Well, pumpkin season is winding down – but what a long, crazy ride Trader Joe’s has given us this year. You never can guess what perfectly fine product TJ will suddenly feel compelled to put pumpkin in, but it will always be surprising. Case in point, Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cranberry Scones. Cranberry scones? Sure, no one’s going to bat an eye at that. So why go the extra step and put pumpkin in it then? That’s a question that only Trader Joe himself can answer, but the strong money is on some sort of highly localized brain aneurysm.
The issue with scones in general is just that they’re not very good. “But that’s not true!”, people (British people) may say – “I enjoy a good scone from time to time.”
Do you? Or do you enjoy clotted cream and jam? In the same way that tortilla chips are mainly just a delivery system for delicious dips, the value of a scone is in it’s ability to convey sweet and fatty condiments from the jar to your mouth.
The scone is, I think we can admit, no one’s first choice of pastry. Combining a not-actually-sweet blandness with a touch of salt, then serving it in irregular, dense patties might show a certain ingenuity of baking but it isn’t likely to eclipse the croissant – or even the English muffin – anytime soon.
And yet… and yet… I find myself enjoying these scones. Unlike most scones I’ve had in my life, they’re not too dense to enjoy. They actually have an almost biscuit like fluffiness to them, especially straight from the oven. And while these scones still aren’t sweet, they do feature enough moments of sweetness to make them enjoyable to munch on, even without copious amounts of heavy cream. These moments of sweetness are thanks, primarily, to the scattering of dried cranberries that speckle the batter – generous enough to dress up every bite, but not so many that they undermine the sconeiness of the scone.
Presumably the pumpkin that was included in this dish was put there for the same reason, however despite top billing in the product title, it doesn’t make much of an appearance. In fact, the pumpkin levels in these scones are sub Pumpkin Cornbread, as the scones don’t even smell that strongly of pumpkin or pumpkin spices even straight from the oven. I guess that undermines the whole point of putting pumpkins in them in the first place – but I really can’t get too mad over that. Whatever Trader Joe’s is doing with scones is working, and if that means they feel compelled to put low levels of pumpkin in them I’m willing to sign off on it.
Cooking the scones is one thing – but eating them is another. Even if these scones are edible on their own, even if technically you don’t have to slather them with jams and marmalades and butter and curds, you might as well anyway. These are scones after all – that’s most of the fun.
If you want to shake up the scone scene a little bit, you can try a few of the scone related recipes TJ recommends. These include hitting them with cream cheese, or slicing them in half and popping in a scoop of ice cream. In both cases you could use Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cream Cheese, or Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Ice Cream to really up the pumpkin ante. Other suggestions that worked well for me were Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter (which really stood out as delicious), Trader Joe’s new Cranberry Apple Butter, and even Trader Joe’s decadent Pumpkin Caramel Sauce.
Really, with the biscuit like fluffiness and mild sweetness of these scones, you can’t go that far wrong.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, these were some fine scones.
Would I Buy Them Again: Still not a big scone fan, but I’d consider it.
Final Synopsis: Semi-sweet, not-too-dense scones with plenty of character but not much pumpkin.
With Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread Croutons we have another strange and daring pumpkin offering. As a salad lover I was quick to pick these up. As any true salad connoisseur knows, the combination of textures in a salad is almost as important as the combination of tastes. The simple addition of a crispy little crunch, whether it be croutons, baco-bits, or a handful of seeds, can elevate a salad from merely good to truly excellent. As such, I’m always on the lookout for a tasty new texture to touch up my tossed salads, and I was both pleased and surprised to see that Trader Joe’s ongoing season of induced Pumpkin Psychosis extended even so far as the world of croutons. What surprised me ever more, however, was that despite having never so much as dreamed of such an outrageous idea as Pumpkin Croutons in all my life, I had actually already made them a week earlier. That said, I did only make them by accident.
Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread Croutons are – in fact – made from the very same stuff as Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread. I rather enjoyed the cornbread, which I thought quite seasonal and tasty even if it wasn’t particularly pumpkin-y, however despite enjoying it, I didn’t enjoy it quite to the tune of an entire bread pan worth. As a result of my obdurate bachelor tendencies, the remnants of the cornbread were left out on top of the stove for two or three days. The result, I came to discover, was an accidental pan of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread Croutons or, more precisely, just one gigantic crouton.
