Trader Joe’s Mango Taffy

taffy
Sure – I love mango. Maybe I’m crazy for it. Maybe I’m on the record as saying that I wish my diet was pretty much mango and nothing else. I may have even made a tag for all mango themed products I’ve reviewed called “MANGO!”. For these reasons, and more, I am really not sure what to do with myself right now. Folks, I don’t know how else to say it, but we are in the FIRST EVER TRADER JOE’S MANGO MADNESS SEASON.

MANGO MADNESS! MANGO MADNESS! MANGO MADNESS!

Ranking: 3 stars 3 star ranking

What it is: Nice taffy that tastes like mango.
Price: $3.99 for a 12 oz. tub
Worth it: Yes, if you like mango and taffy.

Pumpkin Madness? That I can handle. Over time I’ve started to come to terms with Trader Joe’s annual pumpkin deluge – the October tradition of stocking the store so full of pumpkin derived products that they spill from the shelves and choke the doors.

What I was absolutely not prepared for is my favorite fruit in the entire world, getting the same treatment. My hands are quivering, I’m still breathing hard – and I went in the Trader Joe’s YESTERDAY. Guys, every aisle – every nook and cranny – is absolutely bursting with mango products, each item more outlandish than the last.

I should be thrilled – swinging from the lamp posts – but instead I find a strange uneasy churning in my stomach.

First, I’m not sure my grocery budget can take the strain of purchasing every new Mango product. But even more nervous-making, I’m worried for the mango itself.

Pumpkin is one thing. Pumpkin is the dependable, workman-like squash of the vegetable world. You can do anything to pumpkin and it won’t complain – mash it, roast it, puree it, spice it, candy it, press it for oil – whatever. It’s a mellow gourd with an unassuming, laid-back taste.

Mango, on the other hand, is a diva. Bright, brilliant, succulent and oh so deliciously sweet, mango can only be done two ways – perfectly, or perfectly awful. A poorly devised pumpkin product might leave you non-plussed –  but when someone does mango wrong, you end up with a repugnant horror. This is what I fear – that Trader Joe’s will abuse mango so horribly that they actually ruin my favorite fruit for me. Each new item I pick up is like another spin at Russian Roulette. I’m sure most of these will be great, but at some point I’m bound to find something lethal. Or will the sheer quantity of new products include enough duds that I swear off mango forever.

So which side of the line does Trader Joe’s Mango Taffy fall on?

I’m happy to say that this Mango infused candy is delicious. Taffy is rarely ever truly good or truly bad – most of the time it’s just that sweet, chewy sugar-dough you stick in your mouth when you’re on vacation somewhere rustic. The body of this taffy is just fine – a nice consistency, but unexcpetion. Not too hard, not too soft – malleable and almost yielding to the tongue. The mango flavor is pleasantly flavorful and strong. Taffy makers are fond of claiming they have all manner of flavors – a veritable encyclopedia of tastes encompassing every fruit and confection under the sun – but tend to deliver only about 3 or 4 distinctly different tastes among a sea of sweetness.

Trader Joe sidesteps this pitfall – delivering a mango taffy actually tastes like mango. Close your eyes and concentrate and you can nearly taste the juiciness of a nice bite of ripened, succulent mango flesh. It’s not quite there, obviously, but it’s a fair simulacra, and certainly deserving of the mango name.

The price is reasonable, to boot. If you’re looking for a confection that will really blow your socks off, you could do better in the magical candy aisles of Trader Joe’s, but if your a mango fan or a taffy fan, you’ll not go wrong picking this up.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Sure – this is pretty good taffy.

Would I Buy It Again: Yeah, I guess so.

Lives Up To The Name “Mango”: Yup – real mango flavor in these taffies.

Final Synopsis: Good mango taffy.

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Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Pumpkin-Spiced Salted Caramels

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Pumpkin-Spiced Salted Caramels Box

Beautiful, intriguing… delicious?

Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Madness continues, and we really have something unusual for you today.

“But surely it couldn’t be more unusual than the Pumpkin Panettone we read about in the last post?”, I hear you asking, glancing at each other in puzzled concern.

