Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Pumpkin-Spiced Salted Caramels

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Pumpkin-Spiced Salted Caramels Box

Beautiful, intriguing… delicious?

Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Madness continues, and we really have something unusual for you today.

“But surely it couldn’t be more unusual than the Pumpkin Panettone we read about in the last post?”, I hear you asking, glancing at each other in puzzled concern.

Ranking: 4 stars 4 star rating

What it is: Very salty, heavily spiced caramels
Price: $4.99 for a 6.2 oz box.
Worth it: Yes – if just for the unusual experience

The thing is – while Trader Joe’s pumpkin-filled panettone is clearly the product of a mind deranged by over-consideration of gourds, it is still a product easily recognizable and identifiable. Trader Joe’s Dark Choclate Pumpkin-Spice Sated Caramels, on the other hand, have no analog on this planet Earth.

They certainly sound ordinary enough – salted caramels, sure those are delicious, dark chocolate, why not, and of course pumpkin-spice, because this is October and we can’t control ourselves.

Yes the combination of these three components results in a truly intense and wholly new sort of taste completely unlike most chocolate bonbons I’ve experienced – a taste that is nearly savory, rather than sweet.

The issue is that while “dark chocolate”, “pumpkin spice” and “salted caramel” sound good together on a box, they don’t really mingle with each other harmoniously on the tongue. Eating one of these is a little like wearing black-and-white checkerboard shorts with a plaid shirt. They components clash in bold and unusual ways.

Let’s start with the salt. A little salt goes a long way, regardless of what you’re cooking, and doubly so when it comes to candy. When I tried Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles, I was really impressed with the elegance they showed with applying the salt – just a few grains place carefully on top. One glance on these caramels and it’s obvious that the same restraint was not shown. Each caramel is packed with a huge clump of vivid red Hawaiian sea salt. While I applaud the gorgeous color effect it has (and really, the presentation of the whole box couldn’t be classier), this is way too much salt. On first bite you’re immediately overwhelmed by a nearly painful burst of saltiness.

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Pumpkin-Spiced Salted Caramels 2

The very next flavor you’ll notice is the rich, dark chocolate. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but dark chocolate should never simply be used as a substitute for milk chocolate. Yes, it sounds classier, looks better, and people will pay more money for it – but it simply isn’t the sort of light confection that milk chocolate is. In this case, Trader Joe’s is only using 55% dark chocolate in the candy shell, but in context the bitterness really comes to fore. This semi-bitter dark chocolate collides with the intense salt, and immediately starts a violent war over your tastebuds.

This bitter/salty conflict is the start of the savory taste I was talking about above. What really drives it home, however, is the combination of “pumpkin-spices”. As we all know, “pumpkin-spice” is short-hand for a wide selection of strong spices used to turn pumpkin into something redolent and flavorful. In this case, TJ’s is using cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, and no shortage of it.

Right as you bite into the caramel core, as you’re recovering from the wild ride of the outer shell, this combination of spices hits you so strongly that they nearly overpower the typical caramel sweetness. The result of all this is that for a moment, you might actually believe you’re biting in a slice of meat pie, or some other savory, salty, meaty treat.

Only after a few moments, when the initial barrage of taste sensations die down, do you finally get to taste the long, mellow finish of the caramel – punctuated here and there a few parting sallies from the salt.

On the back of the box, Trader Joe’s writes: “You think you’ll know what to expect, and yet, you’ll be pleasantly, pumpkinly surprised.” Surprised, certainly. Pleasantly is a matter of opinion. I will admit, after getting over the initial shock of the first few pieces, these caramels have started to grow on me. I’d hesitate to call them “good”, in the traditional sense of the word at least, but they are incredibly intriguing – a candy unlike anything else available in the store.

While these aren’t for everyone, if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to snack on and ruminate over, these are fascinating little morsels.

If you need a nice little hostess gift (and you don’t want to bother with a panettone), you might be tempted to pick up a box of these. The presentation is certainly up to the job – but realize that you’ll be giving them something more challenging than delicious.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Hesitantly, if I knew their palette well.

