Like a lake effect blizzard, the holiday season has descended on Trader Joe’s – only instead of snow, we find ourselves mired in drifts of seasonal holiday offerings. From artisanal mustard sets, to tea samplers to the return of Pink Himalyan Truffle Salt, the shelves are again overflowing with slightly over-priced, niche items in attractive packaging. Frankly, I love it. Trader Joe’s holiday gifts are the second most jolly time of the year for a Trader Joe’s food review blogger – second only, of course, to the annual Pumpkin Madness.
Our impulse buy today is Trader Joe’s Triple Tiered Chocolates. This is one of those ideas that’s so stupid it’s brilliant or, possibly, vice-versa. I’m not sure why I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else before, because the idea has been sitting in plain sight for decades. Simply put, TJ has taken slice of white chocolate, a slice of milk chocolate, and a slice of dark chocolate and stacked them all together into one chimeric, hybrid chocolate treat.
There are two things going on here with this new chocolate, and I’ll start with the most important one. This is unmistakably a gift item first, and a chocolate treat second. The difference is sometimes subtle, but basically comes down to the packaging. From the box design, to the font, to the presentation of the chocolates themselves, Trader Joe’s Triple Tiered Chocolates have been designed to look good first and taste good second.
Chocolate is a very safe niche in the holiday gift giving world, and this product fills it expertly. Just look at the box, for instance. Who packages seven chocolates in a box only 3 inches wide and 18 inches long? Someone who’s trying to make an impact with fancy packaging, that’s who. Hand this out to a co-worker / in-law / mail carrier and you’re going to get a little an “Aww” on the box alone . No question – it makes an impact.
But once we actually get the box open, how do the chocolates themselves stand up? Well, for one, they’re chocolate. As we’ve talked about before there’s not really any such thing as “bad” chocolate. Having any chocolate is a preferable existence to having no chocolate, and this is by no means a bad chocolate – although Trader Joe’s makes things tricky by combining the three different types together.
While there are certainly plenty of people who define themselves as “chocolate lovers”, these people generally break along the dark chocolate / milk chocolate line. Combine those two into one chocolate, and then add a layer of the always divisive white chocolate, and you have a confection that’s going to simultaneously delight and disappoint people.
You could bring up the argument here that Trader Joe’s probably didn’t need to bring in white chocolate at all. After all, white chocolate isn’t even technically a chocolate, but a sugar-and-fat-derived chocolate wannabe. Considering that a simple milk chocolate / dark chocolate blend would be sure to sell just as many boxes, if not more boxes, than one that also includes white chocolate, I makes you think that maybe the white chocolate is just there to be visually pleasing.
While I’m sure that’s true to some extent, the white chocolate here actually elevates Trader Joe’s Triple Tiered Chocolates to a strange new level. Never, before taking a bite of this stuff, have I stuck these three very different types of chocolate into my mouth at the same time. The result is something I wasn’t expecting – the flavors melt into one another in a complex interplay. The waxy, sugary taste of the white chocolate, normally cloying, is ameliorated by the flow of the sweet milk chocolate and bitter dark. The result is an intriguing storm of cocoa and sugar, teasing your taste buds this way and that. Certainly enjoyable to savor as it melts upon the tongue.
Unfortunately the chocolates are too big to pop into your mouth all at once. Instead, you have to bite through the three, firm, thick layers – a surprisingly difficult feat. Even after you manage it, the chocolate layers have a tendency to come apart under the pressure, leaving you a potential mess in your fingers.
All in all, I’m satisfied with the purchase. It makes an interesting gift, but also manages to stand on it’s own as an intriguing, if not overwhelming, chocolate confection.
Would I Recommend It: Sure, this could make a nice Christmas gift.
Would I Buy It Again: Not for myself, maybe for others.
Final Synopsis: A handful of novelty chocolates in fancy packaging.
I tend to avoid reviewing coffee drinks for the same reason I tend to avoid reviewing cheese and beer – I’m simply out of my depth when it comes to the breadth and depth of knowledge possessed by all the armchair experts out there. There was one guy who posted a comment about my Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate review that I’m still afraid to post because of its excoriating intensity and essay length. Nevertheless I’m going forward with this review of Trader Joe’s delicious Mocha Cappucino Mix because I figure powdered coffee drinks get a pass. I enjoy them, so I imagine that no self respecting coffee snob would be seen dead with a can of this stuff in his cupboard.