Given the shared origin, you might expect the two to share many attributes and that is, in fact, the case. The pumpkin cornbread croutons taste a lot like the pumpkin cornbread – both are strongly redolent of pumpkin, sweetened by sugar, and spiced with traditional pumpkin pie spices. Surprisingly, in fact, the croutons are even sweeter than the cornbread. Trader Joe’s promises that each crouton is like having a bite of pumpkin pie, and while it’s not that sweet it’s not too far off either. This is a fact that makes these croutons unlike any I’ve had before. Most croutons are salty and savory, dusted with garlic, rosemary, cheese, etc. These croutons go in a very different direction, not just with the sweetness, but with the strong pumpkin flavor as well.
In fact, the sweetness opens these croutons up to a variety of uses normally limited only to bread crumbs. Perhaps most brilliantly, Trader Joe’s suggests using them as stuffing for your turkey. While this is probably one of the better ideas anyone has ever had, Trader Joe’s also recommends using these naturally sweet breadcrumbs for bread pudding, or even dipping them directly into pumpkin butter. I haven’t tried any of these myself yet, and while they sound somewhat dubious, the sweet, pumpkiny taste might actually make it work out.
These are the sorts of taste combinations that don’t seem like they should work at all. At least in the case of the salad Trader Joe’s actually pulls it off. The croutons are the same ones TJ uses in the very delicious Harvest Blend Salad, where they work perfectly. While there certainly are salads and salad dressings these croutons would clash with, they actually pair quite nicely with a wide variety of salad mixes – from ceasar salads, to BBQ chicken salads, to just a simple garden salad using a nice vinaigrette.
Would I Recommend These: Yes, they’re surprisingly tasty.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes, if just to try out the turkey stuffing idea.
Final Synopsis: Sweet and savory croutons with a variety of uses.
Trader Joe’s will put pumpkin in anything. Some of these things are expected – such as their pumpkin soup, some of these things are unexpected such as their pumpkin croissants. Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Rolls with Pumpkin Spiced Icing are definitely an example of the later. Has anyone ever looked at a cinnamon bun and thought “Somebody should really take the cinnamon out of this and replace it with pumpkin. And pumpkin flavored icing.” No, of course not, but Trader Joe’s did it. They did it, and it’s actually pretty good.
Trader Joe’s took the same dough they already use in their cinnamon rolls, but have had the cinnamon goo that fills the roll’s folds replaced by a puree of pumpkin and pumpkin pie spices (e.g. nutmeg, cinnamon and clove). Trader Joe’s Cinnamon Roll dough is some of the best you can find on a grocery store shelf, so the result is a delicious pastry roll that cooks up beautifully golden brown, with a soft, warm and chewy center. The pumpkin puree that replaces the cinnamon mash is of the same consistency, giving the dough that ooey-gooey stickiness that is essential for a truly satisfying sticky bun.
While the buns feel every bit as good as a cinnamon roll, they don’t quite taste as good. Don’t get me wrong – the pumpkin bun is delectable and every bit as soft and sweet as a cinnamon bun, but cinnamon buns are damn near perfect. As good as the pumpkin rolls were, the sticky, bubbling hot spiciness of true cinnamon buns are better, just by dint of being a cinnamon bun. That’s not to say the pumpkin rolls don’t taste good in their own right – they certainly do. The pumpkin rolls are sugary sweet and delicious, and bring in the taste of pumpkin and spice without being too overwhelming. It’s a little like the rolls are glazed with pumpkin pie filling instead of cinnamon and sugar – and while that’s good, it’s not better than the cinnamon and sugar.
The exact same can be said of the pumpkin spice infused frosting. It’s delicious, sugary, thick and sticky – just like good frosting should be. There’s more than enough to ice each bun, and matches just right with the pipping hot rolls – but it would have been even better if it had been a classic cream-cheese frosting.
