Europa ChocoVine – Original

A bottle of fine red wine.

Europa Chocovine

Imagine, if you will, the taste of dutch chocolate and fine red wine – only blended together into a brownish gray fluid and packaged in a bottle calling itself “ChocoVine”. Can your imagination handle that?. Try again – close your eyes, imagine that crisp alcoholic taste of a fine red wine, then imagine blending that with a couple chocolate bars. Could you do? I couldn’t. So it was with mouth literally agape that I stood facing the aisle-wide display for Europa ChocoVine at Trader Joe’s the day before Christmas.

I really feel like this is an amazing find, if only because it’s one of those products that makes you question your sanity and the sanity of all mankind. It’s the classic case of “A is good, and B is good, so naturally if we just smash them up into each other they’ll be great!”  Occasionally this works, occasionally it doesn’t, but just looking at ChocoVine the deck is stacked against it. Using the “judging a book by it’s cover” approach which, contrary to the advice of Levar Burton, I generally  find pretty effective ChocoVine does not have a lot going for it.

For one, I have a hard time telling people the name of the product without feeling stupid. It’s the sort of name that feels like it was brainstormed during a marketing meeting between an unimaginative person and a lazy person. “Wait a minute –  it’s chocolate and wine? Why not ‘ChocoVine’! That clumsy, obvious portmanteau does a great job conveying our core principals of elegance and decadence, right?” I don’t know, maybe it’s just the stripped down efficacy of the Dutch.

The name is not the first thing you’re going to notice about ChocoVine, however. The first thing you’re going to notice is the bottle. Behind the stock photograph of tulips and windmills is 750ml of fluid that looks, to put it generously, like ditch water. This is a bold move. I feel like normally, in the R&D process, someone is supposed to bring this up, maybe suggest that it’s going to be hard to sell a drink that looks like it was scooped out of a wet pothole. Europa went to market with it anyway – that shows some confidence.

So if you can get past appearances, what can you expect? What, to return to our thought experiment, does red wine blended with chocolate taste like? The answer, surprisingly, is a mudslide. That’s not to say the two taste identical, but they’re shockingly close. This is due in part to the large amounts of chocolate that have gone into the drink, but also thanks to a large amount of cream or, as the website puts it, “the finest Dutch cream”, that goes in as well. There’s almost nothing of the wine taste left in this drink by the time Europa has finished with it. Take a sip and you’ll be hit with a sharp bite, then swept up in a very sweet, very chocolaty liqueur taste, which finally fades into a subtle, almost imperceptible wine tail. It’s enough to make you wonder why Europa is so big on billing how fine the wine is that they’re using. They would be just as well off if they we’re using some of Trader Joe’s two buck chuck. That said, there’s nothing untasty about this drink. It’s sweet enough and chocolaty enough that you’ll be able to finish your glass.

If you’re looking for a substitute for a creamy, sweet, mildly alcoholic drink  this would be a great stand in for your Kahalua or Baileys – as long as you don’t mind the somewhat dismal look. Just don’t confuse it for a wine.


*The Nutrition Facts below are based on website data only. There is no nutrition information posted on the bottle so, you know, be a little dubious.

The  Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: A good gift for lovers of sweet liqueurs.

Would I Buy It Again: No thanks, I prefer mixing my own drinks.

Final Synopsis: Perfect if you like mudslides, pointless if you like wine.

Europa ChocoVine - Nutrition Facts

Europa ChocoVine – Nutrition Facts

Merry Christmas 2013!

Merry Christmas everyone! I’ll see you all next week!

Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Brew


Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew

Cool bottle, cool label. The contents? Also pretty good.

Oh wow – just wow. I think I may have dreamed of something like Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Brew at some point, but never did I imagine it would be made a reality. A strange but non-alcoholic beverage, bottled in a giant, green glass jug with the sort of stoppered cork that makes you feel like an old timey sailor, sold at rock bottom prices? There was no way I wasn’t buying this the second I laid eye on it.

Even better, if Trader Joe’s marketing copy is to be believed, this was a product that they felt compelled to make from scratch. On their website, Trader Joe’s states that they simply could not find a drink with enough ginger in it to suit their tastes, so they made their own. Really? Out of all the outlandish products that people might hypothetically be hankering for (pizza bagels the size of a real pizza, ice cream sundae pies, etc) TJ’s decided to hitch their horses to a Triple Ginger Brew? Now that’s a level of unorthodox thinking that I can really get behind.

