We may have left Trader Joe’s season of pumpkin madness behind, but it is still autumn and that means there’s still a whole cornucopia of harvest foods to review. Case in point, Trader Joe’s tasty Cranberry Apple Butter.
Every season has certain foods associated with it – from the lemonades of summer to the hot choclate of winter, but no season is more intimately tied to food and food traditions than the fall. There are the pumpkins, of course, but that’s not to mention turkeys, pies, stuffing, cranberries, apples or many more besides. Trader Joe’s has decided to take these latter two and combine them into one delicious condiment for us with their new Cranberry Apple Butter.
Apple Butter is one of those niche condiments that the majority of Americans maybe encounters once or twice in a decade. In it’s most basic form, it can be thought of as something like apple sauce MAX. Apple sauce is made by stewing up a load of apples with sugar and water until it forms a pleasant mash. Apple butter simply takes that process to it’s extreme – keeping the apple sauce on heat until the fructose in the apples caramelizes into a rich, deep brown.
This apple spread was first concocted by German and Dutch monks back in the Middle Ages, when monasteries included large orchards. The enormous, annual crop of apples had to be managed somehow, and what couldn’t be eaten was turned into the shelf stable apple preserve we now know as apple butter. Although it never really caught on in Europe outside of the regions of the Rhineland and Limburg, migrants to America brought the recipe with them and it can be found nowadays as a staple in Pennsylvania Dutch country, as well as more widely available in boutique grocery stores here and there nation wide.
That’s all well and good, but if you’re anything like me you’ve often scratched your head over the whole “butter” part of apple butter. After all no butter, or any dairy product, goes into apple butter. The misnomer apparently comes from the soft, easily spreadable nature of the food product, which apparently lead some miserable medieval peasant to remark, “Oy- these apples is like butter, isn’t they?”
Of course, you and I know that’s stupid, as butter is only seldom that easy to spread. If we’re going strictly by consistency Apple Margarine would have obviously been the better term – or maybe Apple Toothpaste. At any rate, it’s in the history books know and I’ll be damned if I know what can be done about it.
Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, had no such shortage of ideas. In a rather clever move, they’ve gone and added a heavy dollop of cranberry puree to the tradition apple butter, giving the condiment a tart zest. How much of a dollop are we talking about? Plenty, actually. Cranberry is actually the primary ingredient in the spread, followed by apples. That’s a choice you can taste – the cranberries are front and center here, in fact they taste so strong that this apple butter could be mistaken for cranberry sauce on first blush. However, once the sharp cranberry taste has subsided, the mellower sweetness of the apple butter remains, taking some of the bite off and making the preserve more palatable than a straight cranberry sauce would be. Although it’s the “apple butter” part of the title that catches the attention, this is probably better thought of as a cranberry sauce first, and an apple butter second.
So what do you do with a hybrid cranberry-apple spread? Put it on your turkey is the obvious answer. And while this would be a perfect addition to Thanksgiving dinner this year, it also makes a tasty spread on toast and English muffins. If you wanted to get crazy with it, you could even add it to a turkey sandwich for a little of that pseudo-thanksgiving taste!
Would I Recommend It: Sure, if you like cranberry sauce.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not, honestly. Regular cranberry sauce usually does it for me.
Final Synopsis: Like cranberry sauce, with a mellower apple butter follow through.
I was truly surprised when I saw Trader Joe’s Wasabi Mayonnaise. I suppose it’s quite provincial of me to be surprised by flavor tweaks to traditionally mundane condiments, it is, after all,the year two thousand and fourteen, miracles abound. I have, for instance, in my cupboard this very minute a bottle of balsamic vinegar infused ketchup from Heinz, of all people, and a plastic canister of PB2. In the face of that mixing a bit of powdered horseradish in with a ubiquitous and world famous emollient in desperate need of reinventing itself is practically child’s play.
Nevertheless, I was surprised. Wasabi mayonnaise is a very clever update on everyone’s favorite egg-based salad dressing and sandwich spread. I’ll cut right to the chase here, because we have plenty to get to today. Trader Joe’s Wasabi Mayonnaise is an excellent tool to have in your condiment tool box. It does everything that regular mayonnaise does just as well, plus it adds an extra dimension of bold spice to the mix. The mayo is thick, smooth and creamy – perfect for adding a savory skim of fat to food that are otherwise too healthy for their own good. Only a single quibble, and that’s that it’s a rather oily mayonnaise. That’s certainly not a deal breaker, just be prepared for it.
That leads us to the wasabi side of the mayo. The spiciness here is well balanced, it provides a mild kick in small amounts and a bigger one if you really lay it on, but make no mistake, this is a mayonnaise not a horseradish spread. You’re never in danger of burning your sinuses out of your head, though they might get a little wake up call.