Would I Buy Them Again: I’m still trying to come to terms with the first box.

Final Synopsis: Extremely intense chocolates, with a nearly meaty taste.

Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Panettone

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Panettone

The kind of panettone Jack Skellington would have been made.

As you may have noticed from my unofficial first post last week – Pumpkin Season has returned again to Trader Joe’s! Today, we really get right into the swing of things with Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Panettone – a pumpkin-spiced, pumpkin-cream filled, Italian desert bread stuffed with candied pumpkin.

Ranking: 3 stars 

3 star ranking

What it is: A bready cake made with candied pumpkin.
Price: $5.99 for a 26.5 oz cake.
Worth it: No – not as good as regular panettone.

Yes, as you can tell from the last sentence the annual pumpkin madness has fallen upon us again – the most exciting and, occasionally, harrowing time of the year. There’s no telling what fresh chimeras or monstrous hybrids the Trader Joe’s food scientists have cooked up in their labs, secreted far from judging eyes in the protective, pumpkin-scented bedrock of TJ’s Monrovia headquarters.

The season of Pumpkin Madness at Trader Joe’s is a time to mentally prepare yourself before you go shopping – there’s no knowing what what miracle or nightmare may be lurking around every corner – from the heavenly delights of Trader Joe’s pumpkin-glazed, pumpkin cinnamon rolls, to the terrors of Trader Joe’s Non-Fat Pumpkin Greek Yogurt, to the mind-wrenching bafflement of Trader Joe’s pumpkin spiced pumpkin seeds and Pumpkin Joe-Joe’s.

Where does Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Panettone fall in this pumpkin spectrum? That depends in large part how you feel about panettone in general.

As you may or may not know, panettone (pronounced, approximately: “pa-nuh-toe-ni”) is a traditional Italian Christmas “cake”. I put cake in quotes here, because even though it’s generally referred to as such, panettone is much airier and “bread-ier” than the more common sort of American cakes. Like fruitcake, panettone is more of a concept than a set recipe, and is made as many different ways as there are people who make it. Nevertheless, all panettone are linked by a couple universal factors – they’re laced with dried or candied fruit, dabs of marscapone cream, and are always airy and bready.

Trader Joe’s does carry regular panettone around the holidays, so they know how they’re made. This year it seems they couldn’t contain their excitement for the sweet bread any longer, and decided to bring us a unique, pumpkin-based version. Instead of candied citrus and raisins, there’s candied pumpkin. Instead of marscapone cream there’s pumpkin-flavored cream. There’s even dried pumpkin powder worked into the dough. With that much pumpkin, you might expect the cake to be a double-fisted pumpkin punch to the jaw. Instead, it hardly tastes like pumpkin at all. All you’ll really taste is the traditional, bready panettone cake, and the sugary sweetness of the cream and sugar. The actual pumpkin bits – as numerous as they are, have been denatured of their natural pumpkin flavor. At best, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice a very, very subtle pumpkin aftertaste and that’s it.

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Panettone 2

Pannettone – featuring candied pumpkin and pumpkin creme.

The overall effect is somewhat bizarre. It’s like having a glimpse into some alternate universe where the twisted occupants make panettone for Halloween instead of Christmas. In fact, this is probably what Trader Joe’s has in mind for this product. Each Pumpkin Panettone comes packaged in a very nice looking gift box, including a pretty little ribbon handle – perfect for a little host/hostess gift.

In terms of a nice looking gift, you could do worse. Show up with a Pumpkin Panettone and a bottle of wine to the seasonal autumn party of your choice and you’ll look quite dashing. Just don’t wait around the buffet table fishing for compliments – this panettone is likely to impress visually, but the taste is more likely to leave people scratching their heads than going back for seconds.

If you like Christmas panettone you are likely to enjoy this – the pumpkin hardly makes an appearance, and the sweet bread aspect is dominant. If you’ve never much enjoyed panettone, or if you’re looking for something heavy on the pumpkin, you should pass this up.