While I certainly like that Trader Joe’s went and threw the word “brew” in there, what we’re basically talking about here is a ginger ale. A super intense ginger ale that comes in a giant, re-corkable jug, but a ginger ale nonetheless.

Look, I’ll level with you there, they had me at the bottle. It didn’t matter what they put in there, – super intense ginger ale, regular ginger ale, a different type of ginger ale – anything, I was going to buy it. A bottle with such cool, classic styling just doesn’t come along every day. Owning a bottle like this is like getting an honorary degree in Cool from Rad University. Basically, I would recommend you buy this product on strength of the bottle alone.

The fact that a tasty beverage can be found in the bottle is really just icing on the cake for me. I say “can be” found, because you opinions on this brew are based entirely on your fondness for ginger. I really like ginger. I always put extra ginger on my plate at sushi restaurants, I sometimes buy crystallized ginger to snack on, and when offered a choice between a ginger snap and a thin mint I’ll take the ginger snap every time.

In other words, when Trader Joe’s set out to make a super gingery brew, I was basically the target demographic. On the other hand, if you hate ginger and the thought of it makes you gag, you might want to consider not buying this product all that often.

For ginger fans, there’s a lot to love about this drink. What’s particularly nice, is that they upped the ginger flavor, not the sugar, so unlike some other ginger ales on the market, it’s quite mild. This really lets the ginger come to the fore or, more accurately, the rear. A gulp of triple ginger brew rolls quite easily across the tongue, only to light up the back of the throat and tongue with that warm, tingling, searing feeling.

In terms of potency, the brew is almost as strong as Reed’s very potent Jamaican-style Extra Ginger Brew, although it should be noted that Trader Joe’s bottles theirs in 750ml bottles which, at the price of only $2.99, makes it the clear winner – no matter how strong you like your ginger ale. In my opinion, the bottle alone is worth at least that much.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes, if for the bottle alone.

Would I Buy It Again: I might step out for some right now.

Final Synopsis: Super strong ginger ale in a super cool bottle.

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Caramallows

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Caramallows

Ohhh yeahhhh.

Brother, cousin, or just close friend of the family to the chocolate covered marshmallows that I reviewed on an ill-fated day previous, Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Caramallows are as delicious a confection of a word as they are a delicious confection.

If you’re still with me after that bit of tortured grammar, than you must be wondering what Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Marshmallows did wrong that Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Caramallows did right.

Well, for starters, they put caramel in it. A bunch of caramel. When you bite into one of these it’s pretty much half caramel half marshmallow. Mankind has wrought many a sweet treat but, with the possible exception of cookie butter, we have never made anything so tasty that a little caramel doesn’t improve it.

Second, obviously, is the wonderful product name, so whimsical that it makes me chuckle with mirth whenever my twinkling eye lights upon it.

And that’s all well and good, but as my most fervent, dedicated and imaginary readers have no doubt already noticed, neither of these two points refutes my argument against TJ’s regular old chocolate covered marshmallows – that they’re essentially just repackaged Easter candy. And, honestly, that criticism still stands, the only difference is that this is repackaged Easter Candy done right.

The thing that I really enjoyed about these guys, beside the tooth nuking sweetness of the caramel and marshmallow cream, is the bitter kick of the dark chocolate shell.

The cynic in me wants to chock up this sophisticated touch to the craze of putting dark chocolate on everything that you’re already putting milk chocolate on. Whether or not that’s the case, the bitter undertones of the dark chocolate act as a really wonderful counterpoint to the intensely sweet caramel and marshmallow. Of course, the other marshmallows had dark chocolate on them as well but the extra spongy texture of their marshmallow core made them practically bounce off your tongue. Where those were springy and chewy, the caramallows are ooey and gooey – they really just want to glue themselves to the top of your mouth and melt. That’s when the dark chocolate comes in, blunting the sugary edge of changing the character of the candy from empty calories to confection.