Of course, there’s the small problem that our wasabi mayonnaise doesn’t actually have any wasabi in it. Or, more accurately, it has very very little wasabi in it, way down at the very end of the ingredient list below the spinach powder food coloring. When you have less wasabi in your wasabi mayo then you have artificial coloring, you might want to consider a different name, TJ.
Actually, as much as I’d like to condemn Trader Joe’s for barely putting any wasabi in their wasabi mayo, that’s simply the way it goes. Choose any wasabi product from your supermarket shelf and check out the ingredient list. 99 times out of 100, you won’t find any actual wasabi in the product. Real wasabi is difficult to grow – it can take up to two years to grow a mature wasabi root, and once mature it can only be harvested once. As a result, real wasabi is quite expensive – much more expensive than the simple combination of common horseradish, mustard and food coloring that almost everyone, Trader Joe’s included, uses in it’s place. It’s actually to TJ’s credit that they throw a token amount of real wasabi in here. Many less scrupulous wasabi providers (including, in all likelihood, your favorite sushi restaurant) settle for the cheap, horseradish-based variety that lacks any real Japanese wasabi what’s so ever.
Outraged? Maybe you should be – although you better check to see if you can afford real wasabi prices, currently about $20 for 2 oz. A better question might be, what’s the difference between real wasabi and this substitute? The answer seems to be not a lot. Those who know report that real wasabi is hotter with a sweeter finish. The sort of thing a real gormund might insist on, but which is probably wasted if it’s just being mixed in with a bunch of mayo anyways.
If you an get over the subterfuge and misdirection, Trader Joe’s Wasabi Mayonnaise is still a quality mayo with a lot of flavor, and one that you won’t regret buying at the much more reasonable price of $6.99 for a 12 oz. a jar.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a tasty twist on mayo.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t use a lot of mayo, but if I was going to buy some I’d probably buy this.
Final Synopsis: A flavorful mayo balanced perfectly between spiciness and creaminess.
There was no question in my mind about which of Trader Joe’s ridiculous list of pumpkin products I was going to try next – the pumpkin butter. I could barely conceive of what this product might possibly look like, but my best guess was something like a stick of butter but orange. I was entirely surprised, and slightly disappointed, to discover that Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter was not actual butter butter, but the apple butter kind of butter. A classic, “Ah – of course, I’m an idiot” moment.
Despite my initial confusion, this pumpkin butter is actually rather good, in a fruit butter sort of way. By which I mean that it’s very sweet, very creamy and entirely suited for any of your general or seasonal fruit butter purposes – whatever those might be. Which is to say, again, that it’s nice but pretty unnecessary by anyone’s definition of the word.
Pumpkin butter is a fruit butter – which is basically what you get when you cook down a load of fruit, puree it and thrown in some sugar and spices. What you end up with is a creamy, smooth spread that tastes like a sweet fruit jam, but spreads like a dream.
If you’ve ever had apple butter, you’ll know what to expect from Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter. If you haven’t had it, imagine eating a jar of sweet pumpkin pie filling and you’re not far off in both taste and consisetnecy. I’ve tried it on a variety of food products, and each time I’m left with the same sensation – like I’m eating the center out of a pumpkin pie that is subtly wrong somehow.
Other than the pureed pumpkin, there’s not a lot to pumpkin butter. For instance, despite its very smooth consistency there is no butter, cream or fat of any sort in the spread. There’s also much less sugar than you might expect from such a decadent spread. The butter is sweetened with sugar and honey, but only to the tune of 9 grams of sugar per 18 gram serving. While 50% is a pretty considerable sugar to food ratio by most standards, it’s a big improvement over the 70+% you find in most jellies and jams. What that really means is that you’re going to want to come to pumpkin butter for the pumpkin first and the sweetness second.
So what do you do with a pumpkin butter? Well, the jar itself happily suggests you try it as “a pastry filling, a poultry glaze, an ice cream topping, on toast, mixed with fat free cream cheese, and as a soup”. In other words, you can do everything and nothing with it. It’s like we’re talking about a sneed here. Works as an ice cream topping and a soup? Really, TJ? Because nothing else in the world does that. In fact, I’m going to have to give this Trader Joe’s Most Creative Serving Suggestion award – ripping away from the former champion.
So yes, pumpkin butter is probably totally unnecessary – but on the other hand, that can be said of all seasonal holiday products. The real merit of this class of food is how tasty it is and, more importantly, how much it helps you get into the spirit of the season. On those grounds, Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter is reasonably effective, but not a knock out. By it’s very nature as pumpkin butter it’s so rich and thick that it’s hard to integrate into your daily routine.
