the competition. Classic concoctions, such as Burnt Caramel and Piedmont Hazelnut, offer just the right balance of sweet and bitter, while more adventurous flavors, such as Tarragon Grapefruit and Star Anise & Pink Peppercorn, are never overpowering (a problem we’ve found with most other flavored chocolates). And the black-on-black packaging—sexy, but not over the top or too obvious—looks and feels much more elegant than offerings from every other brand we looked at. Inside, the jewel box holds shapes and textures far more intriguing than the monotonous square candies in most other assortments. Overall, these bonbons are far more well-rounded than others we’ve tried.
In researching and testing for this guide, I was surprised to find that expensive doesn’t always mean high quality. Some of the costly boutique chocolates we tried were clearly made from inferior beans, with flavor that just died on the tongue. The Recchiuti chocolates, on the other hand, are worth the money, with the subtle flavors that come from great cacao.
For the second year in a row, Michel Cluizel ($35 for 15 pieces) made it onto our runner-up list. This assortment makes a safer choice than the Recchiuti if gifting to someone with a less adventurous palate. There are no wildly unique flavor combos, and the chocolates come in more traditional shapes with classic fillings and nutty flavors. The chocolate itself is very smooth and subtle, if a little on the sweet side. The simple French confections are also quite beautiful, reflecting the chocolate maker’s painstaking attention to detail. But we don’t find the flavors in this assortment quite as nuanced as those in our main pick, and the packaging and presentation, although pretty, doesn’t offer the same visual impact.
For the chocolate purist, or anyone looking for the perfect corporate gift, we think Maison du Chocolat ($60 for 28 pieces) is a great premium choice. The flavors are subtle enough to really let the chocolate shine. The packaging, reminiscent of brown pebbled leather, is understated and innocuous enough to gift for professional reasons. Although these chocolates are incredibly smooth and slightly less sweet than the Michel Cluizel, the overall flavor profile isn’t quite as daring as those in the Recchiuti box and might not provide the same sensory adventure as our main pick. We also think the assortments available online are a little big for a Valentine’s gift (although you can purchase smaller boxes in their stores).
If you or your sweetie would prefer a bar, take a look at our guide to the best chocolate bar. A collection, wrapped in a pretty ribbon, also makes a great gift.
I’ve been a fervent consumer of chocolate my whole life, to the point where I can open up almost any box of assorted bonbons and immediately spot the chewy caramel (it’s usually square). Aside from my personal affinity for bonbons and truffles, I tasted many different brands when they crossed my desk while I was working as a food editor at Martha Stewart. I learned how to quickly spot the difference between inexpensive and high-quality chocolates by looking for a perfect temper, examining ingredients, and, of course, tasting.
As we’ve said before, chocolate is personal, and that’s something to keep in mind when giving an edible gift. While one person might prefer a fruitier chocolate, the next will prefer something with nutty or floral notes. And the options out there can be staggering. The key is to look for a chocolatier that uses the best ingredients available.
High-quality chocolate, made from the best cacao beans, is the first step. Next is the filling. When a confectioner makes the conscious decision to make high-quality chocolates, they forgo preservatives and artificial flavors and use natural fruit, nuts, butters, spices and herbs. The end result is something that isn’t as shelf stable as Russell Stover or other drugstore candies. Preservatives in those drugstore offerings affect the flavor of the chocolates. When you pit the long-life brands to more perishable high-end chocolates in a blind taste test, the differences are glaringly clear.
When I spoke with Eric Case of Valrhona Chocolate, he made a point to differentiate filled chocolates from chocolate bars: “Chocolate and chocolates. Chocolate is something made from a bean, to give to someone that then creates a bonbon, or a confection, or a candy. ‘Chocolates’ are all kinds of things that happen to use chocolate in the ingredients, but they also have marzipan, toffee, nuts, or fruit.” Because of these additions, the shelf life of a quality box of chocolates is (generally) much shorter than that of a bar.
High-end chocolates run an average of $2 per piece, but shipping can really drive up the price. If you can find some of the favorably rated chocolates in our lineup at a local gourmet market or specialty store, you can save on shipping, which can be upwards of $15 per order. Look at a chocolatier’s website to find a list of local retailers.
