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.
Trader Joe’s Prune Walnut Log
Prune and walnut log – wow! I dropped the half-hearted purchase I was going ti make myself write about this week and snatched these up as soon as I saw them, standing boldly forth as they were, like a proud, squat dwarf, on the lower-middle rack of the fruit & nut aisle.
These just appeal to me on so many levels. It’s like Trader Joe’s designed them specifically for this blog. I mean, where to begin?
Well, to start, they’re in log form. Nothing comes in log form! Not since the 50’s ended and consumers across America suddenly realized they were decorating cottage cheese with rings of pineapple that had been dyed green by quasi-lethal food additives. There’s really not much lower than the lowly log when it comes to food formats – even loaf has at least a few positive denotations (i.e. “meat-” and “- of bread”). But no, no one as ever said “Mmm, that log is delicious! Hew me off another slab, will ya?”
Take the name itself. It falls squarely into that three letter, central vowel set of monosyllabic utterance that just don’t sound appetizing, words like “gut” and “gob” and “wad”. Etymology aside, there’s just nothing appetizing about extruded food cylinders.
“Ready for some homemade turkey dinner?” hard working Mom asks.
“Go put your head in a vise, you slag,” chirp the youngsters, “We’re playing Gameboy!”
“But boys,” Mom teases, a twinkle in her eye, “it’s been extruded into cylinder form.”
“Log? For dinner? Yipee!”
In a flash the family has gathered around the table, digging with gusto into the uncannily smooth tubular masses that lay heavily upon their plates.
No, I’m sorry, it just doesn’t happen that way. Logs are unnerving and strange, and very few foods are acceptable in log format. Festive holiday cheeses and jellied cranberry sauce and, as far as I’m aware, that’s it.
Now then, what kind of log are we talking about? Why, it’s prunes. I mean, prunes, seriously? Amazing! Is there any food product that can conjure up images of loosened bowels more efficiently than prunes? I submit to you that there is not. And finally, on top of all of this, we have walnut, to which I am fairly indifferent.
So things are looking pretty dire for the ol’ prune and walnut log right from the word go. The packaging, light and cast of translucent, Lunchable-esque plastic, announces that it is “An Ideal Cheese Companion” right smack in the center, in a font larger than the title of the food itself. Serving suggestions are occasionally brazen in their placement, but I’ve never seen one that actually supersedes the contents of the package itself. I pick up a pack of Trader Joe’s Spanish Cheese Tapas Sampler to pair with the log. I may be bringing a roiling cloud of prejudices to the table, but I’m fair dammit. If the log demands a cheese coupling, than cheese it shall have.
Upon peeling back the cling film of the prune and walnut logs I am startled and thrilled. The log has been subdivided among the four quadrants of it’s container, this I knew from before. What I didn’t know was that each section was also pre-sliced into three round discs. I pulled back the cling film on the cheese sampler. To my mounting delight I find that each of its three wedges have been pre-sliced into four triangular planes. All the sudden the game has turned upside down on me, as if a secret geometry of the universe had sudden revealed itself. 4 x 3, 3 x 4. I’m staring at 12 slices of each, perfect pairings for each other, as if preordained by the invisible hand of Providence.
Is this log tasting going to be perfect? I wonder giddily.
To cut to the chase, three quarters of a page in, yes – the prune walnut log is delicious. I have to hand it to the clever boys over there at Trader Joe’s for the slicing gimmick. In one deft swoop they turned the most unappealing aspect of the log into a boon – simple access for easy pairing without having to bother with a knife or the generally gross look of a nut-studded fruit log.
The prune-walnut slices go very nicely with their cheese counterparts – the starchy sweetness of the prune paste benefiting from the clean, nutty crunch of the walnuts, both of which go very nicely with cheese. To my own astonishment I have to recommend this as a ready-to-go party tray or sophisticated snack plate for the sort of get togethers where people look at their food before stuffing it in their gobs (book circles, say, instead of NFL games) . Not too shabby, logs. You’ve turned me around.
Would I Recommend It: To anyone who enjoys fruit and nuts with their cheese, which should be everyone.
Would I Buy It Again: I would gladly trot this out for book club, were I ever to attend one.
Final Synopsis: If you like complex tastes that you can layer on a cracker, this log is right up your alley.