Rarely, as in very rarely, as in once a year or so, I review something available at Trader Joe’s but not made by them. Last year about this time we looked at the shocking Dutch ChocoVine, a blend of red wine and European chocolate. This year we look at something equally seasonal, and equally European – Edel-Marzinpanstollen. A soft, heavy, sweet loaf of bread filled with dried fruits, marzipan, citrus, loads of spices, and dusted with sugar. The result is something like a fluffier fruitcake.
As you might guess from the long, unwieldy name, Edel-Marzipanstollen is German in origin. And, moreover, it’s as seasonal as seasonal can get. What do I mean by that? Well, put it this way – not only is it a traditional Hanukkah treat and a traditional Christmas treat, but also the Pope himself issued an edict to save them from being outlawed (by an earlier Pope). Now that’s a holiday tradition.
Let’s start at the beginning – distant medieval Germany, AKA the Fun Zone. Back in middle of the dark ages, in the Saxony region of north-eastern Germany, people decided what the hell, let’s start baking a bread-like fruit cake and fill it with all the sweet tasting goodies we can get our hands on. This came to mean including candied orange and lemon peel, raisins, almonds, cardamom, cinnamon and, depending on taste, marzipan – as in the version we’re trying today.
The resulting product, called stollen in it’s most generic form, was originally of Jewish origin, and was eaten throughout the Hanukkah season. The neighboring gentiles, recognizing a good idea when they saw one, adopted it for their own Christmas celebrations sometime there after. However, despite its popularity among Christian laity, the Pope was having none of it. Tasty Christmas breads we’re one casualty of medieval Advent traditions – namely the tradition of fasting, which forbade (among other things) using butter in baking. A stollen isn’t really a stollen if it isn’t absolutely slathered with butter to ensure tasty, moist bread and a long shelf life. Forced to use oil as a surrogate, the resulting stollens were much less palatable – harder, crustier, and bland. The Saxons did not take the loss of the stollen sitting down.
You might have a Christmas tradition you hold dear – you might be prepared to fight for it, but are you prepared to fight five Popes to the death for it? The Saxons were. Starting in the mid-1400’s, two Saxon nobles began sending letters to Pope Nicholas V campaigning for a special dispensation for their bakers to use real butter over Christmas. These letters were summarily ignored until Nicholas’ death – when his successor Callixtus III took over. Callixtus, a very different sort of Pope, nevertheless continued to refuse the request until he died. The post then fell to Pius II, who wanted nothing to do with the butter request and shot it down again. This pattern continued until 1490 when Pope Innocent VIII finally gave in – allowing butter to be used once more. The stollen was saved.
Knowing all this, you might feel more inclined to pick up this sweet bread – but the big question remains – how does it actually taste? Well, as I suggested way back up at the top of the page, Edel-Marzipanstollen is a lot like fruitcake, only better. I’m aware that’s not saying a lot, given the low regard fruitcake is held in, but the comparison stands.
Many of the same ingredients you find in your standard, sticky heavy fruitcake are found here too. The biggest difference is that instead of being crammed into the densest possible wad, they’re given room to breathe in a fluffy, moist, cake-like bread. This bread isn’t sweetened directly – all of the sweetness comes from the sugary fruits and nuts, and the dusting of confectioners sugar on top. This lighter texture makes it much friendlier and more snackable when compared to fruitcake. Nevertheless, the taste is still very similar. If you’ve had one slice of bread filled with candied produce, you know what to expect here. The biggest difference is in the large pieces of marzipan placed throughout. Soft, sweet, and about the size of walnuts, they insert some welcome variety into the otherwise predictable fruit bread.
Overall, despite the unusual name, there isn’t anything in this stollen that you haven’t seen before. If you have a tradition of buying holiday fruit breads, this is a good one, pleasantly heavy and soft, with plenty of candied sweetness. However, if you can get along well enough without fruitcakes or their kin, there’s nothing here that is going to make you change your mind.