To narrow down the chocolates we wanted to try, we read reviews of chocolates in Consumer Reports, polled colleagues and friends in the business, and sought advice from Mark Bitterman, owner of The Meadow. For our first review, we took into account availability and usability of online stores: For example, Kee’s Chocolates from New York City came highly recommended from colleagues and editorial publications, but isn’t available online, and our goal was to find something that is accessible to most people. Overall, we came to a well-edited list of 11 of the most highly rated samples to put in front of a panel of nine friends and food experts for a blind tasting.
We cut the chocolates into quarters so that more than one person could taste all of the offerings while also trying to avoid palate fatigue. While this may sound like a silly problem, it can be quite frustrating when your taste buds become overstimulated mid-tasting and fail you. To try to limit this, Saltines and club soda were set out to help tasters pace themselves.
Because they’re meant to be gifted, I presented the chocolates in their boxes, but without the brand names showing. We felt that the presentation should be a factor in judging. We had a very strict rule against calling out a brand to the rest of the group if someone recognized the packaging. Luckily, it wasn’t an issue—no one had a clue about what was what during the tasting.
That said, tasters could pick out the cheapies quite easily, even though I removed the plastic trays from the boxes because they seemed too obvious.
For this year’s update, I brought in 11 brands, including our 2014 picks. We took the past year’s suggestions from our Sweethome commenters and input from other Sweethome staffers. In the end, we tasted Jacques Torres, Neuhaus, Francois Payard, Maison du Chocolat, Tumbador, Leonidas, Fran’s, and John and Kira’s against our 2014 picks, Christopher Elbow, Recchiuti, and Michel Cluizel.
I tasted all of the samples with fellow Sweethome writer Christine Cyr Clisset, and together we chose the best chocolate. Although this tasting was much simpler than the previous, blind tasting we conducted, it’s interesting that most of the findings were the same (with the exception of the top pick).
The Recchiuti Confections Black Box ($45 for 16 pieces) was my personal favorite in our 2014 review, and after tasting them again for this year’s update, I immediately remembered why. The assortment contains the best mixture of classic and more exotic flavors, and the bonbons aren’t too sweet. This box also has the most unique selection visually, with chocolates of varying sizes and shapes, and the sleek packaging is more eye-catching than any other box we tried.
Unique flavors like Tarragon Grapefruit, Sesame Nougat, and Star Anise & Pink Peppercorn are part of the mix, as well as safer flavors like Burnt Caramel, Piedmont Hazelnut, and Candied Orange Peel (which is the best chocolate-covered candied orange peel you’ll ever have). While unusual flavors can easily become gimmicky and overwhelming, Recchiuti has executed theirs perfectly with subtle, elegant, and rounded blends. This was especially apparent when compared with our previous pick, Christopher Elbow, whose perfume-y flavors almost knock you over.
This is a box of confections for an adventurous chocolate lover. Every piece is memorable. The sesame nougat was the first one we tried and it still sticks out as one of my favorites. It has the perfect texture of chewy caramel, a little crunch from toasted sesame seeds and the snap of perfectly tempered dark chocolate. The Star Anise & Pink Peppercorn starts with the licorice-like star anise and finishes with the pink peppercorn, the flavors unfolding on the tongue like a sensory short story. While I don’t think any of the flavors would be offensive, some people might be scared off by the esoteric flavor combos. (Those palates will be happy with our well-made runner up.)
The chocolates aren’t too sweet, either. There’s just enough sugar to balance out the flavors perfectly. In comparison, the Fran’s and Neuhaus chocolates we tried were too sweet for our liking, while we found the actual chocolate shell of both the Jacques Torres and Tumbador bonbons flat tasting.
Among all of the tested chocolates, the Recchiuti come in the most intriguing shapes and designs. No two chocolates are the same. Some have intricate patterns, while others look like little sculptures. This contrasted sharply with the John and Kira’s box, filled with 15 squares of the same shape, size, and texture (a little monotonous for a romantic gift).
The packaging is beautiful and modern, with the logo embossed in tonal black on black. The box itself is pretty sexy and, for some reason, reminded me of a black bustier. Inside, the minimally designed booklet explains the flavors, with black and white illustrations of each chocolate. None of the other assortments are presented in such a cohesive package, and we found the Recchiuti’s key of chocolates much easier to decipher than those included with the other brands.