Once again, we’re faced with the notion of why to buy this at all. Simply because it’s novel is the only compelling argument I have. Pumpkin season comes but once a year, and it’s fun to pick up a few pumpkin rolls to ring in the autumn. If you feel that little nagging call to celebrate the Harvest through moderately varied food stuffs, then by all means pick up Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Rolls with Pumpkin Spiced Icing – they’re delicious and you’ll enjoy every bite. If, however, the idea of pumpkin rolls for pumpkin roll’s sake doesn’t do it for you, rest easy knowing that you’re not really missing out. Their difference is valuable, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever prefer them to the real deal.
The only thing to be aware of is that, as in Trader Joe’s Cinnamon Rolls, the Pumpkin Rolls only come five to a pack. Odd numbers are terribly inconvenient when it comes to cooking for any size table, and prime numbers are all the more so. Unless you’re making breakfast for exactly 5 diners, or cooking for very lopsided appetites, you’ll want to pick up 2 cans to make sure things divide evenly. If I thought highly enough of Trader Joe’s marketing department, I’d almost accuse them of doing that on purpose – the crafty bastards.
Would I Recommend Them: Sure – they’re quite tasty, in their own way.
Would I Buy Them Again: Nope, I’ll go back to cinnamon rolls.
Final Synopsis: Almost as delicious as cinnamon rolls.
Well, well, well – here’s something new. Trader Joe’s is something of a salad master, filling their shelves with enough varieties to keep even the most jaded vegetarian happy. However, TJ’s salads have previously only appeared in two forms – assembled and disassembled. You could either pick up one of their many, varied salads-in-a-tub, or buy a bunch of salad fixings and make your own. What TJ’s has done here is something new – well, new for Trader Joe’s anyway.
Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend Salad is a complete salad kit, uncombined, and served in a bag. Other grocery store chains have offered salad-in-a-bag for years, even as TJ’s steadfastly followed their own course. Why this sudden change in policy? Perhaps it’s another symptom of the recent pumpkin madness. Certainly this salad mix features a respectable array of pumpkin-derived products- it’s conceivable that in the fevered actions of the countless panicked food packers rushing to meet Trader Joe’s insane pumpkin product quotas they simply ran out of plastic bins and had to start shoveling salad into bags instead.
While this salad may not be in a little plastic box, have no fear – it’s every bit as good as Trader Joe’s more established salad offerings. The kit begins with nice mixture of baby lettuce, baby spinach and baby kale – supplementing these tender greens with some crunchy broccoli and cauliflower. Into this strata you have the options of mixing in a pouch of dates, raisins and roasted pumpkin seeds. Not content to limit a harvest salad to merely pumpkin seeds, TJ ups the pumpkin content with some of their Pumpkin Cornbread Croutons (yes, made of the same Pumpkin Cornbread we already looked at). The dressing itself is also pumpkin derived – a sweet and tangy pumpkin vinaigrette. While this isn’t a combination of words that seems like it would result in a very good salad dressing, the salad actually pulls it all together. The vinaigrette is thick, and sweet with the taste of ripe pumpkin, but still acidic and zesty enough to highlight the greens – like a pumpkin flavored raspberry vinaigrette.
I wouldn’t want to try a pumpkin vinaigrette on too many other salads but here, with the pumpkin seeds and pumpkin croutons to add extra dimension to the pumpkin taste, the result really is a remarkably “harvest” tasting, and tasty, pumpkin salad. Surprisingly, pumpkin itself doesn’t make an appearance in the mix. That doesn’t detract from the salad, but it seem like an obviously missing ingredient. If you happen to have some of the canned or roasted squash on hand there’s no reason you couldn’t throw some in and really amp the salad up.
That said, if there’s anything I didn’t like about this salad it’s the sweetness. Between the dates, raisins and sweet vinaigrette the salad teeters on the edge of being too sugary. The natural mellow sweetness of pumpkin works in the salad’s favor here, as it folds these additional sweet flavors into itself in a way that works overall. All the same, if you usually avoid overly fruity dressings on your salads, you may want to give the Harvest Blend Salad a miss as well.
