Well folks, it’s time to face facts. It’s November, and that means that Trader Joe’s pumpkin madness is drawing to a close for another year. Still, there’s time for one final pumpkin post before holiday food mania sets in upon us, and that post I’m reserving for Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Soup.
On the pumpkin weirdness scale I think we can agree that pumpkin soup is not as out there as pumpkin greek yogurt – there is, after all, a rich tradition of squash-based soups. Nevertheless, I’ve never actually seen a purely pumpkin-based soup before now. The soup itself not much more than pumpkin puree mixed with water and a few spices – essentially a watered-down verision of Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter (which is to be expected, given the soup recipe listed on the pumpkin butter jar). That simplicity means that the soup tastes almost exactly like you would expect it to, like a big mouthful of pumpkin, but with one slight surprise – it’s notably, quite sweet. There’s no sugar added, so that sweetness comes from the natural sugar in the ripened Wisconsin pumpkins that go into the dish. A sweet, vegetable soup is not necessarily the taste I would have been looking for, but the mellowness of the pumpkin and the richness of the flavor keep the sweetness from becoming too overpowering, but its still a taste that takes some getting used to. The tongue may also detect the mild presence of some typical pumpkin spices (nutmeg and clove, mainly), but these don’t add much to the basically pumpkin taste.
Straight from the box, it’s a very basic, not particularly impressive soup. The soup has almost the exact same texture and consistency of a bowl of Campbell’s Tomato soup, and it shares the same the same simple, workman like nature as well. Few are the individuals going to a bowl of unadorned tomato soup for the soup alone, not when there’s a can of minestrone at hand. Tomato soup is only going to show up on the table when it’s been paired with the right dishes, or fancied up with addition ingredients, and the same is true of this pumpkin soup. Eaten straight the soup is okay, though maybe slightly to sweet to have broad appeal, but if finessed into a more robust soup or stew you might really have something here.
Trader Joe’s seems to sense this themselves, offering a couple of easy soup augmentations on their webpage – suggesting topping it with a dollop of sour cream, or giving it some Indian flare with a bit of coconut milk or coconut cream and curry powder. You can delve deeper into the twists and turns of pumpkin soup with the Trader Joe’s approved Hazelnut Frico Soup-Topper recipe, or check out some of the third-party innovations like this pumpkin and chicken stew.
The takeaway from all this is that there’s not much reason to pick up this soup unless you’re going to do so with an experimental attitude. The soup is not by itself a compelling buy, but could become the compelling center of an ambitious dish.
I should spare a word for the one thing about the soup that did impress me – the really clever box design. Trader Joe’s packages this soup in tiny, soft-sided 17 oz. boxes that, in addition to being long-term shelf stable, also folds out into a convenient spout with the application of a quick squeeze to all four corners. Clever, Trader Joe’s, just don’t forget to keep putting that much thought into the food.
Would I Recommend It: Only if you already have a recipe already in mind.
Would I Buy It Again: ‘fraid not – slightly too sweet for my tastes.
Final Synopsis: A functional, sweet pumpkin soup in search of a delicious recipe.
Of everything that Trader Joe’s has attempted to cram pumpkin into, Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Green Yogurt has surprised me the most. Pumpkin in waffles? There’s precedent for that. But pumpkin in yogurt? Any member of the squash family, really, has no place being blended into thick, protein laden yogurt. Of course we’re talking about the food engineers at Trader Joe’s labs who didn’t shy back from merging pizza and veggie burgers so it was unlikely their hand would be stayed here either.
To get right into it – pumpkin does not marry well to the tongue-enveloping cloak of greek yogurt. I like pumpkin as much as the next man, and I’m certainly a lover of greek yogurt, but they simply do not play well together here.
Let’s start with the first issue – what does pumpkin really taste like? The squash family as a whole isn’t known for overwhelming people with blasts of flavor. While pumpkin does have it’s own sort of mild, intriguing charm it isn’t really a natural candidate to jazz up plain, unflavored yogurt in the same way that, say, strawberries and pineapple are. What people generally respond to, when you’re talking about pumpkin are the spices and sugar that get mixed in with it – pumpkin pie, more than pumpkin.