Alternatively, I would highly recommend punching it. The high, domed form of the panettone, combined with the soft and airy interior, make it an absolute delight to deliver a devastating front punch to. If you buy a Pumpkin Panettone, and you don’t like it, I’d definitely suggest winding up and letting one fly directly at the top of the dome before taking it back to TJ’s for a refund.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Not really – unless you like panettone that doesn’t taste like pumpkin.

Would I Buy It Again: No thanks.

Final Synopsis: Very satisfying to punch.

Trader Joe’s Magic Beans

Trader Joe's Magic Beans

Do not trade a cow for these.

Trader Joe’s is no stranger to whimsy, and what could be more whimsical then bringing a bag of magic beans to market? That’s precisely what Trader Joe’s has done with their mysterious new offering, Trader Joe’s Magic Beans! An extremely enigmatic offering that combines vagueness with and strange product impulses into a bewildering product.

Ranking: 2 stars2 star rating 

What it is: Milk chocolate over crunchy nougat.
Price: $3.99 for a 7.7 oz bag.
Worth it: No, not very good quality sweets.

Trader Joe’s Magic Beans are certainly magical. Not necessarily in the way that wizards and dragons are magical, and not in the way that rainbows and a child’s smile are magical, but in that way a that mild concussion is magical – by turning ordinary things into an set of surreal and perplexing stimuli that don’t really make sense.

Upon seeing a bag of Trader Joe’s Magic Beans for the first time, many questions immediately spring to mind. Magic beans, really? What makes them so magical? What are they exactly? Where do they come from? None of these questions are answered in the slightest anywhere on the bag. You are presented with a strange, plastic sack of oblong candy, a product name, and no more.

One of Trader Joe’s more infuriating traits is a tendency to leave off the product copy. When they do include copy, it’s uniformly delightful and well considered – equal parts gently amusing and gently educational. However when they elect not to include copy, it’s almost always in instances like this – on their most unusual and unique items.

TJ’s is giving us nothing to go on here. “Mystery Beans” might be a better name. All we’re told is that they’re chocolate covered nougat beans. The surprise is that not only is the chocolate shell hard and crunchy, but so is the nougat in side.

Yes, crunchy nougat – not the typical soft and pliable stuff so pleasantly yielding to the tooth. This nougat has been hardened to a brittle condition. Biting into one of these over-sized beans is an act of crunch, crunch, crunching – like biting into some chocolate covered brittle or toffee.

That’s the other unusual thing. The nougat is crispy hard and almost buttery sweet – not at all like ordinary nougat, much more like toffee or crunchy caramel.

I’d never had crunchy nougat before. It’s certainly not something I ever though to ask for. Are there people out there who appreciate crunchy nougat? Is this a thing? I have to say it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but going in expecting nougat made it a little off putting.

The chocolate part can pass largely without remark. It’s your basic, low quality Halloween candy-style milk chocolate making up a quarter inch thick cocoon. Not the best Trader Joe’s has to offer by any means.

Interestingly, these beans have also been shellaced – literally. Shellac is listed as the eighth or ninth ingredient. As you probably know, shellac is a resin generally encountered as a wood or nail polish varnish. Typically, that’s not something I’m looking for in my food – even though it is technically edible and a somewhat common food glaze.

In the end, there’s nothing really for me to recommend these on. Unless you’re intrigued by the concept of crunchy nougat, it’s hard to imagine anyone picking up these mysterious shellaced beans, even if I highly recommended them. Apart from giving them to out to kids as part of a “magical” gift bag, these beans were just sort of blah.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: No, not particularly.

Would I Buy Them Again: I have had a enough crunchy nougat and shellac, thank you.

Final Synopsis: Low-quality chocolate around a nougat-esque core does not necessarily equal “magic”.

Trader Joe’s “This Pumpkin Walks Into a Bar…” Cereal Bar

Trader Joe's This Pumpkin Walks Into A Bar Cereal Bar

Why did the pumpkin walk into the bar? For all the selenium, apparently.

