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Teacherly tome provides luscious lessons

Making Artisan Chocolates, By Andrew Garrison Shotts, Quarry Press, 176 pp., $24.99

Lust for chocolate, in all its forms, inevitably attains a fever pitch by Valentine's Day. But the buzz around artisan chocolate, with its exotic flavors and air of exclusivity, has been growing for at least a decade. Which February did you first notice that chocolate packaging was making the shift from red foil to satin black? When did you first realize that embossed sentiments and bows were giving way to a cryptic statistic: "55 percent cacao" or, a little more pricily, "72 percent cacao"?

For artisan chocoholics, jasmine, lemongrass, and ginger are perfectly rational choices to pair with chocolate. Any one of these treasures, they'll tell you, would be worth an excursion to a high-end shop. In his new book, however, veteran chocolatier Andrew Garrison Shotts, formerly of Guittard Chocolate Co. and owner of Garrison Confections of Providence, R.I., makes a persuasive, if not always practical, argument for scaling rarefied heights at home.

Just getting chocolate from its tropical home to your supermarket shelf takes about a dozen labor-intensive steps. Working with chocolate is a fussy business at best; a few drops of water accidentally sloshed onto melting chocolate will make it seize, resulting in a dull, cakey mess. Keeping it tempered -- its particles aligned just so to create that distinctive smooth chocolate mouthfeel -- means keeping an eagle eye on the thermometer. If you don't get it right, say your margin is just a degree or two, the chocolate sets up unglamorously.

In short, chocolate is like a temperamental lover. For all these reasons, we think of chocolate craftsmen as painstaking lab technicians, an elite and demanding subset of the finicky pastry chefs from whose ranks they spring.

Despite this intimidating aura, Shotts's well-illustrated, teacherly book, with flimsy cardboard covers, emboldened me to make the attempt in the distinctly unscientific setting of my home. First was classic chocolate truffles, made with 72 percent cacao truffle ganache and coated first in tempered chocolate and then in cocoa. The results were stupendous; the bitter cocoa powder gave way to a luscious decadence after a moment's doubt.

The tempering process, which takes it up to 115 degrees, down to 86 degrees, then back up to 89 degrees, took some getting used to. And I will share with you in confidence that a 48-degree kitchen in a drafty New England farmhouse under renovation, vented every 10 minutes by hard - working plasterers, is not an ideal venue for chocolate work.

Nor is the book infallible. A tantalizing recipe for Grand Marnier hand-dipped chocolates was a grave disappointment. Perhaps this was due to a scaling error. The chocolate centers came out very wet, and not even triple the time in the freezer could persuade them to set. After the next step, they're supposed to dry overnight before dipping. After 24 hours, they were still too wobbly to dip.

But Shotts's easy recipes were successful. Chocolate fruit and nut tablets, studded with golden raisins, almonds, and candied orange rind, set up beautifully, even without the recommended tablet mold (I used a foil-lined 8-inch square pan). Chocolate caramel popcorn was a breeze. It was indistinguishable from what you would get if you improved a box of Cracker Jacks with half a pound of chocolate.

In the end, the real question is which is the greater measure of infatuation: buying a pound of perfectly formed and finished artisan chocolates for the one you love, or buying this book and presenting them with your own heartfelt, if less than superb, attempts? Or more to the point, do we love each other for who we're trying to be, or for who we are?

Everyone has to answer that one privately. In the meantime, prodigal quantities of chocolate, a pound or two at a time, are being pressed into service for those hand-dipped truffles. They're not cheap, and you'd hate to waste even an ounce. If you ask me, true love comes down to always having someone around to clean the smears off your cheek.