Recchiuti is based in San Francisco but will ship throughout the US via FedEx. While you’ll find this brand at some individual stores, mostly in California, your best shot at finding the best selection is through the website.
As we said above, these chocolates come in some pretty esoteric flavor combinations, and may be a little too “out there” for some traditionalists. If the recipient would prefer more straight-ahead flavors, we recommend our runner-up or step-up picks.
Michel Cluizel ($35 for 15 pieces), another favorite from our 2014 review, performed well against the new competition. Everything we said about it before still stands. It’s a very well-made chocolate, and the flavors are pretty safe. These would be a good choice for a person who likes Godiva and is interested in better quality chocolate, but is not yet ready for unorthodox flavors.
Last year tasters said, “amazing chocolate, cool box,” “everything a chocolate should be,” “subtle and lovely; a little bitter,” and “smooth finish.” On the other side of the spectrum, others thought it was “not refined or complex,” that the “chocolate is average,” and noted, “smooth texture, but a little too sweet.”
At this year’s tasting, we again liked Michel Cluizel’s well-executed, classic fillings. This box is sure to please anyone with an affinity for old-style French chocolates. They are the sweetest of our top picks, but they are not as nuanced as those from Recchiuti and lack whimsical flavor combinations (which might be a bonus for some palates). We also found this assortment, dominated by simple squares and circles, less visually exciting than the Recchiuti’s range of unexpected shapes. But for the traditionalist, this box might be just perfect.
At $120 a pound, Maison du Chocolat ($60 for 28 pieces) is pretty expensive chocolate, but it’s some of the best we’ve ever tasted. These are bonbons for the chocolate purist because you can still really taste the chocolate in each one. Even in the raspberry ganache, which is so packed with fresh flavor that you could swear you just ate the perfect raspberry, the complexity of the chocolate still comes through. The ganaches are incredibly smooth and the chocolate that comprises the shell is perfectly tempered, giving a very satisfying “snap” on first bite. The flavors, though, are more traditional than our main pick’s. While every chocolate in the Recchiuti box pleasantly surprised us, the Maison chocolates, although excellent, aren’t as adventurous. For a Valentine’s or romantic gift, we feel the Recchiuti make a better choice.
The Maison du Chocolat packaging, while very sophisticated, is pretty conservative and not as sexy as our top pick. The textured box mimics pebbled brown leather and has the logo stamped on the back. The adjective that comes to mind is “professional”; it looks luxe but understated and reserved. We think this box of chocolate would be great as a corporate gift, or for your mother-in-law.
Maison du Chocolat’s smallest online offering is a box of 28, which we also think is better to share with a larger group rather than with just one other person. Recchiuti’s offering of 16 chocolates feels more appropriate for sharing between a couple over the course of a few days or a week. And although these chocolates aren’t much more expensive per piece than the Recchiuti, having to buy a bigger box really bumps up the price. You can purchase smaller boxes in Maison du Chocolat stores, but that doesn’t help if you’re not in New York, Paris, or other larger cities where the shops can be found.
Christopher Elbow ($35 for 16 pieces) was our top pick for 2014. In a blind tasting, a panel voted it their favorite. In the most recent tasting, the chocolates came across as too sweet and the flavors a little heavy-handed. While they are absolutely beautiful—the chocolates resemble baubles and jewels—they were squeezed out of the top spots by this year’s contenders.
Fran’s ($30 for 20 pieces) salted caramels are President Obama’s favorite chocolate. While they were nice, we didn’t like them enough to call them our favorite. The chocolates were on the sweeter side, and everything we tasted had a slight burnt flavor.
Neuhaus ($35 for 17 pieces) is a Belgian chocolate company that has been around since 1857. The chocolates come in a red box wrapped in red paper, and it feels like Christmas morning when opening them. Biting into the chocolates was less exciting; the shells were too thick, the fillings sugary and average.
John and Kira’s ($35 for 15 pieces) were big on flavor but ultimately pretty boring. They are all the same shape, size, and texture, with the only difference being the flavors of the ganache filling. We didn’t think these would make a great choice for a gift, and instead work better set out at a dinner party while lingering over coffee.