Trader Joe’s tries very hard to deliver this – in addition to the pureed pumpkin (the second ingredient), they’ve also added nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. So really what we’re talking about is not pumpkin flavored greek yogurt, but pumpkin pie flavored greek yogurt. This doesn’t really seem like all that daunting of a task to deliver on – Yoplait manages to pull off a huge number of pie flavors in their yogurts, from Boston cream to lemon chiffon. But yoplait isn’t interested in delivering you a healthy, non-fat, greek yogurt like Trader Joe’s, and it’s in pursuing that course that TJ’s managed to trip themselves up.
This yogurt tastes, first, strongly of the slightly sour yogurt cultures you’d expect, then a bit of generic pumpkin spice, then very faintly of pumpkin. And that’s about it. None of the jazzy pep of the more flavorful, fruit variety yogurts you offer. Just a long, lingering, slightly sour taste in the mouth.It’s possible that if this were not a non-fat yogurt, if it had a richer, fuller body, there might have been more room for the pumpkin pie spices to play out, but that’s nothing but conjecture at this point.
I get it, Trader Joe’s, you love pumpkin! But let’s take a good look at just the non-fat greek yogurts you already offer – honey, mango, blueberry, vanilla, strawberry and pomegranate. Why are you adding pumpkin to the mix? To impress people with your boldness? What if you succeed and people buy it, just out of curiosity? Don’t you think it’s important that the yogurt tastes at least as good as your other yogurts? I’ve tried all of your other non-fat greek yogurts, and I can safely say this is the least enjoyable of them all. Worse than pomegranate, TJ, worse than pomegranate.
You know me, I’m all for boldness. I’m all for embracing the wild and unknown. But you also have to know when you’re challenging the status quo and when you’re just peeing into the wind. Trader Joe’s Greek Pumpkin Yogurt is, despite all their enthusiasm and good intentions, the latter.
Would I Recommend It: To no one but the pathologically motivated Trader Joe’s pumpkin perfectionist.
Would I Buy It Again: Not this year, not next year.
Final Synopsis: Non-fat greek yogurt is just one of those things that doesn’t need pumpkin in it.
What is it about miniaturization that makes things so much more appealing? Regular umbrellas? Just okay. Mini drink umbrellas? Amazing. Regular bottles of alcohol? Enjoyable. Mini bottles of alcohol? Instant fun. Regular elephants? Pretty good. Dwarf elephants? Mind blowing. Whatever it is, it applies equally to Trader Joe’s Mini Pumpkin Pies – delicious, light and flaky hor d’oeuvre-sized pumpkin pies so deliciously edible that they pose a serious danger to your waistband.
I picked up these pies more out of a sense of obligation to my on going coverage of Trader Joe’s pumpkin madness then any real desire to have pumpkin pies. Let me preface my coming remarks by pointing out that I’m a pumpkin pie lover, and always will be so long as I live. Pumpkin pie has an indelible place at my Thanksgiving table this year and every year to come. That said, pumpkin pie is definitely a second tier pie. I love eating it at Thanksgiving, and maybe one or two more times over the winter holidays, but that’s about does it for me. Unlike, say, a good cherry or lemon meringue, it’s just not a pie I hanker for year round.
Why, then, should I expect these mini pumpkin pies to be any better – miniaturization aside. There’s one excellent answer to that question – and that’s the crust. While the heart of the pie might be its filling, its soul is in its crust. A pie can only go so far with an average crust. For a pie to be truly delectable it needs a light, flaky, tasty, buttery crust – and on that front Trader Joe’s knocks it out of the park. The crust on these mini pumpkin pies is the most delicious part – tastier by far than the somewhat indifferent pumpkin pie filling. It’s an all butter crust, imbued with sugar yolk (egg white beaten with sugar) and graced across the top with a few more grains of granulated sugar for good measure – more like the crust of a delicate turnover than a pie. I’m no pie die hard, but I can confidently say this is the most delicious pie crust I’ve ever had.
Trader Joe’s plays to the strength of their excellent crust in two ways. One, in direct defiance of all pumpkin pie tradition, they have put top crusts on these pies. Now normally I’m the kind of guy who’d strut up and down lambasting TJ’s for such a brazen act of effrontery. In this case however, I’ve got nothing to say – the top crust does everything to improve this pie and nothing to hurt it.
