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Dandy candy
Our trained tasters have identified eight of the most delectable gift-boxed confections you'll find. Each is unique, but they share just-made freshness; smooth chocolate; hints of real butter and cream; and fruit fillings and herbal infusions that taste like the real thing.

Sad to say, the best sweets don't come cheap. You'll pay $41 to $89 per box (12 to 21 oz.). Add shipping if you order online or by phone--which you'll likely have to, since these chocolates are sold in few stores. Many makers require priority or overnight delivery to maintain freshness. That said, a high price doesn't guarantee satisfaction. Les Petits Richart Intense Collection, $62 for a mere 7 ounces, didn't make our cut (many pieces had jarring flavors).

You'd pay about $9 a box for Hershey's, Russell Stover, or Whitman's, but they're unlikely to elicit a "yum." They were quite sweet, not very chocolaty, and had artificial flavors. Sometimes nuts were stale, caramels and nougats very firm. Despite the knocks, all would probably satisfy an occasional craving for those with non-picky palates. Whitman's, in fact, has actually improved since last year's evaluation, moving up from "Fair" to "Good." The reason: The company eliminated some of the lower-quality pieces and the chocolates tasted a bit fresher.

Also changed was Godiva's classic Gold Ballotin, which has been reformulated. It's Very Good and on a par with Godiva's pricier Platinum Collection, which costs $6 more per box. The New Gold Ballotin and Platinum Collection share some similar pieces, but the Ballotin is a better deal. (Both boxes contain less than 1 pound of candy.)

In general, our experts found few quality changes among the 20 products tested last year and this time around, with a few exceptions besides Whitman's and Godiva. Martine's and Fran's moved up from Very Good to Excellent, while Moonstruck dropped into the Very Good category. The changes were often subtle, but because the bar has been set so high even slight differences matter.

Chocolate isn't health food--a few pieces have 170 to 250 calories--but the stearic acid (a fat) in chocolate doesn't seem to elevate "bad" cholesterol. And polyphenols in dark chocolate can expand arteries, possibly guarding against cardiovascular disease.

CR's take. There's a box of chocolates to delight almost any target of Cupid's arrow. See the descriptions in the Recommendations & notes under the Ratings (available to subscribers), and sniff out the recipient's preferences. (It would be a shame for someone to take one nibble of a $2 chocolate.) Other very good choices that won't break the bank are listed in the Ratings. Among them, Godiva's New Gold Ballotin, Leonidas Chocolate General Assortment, and See's Famous Old-Time Assorted. Ordering information for the chocolates is also in the Ratings.

Choxie chocolates from Target

Although not included in the Ratings (they were purchased too late to be included in our tests), our tasters took a separate look at Target's Choxie brand chocolates, which the retailer rolled out late in 2005. The Choxie line consists of several varieties with "unique, luxurious, and sophisticated flavor combinations" designed to fit "every taste sensation from rich, dark and milk chocolate to creamy peanut butter and delicate truffles," Target said in a press release at the time of the introduction. Our testers found all the varieties are different in character. But had they been included in the Ratings, they would have ranged across the Good category. Prices are $8 for traditional chocolates, $12 for a collection of more intensely flavored fillings, and $25 for unusual flavors and an upscale look.

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