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CONFECTIONS OF A MAD WOMAN

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Give me cases of chocolates over diamonds, luxury cars and snappy electronics any day! I'd rather spend $40 on a box of well-crafted chocolate than $40,000 on a Mercedes-Benz. Confections may not be essential to existence, but they are, in my opinion, synonymous with a life of true happiness. What's better than a perfect cup of coffee and petit fours with a friend, or the gift of chocolates from a lover, lined up like baubles in a jewelry case? This is my guide for whimsical people seeking all things sweet and velvety. These places sell handmade, highest-quality chocolates by mail order:

MarieBelle Fine Treats and Chocolates (484 Broome St., New York, N.Y., 10013; 866-925-8800; www.mariebelle.com) MarieBelle's is fraught with romance; a little antique-looking chest of chocolates here, a frilly tin of hot cocoa there. They offer a collection of chocolate bars wrapped with pinup-girl calendars. Delightful truffle squares are printed with sugar in colorful, retro designs, then filled with scrumptious ganache. My favorites are the caramel-filled. To bring the romance of MarieBelle's home, order her artful assortments for $7 to $300.

Vosges Haut-Chocolat (520 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill., 60611; 888-301-9866; www.vosgeschocolate.com) Vosges is excessively stylish, impulsively imaginative, and possessed of international appeal. Katrina Markoff traipsed the world studying with experts before opening her first store in Chicago, and international culinary adventure infuses each chocolate. Try Vosges' Collection Italiano, which contains plump round truffles filled with such ingredients as Kalamata olives, balsamic vinegar and pine nuts. Another interesting choice is their signature pyramid-shaped truffle filled with soft Taleggio cheese. Vosges' chocolate collections change with the seasons and Markoff's whim, and a current example is the Collection of Zion, which conjures the taste of Jamaica with native flavorings such as allspice, hemp seed, Red Stripe beer, Blue Mountain Coffee and coconut. Boxes of chocolates run between $5 and $70, or get a hatbox full of goodies for $200.

La Maison du Chocolat (1018 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y., 10021; 212-744-7117; www.lamaisonduchocolat.com) La Maison du Chocolat is sleek and sophisticated, started in Paris in 1977 by Basque-born and Swiss-trained Robert Linxe. His chocolates are beautiful in their simplicity, and nothing short of elegant. Linxe and Pascal Le Gac, the head chocolatier, carefully select the couverture (superior bars of chocolate for truffle-making) to impart depth of flavor, minus the acidity and astringency. The company's plain ganache truffles are the most divine morsels. The burnt-butter mousse truffles will curl your toes. Get the Coffret Initiation ($47), a box of 20 of La Maison's most celebrated chocolates arranged in perfect tasting order. Or try boxes that go for $6 for two chocolates up to $205 for 182 pieces.

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