And that, ultimately, is where my preference falls. As death tugs the hem of my bath robe inexorably closer to the grave, I’ve noticed that I can’t just wolf down the sweets like I used to. When I do make room for them on the budget, I like them to be something special. There are a million ways to spin sugar into carbo lumps, and most of them aren’t worth wasting the chocolate on. Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Caramallows might be just as cheap, but they’re actually meaningful to eat.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: If you aren’t diabetic yet, pick up a box before the season ends.

Would I Buy Them Again: Yes, my girlish figure be damned.

Final Synopsis: A dark chocolate covered marshmallow that’s worth picking up.

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Caramallows - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Caramallows – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate Inspired by European Tradition


Trader Joe's Sipping Chocolate

Europe’s a big place, but apparently this hot chocolate mix was inspired by all of it.

Ah yes, ’tis the season for fancy, dressed up gifts in supermarkets, and Trader Joe’s is positively rising to the occasion. Among their roasted nut oils and artisan mustard sets you might just find the twee, decorative tin of Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate – Inspired By European Tradition.

Trader Joe’s is going all out to appear fancy with this one, to the point of actually putting “European” in the title, but what they really mean by “sipping chocolate” is powdered hot chocolate mix. Pretensions, however, may be excused in this case. Trader Joe’s really does provide a richer, more chocolaty hot chocolate that puts generic hot chocolate mixes to shame.

Hot chocolate has come a long way since the ancient Mayans first ground cocoa beans into paste and mixed it with cold water, cornmeal and chili peppers. In fact, the history of drinking chocolate stretches so far back that it precedes the notion of the chocolate bar by 1,400 years or so. In fact, for centuries the word “chocolate” simply meant hot chocolate. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that enterprising food scientists figured out a different way to get the chocolate out of the cocoa bean other than smashing it up and mixing it with water. In the intervening 1.5 millenniums hot chocolate, not unlike hard cider, rained supreme.

It wasn’t until the concept of hot chocolate sauntered its way into Western Europe in the 17th century that people finally struck on the notion of adding sugar to the previously bitter and unpalatable hot chocolate mix. This ushered in the age of foppish aristocrats sitting around, sipping rich hot chocolate in “chocolate houses” from dainty cups. It is to this “European tradition” that Trader Joe’s sipping chocolate appeals.

It might just be a powered cocoa mix, but this sipping chocolate is so rich and intense that you’re only supposed to make up a 1/3 cup of it at a time. Trader Joe’s alleges that you’ll experience a “velvety richness”, and actually manage to deliver on the promise.

Follow the instructions on the tin (1/3 cup milk and 3 tablespoons chocolate mix) and you’ll find yourself with a sweet cup of hot chocolate that absolutely blows Swiss Miss away. This is a hot chocolate with body – you really will want to limit yourself to tiny sips as the thick, deep chocolate flavor (not to mention the concentrated sweetness) washes over you.

For those who are not necessarily into daintily sipping hot chocolate from wee cups, TJ’s also includes the recipe for a more dilute version (2/3 cup milk or water). This makes for a good hot chocolate as well – certainly better than any given cup of Nesquick or Swiss Miss – just without the velvety richness.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a sumptuous hot chocolate.

Would I Buy It Again: Sure, I enjoy a good cup of hot chocolate.

Final Synopsis: Hot chocolate on steroids.

Trader Joe's Sipping Chocolate - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Marshmallows & Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Minty Mallows

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Marshmallows

Both types! Though the box on the left is obviously cooler.

Brace yourselves readers, for a rare double post – reviewing both Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Marshmallows and Dark Chocolate Minty Marshmallows. And baby, how could I pass up these sweet little snacks – the holiday marshmallow display at Trader Joe’s this week looked so good that there was no way I couldn’t pick up both types. Unfortunately, that was as good as things got.

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Marshmallows are exactly what they sounds like – big blobs of marshmallow “enrobed” (as they like to say) in a dark chocolate shell. The sizes between these two types vary dramatically for some reason. The regular marshmallows are hemispheres about the size of a half dollar, while the mint flavored ones are rectangular and about 50% larger.

Both sound pretty much exactly like what you think you’re going to get, and that was something of a let down. It was the newness and novelty of these items that drew me to them – chocolate covered marshmallows weren’t something I’d ever seen in a grocery store before, let alone Christmas themed ones. I was absolutely ready to get blitzed by some brand new, delicious holiday treat. I mean, for all I knew these could be the next toffee popcorn or peppermint bark.