Look, I have to hand it to the product naming team at Trader Joe’s. Sure, in the past I’ve excoriated them over inconsistent and even nonsensical naming schemes. I may have lambasted them for giving products unpronoucable French names, but when it comes down to it, they’re basically geniuses and I love them.

Ranking: 3 stars 3 star ranking

What it is: Sweet pumpkin filling in a cereal bar
Price: $1.99 for a box of 6.
Worth it: Yes, if you like a sweet breakfast.

I love Avacado’s Number Guacamole, I love their Carrots of Many Colors, I even like their Popcorn in a Pickle. It’s crazy, but what can I say. I like it when they get a little crazy. However, of all TJ’s product names the one I’ve somehow avoided talking about until now is Trader Joe’s “This Pumpkin Walks Into A Bar…”- one of the proud members of the ridiculous family of “This Fruit Walks Into A Bar…” cereal bars. It takes a bold unwavering vision to end a product name with an ellipses. “Just sort of trailing off without finishing your thought – that’s what customer’s respond to! Release a dozen varieties and keep ’em coming!”

In addition to the Pumpkin version we’re looking at today, Trader Joe’s also offers “This Apple Walks Into A Bar…” “This Strawberry Walks Into a Bar…”, “This Fig Walks Into A Bar…”, the list goes on… You certainly can’t accuse TJ’s of not committing to the gag – even if it makes scanning their breakfast aisle feel like flipping through a joke book.

All of these cereal bars offer basically the same thing, a  strip of fruit puree surrounded by a wheat bran sheath. It’s a familiar set up for anyone who’s ever had a Nutrigrain bar, or one of the other many “cereal bar” versions on the market. The big difference is that Trader Joe’s brand cereal bars proudly boast they that they contain no synthetic colors, perservatives or hydrogenated oils. In addition, Trader Joe’s has blended an elixir of vitamins into the fruit filling which contains 6 different B vitamins and, oddly enough, selenium.

Selenium, which Trader Joe’s highlights on several parts of the box, is an essential trace mineral linked to various vital functions. Just one bar contains 50% of your daily selenium value. Most people get enough of this in the typical balanced diet – but if you’re worried you’re selenium levels might be low, hey, chow down.

As far as the taste goes, these are pretty ordinary fare. The bready casing is dry and crumbly, and the filling is sugary sweet with fruits flavor underneath. To TJ’s credit the first ingredient listed is actually “pumpkin filling”, less impressive is that fact that this pumpkin filling lists rice syrup, cane syrup and apple powder above the actual pumpkin.

It’s definitely the syrup you taste most, with the sugar levels pushing my tolerance for a breakfast food. Think “concentrated poptart filling”, and you’re about in the area. If you’re looking for an intense sugar lift to get you started in the morning these would do the trick (and be sure to please the kids), just watch out for the imminent sugar crash waiting around the corner. There are 15 grams of sugar per 37 gram bar, but it tastes like more.

Eaten straight from the box, I didn’t find these a satisfying breakfast addition – and eating more than one in a sitting left me filling sugared out. They fared much better after a few minutes in the toaster oven – crisping up slightly and filling the house with the warm smell of pumpkin pie. Tastier, but still super sweet and not particularly convenient if you’re using it as an on-the-go meal substitute.

Trader Joe’s cereal bars might fit the bill as a substitute pop tart, but if you’ve outgrown those sort of sweets it’ll leave you flat.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Only to people who like a sugary breakfast.

Would I Buy It Again: Not I.

Final Synopsis: Sugary pumpkin filling in a Nutrigrain-like bar.

Trader Joe's This Pumpkin Walks Into A Bar Cereal Bar - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s This Pumpkin Walks Into A Bar Cereal Bar – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Baked Blue Corn Tortilla Chips – Salted

Trader Joe's Baked Blue Corn Tortilla Chips Salted

The poster child for “Low Fat = Low Taste”

I am a dyed-in-the-wool, straight-up chips and salsa fiend. Give me some chips, give me some salsa, and everything is just fine as far as I’m concerned. I have yet to find a jar of salsa that is big enough that I won’t finish it off in a single sitting.