Ranking: 4 stars 4 star rating

What it is: Very salty, heavily spiced caramels
Price: $4.99 for a 6.2 oz box.
Worth it: Yes – if just for the unusual experience

The thing is – while Trader Joe’s pumpkin-filled panettone is clearly the product of a mind deranged by over-consideration of gourds, it is still a product easily recognizable and identifiable. Trader Joe’s Dark Choclate Pumpkin-Spice Sated Caramels, on the other hand, have no analog on this planet Earth.

They certainly sound ordinary enough – salted caramels, sure those are delicious, dark chocolate, why not, and of course pumpkin-spice, because this is October and we can’t control ourselves.

Yes the combination of these three components results in a truly intense and wholly new sort of taste completely unlike most chocolate bonbons I’ve experienced – a taste that is nearly savory, rather than sweet.

The issue is that while “dark chocolate”, “pumpkin spice” and “salted caramel” sound good together on a box, they don’t really mingle with each other harmoniously on the tongue. Eating one of these is a little like wearing black-and-white checkerboard shorts with a plaid shirt. They components clash in bold and unusual ways.

Let’s start with the salt. A little salt goes a long way, regardless of what you’re cooking, and doubly so when it comes to candy. When I tried Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles, I was really impressed with the elegance they showed with applying the salt – just a few grains place carefully on top. One glance on these caramels and it’s obvious that the same restraint was not shown. Each caramel is packed with a huge clump of vivid red Hawaiian sea salt. While I applaud the gorgeous color effect it has (and really, the presentation of the whole box couldn’t be classier), this is way too much salt. On first bite you’re immediately overwhelmed by a nearly painful burst of saltiness.

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Pumpkin-Spiced Salted Caramels 2

The very next flavor you’ll notice is the rich, dark chocolate. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but dark chocolate should never simply be used as a substitute for milk chocolate. Yes, it sounds classier, looks better, and people will pay more money for it – but it simply isn’t the sort of light confection that milk chocolate is. In this case, Trader Joe’s is only using 55% dark chocolate in the candy shell, but in context the bitterness really comes to fore. This semi-bitter dark chocolate collides with the intense salt, and immediately starts a violent war over your tastebuds.

This bitter/salty conflict is the start of the savory taste I was talking about above. What really drives it home, however, is the combination of “pumpkin-spices”. As we all know, “pumpkin-spice” is short-hand for a wide selection of strong spices used to turn pumpkin into something redolent and flavorful. In this case, TJ’s is using cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, and no shortage of it.

Right as you bite into the caramel core, as you’re recovering from the wild ride of the outer shell, this combination of spices hits you so strongly that they nearly overpower the typical caramel sweetness. The result of all this is that for a moment, you might actually believe you’re biting in a slice of meat pie, or some other savory, salty, meaty treat.

Only after a few moments, when the initial barrage of taste sensations die down, do you finally get to taste the long, mellow finish of the caramel – punctuated here and there a few parting sallies from the salt.

On the back of the box, Trader Joe’s writes: “You think you’ll know what to expect, and yet, you’ll be pleasantly, pumpkinly surprised.” Surprised, certainly. Pleasantly is a matter of opinion. I will admit, after getting over the initial shock of the first few pieces, these caramels have started to grow on me. I’d hesitate to call them “good”, in the traditional sense of the word at least, but they are incredibly intriguing – a candy unlike anything else available in the store.

While these aren’t for everyone, if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to snack on and ruminate over, these are fascinating little morsels.

If you need a nice little hostess gift (and you don’t want to bother with a panettone), you might be tempted to pick up a box of these. The presentation is certainly up to the job – but realize that you’ll be giving them something more challenging than delicious.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Hesitantly, if I knew their palette well.

Would I Buy Them Again: I’m still trying to come to terms with the first box.

Final Synopsis: Extremely intense chocolates, with a nearly meaty taste.


Trader Joe’s Magic Beans

Trader Joe's Magic Beans

Do not trade a cow for these.

Trader Joe’s is no stranger to whimsy, and what could be more whimsical then bringing a bag of magic beans to market? That’s precisely what Trader Joe’s has done with their mysterious new offering, Trader Joe’s Magic Beans! An extremely enigmatic offering that combines vagueness with and strange product impulses into a bewildering product.