When you first bite into one of these, however, you quickly discover that there’s no secret holiday magic here. The chocolate shell is brittle and thin, and sticks to the under laying marshmallow as you chew it. Over all, the taste was strangely familiar for something I’d never had before. The chocolate, despite being “dark”, is still quite sweet and, to be honest, slightly cheap tasting. The same can be said of the marshmallow filling – sweet and a little cheap tasting.

Then, suddenly, I remembered why it was all so familiar – I have had these before, for Halloween and Easter. Chocolate covered marshmallows snacks might be a new thing for Christmas, but they’re hardly new to the holiday scene. I’ve you’ve ever had a Cadbury marshmallow egg, you know pretty much what Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Marshmallows taste like. You also know what’s it’s like to eat one – which is to say, a mouthful. These are marshmallows that are going to keep you chewing for a minute or two as you masticate the mallow core and melt down the many little chocolate shards.

While I wanted to like these, I found myself facing the fairly tricky question of what to do with them. Eating them straight out of the box is a less than satisfying experience. They taste good, in the same way a Cadbury Marshmallow Egg tastes good, but it’s also not a taste you’re going to be hankering for bite after bite.

The big idea printed on the side of each box, and I grant that it’s a good one, is to add these guys to hot chocolate. In theory this is brilliant – marshmallows in hot chocolate are great, so dark chocolate covered marshmallows must be even better, right? Unfortunately, that’s not really what I found. The marshmallow, once dissolved in the hot chocolate, is just as good as any other marshmallow I’ve had. The problem is that the chocolate coating slows down the whole marshmallow melting process. I placed one regular dark chocolate marshmallow in a nice hot cup of hot chocolate, and by the time it was half dissolved the hot chocolate had cooled to tepid. There’s a good reason someone invented those tiny little marshmallow to go in your hot chocolate – waiting for a big marshmallow to dissolve is tedious, covering a big marshmallow with a protective shell only slows things down further.

Of the two, I think the minty mallows were the ones I preferred, simply because they performed an actual function. The mint in these is strong and fresh, and they perform admirably as after dinner mints. On the other hand, unlike after dinner mints they’re a big mouthful to chew on, which isn’t exactly what you’re looking for after you’ve just stuffed yourself on potatoes au grautin. Outside of that function, and despite their holiday whimsy, neither of these marshmallows really gave me a reason to care about them.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: There’s just not much to recommend here.

Would I Buy Them Again: I think I’ll just buy those little marshmallows instead next time.

Final Synopsis: Christmas should leave the chocolate covered marshmallows to Easter.

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Minty Mallows - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Minty Mallows – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Marshmallows - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Marshmallows – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Croissants

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Croissants

My simple breakfast of pumpkin croissants, turkey bacon, Greek yogurt, and left over Arby’s.

I know that pumpkin season is technically over now, so writing about Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Croissants may not make much sense, but in a certain sense isn’t it true that pumpkin season never ends? And, in another, even more accurate sense, isn’t true that I forgot I had these croissants in my freezer and ran out of other things to make for breakfast? Yes, yes it is – and lucky for you, because these croissants kick ass.

This is my first foray into Trader Joe’s world of croissants, a magical region that contains chocolate, almond, and mini varieties. I’m terribly sorry that I’ve missed out on them for this long. The croissants bake up easy into light, crispy, buttery crunchy breakfast pastries that trounce the bakery output of your local supermarket. The pumpkin croissants are thus named for two reasons – one they come sprinkled with a handful of hearty pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, and two, they are filled with a sweet and rich pumpkin custard. The custard is a wonderful accompaniment to the flaky croissant, very similar in taste and sweetness to pumpkin butter, but with a creamier texture. Yes, essentially it is just a fancier type of jelly donut, but when you’re picking one up, warm, and golden brown off the baking tray, you’ll be happy you bought them.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say the reason I bought these was because of the use of the word “proof” in the title. “Just proof over night and bake”, you’re informed. Having never heard of “proofing” dough before, I immediately threw these in my cart. Any excuse to learn!