Second, by serving these pies in miniature TJ is maximizing the amount of crust surface area they’re delivering while keeping the crust light and thin. The one issue I encountered while baking up these pies was that they tended to crumble apart at the least provocation. This is, of course, the Achilles’s heel of a very light and flaky pie crust. Only by limiting the pies to such a small size is it even possible to cook them without have them fall all to pieces. Of course, even at such a small size you’ve got to expect that that buttery crust packs some fat. And you’d be right to expect that – to the tune of 30% of your saturated fat intake in just one 1.5 oz pie.
So yes, these are delicious pies. But in the end they are still pumpkin pies – while they might delight me, and make an appearance at my holiday parties, I don’t think I’ll be bringing them out again until this time next year.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, just be careful you don’t eat them all in one sitting.
Would I Buy Them Again: Sure, but not until next Thanksgiving.
Final Synopsis: A tiny, delicious take on the pumpkin pie with a truly wonderful crust.
As Bert so sagely pointed out, a waffle without “w” is simply awful. But what if that waffle has pumpkin in it as well? Does it become something even better? I aimed to find out by taking home Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Waffles, exactly the sort of unpredictable concoction that I should have expected from the mad lab geniuses at the TJ labs. As long as you’re putting pumpkin in everything, you might as well add it to waffles right? Possibly. While there must surely be a case to be made for pumpkin waffles, Trader Joe’s pallid planks aren’t it, offering so little as to be no more preferable than a regular frozen waffle.
Look, let’s talk waffles. I think we can all agree that waffles are one of nature’s ultimate foods – capable of making any meal better. I hope whoever invented the waffle has a damn big monument on his grave, because they’re simply the best – the brainchild of a man who dared to ask, “What if pancakes had little nooks to hold the syrup in?”
There are two types of inventions in this world – the ho-hum inventions that someone was bound to get around to given enough time (the wheel, the book, the space shuttle, etc), then there are the truly amazing inventions, the inventions that, were it not for the fortunate birth of one incredible man or woman, would have never entered into this world no matter how long we waited (the tamagotchi, the keyboard necktie, platform shoes with little fish tanks in them, etc).
Waffles, of course, belong to this miraculous second category of inventions. Our efforts to heap praise upon the inventor, however, is wasted – this genius is lost to us in the long, convoluted depths of waffle history. While I would love nothing more than to leap into some of the truly interesting aspects of waffle history, I simply don’t have enough space here. Instead, I beg you to spend some time on Wikipedia’s waffle page, where you will learn about such things as:
- The medieval waffle guilds of France
- A Bruegel painting that “shows waffles being cooked, but also features a man wearing three waffles strapped to his head, playing dice for waffles with a black-masked carnival-goer.”
- Thomas Jefferson’s “Waffle frolics”
That’s not even all the highlights. Check it out guys, knowledge is its own reward.
All of which brings us back to Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Waffles. The pressing question is, why bother making pumpkin waffles if you aren’t going to make them taste that much like pumpkin? This is exactly the misstep TJ’s makes here – the pumpkin waffles taste a bit like pumpkin, but not all that much. Despite promises of “sweet pumpkin and savory pumpkin pie spices”, what you really get is a waffle that tastes basically like an Eggo. Yes, there are undertones of pumpkin, but its rather subtle and not very satisfying. Hot out of the toaster you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise – these guys smell good, exactly as if they’re chock full of delicious pumpkin flavor, but on the plate they let you down.
Look, these aren’t bad waffles, they’re just bad pumpkin waffles. Do they have more of a pumpkin taste then non-pumpkin waffles? Yes, but it’s not enough to tickle the taste buds that crave that pumpkin taste. Eating these was sort of like listening to a good song that’s turned down too low – I kept wanting to reach out and turn up the flavor so I could really enjoy the experience. Instead, I was just left mildly annoyed.
I topped mine with pumpkin butter ultimately, which made them much more satisfying but left me wondering why you shouldn’t just buy a nicer, regular waffle and put pumpkin butter on that. Beyond the promise of pumpkin flavor, these waffles don’t have a lot to write home about – they’re just your basic, frozen, toaster waffle. It’s a great idea – there’s no reason not to mix pumpkin and waffle – Trader Joe’s just needs to keep on trying in this case.