Allow me to start out strong by saying, coffee drinks have always confounded me. I understand that coffee means water filtered through coffee grounds. What perplexes me is how the countless, subtle changes in this proportion lead to a bewildering array of different names. Coffee americano, expresso, macchiato, cortado, cafe latte, cafe au lait, frappucino – the list, I’m sure, goes on. I’m aware that some of these have milk in them, and some don’t, but that’s about it.
Turning to the internet, I hoped to clear up this muzzy-headed understanding of what makes a cappuccino uniquely a cappuccino before today’s post. Sadly, I failed. The traditional definition of a cappuccino is an espresso, mixed with milk and topped with foamed milk, each in approximately equal proportions. On the other hand, a cafe latte also seems to be defined in the exact same way – the chief difference being that cafe lattes are served in larger cups that don’t have handles, whereas cappucinos are served in smaller cups with handles. In other words, the name of the drink changes depending one what kind of glass you serve it in – which is a daunting thought and one that I’m glad doesn’t apply to other categories of food. It’s possible that I’ve got this all wrong, so I’ll cite my source here – a slipshod wikipedia page.
In any case, Trader Joe’s Mocha Cappuccino has nothing to do with any of this. There is no expresso, hot milk or milk foam involved at any point. Instead, there is a tin of powdered coffee, powdered milk and powdered chocolate that you mix with hot water. The results, rather surprisingly. are very good.
I’ve been burnt by Trader Joe’s powdered milk and tea mixes in the past, burnt bad, so I wasn’t confident that their powdered milk and coffee mixes would be much better. Fortunately, I was wrong. It might be the chocolate that pulls it together, but a little this mix is quite good hot or cold. The balance between sweet, sugary chocolate (or mocha, as we may call it here) and bitter coffee is just right, giving you that Starbucks confectionery blast that may not make for a classical cappuccino, but sure is tasty. 20 grams of sugar per scoop makes this far from a health drink, but if you’re in the mood to buy a drink called Mocha Cappucino you’re probably ready to be a little decadent.
If there’s anything that bothers me about Trader Joe’ Mocha Cappuccino mix, it’s the powdered milk. While the drink certainly benefits from a touch of creaminess, it still leaves that lingering “I am not real milk” taste on the edge of your tongue. If TJ’s had just stuck to the coffee and mocha side, and let us add the cream ourselves, I’d have been happier. And even though the powdered milk still tastes like powdered milk, at least it’s natural powdered milk. Trader Joe’s is proud to boast that this mix doesn’t have any artificial flavors or preservatives in it, which is actually something of a rarity in the powdered coffee drink field.
And really, in the end, it’s not really a deal breaker – at only $3.99 for the whole tin there’s more than enough value in it to justify the purchase.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you want that Starbucks fix in the comfort of your home.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not, I’ll leave the coffee drinking to the coffee drinkers.
Final Synopsis: A powdered chocolate and cappuccino mix that tastes better than it sounds.
People are willing to put dark chocolate on just about anything. While I applaud the adventerous spirit, the problem is that dark chocolate is not so universal as people hope. Just because the word “chocolate” is in there doesn’t mean it’s a confection. The strong, bitter, almost astringent taste, of a high purity dark chocolate is an acquired taste and should be introduced into a dish only with forethought. Thus it was with trepidation that I picked up Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Edamame.
I like dark chocolate, or at least I want to like dark chocolate. I certainly like it enough on its own. The trouble is, it’s hard to find it done right. One place I seem to continually encounter it is on roasted coffee beans, which has always truck me as very strange. Obviously coffee is a good thing. Coffee keeps America running. I, for one, recently fell in love with Trader Joe’s Cold Brewed Coffee Concentrate. However coffee beans are not coffee. They are the cast off husk that we extract that essential nectar from – the thing that gets in the way between us and the coffee. Why then does it seems to anyone likea good idea to cover the whole beans and eat them? It’s not like we eat them in any other way – nobody is throwing a handful of roasted coffee beans on their salad, or mixing them into their pasta. We grind them up and make coffee out of them or, in extreme cases, add it to steak rubs. We don’t just munch them down whole.
I bring this up because Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame are essentially an improved form of the chocolate covered coffee bean. There’s a shell of dark chocolate around a crunchy, munchable core of dry roasted edamame. What’s surprising to me is that really these things are pretty good.
“Now wait a minute”, you’re probably thinking.”Aren’t edamame just soybeans?” Yes, that’s true – but don’t let the rather long history of soybean bashing turn you against me right from the start. It’s true that soy beans are mostly used to make salty and savory dishes – for example, as soy sauce, miso soup, and tofu. However, anyone who’s ever had a bowl of salted, fresh soybeans at a bar or as finger food, served still in the their little green pods, knows that they also have a very mild taste with an addicting crunchiness.