As no doubt many of you know, “proofing” (or “proving”) is is the specific term for allowing dough to rise after it’s been shaped but before it’s been baked. Why do we do it? I don’t know, dough is just a mysterious thing. In fact, dough is often left to sit and rise several times prior to baking. As you’ll see when you leave these little cuties out to proof, they’ll expand in size to almost double. What we’re seeing is fermentation, specifically the yeast in the dough is converting sugar (glucose) into carbon dioxide gas and carbohydrates – it’s literally inflating from the inside. What’s more, and this was shocking for me to discover, the yeast is actually fermenting the sugars in the dough into trace amounts of alcohol, and it’s this alcohol that, when baked, is responsible for the rich flavor of bread. I’d always thought that beer tastes kind of like bread – it turns out that it’s actually bread that tastes like beer.

In any case, these croissants bake up delicious and flaky – the only issue is that you’ve got to plan for them. The proofing process takes between 6 and 7 hours, followed by 20 or so minutes in the oven. That’s a considerable time expenditure for just 4 croissants, but in my humble opinion it was well worth it.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Yes, these are some excellent croissants.

Would I Buy Them Again: Next pumpkin season, I’ll be all over them.

Final Synopsis: Tasty, flaky croissants for breakfast, just make sure you leave them out the night before.

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Croissants - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Croissants – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Meatless Breakfast Patties

Trader Joe’s Meatless Breakfast Patties are not sausages, but they’re not bad. I’ve reviewed Trader Joe’s vegetarian cuisine before, but I find it always puts me in a tricky position seeing as how I’m an unapologetic meat eater. Not only am I content to sit by while the lambs are, literally, led to the slaughter, but I’ll grill their corpses and eat them afterwards. This means that I’m not the target audience for things with names like “meatless breakfast patties”. Nevertheless, Trader Joe’s vegetarian output intrigues me – on both intellectual and gustatorial levels. Intellectually, I’m intrigued by the idea of vegetarians who want their food to look like meat, smell like meat and taste like meat, but find eating actual meat repugnant. Such internal conflict! Gustatorially, I’m curious about how close they can actually get these plant-based simulacra to the real deal.

The taste is close enough to real sausage that you might be fooled if you had to get up early enough. The smokiness and savoriness of roasted pig is somehow magicked into the wheat/soy patty via a variety of artificial flavorings. It’s not an exact match, but it’s close enough that even an inveterate meat eater like myself found it a reasonably pleasant breakfast substitute – closer to enjoyable than to tolerable. The flavor is helped in a big way by the very meaty smell, which is probably the closest match to an actual sausage product. Close your eyes as you cook these up on the skillet and you can loose yourself in the illusion of real pork.

The texture is where things break down, literally. While the taste is admirably close, nothing of the chewiness of real meat is present in the patties. The patties are surprisingly fragile, with a tendency to break in two or crumble while cooking. The skillet approach is particularly prone to disaster. As soon as the patties thaw they need to be flipped with great delicacy – too much handling and they’ll bust up into crumbs.

The microwave proved to be better for the integrity of the patties, but even then – once the cooked patties are removed you’ll notice that they have a tendency to break up under the fork. It’s this fragility that really breaks up the illusion that you’re eating meat. Under the pressure of tooth and tongue the meatless patty gives way immediately without any of the chewiness or resistance of actual meat.

This simply means that, as a meat eater, I have no reason to buy this product. As a hypothetical vegetarian, on the other hand, this is a surprisingly good bit of simulacra. While a more robust texture would be nice, I’m happy to trade chewiness for some pretty realistic flavor. Not unlike using turkey bacon in place of regular bacon, it isn’t exactly the real thing, but it’s close enough to get the job done.

The nutritional profile warrants a quick look as well. While not health food by any means, the meatless breakfast patties have it over on their meaty kin in a big way. 56% of the patties calories come from fat, which sounds like a lot, but is a world of difference from the ~90% fat you’d expect from a good ol’ Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage. Consider as well that each meatless patty only offers a meager 80 calories per patty and 56% fat isn’t all that terrifying. The bigger problem is eating enough of these to make it to lunch.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend These: Yes to vegetarians, no to meat eaters.

Would I Buy Them Again: Not unless my girlfriend joins PETA.

Final Synopsis: Good, for fake sausage.

Trader Joe's Meatless Breakfast Patties - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Meatless Breakfast Patties – Nutrition Facts