Still, it’s only $3.50 for a fine, big loaf – and that’s not a bad price for a piece of ancient holiday history. If the spirit of the season happens to overtake you one fine day as you browse the aisles, why not pick it up and see what all the fuss was about?
Would I Recommend It: Not really, unless you have a particular fondness for holiday fruit breads or feel buoyed up by holiday cheer.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not, I’ve had it once – my curiosity is satisfied.
Final Synopsis: A fluffier, moister variety of fruit cake with a rich history.
Hmmm. Well, this is probably proof that the top brass at Trader Joe’s are devoted followers of this blog. No sooner do I suggest that TJ come up with a few more variations on their new Toasted Coconut Pancale Mix then does this appear on the shelf – Trader Joe’s Gingerbread Pancake Mix. It’s arrived just in time for the holiday festivities, so let’s dive in!
In my Toasted Coconut Pancake Mix review, I pointed out that while the coconut bits are pretty good, the real winner was the incredibly easy to make pancake mix itself. Trader Joe’s has brought to market a totally self-contained pancake kit that incorporates powdered eggs and powdered milk into the mix itself. All you need to supply is the water – either a little to end up with big puffy flapjacks, or a lot to end up with thin, dense crepes. This time around TJ’s ditched the coconut, and whipped up something much more in tune with the time of year – a gingerbread infused mix with crystallized ginger bits tossed right in.
While this sounds like it should be a grand slam, the pancake mix suffers from the unique problem of not being gingery enough, and being too gingery at the same time.
There are really two types of ginger in this pancake mix. The first is the ginger present in the gingerbread-like pancake batter itself. This is ginger doing the classic gingerbread thing, providing a pleasant aromatic lift to the rest of the dough and contributing just a hint of ginger taste. I was actually a little disappointed by how mild the ginger taste was in the pancake batter. Given the premise of “gingerbread pancakes”, I had assumed we’d be getting something akin to gingerbread cookies, just in a fluffier form. That’s not actually the case – this pancake mix is more gingerbread-inspired then gingerbread-infused. It tastes somewhat of gingerbread, but not so much that you would mistake it for a cookie in a blind taste test. While that’s a little disappointing to me personally, it’s by no means a deal breaker. The molasses, brown sugar and powdered ginger that do go in give it at least a hint of that warm and lovely taste of gingerbread, while retaining the supple mildness of the good ol’ fashioned pancake.
However, there is another issue. Possibly in order to compensate for the only mildly gingery batter, Trader Joe’s mixes in a heaping scoop of crystallized ginger bits. Not unlike it’s cousin Trader Joe’s Crispy Coconut Pancakes, the ginger bits are numerous, and wind up in each bite. The problem is that bits of crystallized ginger just don’t taste that great in pancakes. There are a couple issues with it – the abrupt combination of textures, the fact that the heavy bits are prone to burn on the griddle – but the biggest issue is that ginger isn’t really an easy spice to use.
Although it’s commonly found in sweets in the form of gingerbread cookies, ginger is
actually better suited for savory dishes, as in Indian and Thai cuisine – not sweet ones. Gingerbread only really works because the ginger is spread out through a good deal of sugar and thick batter. The crystallized ginger lumps in this pancake mix don’t taste like gingerbread at all – they just take like intense bits of ginger. These little gingery bursts don’t go particularly well with maple syrup and butter – instead they sort of throw the flavor off by hitting you with an abrupt, strong, clashing taste. And I say this as a crystallized ginger fan! For years I kept a little box of crystalized ginger in my desk drawer to snack on for a little mid-afternoon pick-me-up. I only stopped when it became clear that fusing my molars together with sugar-caked, sweet glue was not beneficial to healthy tooth enamel.
In the end, what you’re left with is a pretty tasty gingerbread(ish) pancake mix, with a bunch of intense ginger mixed in. The result is something that tastes less like a holiday treat and more like something from an Asian Fusion brunch special. It’s not terrible – but it is very striking. While it’s certainly interesting to try, if you’re looking for something to delight the kids with on Xmas morning this may not be the way to go.