Ranking: 2 stars 2 star rating

What it is: Bland tasting, baked tortilla chips.
Price: $1.99 for a 7 oz. bag.
Worth it: No, they taste stale.

Unfortunately, I’m getting fat. And while salsa is a good, healthy, vegetable-based, low-cal snack – tortilla chips, with all their carbs and fat, definitely are not. It’s a sad state of affairs, but I now live a chips and salsa free life.

There are many types of delicious (and not so delicious) salsas available at Trader Joe’s, and just as many unusual chip choices – often featuring healthful gimmicks (such as flax seeds). However, even “healthy” tortilla chips usually have more fat and carbs than I’d like to gorge myself on. So I was delighted when I came across Trader Joe’s Baked Blue Corn Tortilla Chips the other day. Promising only 2 grams of fat per serving, they were the healthiest chips I have ever come across. Taking them home, I gleefully rejoiced in finding the answer to my prayers.

Unfortunately, they taste like crap. Or, more correctly, they taste like bland tortilla chips that have gone stale straight out of the bag. Another review of these chips likens them to “cardboard”, and that’s not far off. The sad fact is that Trader Joe’s Baked Blue Corn Tortilla Chips are flat and lifeless. Even salted, these chips simply fail to delight the tongue.

Not being fried, these chips lack the crispiness, crunch and snap of a traditional tortilla chip. If, before I ever tried them, you’d asked me if I would trade such seemingly inconsequential concerns of texture for less fat, I would have said yes. And I would have been wrong. It doesn’t seem like something as run-of-the-mill as “crunchiness” should make or break a tortilla chip – but in this case it absolutely does.

If you’ve ever tried a tortilla chip from a bag that’s been left open a few days too long, you know exactly how these taste. There’s simply no saving a stale tortilla chip – no matter how flavorful the salsa or how delicious the nacho cheese. It’s sad, but a stale tortilla chip is little more than garbage.

No matter how I tried to appreciate the healthy elements of these blue corn chips, I simply couldn’t get over the stale taste. Maybe you’ll have better luck at that than I did, but as far as I’m concerned my quest for a healthy – and tasty – tortilla chip continues.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Nope – too stale tasting.

Would I Buy Them Again: Not unless I’m reaaaaally desperate for a chip fix.

Final Synopsis: Unless they actually made you thinner, these chips ain’t worth it.

Trader Joe's Baked Blue Corn Tortilla Chips - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Shrimp Toast

Trader Joe's Shrimp Toast

Sponge-y, not very shrimp-y

Shrimp toast. Shrimp toast. Shrimp toast. What is a shrimp toast? No, it’s not a meaningless Da-Daist phrase (well, not just that anyway), it’s actually a dim sum phrase! Trader Joe’s  Shrimp Toast is TJ’s new Chinese-inspired appetizer that combines shrimp (natch) with toast (also, natch).

Ranking: 1 star 1 star rating

What it is: Toast with shrimp paste on it.
Size: 10 little slices
Worth it: No, dry and bland.

Shrimp toast is as nearly as simple as it sounds – toast with shrimp on it. More accurately, it’s small triangles of bread, sprinkled with sesame seeds and topped with a thin layer of minced shrimp and tapioca yeast . The result is something that  doesn’t taste all that much like shrimp. Instead, it tastes like toast with a sort of mild, not easily identifiable, slightly moist topping of some sort. All authentic seafood flavor has been left far behind.

It’s not exactly a taste sensation. Shrimp toast, also known as prawn toast, has a tradition in Chinese American cuisine as a classic dim sum selection. Done right, it can be crispy and delicious – a palette cleanser between richer dishes, or eaten with a drizzle of duck sauce.