Jacques Torres’s ($40 for 25 pieces) pralines, ganaches, and caramels came in a pretty box. We found the truffles and filled chocolates attractive. But the chocolate itself had no complexity, and the flavor died on the tongue. We also found this true of their chocolate bar, which we tried for our chocolate bar guide.
Leonidas is another Belgian chocolatier with average-tasting offerings that weren’t too different from Neuhaus’s.
FIKA had some bonbons we were interested in trying out, but their chocolate flavors leaned towards cloying and overbearing, and the thick shells were more rustic than elegant.
Tumbador ($35 for 18 pieces) is a Brooklyn confectioner. We found that the chocolate lacked character, with “off” flavors. The texture of the green tea bonbon was slimy and very unpleasant.
Moonstruck ($35 for 16 pieces) was suggested by a reader, and we tried to get a box for tasting. Sadly, the factory mixed up our order and it didn’t make it in time for our tasting.
Godiva ($30 for 19 pieces) is another chocolate that came up in our comments section. I have a long history with this brand, as it was my favorite in high school. Since then, the quality has gone downhill, and I honestly believe they wouldn’t hold a candle to our picks.
Woodhouse Chocolate ($50 for 24 pieces), a Napa Valley-based chocolatier, was the number one pick over at Consumer Reports. The chocolates are colored with only natural chocolate colors in shades of brown and white, the assortment nestled in robin’s egg blue crinkle cups and boxes. With one first place and one third place vote, it didn’t make a big impression with the first panel of tasters. The one thing it had going for it, though, was that it didn’t get any last place votes.
L.A. Burdick ($40 for 34 pieces, medium-size wood box) was well received, with three second place votes and only one strike against it. The subtle shades of chocolate squares hide a mix of French-inspired ganaches, including plenty of boozy options like Macallan whisky and green Chartreuse. These are safe, middle-of-the-road gifting chocolates that are probably suitable as professional gifts. They are known best for their chocolate mice, which are undeniably cute. L.A. Burdick is based in New Hampshire, with stores in New York City, and Cambridge and Boston.
Knipschildt Chocolatier ($50 for 25 pieces) is based in Norwalk, Connecticut, and has quite a following in the Tri-State area. Their textured, handmade paper packaging is some of the prettiest. It had a good showing with two second place votes.
Nunu Chocolates ($20 for 12 pieces) are the darling of the Brooklyn small-batch community and do brisk business with chocolate-dipped salt caramels. While the caramel and ganache-filled sweets came highly recommended from friends and colleagues, they couldn’t measure up to our top three.
Vosges ($40 for 16 pieces) is famous for round truffles with exotic, unexpected combinations like wasabi with black sesame and even Taleggio cheese with walnuts. Their bacon bar is beloved by many people we talked to, but their assorted chocolates weren’t as well received. Funniest comment: “Cumin?? That’s a mean trick!” Vosges are available in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.
See’s ($18 for 1 pound, available nationwide) was one of the value picks in our tasting lineup. Their chocolates tend to be bigger, enough for two bites instead of one, with a mix of dark and milk chocolate, around old-fashioned nougat and nut caramel fillings. While it got three strikes against it, it also got one third place vote. The assortment may be a nostalgic standby for devotees, but it can’t compete with the more boutique chocolates out there. Still, they were far and away better than Russell Stover.
If a chocolatier takes painstaking care in using only the finest ingredients, without any preservatives, the ideal window for consumption is two weeks from the day they are made. Your best bet is to buy as close to your gifting day as possible.
If you get a huge box of chocolates and can’t finish them in two weeks, you can store them in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. After that, the flavors of the creams and ganaches can turn stale. When storing chocolates in the refrigerator, take the same steps you would when refrigerating chocolate bars. Be sure to wrap the box very well in plastic wrap, and seal in a zip-top plastic bag. Prior to eating, let the chocolates come to room temperature before unwrapping to avoid any condensation.
When giving chocolate as a gift, it’s really worth purchasing a truly special box of fresh chocolates made from the finest ingredients. Recchiuti chocolates are a step above any confection we’ve tasted. The perfectly balanced chocolate and nuanced fillings, elegant packaging, and beautifully sculpted bonbons make this a particularly special assortment that will please any lucky recipient.
Originally published: February 2, 2015