The truth is, you’ll barely taste the edamame beans in Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame at all. They could have just as well called these Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Crunchers. The flavor of the heavy, dark chocolate coating is so strong that you don’t get any taste from the dry roasted soybeans at all. All you get is texture – the crunchy body and satisfying grist of the light, sere bean. The added benefit is that this snack actually has a pretty good protein content. A 1/4 cup serving contains 7 grams of protein – 49 grams in the whole container.
The other thing that Trader Joe’s did right with their dark chocolate edamame is not actually using dark chocolate at all. Seriously. A
quick inspection of the ingredients reveals only a mention of “semi-sweet” chocolate. Semi-sweet is a far cry from dark chocolate, sometimes containing as little as 35% cocoa. Trader Joe’s doesn’t state the percent of cocoa in these beans, but a safe bet might be around 50%.
Normally I decry this sort of misleading wordplay, but in this case I’m actually not that upset. For one, semi-sweet chocolate is still “technically” considered dark chocolate, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be considered as such in the vernacular. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s actually a good move. Dark chocolate tends to be unpalatable quickly as the purity increases. By going with a semi-sweet dark chocolate, Trader Joe’s has succeeded in making a eminently snackable chocolate treat perfect for setting out at bridge groups, high caliber sporting events, and other informal social gatherings. A chocolate treat that isn’t too sweet, or too bitter.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a fine use of dark chocolate.
Would I Buy It Again: Sure, I could see putting this out for guests.
Final Synopsis: Semi-sweet chocolate beans with a pleasantly crunchy center.
Tangy coffee – do you like it? If you can answer that one question for yourself, there will be no need to read the rest of this post about Trader Joe’s Coffeehaus “European style” low fat yogurts. I will repeat it once again – do you like the taste of tangy coffee?
Very probably you have never had tangy coffee before, you might be confused by these words – angered by them even. No problem, friend. Just relax, sit back, close your eyes… and imagine. Imagine sipping a cup of coffee, imagine that unmistakable coffee aftertaste, that bold, full-roast dark coffee flavor that sits on the tongue like burnt toast. Now imagine it’s also real tangy. Tangy like a glass of Tropicana orange drink. Tangy, tangy coffee, sitting on your tongue, and also it’s cold. Do you like that idea?
If you’ve said yes, hold on tight because we are going to get into this. If, and I’m guessing this is more likely, you said no then you can feel free to navigate away from this browser tab right now. You sir, will not like Trader Joe’s Coffeehaus yogurts because if there’s one thing they have, it’s a serious tanginess.
Let’s unspool this for a moment. There’s about five different things going on in the name of this product alone, and it could do with a little unpacking before we start laying into if I, personally, enjoyed this thing or not.
To begin, let’s start with what a “European style” yogurt might be, and why Trader Joe’s feels they need to single that notion out for some reason – not just by name, but by packaging, iconography and font as well. How, in fact, is European yogurt different from the Greek yogurts, French yogurts and Swiss yogurts which can all also be found in Trader Joe’s yougurt aisle? The straight forward, if basically uncorrect, answer is that “European style” yogurt is called as such because it isn’t going to sit well with the average American. More specifically, it’s much less firm than standard grocery store yogurt, and much more tangy due to the presence of the many live, active bacteria cultures fermenting it full of lactic acid.
Now, every yogurt in the world is a product of bacteria cultures – that’s just the basic nature of its existence, but it’s not a fact that the big commercial yogurt companies like to play up on TV here in the States. The “now full of more live bacteria colonies than ever before” pitch is just not one that appeals to the standard demographic. As such, the bacterial nature of yogurt has been downplayed to the point where it’s almost totally overlooked. For the same reason, your usual grocery store yogurt varies between “slightly tangy” and “not tangy at all”.
Much more common in the US are the standard, “custard” style yogurts where fruit and thickening agents have been blended into a firm, sugary, low-bacteria yogurt. Confusingly, custard style yogurt can also be called French or Swiss style yogurt, despite the fact that they are much more American than European in sensibility. In fact, real Swiss yogurt (yogurt made by the Swiss in Switzerland) must, by Swiss law, contain a certain minimum number of bacterial colonies to even be considered yogurt.
So, to summarize, by saying “European Style” Trader Joe’s is singling that this is going to be some bacteria-filled, tangy yogurt, and you’d better be ready for that. They are as good as their word as well – each type of their coffeehaus yogurt comes packed with four different live and active cultures: S. thermophillus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Aciodphilus, and Bifidus. I don’t know quite enough about biology to expound on what all the important differences are between these, but I can tell you that you can sure as hell taste them in every tangy, zingy bite.