Would I Recommend Them: No – even the most die hard pumpkin lovers will be let down.
Would I Buy Them Again: I’ll save my money for a better waffle.
Final Synopsis: Not enough pumpkin in these waffles to make them worth the purchase.
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.
Trader Joe’s Pita Crisps with Cranberries and Pumpkin Seeds are a fine, crispy cracker, though it’s applications are limited. More interesting, I’d say, is that they decided to put pumpkin in a pita chip at all.
Accuse Trader Joe’s of anything you want: that their interior décor is garish, that their food nomenclature is erratic at best, that they struggle with keeping listeria out of their salads, whatever – but I dare you to accuse them of not providing enough seasonal foods. I effin’ dare you. Because Trader Joe’s would kick your ass up and down the block if you even opened your mouth to say that. Have you seen the Fearless Flyer for this month yet? Taken a little peak inside? Let me just save you the trouble and summarize a few of the entries right here:
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Bread Mix
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Toaster Pastries
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pancake Mix
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Waffles
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Soup
- Trader Joe’s Honey Roasted Pumpkin Ravioli
- Trader Joe’s Mini Pumpkin Pies
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cream Cheese
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffins
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cheesecake
- Trader Joe’s Organic Canned Pumpkin
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Spice
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Chai Latte
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Coffee
- Trader Joe’s Pumpin Spice Rooibos
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Bread Pudding
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Croissants
- Pilgrim Joe’s Pumpkin Ice Cream
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Macaroons
- Trader Joe’s Country Pumpkin Granola
- Trader Joe’s Pecan Pumpkin Instant Oatmeal
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Bar Baking Mix
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cranberry Scone Mix
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Body Butter
- Trader Joe’s “This Pumpkin Walks Into a Bar” Pumpkin & Cereal Snack Bars
- Trader Joe’s Greek Pumpkin Yogurt
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cranberry Crisps
- Trader Joe’s Pita Crisps with Cranberry and Pumpkin Seeds
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Biscotti
- ACE Hard Pumpkin Cider
- KBC Pumpkin Ale
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Flavored Dog Treats
- Trade Joe’s Pumpkin Trees
- and, of course, regular Pumpkins
And I’m pretty sure this is only a partial list.
I swear to you I didn’t make any of this up – not even “pumpkin trees”, a phrase which you’d be entirely justified in using as an excuse to write off this blog as surreal and joke-prone if it weren’t actually, really a thing they really have.
Pumpkin dog treats? Pumpkin greek yogurt!?!? These people are goddamn crazy. This is not the output of a sane company. No one needs this many pumpkin products for fall – in fact, no one needs this many pumpkin products over the course of their entire lifespan.
Somebody get in there and restrain these lunatics. I’m not joking, someone is in serious need of restraint and possibly anti-psychotics. Somewhere in the upper offices of Trader Joe’s Monrovia enclave an executive is stomping around, frothing at the mouth, demanding more and more pumpkin dishes, occasionally bursting into the R&D department and executing employees for not thinking “pumpkin” enough. I wish I could think of an alternative scenario that would explain this level of pumpkin output, but I really can’t.
I can only imagine the chaos overtaking the Trader Joe’s processing facilities. Huge dump trucks full of pumpkins backed up down the road, honking at each other so they too can send their load tumbling into the giant pumpkin hopper, itself already clogged with huge, bright orange pumpkins as the special, industrial pumpkin masher below, a specialty unit flown in from Germany, overheats under the strain of too many pumpkins.
Which brings us to the first entry on the ludicrous list of Trader Joe’s pumpkin products – Trader Joe’s Pita Crisps and Pumpkin Seeds. I’ll be hitting as many of these items as possible before the end of pumpkin season and, arbitrarily, I’ve chosen to start here. Keep an eye on the pumpkin list though – I’ll update it with links to articles as I go.
These really are excellent crackers. Case in point, they’re made with whole wheat and whole seeds, they’re toasted to a crispy brown, and they’re made by a small family owned bakery in Canada. That’s a very nice pedigree.
The pita crisps find a very nice little spot between sweet and salty. The saltiness (sea salt) is quite slight, just enough to grace the tongue and heighten the sweetness (organic cane sugar and the sweetened cranberries). Neither is so strong that it detracts from the earthy, whole grain taste of the toasted wheat and roasted pumpkin.