What surprised me most about this salad, however, wasn’t any of the components – it’s how generous the portions are. Most salads-in-a-bag are puny little excuses for a salad. For a guy who prefers huge, plate-sprawling entree salads I find these pre-packaged portions utterly below my notice. Not so here. For only $3.99 a bag, Trader Joe’s packs 14 ounces of salad into each bag. That means make sure you get a damn big bowl ready if you plan on pouring it all out at once. Trader Joe’s says it’s enough for 4 side salads, which is probably true, but it also makes for one mondo entree salad if you’re looking for a quick, easy, and health lunch to pick up.
While many of Trader Joe’s pumpkin based products smack of novelty and little more, this salad works because of its pumpkin content rather than in spite of it. This is one product that I’ll be sorry to see go at the end of Pumpkin Season.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, so long as you don’t mind some sweetness in your salad.
Would I Buy It Again: I can visualize it clearly, even now.
Final Synopsis: A massive salad-in-a-bag mix that does pumpkin salad right.
I’d long suspected that Trader Joe’s had lost their marbles, but I didn’t realize they’d actually gone insane. How can I tell? Because Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spiced Pumpkin Seeds is the sort of mad creation that only the incomprehensible visions of true insanity can show.
We know that TJ’s is willing to put pumpkin in every last thing they can get their hands on, but putting extra pumpkin in pumpkin itself? That’s as far down the rabbit hole as you can go. There’s so much pumpkin here that it’s liable to collapse into some sort of pumpkin-induced singularity – sucking the entire world into one infinitely dense, rapidly rotating pumpkin. Adding pumpkin spices to pumpkin seeds is the food equivalent of clutching your head while rocking back and forth and whispering “pumpkin-pumpkin-pumpkin-pumpkin” to yourself ceaselessly in the corner of a dark room.
That said, these things are actually pretty good.
Roasted pumpkin seeds are, like peanut brittle, one of those snacks that are only ever trotted out because they’re in season. I’m sure there are people out there who might eat more than a handful of roasted pumpkin seeds out of curiosity/politeness, but I’ve never met them. Generally, roasted pumpkin seeds are served up with some sort of savory spice on them – paprika, cumin, oregano, etc. Less often you’ll find them mixed with cinnamon and sugar, or some other sweet version. Trader Joe’s one ups all these recipes with their excellent preparation.
For starters, they skip the whole pumpkin seed and go right for the meat of the thing – in this case the pepita, or hulled pumpkin seed. This means you aren’t dealing with any of the semi-edible, obstinate pumpkin seed shells, just the crunchy, nutty seed itself.
The second brilliant step, is that TJ’s treats the pepitas like you would a honey-roasted peanut. They aren’t screwing around here with the seasoning – each little seedling is blasted front-to-back and top-to-bottom with an even dusting of sugar and spice. This gives them a sweet, satisfying, roughness that balances fully against mealier, dry nuttiness of the pumpkin seed itself. Of course, it’s not just any spices we’re talking about here – Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spiced Pumpkin Seeds are coated with a mixture of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and, of course, plenty of sugar. While the sugar content will make you think of honey roasted peanuts, the other spices do a good job of approximating the flavorful complexity of a traditional pumpkin pie.
The result is something you won’t find anywhere else on the market. There’s been a huge uptick in exotically spiced nuts in recent years – from chili-spiced peanuts to honey-mustard almonds – but pumpkin pie spiced nuts haven’t been done yet. The result is an addicting and enjoyable snack – albeit one that might perform better on a different nut. The pumpkin seeds, although well prepared, are still waffer-y and dry, with a tendency to “pulp up” in your mouth in a way that real nuts don’t.
While I’d certainly be happy if someone wanted to come out with a pumpkin pie spiced peanut, I won’t turn up my nose at these pumpkin seeds. ‘Tis the harvest season, after all – if there’s ever a time for pumpkin seed it’s now. Setting out a bowl of these at your next autumnal gathering will fit the bill just right.
Would I Recommend Them: Sure, they’re tasty and snackable.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yeah, I’d substitute these for honey-roasted peanuts.
Final Synopsis: Sweet, roasted pumpkin seeds done right.
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.