The ongoing pandemic, which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, has also claimed many small businesses, including the Portland, Ore.-based Alma Chocolates, a longtime favorite of mine. With foot traffic down in many cities, long-standing chocolate shops are hoping online sales can make up the difference. Simultaneously, pastry cooks and chefs laid off because of covid-19 shutdowns are popping up online, offering candies and chocolates to anyone with a sweet tooth and Internet access. It’s never been a better time to treat yourself to a box of chocolates.
But not every box of chocolates is worth your time or money. Although it’s a common commodity, the best chocolate doesn’t just taste better, it’s better for growers, roasters, producers, confectioners and the planet.
I’ve ordered dozens of boxes of chocolates in the past eight months. All of them came with an origin story, the name and location of the farm where the cacao was grown, or the brand of sustainable and fair trade chocolate used to make the candies and bonbons tucked into the tidy little box. Some were vegan, most made use of local ingredients and all of them demonstrated a mastery of the unique and time-consuming skill of making molded or enrobed chocolates. These chocolates are significantly more expensive than a Hershey bar, which retails for less than a dollar, but for many, many reasons, if you have the disposable income, they are worth it.
Regardless, there are many to consider, and the list below doesn’t cover them all. There are the long-standing shops, ones such as Jacques Torres and Recchiuti, which have been around for decades, and new micro-chocolatiers such as Cacao de Rigoberto, which just started offering chocolate bars — in flavors including white chocolate, sweet potato, coconut and amaranth puff — via Instagram direct message.
If you have a favorite local chocolate shop, a place you trust, start there. If you’re looking to try something new, find a list of some of the country’s finest chocolate-makers below. They’re all offering boxes of chocolates and nationwide reach; prices listed exclude shipping.
Phillip Ashley Chocolates: Chocolatier Phillip Ashley Rix, whose shop is based in Memphis, seems to find inspiration everywhere. Start with a Taste of Memphis box, which features flavors including red velvet, Bluff City barbecue, penny candy and spiced whiskey. The galaxy collection includes a milk chocolate Nutella marshmallow called the Milky Way and Haley’s Comet, a bonbon filled with white chocolate Rainier cherry pomegranate molasses. Love Drunk Hearts is a dazzling new array of 13 booze-spiked bonbons. (From $35 for a box of 6.)
Lagusta’s Luscious: The flavors pop at this New Paltz, N.Y.-based shop where owner Lagusta Yearwood has been honing her craft for more than a decade. I was momentarily stunned into silence after a bite of her chewy, chocolate-enrobed thyme caramel. Flecks of sea salt and the scent of lemon tame the woodsy flavor. Don’t miss the chance to enjoy a box of Furious Vulvas, molded chocolates spiced with pink peppercorns and Hawaiian pink sea salt. Consider also the peppermint patties, tahini meltaways and maple honeycomb. (From $18 for a box of 8.)
Stick With Me Sweets: Painterly and playful, Susanna Yoon’s chocolates surprise with flavors such as calamansi meringue pie, macadamia nut rice puff, passion fruit-guava and pistachio marzipan. Don’t miss the soft fruit caramels, nutty nougat and multilayered candy bars from this New York City-based shop. (From $25 for a box of 6.)
Melissa Coppel Chocolatier: With chocolate shells nearly as thin as a flower petal, these delicate, molded and enrobed bonbons are uniquely sensational. Made in Las Vegas, where Coppel also teaches chocolate-making classes, the only thing more impressive than how they look is how they taste and feel on the tongue. Coppel’s signature flavors are especially complex and include: yogurt, litchi, almond, raspberry and rose; jasmine, strawberry and poppy seeds; honey and tahini; and roasted caramel apple, pecan and croissant flakes. (A box of 12 bonbons is $48.)
Kee’s Chocolates: Chocolatier Kee Ling Tong is known for her delicately flavored, hand-rolled truffles, still made one at a time in New York. Salt, spice, acidity, herbs, floral essences and tea soften sweeter flavors like milk chocolate and render others, like blood orange, almost savory. Don’t miss the white chocolate-almond, coated with salty, toasted almond slices, the nutty black sesame, creamy blood orange or perfume-like black rose. ($45.60 for a box of 16 or $68.40 for a box of 24.)
