Complete Chocolate Lover’s Guide for the San Francisco Bay Area

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Valentine’s Day celebrations were curtailed this year, but not the chocolate!

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Valentines Day 2021 was a bit of a hollow event due to COVID-19 still being an existential threat. How can something so deadly also make life so boring? No going out to a fancy dinner, no shopping excursions, no shows or movies to go see, definitely no travel — COVID makes it hard to special occasion in most of the ways we enjoy.

Panache swinging box
Cool box with a swing-out layer from Panache Chocolatier

Luckily, there is still chocolate! Of course, I probably feel that way every day, so it might not seem super special, but COVID has made me dial my expectations down as much as I can, then continues to push me even further down. Maybe you can relate to the dull sadness of a dreary year spent staying home combined with the dread of possibly catching a life-threatening, severe illness every time I walk outside my home patch. So the little boost from chocolate, both physically and emotionally, is welcome and life affirming.

So to celebrate this Valentines Day safely, Cacaopod and I ate a variety of truffles — and since we can only take so much sugar at a time, Valentines Day extended out for a month because we had boxes from several sources. And while we had no great plan in what we ate, it turned out to be quite the range of experiences. One box was very impressive looking with interesting, if a bit sweet for me, flavors; another was a tooth achingly sweet, nostalgic yet exotic trip; one box was filled with super hard, sweet, filled hearts; and finally, there was an assortment that was just right.

I will start with the best, least sweet option, and then continue with the boxes in order of ever-increasing sweetness.

My kinda valentine

Michaels valentines
Michael’s Valentine’s Collection was a good range of extra chocolatey flavor

The best assortment we had was from award-winning Michael’s Chocolates,3-5 cup chocolatier San Francisco. Michael’s does seasonal and special events bonbon series, and for Valentines Day 2021, they had 3 flavors: Dark Chocolate Raspberry, Dark Chocolate Cognac, and a single origin truffle. The flavored bonbons were shiny painted hearts that glowed in the box, while the single origin was an understated, undecorated hand-dipped square, which provided a nice visual contrast and also provided a hint as to the different flavor experiences.

We tried the single origin 70% Camino Verde, Ecuador truffle first. Inside the amazingly thin shell was a thick smooth ganache with a strong chocolate smell. It had a deep chocolate taste that was slightly cherry and not bitter at all.

Michaels valentines
Michael’s hand-dipped single origin truffle

The second bonbon we tried, the Dark Chocolate Raspberry, was my favorite of the series. It had a nice thin shell, although not as thin as the single origin, probably due to it being a more complicated heart shape which needed a little more infrastructure than the simple square piece. Inside were 2 layers: a smooth dark chocolate ganache layer and a layer of bright dark pink ganache.

Michaels Raspberry Heart
Michael’s elegant Raspberry Heart hid 2 layers inside

This visual perfectly matched the taste experience: chocolate with a raspberry overtone that blended well and lingered with the raspberry flavor dominating, just like the bright pink ganache over the subdued chocolate brown  ganache. If you like raspberry chocolate, this was an excellent example.

The third piece, Dark Chocolate Cognac, was as well made as the other 2 — thin shell, smooth texture — with the cognac enhancing the chocolate ganache so it had a good dark chocolatey flavor. Not boozy, just a deeper flavor that lasted.

While these flavors are not currently available, Michael’s has a Spring Collection available now that sounds fun (lime & coconut, vanilla bean caramel, and their stunning Lemon Burst). They also have lots of other options, and regularly change things up, so visit their website, maybe sign up for their newsletter so you can check out their seasonal, special, experimental, and classic chocolate.

Panache Unforgettable Collection
Panache’s Unforgettable Collection: Truth in advertising

Big box for big bonbons

The most impressive looking Valentine’s box was from Panache Chocolatier, another award-winning chocolatier. In fact this box, the Unforgettable Valentine’s Collection, won Gold in TasteTV’s 2021 Valentine’s Chocolate Awards.

The box was square and half as deep as it was wide, with a lavish satin bow tied around it. It was also heavy! The reason for which became clear when we opened the box: 2 layers of Panache-sized truffles were packed inside. Panache makes big bonbons, too big to pop one in your mouth unless it’s on a dare. So put 18 of those in a box, and it is going to tip the scales.

There were 4 flavors in the box, and while the bonbons were big, the decoration was restrained. In fact, I had a hard time telling the difference between 2 of the flavors by their decoration alone because they were similar and minimal.

While they looked very similar, the tastes of the 2 truffles were pronouncedly different. The Italian Cherry Truffle was not what I expected. I was thinking of something along the lines of CocoTutti’s Luxardo Cherry truffle, which uses a rather posh version of maraschino cherries, or Recchiuti’s Cherries Two Ways, which includes candied cherries from Italy.

Panache two truffles
Can you spot the difference between these 2 bonbons?

Instead Panache’s Italian Cherry Truffle had a slight cherry flavor plus the sweet almond flavor of amaretto in a zabaglione custard, the 2 ingredients that gave it the “Italian” in its name. The flavors were all very mild in a filling with the texture of cheesecake. The dark chocolate shell was the dominant flavor, and there was a little crunch from the sugar crystal decorating the outside.

The Italian Cherry Truffle’s fraternal twin, the Bananas Foster Truffle, had an initial boozy taste and was a bit too sweet for me but it was very banana-y tasting. Overall, I liked it, especially the balance between booze and banana.

strawberries romanoff
Glitzy Strawberries Romanoff

The Strawberries Romanoff Truffle was the fanciest looking with gold and silver leaf flakes decorating the top. Also on top was the strawberry flavor. But the piece also had a very creamy texture and taste, which made it seem more luxurious than a straight-up strawberry flavored truffle. It had a nice thin dark chocolate shell and an orange chocolate aftertaste from orange liqueur but mostly the orange was too subtle for me. I would’ve liked a bigger splash of liqueur.