Trader Joe, if you are taking suggestions from me now, keep the pancake mix but don’t stop trying out new flavors.
Would I Recommend It: Not really. Ginger pancakes are interesting, but not incredible.
Would I Buy It Again: I’ll probably go back to the toasted coconut pancakes.
Final Synopsis: Nice gingerbready pancakes loaded up with too much ginger.
Well, pumpkin season is winding down – but what a long, crazy ride Trader Joe’s has given us this year. You never can guess what perfectly fine product TJ will suddenly feel compelled to put pumpkin in, but it will always be surprising. Case in point, Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cranberry Scones. Cranberry scones? Sure, no one’s going to bat an eye at that. So why go the extra step and put pumpkin in it then? That’s a question that only Trader Joe himself can answer, but the strong money is on some sort of highly localized brain aneurysm.
The issue with scones in general is just that they’re not very good. “But that’s not true!”, people (British people) may say – “I enjoy a good scone from time to time.”
Do you? Or do you enjoy clotted cream and jam? In the same way that tortilla chips are mainly just a delivery system for delicious dips, the value of a scone is in it’s ability to convey sweet and fatty condiments from the jar to your mouth.
The scone is, I think we can admit, no one’s first choice of pastry. Combining a not-actually-sweet blandness with a touch of salt, then serving it in irregular, dense patties might show a certain ingenuity of baking but it isn’t likely to eclipse the croissant – or even the English muffin – anytime soon.
And yet… and yet… I find myself enjoying these scones. Unlike most scones I’ve had in my life, they’re not too dense to enjoy. They actually have an almost biscuit like fluffiness to them, especially straight from the oven. And while these scones still aren’t sweet, they do feature enough moments of sweetness to make them enjoyable to munch on, even without copious amounts of heavy cream. These moments of sweetness are thanks, primarily, to the scattering of dried cranberries that speckle the batter – generous enough to dress up every bite, but not so many that they undermine the sconeiness of the scone.
Presumably the pumpkin that was included in this dish was put there for the same reason, however despite top billing in the product title, it doesn’t make much of an appearance. In fact, the pumpkin levels in these scones are sub Pumpkin Cornbread, as the scones don’t even smell that strongly of pumpkin or pumpkin spices even straight from the oven. I guess that undermines the whole point of putting pumpkins in them in the first place – but I really can’t get too mad over that. Whatever Trader Joe’s is doing with scones is working, and if that means they feel compelled to put low levels of pumpkin in them I’m willing to sign off on it.
Cooking the scones is one thing – but eating them is another. Even if these scones are edible on their own, even if technically you don’t have to slather them with jams and marmalades and butter and curds, you might as well anyway. These are scones after all – that’s most of the fun.
If you want to shake up the scone scene a little bit, you can try a few of the scone related recipes TJ recommends. These include hitting them with cream cheese, or slicing them in half and popping in a scoop of ice cream. In both cases you could use Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cream Cheese, or Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Ice Cream to really up the pumpkin ante. Other suggestions that worked well for me were Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter (which really stood out as delicious), Trader Joe’s new Cranberry Apple Butter, and even Trader Joe’s decadent Pumpkin Caramel Sauce.
Really, with the biscuit like fluffiness and mild sweetness of these scones, you can’t go that far wrong.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, these were some fine scones.
Would I Buy Them Again: Still not a big scone fan, but I’d consider it.
Final Synopsis: Semi-sweet, not-too-dense scones with plenty of character but not much pumpkin.
With Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread Croutons we have another strange and daring pumpkin offering. As a salad lover I was quick to pick these up. As any true salad connoisseur knows, the combination of textures in a salad is almost as important as the combination of tastes. The simple addition of a crispy little crunch, whether it be croutons, baco-bits, or a handful of seeds, can elevate a salad from merely good to truly excellent. As such, I’m always on the lookout for a tasty new texture to touch up my tossed salads, and I was both pleased and surprised to see that Trader Joe’s ongoing season of induced Pumpkin Psychosis extended even so far as the world of croutons. What surprised me ever more, however, was that despite having never so much as dreamed of such an outrageous idea as Pumpkin Croutons in all my life, I had actually already made them a week earlier. That said, I did only make them by accident.
Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread Croutons are – in fact – made from the very same stuff as Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread. I rather enjoyed the cornbread, which I thought quite seasonal and tasty even if it wasn’t particularly pumpkin-y, however despite enjoying it, I didn’t enjoy it quite to the tune of an entire bread pan worth. As a result of my obdurate bachelor tendencies, the remnants of the cornbread were left out on top of the stove for two or three days. The result, I came to discover, was an accidental pan of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread Croutons or, more precisely, just one gigantic crouton.
Given the shared origin, you might expect the two to share many attributes and that is, in fact, the case. The pumpkin cornbread croutons taste a lot like the pumpkin cornbread – both are strongly redolent of pumpkin, sweetened by sugar, and spiced with traditional pumpkin pie spices. Surprisingly, in fact, the croutons are even sweeter than the cornbread. Trader Joe’s promises that each crouton is like having a bite of pumpkin pie, and while it’s not that sweet it’s not too far off either. This is a fact that makes these croutons unlike any I’ve had before. Most croutons are salty and savory, dusted with garlic, rosemary, cheese, etc. These croutons go in a very different direction, not just with the sweetness, but with the strong pumpkin flavor as well.
In fact, the sweetness opens these croutons up to a variety of uses normally limited only to bread crumbs. Perhaps most brilliantly, Trader Joe’s suggests using them as stuffing for your turkey. While this is probably one of the better ideas anyone has ever had, Trader Joe’s also recommends using these naturally sweet breadcrumbs for bread pudding, or even dipping them directly into pumpkin butter. I haven’t tried any of these myself yet, and while they sound somewhat dubious, the sweet, pumpkiny taste might actually make it work out.
These are the sorts of taste combinations that don’t seem like they should work at all. At least in the case of the salad Trader Joe’s actually pulls it off. The croutons are the same ones TJ uses in the very delicious Harvest Blend Salad, where they work perfectly. While there certainly are salads and salad dressings these croutons would clash with, they actually pair quite nicely with a wide variety of salad mixes – from ceasar salads, to BBQ chicken salads, to just a simple garden salad using a nice vinaigrette.
Would I Recommend These: Yes, they’re surprisingly tasty.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes, if just to try out the turkey stuffing idea.
Final Synopsis: Sweet and savory croutons with a variety of uses.
Trader Joe’s will put pumpkin in anything. Some of these things are expected – such as their pumpkin soup, some of these things are unexpected such as their pumpkin croissants. Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Rolls with Pumpkin Spiced Icing are definitely an example of the later. Has anyone ever looked at a cinnamon bun and thought “Somebody should really take the cinnamon out of this and replace it with pumpkin. And pumpkin flavored icing.” No, of course not, but Trader Joe’s did it. They did it, and it’s actually pretty good.
Trader Joe’s took the same dough they already use in their cinnamon rolls, but have had the cinnamon goo that fills the roll’s folds replaced by a puree of pumpkin and pumpkin pie spices (e.g. nutmeg, cinnamon and clove). Trader Joe’s Cinnamon Roll dough is some of the best you can find on a grocery store shelf, so the result is a delicious pastry roll that cooks up beautifully golden brown, with a soft, warm and chewy center. The pumpkin puree that replaces the cinnamon mash is of the same consistency, giving the dough that ooey-gooey stickiness that is essential for a truly satisfying sticky bun.
