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.
Pumpkin seed brittle – well, why not Trader Joe’s? Are they crazy? Well, yes, it certainly might be well warranted to accuse a man of madness on any old ordinary day if he shows up with the idea of making peanut brittle, but replacing the peanuts with pumpkin seeds. That might well warrant alarm. But these aren’t ordinary days. The twisted, orange doors of the Pumpkin Gate have been thrown open and from now until November we are at the mercy of the pumpkin-drunk gourd lords of Trader Joe’s. If that is the way the wind is blowing let it not be said that I don’t also blow that way.
It’s hard to know which way to turn when you goal is to document the unrestrained pumpkin revelry at Trader Joe’s, but Pumpkin Seed Brittle strikes me as particularly bold/insane. Brittle is, by itself, one of those divisive, old-timey candies, like black licorice or Peeps, that you have either eaten with fondness from your childhood, or detest the very thought of. It is, generously, a seasonal treat – not dissimilar to nog, or fruit cake – created, offered and eaten more out of thought to tradition than any real physical desire. Brittles, in particular, tend to last – the snack that is left over from after the party ends.
That’s not entirely the brittle’s fault. It is, by its nature, not a very social snack. A veggie or ranch dip, for example, is designed to be grazed upon easily by any number of party-goers Brittle, on the other hand, doesn’t break easily, makes your fingers tacky, and cements your molars together in a way that that is more scary than fun.
While peanut brittle does have a history of being made with different tupes of nuts/seeds (such as pistachos, or sesame seeds) pumpkin seeds in a recent innovation and, understandably, one that Trader Joe’s was eager to jump in on.
The first thing you’ll notice is the very nice box the pumpkin brittle comes in – pleasant colors and big, warm art make it perfectly suited to gifting.Inside the box, things are just as you’d expect them to be. The pumpkin seed brittle looks the same as peanut brittle – same dark brown color, same jagged panes of shattered brittle stacked up in uneven piles. The only real difference is that instead of standing out, like peanuts, the pumpkin seeds blend into the same mellow brown color of the brittle.
When it comes to flavor, the difference is similarly subtle. The pumpkin brittle is made from the same key ingredients that all brittles are made from – sugar, water, and butter. Be it peanut or pumpkin, the candy tastes the same – like sweet, carmalized sugar. The actual pumpkin seeds, when you come to them, are mild and crunchy, but don’t make much of an impact on the dish. In fact, while peanuts are a fairly notable part of peanut brittle – large, smooth and bland counterparts to the sticky, sweet brittle. The smaller, flatter pumpkin seeds don’t contribute nearly as much. You’ll notice a pumpkin seed when you bite into one, but don’t expect that strong taste of roast pumpkin seeds. The reason for this is that the recipe uses pumpkin seeds that have already been shelled. This makes for crispier, tastier eating – but remove much of what is uniqe about the pumpkin seed taste. These small seeds (and seed fragments) don’t provide much taste, even a bland one – they’re just a bit of crunch, and then gone.
To counter this, TJ’s dusts their brittle with “traditional pupkin pie spices”. In this case, that means cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and some others. This is by far the strongest part of the brittle, giving each piece a very nice, sweetly spicy flavor. Pumpkin it may not taste like, but pumpkin pie it certainly does.
If you’re jonesing for that autumn brittle, you might consider picking this up for the novelty of it. More generally, however, we can consider this as something like Trader Joe’s Truffle Salt, a food better suited to holiday gift giving than actually imbibing.
Would I Recommend It: Sure, especially if you’re looking for a new kind of brittle to give people.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes, but not until next year.
Final Synopsis: Like peanut brittle, but with some pumpkin pie spices on it.
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.
Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Fat-Free Brownies is one of those crazy products that wants to have it both ways. Similar to no-fat “cheese” products, low-carb bread, and methadone, reduced guilt brownies are one of those paradoxical products that attempts to negate its own existence. Everyone knows that the fat free versions of fatty foods are never as good as the real thing. It’s just one of the fundamentals rules of the universe, put in place by God as a daily reminder that no, life will never be fair. The sad question we must ask ourselves when we pondering whether to buy a box of reduced guilt anything is not “are they good”, but “are they good enough”? In this case, the answer is yes, if you’re prepared for a little weird.
Let’s talk about what’s right with these brownies first. There are several things Trader Joe’s does wonderfully right with these brownies. The most surprising quality of these brownies is that they actually deliver on the “reduced guilt” qualifier. The box prepares about a dozen normally sized brownies, each of which contains only 130 calories, zero of those calories from fat. There’s still the 26 grams of carbs to consider, but seeing as that Trader Joe’s is only promising reduced guilt, not guilt free, I’m willing to call that a success.
It’s also worth noting that the only ingredient you have to add to the box mix is fat-free vanilla yogurt. It takes a little bit of elbow grease to blend the yogurt with the dry mix, but once you’re finished all you have to do is pop the pan in the oven. It doesn’t get much easier than that.
To compare real brownies to reduced guilt brownies is a sorrowful thing, and I wouldn’t normally do it if there were any other choice. A good brownie is a delicious, wonderful little bit of chocolate heaven. A reduced guilt brownie is what you cook up when that heaven is barred from you, but you still hang around trying to stare in through the gates. The hope is always that maybe, maybe these reduced guilt, no fat brownies will be just as good as regular brownies.
Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Brownies are surprisingly tasty, all things considered, but there is a weirdness about them that is slightly off putting. The weirdness is two fold – taste and texture.
Taste is what you might expect, the intensity of delicious chocolate flavor that you expect from a brownie is much more muted in these. It’s still recognizable as a brownie, you just won’t be swooning over them. Texture is the bigger issue. The brownies are still dense and moist – but they’re also strangely spongy and yoken. There’s nothing egg-y about these guys, seeing as that no eggs go into it, but nevertheless the overall consistency and tooth feel of the brownies reminded me of a porous bit of omelette.
It’s certainly a long cry from the perfect brownie, but given the very reasonable nutritional profile, the flavor and texture you get is ultimately good enough to justify the purchase.
Would I Recommend Them: If you have a sweet tooth and a restrictive, but not too restrictive, diet I would.
Would I Buy Them Again: I prefer to go no brownies, or real brownies all the way.
Final Synopsis: An erstaz brownie that is just healthy enough to be worth the bother.