If you’re planning on baking holiday pastries or hosting a pumpkin themed dinner, this is probably a great purchase for you. As a regular sort of Joe, I don’t plan on doing anything with this other than putting it on the occasional piece of toast and, if I’m feeling particularly fey one of these evenings, making a nice bowl of pumpkin butter soup out of it. Pumpkin Butter on toast has been okay, but something I could skip in the future. As for the soup, stay tuned for an update.
Would I Recommend It: Not unless you’re already a fruit butter fan or can’t get enough pumpkin.
Would I Buy It Again: Sadly, no. I don’t have anything to do with it.
Final Synopsis: Basically, spreadable pumpkin pie filling.
When I first set eyes on Trader Joe’s Almond Butter, my heart did a little leap. After all, the last time Trader Joe’s unveiled a new butter, it was an epochal, life-changing event. History had prepared me for another smash hit. Unfortunately, history was setting me up for a fall. This new almond butter is a very average spread with little to recommend it.
Both new almond butters are the “stir” variety, with a thick layer of oil on top that needs to be mixed in before using. This is, as always, the tell tale sign of the “natural” nut butter. Trader Joes’ creamy and crunchy almond butters follow in this proud, healthy tradition. Salt has been added, but only 60 mg which is rock bottom by commercial standards, and sugar is at a minimum, with only 2 grams per serving. Of course, that means it lacks that tongue pleasing tingle that you get with additive laden, less healthy butters, but a little mouth-plastering blandness has ever been the price for healthful eating.
All of that’s fine by me. In both taste and nutrition it’s about the same as the natural, stir peanut butters that Trader Joe’s offers, but that is exactly my problem – there’s no meaningful difference netween these almond butters and their peanut counterparts. Even in taste, we’re only talking about a very subtle change to the underlying nuttiness of the spread, one that you might be able to identify in a side-by-side taste test but which, when incorporated into a sandwich etc, is practically interchangeable with a natural peanut butter.
If there’s something I’m missing here, please clue me in to it. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal or rationale for almond butter. There are, I’m aware, people with peanut allergies. Is that the whole market almond butter was made for? At the risk of sounding intolerant, I think we can all agree that these “people” should simply acclimate to life in the margins of society. Suck it up, peanut allergienes!
I really, really do not understand almond butter. Yes, we can make our nut butters out of things other than peanuts, and we can make car tires out of wood and books that are 25 feet tall. We can do a lot of things – but a lot of things don’t make sense to do. It’s not like we’re talking about hazelnut butter here, which brings a totally new and delicious taste to the table. Now, I’m always a proponent of a broad selection and innovation in the food market – but only to the extent that it makes sense, and almond butter doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like laboring tirelessly to create Hydrox cookies, then trying to sell them for more than Oreos.
Aside from aiding the peanut sensitive, there really doesn’t seem to be a good reason for almond butter to exist. Jokes aside, I am glad that it exists for that reason at least. My heart really does go out to people who suffer from peanut allergies. I can only imagine the nightmare of living in a world where the peanut, one of the most widely used foodstuffs, has the power to incapacitate and/or kill you. Peanuts are tiny. They could be anywhere. Not to mention that they’re often incorporated with absolute stealth into a bewilderingly huge assortment of food product, and the only tip off is a tiny line of small type hidden under the bar code. That’s like living in a war zone where all the enemies are invisible, but give you a quick “Heads up!” before opening fire.
Ulitmately, I feel about Trader Joe’s Almond Butter about the same way I feel about their sunflower seed butter – good on them for giving us more options, but there’s nothing compelling about the product, unless it be the brief, sad thrill of the blandest form of rebellion conceivable. “Forget what those mainstream losers are doing – I’m putting almond butter on my sandwich.”
No sir, it doesn’t make sense to me at all. You can leave me with Better’n Peanut Butter for my PB alternative.
Would I Recommend It: No, unless you have peanut allergies.
Would I Buy It Again: Never.
Final Synopsis: 90% identical to peanut butter, only more expensive.
Continuing my foray into the popular world of Serbian/Bulgarian/Macedonian food stuffs comes Trader Joe’s Eggplant and Garlic Spread. Unlike its very close cousin and shelf neighbor, TJ’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic, this condiment is hands-down delicious – like a thick, savory pasta sauce made with eggplant rather than tomato.
