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Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Seed Brittle

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.


The Breakdown

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.

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Trader Joe’s Cowgirl Bark  

Trader-Joes-Cow-Girl-Bark

Ginger and cranberries – I suppose that’s kind of girly?

Trader Joe’s Cowgirl Bark raises all sorts of questions. What does that strange set of words mean? Why did TJ decide to keep going with the bark thing, after last years lackluster Cowboy Bark? What is bark? And, most importantly, what makes this a girl bark instead of a boy bark?

While the era of sexism is long from over, society’s the tolerance for male-centric, “we make the rules” BS is lower than it’s ever been. It is a time of striving for equality, and reappraising long held assumptions. It is in this climate that Trader Joe’s decided to make their bag of “girl” candy pink with flowers on it. Pretty brazen move, TJ.

Based just on the bag alone, I had low hopes for this chocolaty snack bag. Neither myself nor any of my taste testers had much love for the Cowboy Bark, a rather lazily styled re-release didn’t seem like it was going to change my mind. The formula, as Trader Joe’s points out on the bag, is certainly different – white chocolate, crisp rice, triple ginger cookies, pretzels, cranberries, almonds and peanuts and mushed together instead of dark chocolate, toffee, Joe Joe cookies, pretzels, almonds and peanuts all mushed together.

In theory, it doesn’t sound that bad, except, of course, for those two words right up front – white chocolate. The world is filled with a plethora of strange thing, but white chocolate is, to me, one of the strangest. Whoever was in charge of protecting the chocolate name against low-quality imitators was clearly out to lunch when white chocolate came along. Although I’ve had the occasional falling out with chocolate, it’s still  a beautiful, wonderful thing – delicious in any form, and on any occasion. Like bad sex, as they say, bad chocolate is still pretty good.

The issue with white chocolate is that it does not taste like, and is in fact not, chocolate. Who does white chocolate think it’s fooling, really? It’s one of the classic disappointing switcheroos. If you offer someone chocolate, then hand them a bar of white chocolate, you have just deeply disappointed that person – guaranteed. 100% of the time people are less excited to get white chocolate than real chocolate.

Is that unfair to this “white” sheep of the chocolate family? Certainly not, white chocolate sucks, that’s all. In addition to it’s delicious sugar and cream contents, real chocolate contains a wide rage of intriguing stimulants and anti-oxidants, such as theobromine, thiamine, phenylethylamine, and of course, our good buddy caffeine. In white chocolate, all of these are missing – stripped from the chocolate, on purpose, in order to turn it into white chocolate. White chocolate is, literally, what’s left over when you take all the good stuff out of chocolate. The colorless corpse of chocolate, from which the soul has departed.

And yet folks – and yet, I actually like Trader Joe’s Cowgirl Bark considerably better than their Cowboy Bark. The big failing of the Cowboy bark was that the intensity of the dark chocolate overpowered the other, allegedly tasty, ingredients. With white chocolate there’s no such problem, and the pretzels, peanuts, et al. get to make their presence known. The result is actually a fairly tasty mash up of chocolate and snack foods. You’ll certainly notice the salty pretzels and crunchy nuts the most, with the cranberries and ginger cookies more or less unnoticeable amid all the other noise.

Nevertheless, overall this bark basically works. I wasn’t wowed by it, and it may be made with white chocolate, but taken altogether the salty, sweet punch of the candy is good enough to bring you back to bag for seconds and thirds. There’s certainly room to improve – storing chocolate in a loose bag, as we’ve explored before, is not a good idea unless you want it to melt together into a huge messy blob – but Trader Joe’s is getting closer. Maybe they’ll come out with a third iteration using milk chocolate instead (Cow Bark perhaps?), and it will actually win me over. There’s a brilliant idea in here somewhere, they just haven’t quite reached it yet. Until then, the general populous can probably steer clear.


 

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: With hesitation, to people who don’t mind messy fingers.

Would I Buy It Again: No, this is the best white chocolate I’ve had but it’s still just white chocolate.

Final Synopsis: A treat best reserved for people who like white chocolate, like confectionery bark, or both.

Trader Joe's Cowgirl Bark - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Cowgirl Bark – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Fruit Bar with Flax and Chia Seeds

Trader Joe's Fruit Bar with Chia Seeds and Flax Seeds

Flax seeds *and* chia seeds *and* stylish packaging? I’m in.

Trader Joe’s has renewed it’s fruit bar producing efforts of late. We just took a look at their new line of thick and hearty two ingredient only fruit bars. Not content to rest with a mere 14 varieties of fruit bars across three separate labels, TJ’s has released yet another one – this one simply called “Fruit Bar with Flax and Chia Seeds.” The hardest part about covering these bars are their homogeneous names, a trend that TJ’s has decided to double down on by not even telling you what kind of fruit this bar has in it. Fruit, it suggests to you coyly, with seeds! Okay TJ, that weird enough to get my attention.

The reason, it turns out, that Trader Joe’s leaves the fruit name off this one is that, for once, it’s a blend of the whole orchard. Apple puree is the primarily ingredient, followed by a mixture of pear, elderberry and strawberry touched with lemon juice.