Chocotenango: This D.C.-based shop specializes in single-origin chocolate bars, though owner Ismael Neggaz also makes a tight selection of half-sphere bonbons in unmistakable flavors including coffee-caramel, raspberry, coconut and rosemary-fig. (From $12.50 for a five-piece box.)
Monsoon Chocolate: In Tucson, owner and chocolate-maker Adam Krantz imports cacao from Peru, Ecuador and India to make his own chocolate, which gets formed into bars and delicate bonbons in bold, seasonal and local flavors: chiltepin, cocoa nib horchata, black pepper rose, chile mango, Sonoran sea salt and grapefruit-fennel pollen are some of the shop’s standbys. Don’t miss the vegan varieties. (From $14 for a four-piece box.)
Milla: This Los Angeles-based shop, owned by chocolatier Christine Sarioz, specializes in architectural, modernist dark chocolates and bars with straightforward flavors including raspberry, yuzu, cardamom, coffee, almond-coconut praline and sesame caramel. (From $24 for a six-piece box.)
Gâté Comme des Filles: Alexandra Whisnant makes a small selection of incredibly fresh chocolate bonbons at her cafe in Somerville, Mass., but fans from all over clamor for them whenever she offers nationwide shipping, which only happens a few times a year. Meyer lemon, honey-walnut, rose-pink peppercorn, champagne and pistachio praline and more signature flavors are made in small batches just a week before local pickup or overnight shipping. (From $24 for a four-piece box.)
Bonbonbon: Alexandra Clark is the brains behind this Detroit-based shop, which sells the unique tiny rectangular open-face chocolates in fun flavors like funfetti cake, coffee and doughnuts, lemon bar and sticky “bon.” (Priced individually at $3.50; build a box of any size.)
Chocolate Secret: Pam G. Eudaric and Rocio Estrada run this Dallas-based chocolate business. There’s a lot to choose from, but don’t miss the molded and very colorful hand-painted bonbons in flavors including bananas foster, ancho chile, brown butter caramel and strawberry balsamic. (From $26 for nine pieces.)
Midunu: Selassie Atadika started her chocolate business in 2014 to celebrate Africa’s culinary heritage, bringing awareness to ingredients affected by deforestation such as prekese or tetrapleura tetraptera, a flowering pea pod that has a lightly sweet-tart flavor. The chocolates are made in Accra, Ghana, by a team of female chocolatiers — they’re then shipped to a fulfillment center in Green Bay, Wis. — “I wanted to change the narrative of cocoa-producing countries as a place for extracting cash crops to a place of showcasing quality finished products,” Atadika says. Be sure to try the Almaz, a bonbon filled with milk chocolate ganache infused with berbere spice, and the Thando, a dark chocolate shell filled with rooibos tea-infused white chocolate. ($24 for six pieces or $42 for 12.)
Borough Chocolates: When Jessica Minghi lost her job at Restaurant Daniel in March because of the pandemic, she started tempering and molding chocolate to sell online and via Instagram. Her Brooklyn-based business puts out the brightest, tartest, silkiest lemon creams, raspberry litchi bonbons with a whole raspberry inside and salted caramel bonbons that melt like liquid satin. (From $33 for 12 pieces.)
Sugoi Sweets: Sugoi, a Japanese term used to express the sense of being awestruck by an experience or moment, aptly describes the sensation of eating one of chef and co-founder Elle Lei’s confections. The Chicago-based shop also makes caramels, nougat and marshmallows, but the filled bonbons, many with multiple layers — including peanut butter and jelly, beer pretzel and cherry pistachio, are worth savoring. ($37 for a box of 12 hand-painted bonbons; $69 for a box of 24.)
Bliss Chocolatier: The mother-daughter team of Jessica Washburn and Pat Jarstad run this Kansas City, Mo., operation. Standouts include the Sea Turtle, a blue milk chocolate shell filled with salted caramel and pecan praline; vegan raspberry, with a supremely fruity filling; and key lime cheesecake, with layers of sweet lime, creamy cheesecake and crunchy graham cracker. ($22.50 for a 9-piece box; $45 for 18 pieces.)
Finally, if you’d like to taste the difference between chocolate made from cacao harvested in different countries or regions, start with bars from makers such as Askinosie (Springfield, Mo.), Tcho (Berkeley, Calif.), Raaka (Brooklyn), Theo (Seattle), Dandelion (San Francisco), Cru (Sacramento), Fortuna (Boulder, Colo.) or WM Chocolate (Madison, Wis.).