I got into this already with the craptacular ajvar, and I don’t want to kill it all over agian here, but TJ’s is really wrecking their own house with these name games. These two products, Trader Joe’s Eggplant and Garlic Spread (with peppers) and Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic, could not be positioned to confuse the casual shopper more. One delicious, one awful, both Bulgarian, of similar packaging and nearly identical names. It’s like having an evil twin and a good twin and naming one George T. Riley and the other George D. Riley. What’s that? Did you say T. Riley? You did? Well too late, because now I’m dead and/or my chicken tastes awful.
Let’s rectify the situation right here – this product, like it’s compatriot, is proudly Bulgarian, and is known in that country as ljutenica. The name might roll off the tongue, but it’s hard to say what exactly a proper ljutenica is supposed to taste like. As with many folk foods (kimchi, etc) it’s taste, consistency and composition varies widely between households. Some are much spicier than cousin ajvar, some sweeter, and so on. This ljutenica is actually milder and more savory. Whatever it was that Trader Joe’s did to its red pepper spread to make it so they avoided it here – nothing harsh or mealy comes through from the garlic or eggplant. Instead, both blend together with the fefferoni pepper to make an intriguing new taste – a full-bodied, broad, tongue-pleasing taste. It is somewhat salty, but not overly so, and very slightly piquant. It worked excellently for me as a condiment for chicken dishes, vegetables and meatballs.
How this ljutenica stacks up against the real Bulgarian stuff I couldn’t venture to say – and if any Eastern Europeans out there want to weigh in please do so – but I personally couldn’t be happier with what I’ve got. If ajvar threatened to turn me against Bulgarian condiments, this spread has rectified all wounds.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – try it with your chicken or pasta, or slathered on bread and topped with goat cheese.
Would I Buy It Again: I already killed my first jar, so it’s pretty likely I will.
Final Synopsis: A ljutenica that will do you well from Sofia to the Black Sea.
It seems like there must be something wrong with Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic. For one, that is a ponderous descriptor for something which has an actual name. Two, and more importantly, it’s bitter – so unpleasantly bitter!
“Add to pasta sauces, spread on chicken,” the jar enthusiastically suggests, “Top a burger with it!” Why, jar? I like all those things. Why would I want to smear a bitter condiment from the former Soviet bloc all over them?
That is being, perhaps, a bit unfair to the good people of Bulgaria, from whence this spread hails, and who I’m sure are only trying to do the best they can. The problem may lay in me, after all. Red Pepper Spread – or ajvar as it’s known as in its Serbian homeland – is not something I’m very familiar with. I’m more than willing to grant that the the subtleties of the spread are being lost on me.
Let’s take a quick look at the history of this unusual spread before we get into what exactly it’s trying to do to your taste buds.
Ajvar, also known under the more easily remembered but more frightening sounding name “Serbian Salad”, is basically a type of relish – made primarily from roasted red bell pepper and garlic, containing various quantities of eggplant, red pepper etc. Historically, the dish is known as a winter food throughout the Balkans, canned in early Autumn and subsisted on until spring brings fresh veggies.
I’m not quite sure why Trader Joe’s embraces some of the cultural names for its dishes, like dukkah, but not others, like this poor spread, unless perhaps they feared the outrage of countless babushkas, their dudgeon raised high by a sub-standard product peddled under the name ajvar.
All else set aside, I must praise Trader Joe’s for fetching interesting foods from interesting places. Always a culinary adventure at TJ’s! Of course, every adventure must have its times of misfortune, and that is where our red pepper spread comes in. In its homeland, this spread can be many things – piquant, red hot, even sweet – what it is not supposed to be, and what most foods try and avoid being, is unpleasantly bitter.
As the spread hits the tongue it is nearly sweet, thanks to the sugar added by TJ’s to offset the harshness of the taste. Even with the sugar, however, the bitterness comes through, clean and strong, right from the beginning. During the chew the bitterness rises in power, finally lording over your tongue for the length of the aftertaste. I can’t really figure out what it is they put in the spread that makes it so bitter – the list of ingredients is pure and simple, veggies, some oil and vinegar, no preservatives or artificial colors. It’s possible the fault lay in the preparation process itself. Ajvar is rumored to be best when roasted – not simply cooked on an industrial scale. Perhaps what the spread is missing is the tender loving of a roasting flame?
What isn’t bitter in the spread is certainly worth praising. The robust, earthy tastes of the eggplant and red pepper very nicely compliment simple meat and vegetable dishes, but the bitterness is simply too strong for me to actually enjoy any given mouthful of the stuff. It’s a nice idea for a spread, I only hope Trader Joe’s can reformulate this and bring it back under a prouder banner.
Would Recommend It: I’m afraid not, not even for novelties sake.
Would I Buy It Again: This spread has no place in my cabinet.
Final Synopsis: A hearty, tasty spread ruined by a strong bitter flavor.