While the buns feel every bit as good as a cinnamon roll, they don’t quite taste as good. Don’t get me wrong – the pumpkin bun is delectable and every bit as soft and sweet as a cinnamon bun, but cinnamon buns are damn near perfect. As good as the pumpkin rolls were, the sticky, bubbling hot spiciness of true cinnamon buns are better, just by dint of being a cinnamon bun. That’s not to say the pumpkin rolls don’t taste good in their own right – they certainly do. The pumpkin rolls are sugary sweet and delicious, and bring in the taste of pumpkin and spice without being too overwhelming. It’s a little like the rolls are glazed with pumpkin pie filling instead of cinnamon and sugar – and while that’s good, it’s not better than the cinnamon and sugar.
The exact same can be said of the pumpkin spice infused frosting. It’s delicious, sugary, thick and sticky – just like good frosting should be. There’s more than enough to ice each bun, and matches just right with the pipping hot rolls – but it would have been even better if it had been a classic cream-cheese frosting.
Once again, we’re faced with the notion of why to buy this at all. Simply because it’s novel is the only compelling argument I have. Pumpkin season comes but once a year, and it’s fun to pick up a few pumpkin rolls to ring in the autumn. If you feel that little nagging call to celebrate the Harvest through moderately varied food stuffs, then by all means pick up Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Rolls with Pumpkin Spiced Icing – they’re delicious and you’ll enjoy every bite. If, however, the idea of pumpkin rolls for pumpkin roll’s sake doesn’t do it for you, rest easy knowing that you’re not really missing out. Their difference is valuable, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever prefer them to the real deal.
The only thing to be aware of is that, as in Trader Joe’s Cinnamon Rolls, the Pumpkin Rolls only come five to a pack. Odd numbers are terribly inconvenient when it comes to cooking for any size table, and prime numbers are all the more so. Unless you’re making breakfast for exactly 5 diners, or cooking for very lopsided appetites, you’ll want to pick up 2 cans to make sure things divide evenly. If I thought highly enough of Trader Joe’s marketing department, I’d almost accuse them of doing that on purpose – the crafty bastards.
Would I Recommend Them: Sure – they’re quite tasty, in their own way.
Would I Buy Them Again: Nope, I’ll go back to cinnamon rolls.
Final Synopsis: Almost as delicious as cinnamon rolls.
Well folks – Trader Joe’s annual corn madness is upon us once again. The pumpkin hoppers have been serviced, the pumpkin chutes re-greased, and the pumpkin crazed madmen in the R&D department are off to a flying start with Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread.
What possessed Trader Joe’s to add dehydrated, powdered pumpkin to cornbread I can’t say, whatever it was, it’s the same mechanism that drove TJ to put pumpkin in waffles and croissants. In all these products the addition of pumpkin seems completely superfluous – an unnecessary ingredient shoehorned into an food that was already perfectly fine. The pumpkin will not be denied. It’s almost sinister, in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers kind of way. You turn around and what you thought was cornbread is now pumpkin cornbread. You go to the fridge only to find your cream cheese is now pumpkin cream cheese and your yogurt has been replaced with pumpkin yogurt. You go to the Trader Joe’s to complain, but everywhere you look there’s more pumpkin products, insinuated into every aspect of your daily life, each box being dutifully stocked on the shelves by smiling Trader Joe’s employees.
At any rate, they did go and put pumpkin in cornbread, so I went ahead and ate it. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, even on a basic level. Notions as to what “cornbread” means varies wildly from state to state. In the South, where cornbread got its start, it’s made with practically no sugar and little or no flour. Up North, in Yankee lands, it’s a much sweeter dish, made with plenty of sugar and wheat flour besides making it more airy and cake-like. Meanwhile, out in the great Southwest it’s commonly made with creamed corn, jalapenos, and even topped with melted cheese.
Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread uses a Northern cornbread recipe, going heavy on the wheat and sugar, and fairly light on the corn meal and pumpkin. In fact, flour and sugar are the first two ingredients on the box, only then followed by corn meal and finally pumpkin. The result is a light, cakey cornbread, that cooks up in 30 minutes or so.