Ranking: 2 stars2 star rating 

What it is: Milk chocolate over crunchy nougat.
Price: $3.99 for a 7.7 oz bag.
Worth it: No, not very good quality sweets.

Trader Joe’s Magic Beans are certainly magical. Not necessarily in the way that wizards and dragons are magical, and not in the way that rainbows and a child’s smile are magical, but in that way a that mild concussion is magical – by turning ordinary things into an set of surreal and perplexing stimuli that don’t really make sense.

Upon seeing a bag of Trader Joe’s Magic Beans for the first time, many questions immediately spring to mind. Magic beans, really? What makes them so magical? What are they exactly? Where do they come from? None of these questions are answered in the slightest anywhere on the bag. You are presented with a strange, plastic sack of oblong candy, a product name, and no more.

One of Trader Joe’s more infuriating traits is a tendency to leave off the product copy. When they do include copy, it’s uniformly delightful and well considered – equal parts gently amusing and gently educational. However when they elect not to include copy, it’s almost always in instances like this – on their most unusual and unique items.

TJ’s is giving us nothing to go on here. “Mystery Beans” might be a better name. All we’re told is that they’re chocolate covered nougat beans. The surprise is that not only is the chocolate shell hard and crunchy, but so is the nougat in side.

Yes, crunchy nougat – not the typical soft and pliable stuff so pleasantly yielding to the tooth. This nougat has been hardened to a brittle condition. Biting into one of these over-sized beans is an act of crunch, crunch, crunching – like biting into some chocolate covered brittle or toffee.

That’s the other unusual thing. The nougat is crispy hard and almost buttery sweet – not at all like ordinary nougat, much more like toffee or crunchy caramel.

I’d never had crunchy nougat before. It’s certainly not something I ever though to ask for. Are there people out there who appreciate crunchy nougat? Is this a thing? I have to say it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but going in expecting nougat made it a little off putting.

The chocolate part can pass largely without remark. It’s your basic, low quality Halloween candy-style milk chocolate making up a quarter inch thick cocoon. Not the best Trader Joe’s has to offer by any means.

Interestingly, these beans have also been shellaced – literally. Shellac is listed as the eighth or ninth ingredient. As you probably know, shellac is a resin generally encountered as a wood or nail polish varnish. Typically, that’s not something I’m looking for in my food – even though it is technically edible and a somewhat common food glaze.

In the end, there’s nothing really for me to recommend these on. Unless you’re intrigued by the concept of crunchy nougat, it’s hard to imagine anyone picking up these mysterious shellaced beans, even if I highly recommended them. Apart from giving them to out to kids as part of a “magical” gift bag, these beans were just sort of blah.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: No, not particularly.

Would I Buy Them Again: I have had a enough crunchy nougat and shellac, thank you.

Final Synopsis: Low-quality chocolate around a nougat-esque core does not necessarily equal “magic”.


Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt

Does a chocolate-covered cracker become a cookie, or is it still just a cracker? 

Trader Joe’s never seems to run out of things to cover with dark chocolate, for good or ill. That said, chocolate of any stripe is pretty dang good, so I was intrigued by Trader Joe’s new Dark Chocolate Covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt – little squares of graham cracker coated in a thick, dark chocolate shell and dusted with a trace of sea salt.

Ranking: 3 stars 3 star ranking

What it is: Chocolate covered graham crackers with a sprinkling of salt.
Price: $3.99 for 8 ounces.
Worth it: Yes. Dark chocolate and sea salt go well together.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that you need to be careful using dark chocolate. It’s really nice when used in the right context, but you can’t simply go around replacing it for milk chocolate in any confection that crosses your mine. Milk chocolate is a sweet, pleasurable treat. Dark chocolate on the other hand, especially when you get to 70% pure and above, is a refined nibble with a bitter edge. You can’t just mix it with peanut butter, for instance, and expect everything to turn out alright.

Fortunately, these dark chocolate covered graham crackers fall squarely in the “tasty” column. All the parts here play really well together. The dark chocolate is doing the usual dark chocolate thing – semi-sweet as it melts on the tongue, with a long bitter back. Being clever sorts, Trader Joe’s doesn’t use a very high concentration of dark chocolate. Although they don’t tell us exactly how much on the label, it tastes like maybe 60% dark chocolate or so.

