Europa ChocoVine – OriginalPosted: December 26, 2013 Filed under: Alcoholic, Chocolate, Drinks, Trader Joe's Brand 4 Comments
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.
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.
Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate CaramallowsPosted: December 17, 2013 Filed under: Candy, Chocolate, Trader Joe's Brand | Tags: holiday, marshmallow 3 Comments
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.
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 Sipping Chocolate Inspired by European TraditionPosted: December 12, 2013 Filed under: Chocolate, Drinks, Trader Joe's Brand | Tags: hot chocolate Leave a comment
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.
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 Dark Chocolate Covered Marshmallows & Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Minty MallowsPosted: December 10, 2013 Filed under: Chocolate, Desserts, Trader Joe's Brand | Tags: holiday season, marshmallow 6 Comments
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.
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 Honey MintsPosted: June 11, 2013 Filed under: Candy, Chocolate, Gluten Free, Snacks, Trader Joe's Brand | Tags: honey, peppermint 8 Comments
What a name! Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Honey Mints, this little confection could not be cheekier – 3 ingredients, all listed there in the name, thrown together in a fit of what could only have been hubris. Dark chocolate, honey and peppermint extract. This is an almost frighteningly bold undertaking – even the most cursory glance at the ingredient list reveals that TJ’s is not f-ing around here. There are seriously only three ingredients – honey, chocolate liquor and oil of peppermint. Is it even okay to do this? Or, better question, is it reasonable to do this?
When you’re squaring yourself up against York Peppermint Patties, beloved classic and mainstay of parlor candy dishes the nation over, do you really want to start self imposing handicaps like “oh, and we can only use three ingredients.” It is absolutely a move on which Trader Joe’s should be applauded, in the same way you should applaud someone who just ran ten consecutive marathons or ate a box of light bulbs, after a brief pause and with a quizzical look on the face.
The fact of the matter is that these patties are not particularly helped out by this three ingredient policy. They taste simply alright, like a slightly stronger and aggressive York patty with a sweeter aftertaste. The texture, size and minty bang are nearly identical – the clash of flavors is what marks it as different. The honey whipped filling doesn’t exactly gel with the mint flavor and the dark chocolate shell.
As we’ve previous discussed, dark chocolate, while perfectly good on its own, simply cannot be treated like milk chocolate. These are not mere adjectives people, dark and milk chocolate are different beasts all together – milk chocolate the friendly pony who nuzzles your hand as he prances, dark chocolate the powerful, curried stallion, illuminated for a moment on a rocky crag by a flash of lightning. While it complements the mint oil, the honey wants to be sweeter than the unsweetened dark chocolate will allow.
Would this taste issue be ameliorated if TJ’s had allowed the addition of byzantine bisorbates and other curious additives? Perhaps not, but as it stands the candy doesn’t work well enough for me to spend my calorie budget on them. Afterall, even though it lacks the preservatives, artificial colors, and high fructose corn syrups it’s still 17 grams of sugar and 6 grams of fat per serving – a worse nutritional profile than York Peppermint Patties. To adherents of certain nutritional philosophies I’m sure the absence of manufactured additives constitutes an enormous draw, to me however this comfort is purely hypothetical. I listen to my brutal, masticating jaw and swollen gullet, and they advise me that despite the intriguing lead-in there is little to recommend this product.
Would I Recommend It: No, save for those with grudges against the York corporation or an adversion to America’s typical food chemicals.
Would I Buy It Again: Sadly, no.
Final Synopsis: A York Peppermint Patty, but with a greater clash between bitter and sweet.
Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate NibsPosted: March 21, 2013 Filed under: Chocolate, Trader Joe's Brand 3 Comments
Oh man, why couldn’t Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Nibs have been good? As I’ve made clear before, dark chocolate is the only kind of chocolate I can purchase. Regular milk chocolate bars tend to disappears down my throat in a way that worries medical professionals and my insurance provider. In the world of confections, milk chocolate is your good-time buddy who just wants to party – always on the scene with a six pack and the crazy plan. “Don’t worry man!” milk chocolate boisterously shouts, “Diets are stupid, let’s get nuts!”
Dark chocolate, on the other hand, is a stern Scandinavian quartermaster. “Haven’t you had enough of me now,” dark chocolate asks you solemnly, after one tiny bite, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to go back to work?”