Fresh out of the bag, the cornbread mix smells delightfully redolent, as a heady mixture of spices wafts up to the nose. Pumpkin can be detected in here, sure, but cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves even more so – all the classic spices you find in pumpkin pie filling. The finished cornbread cooks up to a rich, golden brown – darker than ordinary cornbread. Following the directions exactly results in a dry, crumbly cornbread that’s ready and willing to soak up some butter. If you like a moister cornbread, you’ll want to consider adding a touch more oil and milk.
Shockingly, despite the pumpkin pie smell that comes off the cornbread, there’s almost no taste of pumpkin in the bread at all. In fact, it almost tastes exactly like regular cornbread, except spiced with a gentle amount of the above mentioned pumpkin pie spices. This isn’t a heavy spice cake, but a light touch that imbues an otherwise traditional cornbread recipe with an intriguing taste of autumn flavor.
Personally, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more of a pumpkin presence in the bread – why bother calling it pumpkin cornbread if you’re not really putting any pumpkin in it? That said, even without a strong pumpkin taste, the cornbread is quite tasty. The touch of spice adds an extra dimension to the bread, and really comes to the fore when loaded up with a good pat of butter.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a good fit for autumn dinners.
Would I Buy It Again: I’d probably buy this before I bought regular cornbread, to be honest.
Final Synopsis: More pumpkin pie spice cornbread than pumpkin cornbread.
I liked my last taste of East Asian non-traditional savory snack pancakes so much, that I went out this week and tried another one. This time we’re talking about Trader Joe’s Four Uttapam with Coconut Chutney – a South Indian flat bread that’s not only vegan and gluten free, but also down right tasty.
I’ll admit right out that I picked up Trader Joe’s uttapam because reading the package made the language part of my brain have a little spasm. As we’ve seen time and time again, if you put a crazy enough word on your package I basically can’t stop myself from buying your product.
In this case, it turns out that uttapam (U-thap-pam, apparently) are smallish, plain pancake/pizza-like flatbreads from the south of India. Each uttapam is about the size of a bagel (a bit smaller than the Pa Jeon) and topped with a healthy scattering of diced onion, green bell pepper and some subtle cilantro. The taste is a mild, but rich with both the flavor of the vegetables and a dusting of traditional Indian spices.
These veggies are all resting on the uttapam itself, a very specifically Indian sort of bread – both doughy, spongy, and slightly sour. I put bread in “quotes” here because the dough is made from a specific mixture of mashed, fermented rice and black lentils called urad dal, which are not things you typically imagine bread as being made out of. In fact, I’m fairly certain urad dal is one of the locations Frodo and Sam had to pass through on the way to Mordor.
You might think that a bread made from rice and beans would taste wildly different from a standard wheat-based flatbread, but shockingly that isn’t the case. The spongy, soft bread base tastes just as good, as any wheat based flat bread – only due to it’s rice and lentil origin it’s miraculously gluten free.
The bread poofs up nice and soft when cooked, like a soft pillow for the minced vegetables to rest on. You can eat them like this
directly, or get fancy with some toppings. Trader Joe’s includes a couple little packets of coconut chutney to throw on top, but I’d recommend throwing them out instead. The included chutney is rather weak and lackluster, and doesn’t do much for the subtle flavors already present in the bread. Instead, I’d recommend applying your imagination and topping them with whatever seems good – be that a better chutney you have laying around or some other food entirely. I threw some fried eggs on mine one morning and discovered that uttapam beat the hell out of English Muffins. At $3.69 for a pack of four, you can afford to get a little crazy with them.
Your box of four uttapam comes frozen, and Trader Joe’s offers two suggestions for cooking them – either microwave or stove top. This is no idle consideration, because each method yields a very different final result. Microwaved uttapam (net time required: < 1 min) stay soft and pliable and more pancake-y. Stove top, on the other hand, takes about 4 or 5 minutes per uttapam, but comes off the griddle toasty crisp. Having tried both, I’d recommend the stove top without hesitation – not just because the creators of the uttapam, the Tamils, have a culture of enjoying elaborate and leisurely cooking – but also because the time on the stove really brings out the redolent smells and flavors of the dish.