Underneath this is the bit of graham cracker. Trader Joe’s alleges that there is some honey on the cracker, but it really doesn’t make much of an appearance. In fact, almost none of the graham cracker taste really shows up – unless you’re the sort that likes to hold it in your mouth until allllll the dark chocolate melts off before swallowing. Really, the crunchy cracker is just there for the body and texture, giving the little chocolate-covered cookie something for us to snap into.

However, the real hero here isn’t the dark chocolate or the graham cracker, but the judicious use of sea salt. Although you’ll only find a few big grains of salt on each cookie, that’s all you really need. The semi-sweetness of the chocolate mingles delightfully with the high, salty notes and transforms the dark chocolate’s bitterness into complex, tongue-teasing treat.

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt 2

More than anything, Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt reminded me of Trader Joe’s previously released Milk Chocolate Jumbles. These were a very similar snack using toasted quinoa for the body and milk chocolate for the thick shell, but made the same use of a light dusting of sea salt. The Jumbles were quite a bit sweeter, but otherwise a very similar chocolate-and-salt taste.

The take away? Putting a little sea salt on your chocolate is a downright delicious idea. Whatever else you do with it, a little fancy chocolate and salt marry very well together. In fact, as long as we’re mixing chocolate and salt, why not take this all the way to the top? It sort of makes me want to pick up another of Trader Joe’s great Fireworks Chocolate Bar and some of their Cypriot pyramid-shaped flake salt and just go nuts.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Sure – if you like chocolate-heavy snacks that are more than just chocolate.

Would I Buy It Again: Maybe. I liked the toned down sweetness compared to the richer Jumbles.

Final Synopsis: Another great pairing of chocolate and sea salt.

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Ts and Js Sour Gummies

Trader Joe's Sour Gummies Ts & Js

The tastiest letters I’ve ever eaten.

Trader Joe’s candy selection is just as interesting and varied as any of their other product selections. In the past we’ve looked at some of their intriguing chocolate offerings (some more successful than others), their honey mint patties, and even their mango gummies. However, out of all of the candies I’ve tried so far, Trader Joe’s new Ts & Js Sour Gummies have got to be my favorite.

Ranking: 4 stars 4 star rating

What it is: Sweet and sour gummy candy.
Price: $1.99 / 7 oz. bag
Worth it: Yes. They’re like better Sour Patch Kids

Sometimes you want something salty, sometimes you want something sweet, and sometimes you just want to pucker and grimace on something that will scour your taste buds with a coarse blast of citric acid. Trader Joe’s Sour Gummies is their answer to that masochistic desire for sour candy, and a marked upgrade on the only other contender for that slice of market space, the classic Sour Patch Kid.

What you get with these sour gummies is a 7 oz. bag of little letters “T” and “J” in four citrus flavors, dusted by rough grains of cane sugar. Sweet at first, for just a moment, the sugar quickly gives way to a single so-tart-you-love-it punch to the kisser. Trader Joe’s isn’t pulling the punches either – these little candies are every bit as sour as Sour Patch Kids, and then some. After a handful you’ll be ready to put them aside and give your mouth a break for a minute.

With four great flavors, you’ll actually enjoy the punishment. Unlike the vaguely differentiated “flavors” of Sour Patch Kids, Trader Joe’s actually delivers four distinct and interesting flavors – tangerine, Meyer lemon, key lime and grapefruit. Made with real fruit juice, you will be able to distinctly tell each little bite-sized letter apart by taste, if not by color. Best of the lot, in my opinion is grapefruit, which hits you with a kick of that unmistakably bitter grapefruit zest before giving way to the sweet gummy core.

Even better, these candies are vegan, kosher and all natural – right down to being colored by natural vegetable extracts. At only a $1.99 for a bag, what are you waiting for. Drop those Sour Patch Kids off at the orphanage and pick up some of these instead.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Definitely, a great sweet and sour combo.

Would I Buy It Again: Yup.

Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s Sour Patch Kids.

Trader Joe's Sour Gummies Ts & Js - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Sour Gummies Ts & Js – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles

Trader Joe's Milk Chocolate Jumble

I feel this is a missed opportunity to call them “Jumbo Jumbles”. Seems like something Trader Joe’s would go for.