Milk chocolate was fine in college, but as an adult it’s time to knuckle down and get serious. Hence my constant search for new, interesting forms of dark chocolate. Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Nibs seemed like they might deliver – dark chocolate, after all is best enjoyed in tiny bites. So why not save some time and sticky fingers by going straight for the nibs?
As a rule of thumb, I steer clear of vaguely defined nouns in my food (lumps, chunks, gobs, etc) on the grounds that usually someone is trying to pull a fast one. In this case, I figured I was alright to bend my normally adamant rule. Not because I think Trader Joe’s is above marketing flim-flam, but because I was actually seeking the unpalatable.
A quick review of the ingredients reveals that the true identity of our anonymous nibs is the much less endearingly termed “cocoa mass”. Now, cocoa mass is just the name for ground up cocoa bean prior to being processed into unsweetened chocolate, so I figured this was right on the money. “Nibs” might just be a way for the irrepressible ad wizards at TJ’s to market their excess, extruded cocoa mass, but I didn’t come here for their tastiness – I came to find a safe outlet for my otherwise uncontrollable sweet tooth.
If dark chocolate is a stern quartermaster, surely dark chocolate on nibs of cocoa mass is even more severe – like a stone-faced mortician with cold unblinking eyes. Two nibs and I’d be set, I reasoned. The perfect post-dinner way to get in, satisfy my chocolate craving, and get out with minimal damage done.
It seemed quite unlikely to me that I’d end up finishing the wee decorative tin of these nibs in anything close to the suggested two servings. And that turned out to be true – it’s just too bad the nibs are crap.
The main problem is that the nibs are too hard and small to enjoy properly. Once the scanty coating of dark chocolate has melted away in your mouth, you’re left with a tiny, brittle nugget of roasted cocoa bean in your teeth. You can bite it, break it up, and you’re done. A single nib is far from satisfying, and even a small handful of the nibs left me wanting. They nibs don’t dissolve on your tongue in a pleasing way, they just crunch up into bitter fragments.
When compared to the pleasures of a dark chocolate bar, the nibs simply don’t stand up. A small bite of a dark chocolate bar renders the pleasure of numerous complex flavors that slowly unravel over the tongue before ending in a bitter punch – the nibs don’t pack enough chocolate to give you this delectable pleasure, and leave you with an inert bit of cocoa mass as your reward.
At the price you pay for the tin, you might as well just buy the dark chocolate bar in the first place.
Would I recommend them: Yes, if you need a tiny, decorative tin. No to everyone else.
Would I buy them again: Give me a bar of dark chocolate bar over these any day.
Final Synopsis: Nibs suck.
Trader Joe’s PB&J Milk Chocolate BarPosted: February 28, 2013 Filed under: Candy, Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Snacks, Trader Joe's Brand | Tags: jelly, milk chocolate, PB&J, Peanut Butter Leave a comment
Let’s talk wonder.
As a fully-functional adult, I assumed my soul had been successfully numbed to the tingle of effervescent wonder I experienced as a child. It was much to my surprise then that I found myself gob-smacked, properly gob-smacked, when I walked into the Wonka Candy Company’s flagship store in downtown Los Angeles the other night and discovered a glittering, whimsical showroom torn straight from the pages of childhood fantasy.
Elaborately waistcoated chocolateurs glided about between ornate candy displays, curtains of heavy purple velvet, and delicate confections that looked more like art than candy. Clearly a well researched decree from the marketing department had lead a team of skilled Imagineers, or even Visioneers, to design room said room for the explicit purpose of actually induce levity in adults. Well done, corporate America. However, what most stirred the rusty ventricles of my full-grown, deadened heart were the glass globes displaying prototype chocolate bars representing the furthermost edge of whimsical chocolate research. Amid the glittering confections and novelties sat the Peanut Butter and Jelly Chocolate Bar – an innovation that struck me as being as brilliant as it was outré.
“The market will never be persuaded to adopt it!” I declared to the world at large, so stunned was I by the audacity of the thing, so sure I would never see it in any normal store.
Reader, you might well imagine my surprise when just this last week, as I meandered through my local TJ’s, my roving eye chanced to fall upon Trader Joe’s own Peanut Butter and Jelly Milk Chocolate bar. Shocked? I practically dumped in my pants.
So I bought one. And how was it? It was…good. Kind of. The thing about this particular chocolate bar, whimsy aside, is that there’s not a whole lot of alchemy going on. The bar doesn’t synergize into something more than the sum of it’s parts – it’s exactly the sum of it’s parts and no more. The milk chocolate tastes like milk chocolate, the peanut butter tastes like peanut butter, and the raspberry jelly tastes like reasperry jelly. End of story.