The fact is, I’d probably have preferred the crackers more it they didn’t have the cranberries at all. It’s an excellent snacking cracker in and of itself, thick, with a nice snap and good crunch that isn’t too dry. The cranberry bits are fine, they lend a slight chewiness to each cracker in addition to their sweetness, but they also infuse it with a berry flavor that fights a lot of other foods. This means that you’re limited as to what you can eat these pita crisps with. Most cheeses are just fine, especially Trader Joe’s fruity goat cheeses, but that’s about it. However most dips, particularly hummus and salsa, clash with the berry taste, which really curtails their table top use.
As compliments to cheeses or eaten by themselves the crackers are very nice – they’re just going to have a hard time rising out of the novelty, holiday food niche.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, if you’re planning ahead to a nice cheese plate.
Would I Buy Them Again: Good though they are, I’ll be buying less specialized crackers in the future.
Final Synopsis: A very, very good cracker, but a bit too sweet to go with many foods.
Every now and then I feel compelled to review a product at Trader Joe’s that isn’t on the actual Trader Joe’s brand. I’ve done it once or twice before, and only if I’m sufficiently intrigued by the weird nature of the product. When I saw ACE Hard Pumpkin Cider in the store the the other day, I simply couldn’t contain my curiosity. I’ve heard of apple ciders before, obviously, and even pear ciders. But pumpkin? That’s just crazy enough to get you on this blog.
A good hard cider isn’t an easy thing to come by in the states. They have a rather more robust history in the old UK and across the continent, but never took off in a big way in America – this despite a strong start in the nation’s infancy. In fact, for a non-trivial portion of America’s history hard cider was drunk like water, literally. In the colonial era, the notion of practical sanitation was a far off dream. As a result of water-borne illnesses, the populous quickly started looking for alternatives to keep them healthy, hydrated and maybe get them a little drunk to boot. The common solution was hard apple cider, which became the most common beverage to drink with meals.
As time went on, of course, public sanitation came into vogue. Water lost its stigma of being unhealthy, and beer rose to the position of most patriotic beverage. Nevertheless, the way was paved for pumpkin cider which, despite my high hopes, is not actually squeezed out of pumpkins in a giant pumpkin press, but made by adding natural flavorings to ordinary hard cider.
How does it taste? Well, a bit like pumpkin, really. The apple juice that makes up the base of this cider is still the primary and unmistakable component of the drink, but ACE doesn’t skimp on the natural pumpkin flavoring either. Crack open the bottle and you’ll get not only a bouquet of pumpkin up your nose right off the bat, but a rich blend of spices that embodies all of late fall. I’ll admit that one of the reasons I bought this drink was because, standing there on the supermarket floor, I couldn’t really conceptualize what pumpkin smelled like and I hungered for the experience. (The other reason, of course, was to give me an excuse to get drunk). The pumpkin you find in this bottle is similar to the pumpkin you find in a good pumpkin pie, not overly sweet but a more basic, essential pumpkin mixed with allspice, cinnamon and cloves. If you can drink this and not be transported back to a childhood memory of crunching leaves underfoot then you are probably dead inside (or grew up in a tropical -to-semi-tropical climate, one of the two).
Speaking of deadening yourself, the cider packs a reasonably strong punch – 5% alcohol by volume. That puts it toe to toe with most beers on the market. The over-sized 22 oz bottle, on the other hand, ensure that once you open this thing up you won’t be going out for the evening.
I’m going to stay out of the cider vs. beer controversy on the grounds that it is stupid. Cider and beer can and should exist happily side by side, although if we’re keeping score ACE’s pumpkin cider is gluten-free and has lower calorie than beers with the same alcohol content.
I haven’t had a hard cider that I’ve ever really liked before, everything I’ve ever tried has seemed too sweet or too cheap, but I liked this cider and I’d go back to it again. That said, pumpkin cider is ultimately a seasonal drink and a novelty. It’s never going to replace beer, or even a hypothetical, good, hard apple cider, but it could absolutely find a place on the counter next to the egg nog.
Would I Recommend It: If you’re into novel seasonal drinks, absolutely.
Would I Buy It Again: Sure, next fall.
Final Synopsis: A quality cider, with or without the pumpkin gimmick.