The other unusual aspect of these European style yogurts are their rather continental flavors. Dannon and Yoplait may have turned every type of cream pie and sherbet into a yogurt flavor, but even they haven’t yet done a straight up mocha or dark chocolate yet. While that might not go over very well in a custard style yogurt, it makes for a very nuanced bite here. The subtle bitterness of the dark chocolate and the mocha both play against the sourness of the yogurt, the tang of the lactic acid and the gentle sweetness of the added sugar. The result is a yogurt that challenges the tongue to a unique flavor experience, not merely a confection of high sugar content sweetness that passes the gums unnoticed.
So do I like tangy coffee? In this case, yes. I’ve had sweet yogurt, and I’ve had unsweetened yogurt, but I’ve never had yogurt that takes a path separate from sweetness all together. Tangy, bitter yogurt is an intriguing development, and one that I could easily see myself enjoying on my classier mornings.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – if you’re willing to give a whole new yogurt experience a chance.
Would I Buy It Again: I’d like to think that I’m just cultured enough to do so.
Final Synopsis: A very tangy, somewhat bitter, somewhat sweet, sophisticated yogurt.
To be honest, I picked up Trader Joe’s Organic Soy Creamy Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert (aka vegan ice cream) because I feel sorry for vegans.
I probably shouldn’t, I know that vegans and vegetarians and pescatarians and whatever all else there is are perfectly capable of looking after themselves, but I still feel sorry for them. It’s a crazy, meat eating world out here in America. If people aren’t spraining their jaws exalting the wonders of bacon, they’re drooling over commercials for monstrous, meat soaked burgers. Occasionally I try and put myself in the shoes of a person who, for reasons of personal ethics or personal health, has chosen not to eat meat.
What if the tables were turned, I sometimes wonder, and was in the minority? What if, for example, 99% of restaurants served dog and dog based dishes? What if TV, print media and the internet were plastered in ads showing people taking loving mouthfuls of hot, roasted dog. What if people not only went on at length about how many delicious puppies they ate last night, but would even go so far as to ridicule me for not eating dogs, and bemoan my stubborn refusal to just give in already and start eating puppies like everyone else.
So yes, I bought all the flavors of Soy Creamy Non-Dairy Frozen Desert because I want to morally support my vegan friends (okay…friend) who comes over sometimes. What I was shocked to discover, is that soy based ice cream is great!
I was every bit as surprised as you. As we’ve discussed over “healthy” guacamole and veggie patties, there’s usually a price to pay for healthy and/or vegetarian cuisine. That price is taste. If something is good for you, it doesn’t usually taste very good, and if something is bad for you it generally tastes amazing. That’s the inherent cruelty of life, and strong evidence that the Irish Catholic guilt-based version of God might be the accurate one. TJ’s Soy Creamy completely explodes this model. This vegan, non-dairy, organic, soy-based ice cream is equally as good as it’s dairy based counterpart. In fact, I might actually like it better.
Soy Creamy is just as sweet and creamy as any other grocery store ice cream you’re likely to find, creamier even. I assumed the “creamy” bit in the title was just a throw away marketing line. Not so – this stuff is seriously smooth. Something about the vegan make up of Soy Creamy keeps it from freezing solid in your freezer. We all know that problem, hammering away at the top of an ice-hard lump of caramel ripple, denting up the spoon in an attempt to get out two or three teaspoons worth of ice cream. The vegan ice cream doesn’t have this problem – every spoonful comes out smooth and easy, but still stiff, and melts on the tongue with a full bodied flavor. It strikes the perfect balance between soft-serve and the real stuff.
The flavors are great as well. The vanilla tastes wonderfully rich and perfectly decadent. A bowl of it will leave every bit as satisfied as any milk based alternative. The cherry chocolate chip was also good, but this has never been my favorite flavor, even in the non-dairy world. The combination of chocolate chunks and mild cherry flavor doesn’t work any better as a vegan dish, leaving me equally nonplussed.
The only thing I can imagine that might put people off of Trader Joe’s Soy Creamy is that the aftertaste is different from the aftertaste of dairy based ice cream. You might notice a mild aftertaste of beans a few minutes after finishing off a bowl. Is that a bad thing? I suppose that depends on how you feel about the taste of edamame. For my count, I found it mild enough to right it off entirely. Plus, it’s more than compensated for by the healthy nutrtional profile.