The bar is well put together certainly. The peanut butter and jelly are layered in discrete, unmingled layers just beneath a thin sheath of chocolate. Both condiments run the whole length of the bar in equal proportion ensuring each bite delivers an equal mix of all three ingredients. And while that’s good, it’s still not great.
Part of the issue is that the PB&J, in being kept so totally unmixed, taste just like the PB&J you had in so many sandwiches as a youngster. Now peanut butter is good and jelly is a fine condiment as well – but have you sat down to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lately? Make yourself one today. Use some Jif peanut butter and some Welch’s raspberry jelly. Take a bite, tell me what you think. Not bad, right? But not exactly great either. Not something you’re going to rave about.
It’s a noble feat, delivering such a whimsical chocolate bar to store shelves, but not a resoundingly successful one. The bar is passably good, but uninspired. Trader Joe’s does great chocolate, they do some great peanut butter and peanut butter replacements. Perhaps if this bar had been formulated with some more exquisite ingredients it would be more than just a novelty candy bar.
Perhaps it’s my deadened adult heart. Perhaps it’s that the child in me to that once so loved PB&J sandwiches has been defeated by spreadsheets and traffic jams. Or perhaps I have grown up and moved onto bigger and better things. In either case, this whimsical bar doesn’t justify a second purchase.
Would I Recommend It: If you’re curious go ahead, but keep your hopes low.
Would I Buy It Again: No sir, I wouldn’t.
Final Synopsis: Might as well spread some Jiff and Welch’s on a Hershey bar.
Trader Joe’s Organic Stone Ground Salt and Pepper Dark ChocolatePosted: February 13, 2013 Filed under: Chocolate, Trader Joe's Brand 4 Comments
Another automatic buy for me, this ludicrously long-named treat is – brace yourselves – the best bit of chocolate I’ve ever eaten at Trader Joe’s. I’ll get into the details a little bit later, but suffice to say this quirky round of chocolate is akin to the sweet, strange girl you had a crush on in high school – the one who wore high yellow stockings and the choker and the long tresses of coppery-red hair.
I can only hope you are so lucky to have a local Trader Joe’s that stocks this fine treat. That said, if you do, and if you take my recommendation and try some yourself, you’ll be putting your poor little heart out on the line – much the way you did when you finally worked up the courage to ask that cute, quirky girl out on a date. The cold hard fact of the matter is that Trader Joe’s has already decided to discontinue this delicious chocolate.
Damn. Isn’t that always the way? Just the same as when she shook those red tresses and told you her family was moving out of town tomorrow. But that’s another story.
Before I get too mired in regret here, let’s explore the unique delights of this organic, stone-ground salt and pepper dark chocolate.
Now, my reservations about dark chocolate are well documented, and never in my life have I heard of such a combination with two common table seasonings, but if Trader Joe’s can keep dishing it out, I can keep taking it.
This is one of those miraculous cases where utterly incompatible sounding ingredients couldn’t compliment each other better.
Let’s start with the chocolate itself. First off, this is the first instance of Mexican dark chocolate I’ve ever encountered – and I have to say I liked it. It has the graininess you associate with Mexican chocolate (thanks to the stone-grinding process which minimally refines the cacao beans), and the heavy, complex notes of casual bitterness and subtle fruitiness you associate with dark chocolate. A good start – and intriguingly packaged in flat rounds wrapped simply in paper.
The addition to salt to dark chocolate is far from a new innovation, but adding black pepper to the mix is a bit of a revelation. The combo is so obvious it’s shocking I’ve never seen it before – given the craze for mixing everything and anything with chocolate nowadays. The mixture is far too delicious – a host of different tastes, bitter, sweet, salty and peppery, working in conjunction to drive you to taste a little more.
I buy dark chocolate bars primarily for one reason: I tend to gobble down chocolate and it’s almost impossible to gobble down something as bitter and textured as dark chocolate. TJ’s has created one overpowering exception to that rule with this concoction – as soon as I snap into a pleasantly gritty round of this stuff, I know I’ll be finishing it in one sitting.
Did I mention it’s all organic to boot? Well-played TJ’s, well-played.
Would I recommend it: Yes, but get it fast!
Would I buy it again: Alas, if only…
Final Synopsis: For the dark chocolate aficionado, this bar’s a must try.