The final piece in the box, the Dark Chocolate Mousse Truffle, had a good dark chocolate but it was sugary and a little floral, too aspects that are not favs of mine. The ganache was smooth but with a little sugar granule texture, and it tasted like maybe some uncredited booze had been added.

Panache Chocolatier is always coming up with new flavors, and although the flavors often skew a little sweet for me, I am usually intrigued and impressed. Their website is still under construction, so you have to call or visit them in person if you want to order something.

Aldi hearts
Specially Selected Chocolate Truffle Hearts definitely had a cute vibe

Candy hearts

specially selected passion for food
I have a passion for food too!

I wanted to like the Specially Selected Chocolate Truffle Hearts (“Imported from Germany”!) with their “Passion For Food,” #1 because rhubarb was in one of the flavor names and I love rhubarb, and #2 because I was intrigued by the sugar crusted pieces. They were also cute in an inflated balloon sort of way.

Alas, these grocery store chocolates (imported to Aldi discount grocery stores in the US) were not a “find.” The heart shells were super thick and hard, the fillings were too sweet, and the flavors were too weak. The glittery hard sugar shells on the 2 fruit flavored options were interesting but ultimately just added more sweetness to the underlying fillings and white chocolate shells.

I tried the Strawberry Rhubarb heart first, because rhubarb. It smelled like strawberry and had a good strawberry taste with the rhubarb just adding a pinch of tartness, not a balanced strawberry rhubarb taste, which was disappointing. And what with the sugar coating, thick white chocolate shell, and a filling that was not a ganache, but more like icing, it was too sweet.

strawberry rhubarb
The sugar coating on the Strawberry Rhubarb was an interesting visual texture

The other sugarcoated heart, the Raspberry Mascarpone, again had a mild fruit flavor, and was very sweet — par for the course when it was another thick white chocolate heart covered in a 2nd shell of sugar crystals. The mildly raspberry filling was not creamy; it was more along the lines of a liquid caramel. Again it was not bad, but it was too sweet, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

The other hearts, Café au Lait, Tiramisu, Bourbon Vanilla, and Mousse au Chocolat, were similarly sweet in thick, hard shells, and mostly just tasted like chocolate with the flavorings almost completely MIA. The Mousse au Chocolat was the best of the bunch because it was dark chocolate ganache in a dark chocolate shell, had a good chocolate flavor, and was the least sweet of the collection. But I don’t think that is enough when there is a lot of other good chocolate available. If you see these in an Aldi’s or somewhere else, I recommend passing them by unless you really want to try the sugar crusted fruit flavored ones.

choceur package
I enjoyed the happy, 1960s-evoking Choceur packaging

Sugar cubes

I didn’t think it was possible, but there was a box of chocolates even sweeter than the Aldi hearts. But Choceur, another chocolate brand distributed by Aldi, but this time imported from Poland, proved me wrong.

The Happy Valentine’s Day Premium European Chocolate Collection came in a happily attractive package, striped pink and white with little gold hearts floating all around. The packaging included all the right buzz words like Premium European Chocolate and Rainforest Alliance Cocoa with recycling instructions on the back. And the small bonbons inside had an interesting variety of shapes and decorations. It looked promising.

But OMG, these tiny truffles (easily half the size of the Panache Unforgettable truffles) were SUPER sweet. Many of the fillings had a sugary texture too, and the flavors struggled to be tasted above the sugar. The chocolate itself was good, but so understated in contrast to the sweetness.

Reading the ingredients listing was a definite clue to what these would taste like. Out of 25 ingredients, at least 9 were sweeteners or sweet in themselves: sugar, milk, glucose syrup, chocolate, lactose, dried glucose syrup, invertase, dextrose, and beet powder.

Sweetness preferences are personal, and maybe this is like the difference between iced tea and sweet tea. If you are firmly in the sweet tea camp, you might prefer these chocolates. There were some intriguing flavors, the presentation was appealing, and the pieces were well made.

Of the pieces I tried, the Coffee was the best. While it had a slightly sugary texture — I could feel sugar granules when I bit the piece — it had a mild but distinct coffee flavor with cherry and sweet almond undertones. It helped that it was a dark chocolate piece, and coffee is a bitter flavor which tempered some of the sweetness.

There were a couple of flavored dark chocolate pieces that I would have liked better if they were less sweet. The Caribbean Creme tasted vaguely tropical, I thought maybe a mix of guava, passion fruit, and possibly pineapple. And the Zabaglione piece had a hint of liqueur with cherry and coconut flavors.

The other pieces I tried were consistently too sweet and had that sugar granules texture. Also, I don’t know if it was a translation issue or a difference in meaning (like praline in Belgium means something entirely different from praline in New Orleans) but pieces labeled caramel were not caramels. They were just more of the sweet cream fillings like the rest.

Choceur chocolates
Slightly larger than life size pic of the diminutive Choceur chocolates

Celebrate with chocolate

For a Valentine’s Day that was unlike any other — and I hope will never be repeated — the gift of chocolate was a nice way to celebrate safely. Even the ones I didn’t like were fun to sample and rate.

After the pandemic, I expect to still be celebrating events with chocolate. But if I can do that someplace other than my couch, that would be awesome.

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Published March 9, 2021