CHOCOLATE : For Basket Cases : Dark, white and milk varieties of the glossy, creamy candy jam the shelves and Easter displays at specialty shops.


For many people, the thought of Easter candy brings back memories of overdosing on jellybeans, pastel-colored marshmallow chicks and chocolate kisses, not to mention the ubiquitous solid milk chocolate rabbits.

Those same types of goodies are still available in the grocer's Easter section, but for surrogate Easter bunnies looking for high-quality basket stuffers, there are alternatives to nondescript chocolate confections.

Ventura County has candy makers of the finest sort--chocolatiers who sculpt, coax, coddle and otherwise persuade that most delicious of foods into rich, dreamy confections, coating smooth caramel, crunchy nuts and a variety of truffle centers with white, dark or milk chocolate.

To appreciate a good piece of chocolate is to understand tempering, one of the processing steps that lends a glossy finish to each piece, as well as a crisp snap when a chocolate bar is broken in half or bitten into.

Tempering--heating and cooling of the chocolate--is done before a confectioner uses it to make candy. Without tempering, chocolate can be waxy or grainy, and may not keep its form well. Untempered chocolate does not melt smoothly in the mouth and may leave an aftertaste of cocoa butter, an undesirable trait.

It is tempering that sets fine chocolates apart from the crowd. The three candy makers that we found in Ventura County temper their chocolate are:

* Atelier de Chocolat, 422 E. Main St., Ventura.

Atelier de Chocolat means "workplace of chocolate," and to owners Ben and Audrey Gaffney, no workplace could be better.

"A chocolate store is a happy place to be," said Audrey, "and Ben and I can't get through a day without our fix of chocolate."

Ben, who has been in the confection business most of his adult life, has his own special blends of chocolates and is particularly proud of his dark chocolate blend, which, he says, "is the finest anywhere."

Although their downtown Ventura store is small, the Gaffneys have a large selection of truffles, cremes, caramels and specialty items, and have stocked up on solid white, milk and dark chocolate bunnies, chicks and other novelties for Easter baskets.

Their best sellers include peanut butter cups, which are made with Ben's special blend of peanut butter; Dino Paws, a large paw print of caramel, pecans and milk chocolate, and Let's Bars, a sandwich of graham crackers and peanut butter enrobed in milk chocolate, named after a Bullock's executive for whom Ben once worked.

Most chocolate candies run between $5 and $7 per pound.

* Cocoa's Place, 1437 Victoria Ave., Ventura.

M. Cocoa Berken was an executive chef at U. S. embassies for 20 years before retiring to open his namesake cafe, tucked into a Ralphs shopping center. He makes a variety of chocolates and carries other types of candies displayed in apothecary jars on the five 35-foot shelves that line one wall of his intimate restaurant.

With everything going on in the restaurant, there isn't the same exacting attention to detail that you might find in a shop specializing exclusively in chocolate, but that doesn't mean the chocolate isn't delicious. The flavors are clear and impart a true chocolate taste as they melt in your mouth. The dark chocolate, especially, is a mild treat "that doesn't reach out and grab the back of your throat," Berken said.

Of note are his chocolate-covered pretzels, a sweet and salty, smooth and crunchy combination that is surprisingly pleasing, and his chocolate-dipped graham crackers and Oreo cookies. Most of the candies at Cocoa's, as at Atelier de Chocolat, run between $5 and $7 per pound.

To personalize an Easter basket, Cocoa's pipes names on large chocolate eggs. A custom egg sells for $6.95.

* Jerbeau, various retail outlets listed below.

The first thing you notice about Jerbeau chocolates is the package they come in. Katalin Christopher, owner of the Newbury Park wholesale chocolate company, believes that "95% of the initial sale is in the packaging, and 95% of the return sale is based on the product inside."

With that in mind, Christopher has developed an impressive line of acrylic molds that impart a tremendous shine to the semi-solid bunnies or teddy bears that are popped out to be eaten.

Jerbeau is famous for its "Holiday Bark," a 1 1/2-pound piece of milk, dark and white chocolate filled with nuts or fruits. Most of Jerbeau's chocolates run in the $12- to $13-per-pound range.

At those prices, one would expect exceptional candy. Unfortunately, the chocolate at Jerbeau does not seem to measure up to that of Atelier de Chocolat or Cocoa's, but certainly is a step above the stuff found at the supermarket.

Jerbeau chocolates can be found in Ventura County at More Than Just Baskets in Ventura, Coffee Etc. Unlimited in Camarillo, Let's Get Cooking in Westlake Village, Candy Cottage in Thousand Oaks and Little Bow'Tique in Moorpark.

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