I’ve had quite good shrimp toast at dim sum – although my favorite versions end to be lightly fried. The Trader Joe’s variety is instead oven baked, and while that helps to keep the fat content down it doesn’t help out the flavor. And about that fat content – even baked, one serving (two of the tiny triangles) has 6 grams of fat (50 calories), and 2.5 grams of saturated fat. Not exactly a health food.

About the best thing I can say about Trader Joe’s Shrimp Toast is that they were easy to make. 8 minutes in the oven and they came out hot and crisp. Even then, however, they felt less like an appetizer in their own right, and more like the base for an appetizer that the top fell off of.

With a little creativity and ingenuity, you could probably whip up a topping that would make up for lackluster shrimp paste – but really I’m not sure it’s worth it. Trader Joe’s carries a lot of delicious bite-sized appetizers – but this Shrimp Toast isn’t one of them.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Not even to the most devoted dim sum-er.

Would I Buy It Again: No more shrimp toast for me.

Final Synopsis: Not very good shrimp, not very good toast.

Trader Joe’s Reduced-Guilt Spinach & Kale Greek Yogurt Dip

Trader Joe's Reduced Guilt Spinach and Kale Greek Yogurt Dip

Tastes better than it sounds.

Few things are more tempting and decadent than a thick and creamy dip – and the king of these is no doubt the Spinach Dip. There is no party or social gathering that can’t be improved by the addition of a good spinach dip. Rich, cool and savory, even a mediocre spinach dip can elevate a humble tortilla chip to heavenly levels.

Ranking: 4 stars 4 star rating

What it is: Low calorie spinach dip
Price: $3.99 for a 16 oz. tub
Worth it: Yes. Healthier, and still tasty.

Of course, as is usual for anything that tastes so good, spinach dip is terrible for you. Loaded with lethal levels of fat, spinach dip is the sort of condiment designed to test your willpower to the utmost. Perhaps just a nibble, you think, maybe just a chip or two… We all know where this leads – into the grasping, inescapable current of a spinach dip whirlpool.

Fortunately, Trader Joe’s has come to the rescue with their new Trader Joe’s Reduced-Guilt Spinach & Kale Greek Yogurt Dip – another entry in their line of “reduced-guilt” dips. We took a look at their reduced guilt chunky guacamole and reduced guilt chicken salad before. Both delivered uneven results. As is so often the case for “diet” foods, it’s easy to make a low-fat, low-cal food product, it’s just hard to make it taste any good. “Reduced-guilt” products walk a dangerous line. You have to sacrifice flavor in order to be healthy, but stray too far to one side or the other and you end up with something pointless and stupid. Healthy, but too bad tasting, and no one will eat it. Good tasting, but not particularly healthy, and you might as well just get the full calorie version.

In this case, Trader Joe’s manages to walk the tight-rope perfectly. This Spinach and Kale dip isn’t quite as delicious as the real thing, but it’s damn well close enough. A rich mixture of kale, spinach, water chestnuts, red peppers, carrots, green onions, garlic and even a little mayo create a colorful flavor pallete that makes a satisfying, full-bodied snack for crackers or chips.

Whenever you sub out sour cream for plain greek yogurt, as TJ’s has done here, you’re going to lose a little zip. That’s still the case here. After a big bite of this dip, you’ll notice it’s missing a little something on the tail end – a touch bland where it should be a touch zingy. That’s just the unavoidable cost of keeping the fat content under control. Fortunately, the blend of other vegetables and seasonings pep the dip up, compensating for this flatness fairly well.

And boy is that little bit of blandness worth it. Trader Joe’s normal spinach dip has 70 calories per serving, 60 of those from fat. This greek yogurt dip has less than half that per serving – 30 calories, 20 of those from fat.

All in all, that’s a pretty good trade off. No every “reduced guilt” product is worth it, but this dip is an exception to the rule.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes, healthy and tasty!

Would I Buy It Again: Sure – this is a winner.

Final Synopsis: Low cal spinach dip worth the price.


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