Really, I have to consider myself a lucky guy – just two weeks ago I couldn’t name you a single tasty, simple, vegetarian/vegan, super-snackable, savory mini-pancake, and now I know two. I’d recommend picking up the uttapam and pa jeon at the same time, and having yourself an Asian Pancake Frolic to go along with the waffle frolics you are enjoying already. At the very least, they could serve as a decent stand in for those still feeling the pain of loss of Arabian Joe’s Spicy Spinach Pizzas.
Would I Recommend It: Yup – it’s as tasty as it is worldly.
Would I Buy It Again: I most certainly would.
Final Synopsis: Tasty south Indian flatbread perfect for gluten-eaters and gluten-free alike.
Yes! Trader Joe’s! How awesome are you? I’ve never even heard of Kouign Amann before, and now I’m in love with them. As you may havenoticed, good reader, I’m a sucker for amazing sounding food names. Avacado’s Number was good, but Trader Joe’s 4 Kouigns Amann is an absolute knock out. What sounds like an ancient Mesopotamian ur-city is actually a delightful layered pastry from Brittany, which give us just so much to talk about today.
First up, what is it exactly and is it any good? What it is, is a dense, hefty square of flaky, moist and yummy pastry with no filling, but a sweet, delicious carmelized bottom. Yes, flying in the face of well-established tradition the world over, the Bretons stuck the sweet bit on the bottom. Simply outstanding work, in my opinion.
Is it any good? My god, yes. It’s good because it walks that wildly dangerous line between flaky crispiness and sweet sugariness and comes out just flaky enough and just sweet enough on the other side. It’s also terribly good because you bake them yourself, and very few things in life beat a warm, fresh-baked pastry straight out of the oven.
To my taste it most resembles a turnover without any filling. This analogy sells the kouign amann short however, because it’s not really like any other pastry I’ve ever had. Essentially, it’s bread dough with layers of butter and sugar folded in. The first difference, is that it doesn’t have as many folds as more common puff pastries, like croissants. As the kougin amann bakes, the folded in butter puffs up the pastry giving it lift and flakiness, but not airiness. At the same time, possibly due to advanced witchery, the sugar caramelizes within the pastry and across the bottom – forming a chewy caramel base.
I’ve tried a few of Trader Joe’s cook-at-home pastries, and I’ve enjoyed all of them. That said, this is my favorite to date with it’s elegant balance that is neither too sweet, or too dry. If there’s a downside, it’s the long prep time. Like other pastries, the kouigns amann need to be left to proof over night, and require a lengthy stay in the oven – at least 25 minutes for them to caramelize properly. This takes it out of the running for an every morning kind of breakfast food – but a wonderful addition to lazy weekends.
So who do we have to thank for this pastry? The French of course! Well, not really the French – but the Bretons! Every good country has a bit that doesn’t really like to be associated with the rest of the country. Canada has Quebec, America has Hawaii, Japan has Okinawa, Great Britain has all the bits that aren’t England, and France has Brittany. With a history that diverged from the rest of mainland France in pre-Roman times, and the hilarious nickname “Lesser Britain”, Brittany never really got on board with the whole “France” thing, and retains it’s own distinct culture and language. In fact, Breton (the language) is far more closely related to Welsh than it is to French – hence a French pastry with a very un-French sounding name of kouigns amann, which translates to “butter cake” in Breton.
In particular, kouign amann hails from a part of Brittany called Douarnenez, where it was first invented in the 1860’s by some unsung genius. Dournenez is also famous for being the home to the mythical Breton city of Ys, long since vanished beneath the waves but ready to rise again once, as the Bretons say, “Paris is swallowed”.
The moral? Kouigns amann are delicous, and might somehow lead to the destruction of Paris. Until that happens, I’d recommend eating up.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you have the time to cook them.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes – as soon as I can rationalize them back into my diet.
Final Synopsis: Tasty, dense and flaky pastries with caramelized bottoms.