In addition to being totally organic, which it is, the soy cream also has less fat and fewer calories per serving. Trader Joe’s French Vanilla Ice Cream, for example, has 260 calories and 16 grams of fat per serving – compared to the 180 calories and 8 grams of fat in the Vanilla Soy Creamy. Even if you have trouble grappling with the concept of a non-dairy ice cream, the calorie count couldn’t be a more eloquent argument in it’s favor. Eat twice as much for the same amount of calories? I’m on board.
So yeah, I like it. In fact, with the summer coming around the corner I’m libel to buy a lot more. In fact, I might even start buying this exclusively whenever I have a hankering for chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Am I crazy? Arguably, but you’ll just have to try some and find out.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is your go to organic ice cream, so or not.
Would I Buy It Again: I may never go back to dairy ice cream.
Final Synopsis: Vegan ice cream that as good as the real thing.
I was really excited for Trader Joe’s Coffee a Cocoa to work out. On paper this sounds like a dangerously brilliant idea – combining a dark roast coffee with powdered cocoa to make a quick brewing mocha. Read the back of the can and you’ll get even more excited:
“You could go out and pay for a mocha, but with Trader Joe’s Coffee a Cocoa you can make one – without any added sugars – right in your own kitchen.” The label goes on to reference the use of “chocolate fudge oil” and uses the word “choco-riffic”
Sounds pretty dang good, right? Maybe like a mixture of hot chocolate and dark coffee? Oh, if only. Sadly I found this coffee to be nothing of the sort.
The last time I reviewed a Trader Joe’s coffee product it was the incredible Cold Brewed Coffee Concentrate. I might be all but untrained in the art of understanding and appreciating coffee, but even I was blown away by that coffee’s mellow, smooth taste and convenience. As a rule, I try to avoid reviewing those things which have a vociferous armchair expert culture built up around them (wine, beer, cheese, etc). This isn’t so much out of fear of looking foolish in public so much as a desire to avoid being yelled at by indignant pundits. Nevertheless, bouyed up by the success of the cold brew concentrate, and the promise of numerous cups of rich mocha, I seized this can of grounds and took it home.
To my dismay, I discovered that this coffee is not at all what it appears to be. I suppose I should have been tipped off by the “No sugar added” bit in the description above.
The thing that I seem to always forget about chocolate, is that in it’s natural state it is inedibly bitter. Even an three quarters pure bar of chocolate is more like chewing on bark than enjoying a nice piece of confection. Chocolate needs a least a little sugar to taste good at all, and possibly some cream mixed in as well depending on your taste. Without any sugar added, you have nothing to protect you from the bitter, mouth curdling tannins. It’s like Trader Joe’s asked itself the question, “How can we make something even more bitter than straight, dark roasted coffee? We’ll add, 100% dark, bitter baking chocolate – of course!”
It’s a strange question and not one I feel need to be answered. All would be forgiven, of course, if the brew actually had a chocolaty taste too it. Shockingly, it doesn’t. Not a traditional mocha taste, at any rate. If you’re expecting the mocha brewed by this mix to be anything like a mocha you’d pick up at your corner coffee shop, you need to re-calibrate your expectations. There is a chocolate taste present in the coffee, technically, but it’s much more akin to the chocolate tones you might be told to expect in a beer or a wine. Think subtle hints of chocolate that emerge from a lingering undertone, not a tasty chocolaty infusion.
This is doubly strange considering that the cocoa is paired with the above mentioned “chocolate fudge oil”. This sounds utterly delicious on paper, but when I say the phrase out loud it sounds terribly wrong. Fudge oil? How does one get oil from fudge? Is someone loading baskets of raw fudges into a fudge press somewhere? The answer might very well be yes. Google turns up frighteningly few results regarding “fudge oil”, outside of opportunistic recipe sites that seize desperately on that rich search term.
The best I could dig up was a brief e-mail from Trader Joe’s Customer Support stating the following:
“The ingredient ‘Chocolate Fudge Oil’ used in our Trader Joe’s Coffee a Cocoa is a natural oil that is derived from cocoa in a fudge form.”
Is this the same thing as cocoa oil? I simply do not know. Mysterious ingredients aside, Trader Joe’s Coffee a Cocoa is a straight coffee and nothing else. Could you make a resonable mocha out of it if you added some cream and sweetener and chocolate. Sure, but that defeats the point, doesn’t it? Come to this product if you’re looking for yet another subtly flavored medium-dark roast coffee. Those seeking something sweeter should stay away.
Would I Recommend It: Not if you’re looking for a mocha. Yes, if you just like coffee.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t drink much of either mocha or coffee, so probably not.
Final Synopsis: A totally acceptable medium-dark roast coffee misleadingly presents itself as a mocha.