I went in to the bar with low expectations – after reviewing every fruit bar TJ has to offer, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have any more surprises for me. I was wrong. This bar easily bests all of the Apple & Whatever bars I reviewed last month. That maybe shouldn’t be such a surprise really – when you limit yourself to just 2 ingredients, you’re also limiting our flavor palette. Trader Joe’s Fruit Bar with Flax and Chia seeds has a much deeper, more nuanced taste, injecting each chewy, tacky bite with a density of flavor, one fruit mingling harmoniously with the next in a way that teases the tongue to probe each bite. The lemon juice, in particular, has an appreciated presence, giving the bar a zesty bite that sets it aside from its starchier, blander siblings.

In and of itself, Joe has a winner here. However, they don’t stop there, mixing in a pinch of flax and chia seeds to boost the nutritional profile. Both flax and chia seeds have been very much in the public eye of late for their “super nutrient” qualities. While their purported qualities owe as much to marketers as they do to science, these seeds are undeniable potent sources of nutrients and fats. Each bar brings a full 1000 milligrams of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, advertised right there on the front of the wrapper. That’s a fun perk if you’re trying to get more into your diet, and an interesting concession to texture for the rest of us.

As already mentioned, the bars is gooey and tacky in that “stick to the wrapper” kind of way. The added seeds give the bar a touch of crunch to each chewy bite that lends them a touch of welcome body.

The result is a surprisingly tasty, fruity, and munchable fruit bar. If you’re looking for single ingredient fruit bars (or fruit leather), you’ve got plenty of choices out there. However, if you’re just looking for a good fruit bar to snack on, this is the best TJ currently has to offer.


 

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Sure, if you like fruit bars, or need natural alternatives Fruit Roll Ups.

Would I Buy It Again: I’m not a big fruit bar guy, but if I was this is the one I’d go for.

Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s tastiest fruit bar.

Trader Joe's Fruit Bar with Chia Seeds and Flax Seeds - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Fruit Bar with Chia Seeds and Flax Seeds – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Edamame 1

You’re calling this dark chocolate? C’mon now, be honest.

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 chocolaTrader Joe's Dark Chocolate Edamame 2te 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.


 

The Breakdown

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.

 

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Edamame - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame – Nutrition Facts

 


Trader Joe’s Ruggedly Adventuresome Cowboy Bark

Trader Joe's Ruggedly Adventuresome Cowboy BarkWell, we’ve seen some good names from Trader Joe’s before, but Trader Joe’s Ruggedly Adventuresome Cowboy Bark may take the cake for over-the-top product naming. Some marketer somewhere is recovering from a spraining their brain muscle after coming up with this one.

Calling a pretty standard chocolate bark “cowboy bark” to begin with is already a wildly out of the box move – it’s not like there’s anything particularly “cowboy” about this chocolate bark in the first place. In fact, a decadent, dark chocolate treat sprinkled with cookies and toffee is one of the harder things to imagine a weather-beaten cowboy pulling out of his saddle bag on the range. Consider that, on top of this, they’ve added not just a self-aggrandizing adjective, but a totally unnecessary adverb as well and you’ve got my attention.

I really wanted to like this chocolate bark -not just because I’ll seize any excuse to buy junk food again and again, but because almost nobody is tossing adverbs into their food titles anymore. Chunky Chicken Noodle Soup is a dime a dozen, but good luck finding a can of Superbly Chunked Chicken Noodle Soup. Who doesn’t feel for the poor, overlooked adverb, ignored step-child of the parts of speech family? Who doesn’t wish they encountered more deftly modified adjectives on their daily errands? I definitely do.

So it’s got a good name – a crazy name, but a good one. It seems like we’re dealing with a shoe-in for next years best of list, right? After all, it’s dark chocolate with toffee, pretzels, Joe Joe’s Oreo Cookie knock-offs, peanuts, almonds and, to top it all off, a sprinkling of salt – what’s not to like?

The problem, as you may perhaps have guessed, lays in the dark chocolate base. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but dark chocolate is not a confection to be tossed haphazardly into just any dish that you’d normally use milk chocolate in. Dark chocolate isn’t just some joke of a candy you can slather on whatever, dark chocolate is a high-yield plutonium warhead to be deployed only after considerable soul searching. Use it too frequently or in too great a quantity, and nothing else you add to it is going to matter. Case in point, despite the tantalizing selection of toppings included on the bark, you only taste two things – dark chocolate for days, and a hint of salt. That’s certainly not bad – dark chocolate dusted with salt is a wonderful treat – but it makes the rest of the bark vanish into pointlessness. If Trader Joe’s was simply selling a bar of “dark chocolate with salty bits” I’d be singing it’s high praises – as it stands, there’s little reason to waste your calories on Oreo cookies and toffee you can’t taste. It’s a pretty good snack, but it’s not going to blow you away, and certainly isn’t worth the money when there are some many other amazing treats at TJ’s.

Trader Joe’s, I’d love to see a milk chocolate version of this that lets the rest of the flavors shine through – until then, there’s no reason to come back.

 


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: It’s okay, but there are better buys out there.

Would I Buy It Again: Not until there’s a milk chocolate version.

Final Synopsis: A great idea, drowned out in too much dark chocolate.

Trader Joe's Ruggedly Adventuresome Cowboy Bark - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Ruggedly Adventuresome Cowboy Bark – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Caramallows

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Caramallows

Ohhh yeahhhh.

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.


The Breakdown

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 Dark Chocolate Caramallows - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Caramallows – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Honey Mints

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Honey Mints

Both title, and total list of all ingredients. Whoa.

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.


The Breakdown

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 Honey Mints - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Honey Mints – Nutrition Facts