Ah yes, the jumble. One of the lazier forms of organization on the books. It’s right up there with the heap and the mess in terms of ways people don’t like their things to be. There’s just not much cachet to a jumble. So what lead Trader Joe’s to just sort of jumble some chocolate and stuff together instead of delivering it to the customer in a precisely thought through execution – like they did with their strictly ordered triple tiered chocolates? I must admit, I don’t actually know – but I will tell you that Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles are downright delicious.

Aside from the intriguing name, what attracted me to these candy jumbles was the ingredient list. Listed right up in there, right next to milk chocolate and caramel is quinoa. Toasted quinoa. Also Himalayan salt. Okay, TJ, now you’ve got my attention. You may have dozens of chocolate-covered after-dinner treats available to me – but only one has quinoa in it. Depending on your viewpoint, that’s either a stroke of desperation or brilliance.

Why in the world, after all, would you try to shoehorn quinoa into a chocolate confection filled with gooey caramel? Quinoa and chocolate occupy opposite ends of the nutrition spectrum. I would think that they would have annihilated each other when they came into contact. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the first time anyone has ever tried mixing caramel and quinoa together.

Well, I’ll tell you this much – all the hypothetical people who decided not to do this before – it’s your loss. The toasted quinoa is a delightful part of this little snack food. Before I get into the why’s and wherefores of that, though, we’d better take a look at our jumble as a whole.

You might not be sure what you’re getting into at first glace. Any manner of strange and surprising items could be lurking beneath that rich, milk chocolate coating. It could easily be chewy, hard, salty, filled with hidden nuts, baked like a brittle or as hard and unyielding as an over-cooked cookie. You just can’t tell that much from such an ambiguous lump.

The fact of the matter is, on your first bite your teeth will sink right into a sweet, dense core of caramel. There’s no hidden, solid substrate to this little trifle – it’s pure, pliable, yielding caramel all the way through. Or almost pure, I should say. This is where the toasted quinoa comes in. Little did I know that toasted quinoa tastes and acts pretty much just like toasted rice. Nothing of the distinctive taste and texture of quinoa remains – instead it has become a light, crispy, crunchy bit of pleasing texture teasing the tooth here and there and lending the jumble a bit of much needed body. Unlike toasted rice, the toasted quinoa is much smaller, and as a result it works much better in this small treat – never interrupting your bite, but just kind of sitting there, in your mouth, crunching up pleasantly between your teeth.

While the quinoa is fine and completely inoffensive, the real star of the show is the sprinkling of Himalayan salt. Why it needs to be Himalayan salt, I don’t know – but I can tell you that it takes the jumble to a whole new level. If you’ve never tried salted caramel before, or salted chocolate, you’re missing out on one of life’s great flavor sensations. Nothing accentuates and compliments the rich sweetness of cream and sugar like a few well placed grains of salt, and here it adds an entire new level of richness to what would otherwise be a simple little treat.

The only real problem, as far as I’m concerned is that the salt distribution on the jumbles is very erratic – some jumbles have no salt, while others have plenty. The jumbles without salt on them are fine and good – it’s just that the salted ones are what really make this worth picking up.

Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles are aimed at the buyer who is looking for a decadent chocolate treat without any of the pretension (and inflated price tag) that so often goes along with that. They’re certainly not going to make you any thinner, but if you’re looking for a novel new way to intake caramel and chocolate, these aren’t a bad choice.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Yes, if you like really sweet sweets.

Would I Buy Them Again: I would if my willpower was stronger.

Final Synopsis: Don’t let the quinoa worry you – these are all about the salted caramel and chocolate.

 


Trader Joe’s Fireworks Chocolate Bar

Trader Joe's Fireworks Chocolate Bar

Cheap gimmick – or dynamite in a bag?

You know what they say – once you’ve reviewed one novelty chocolate confection, you just can’t stop. Someone says that , I’m sure of it. At any rate, this classic axiom lead me to pick up Trader Joe’s Fireworks Chocolate Bar – a real honest to goodness chocolate bar, except it’s dark chocolate and filled with Red Hot Pop Rocks.

Or that’s how it tastes at least. This chocolate bar is Trader Joe’s entry into the amazing new world of chocolate bars with non-chocolate confections embedded I them. Confectioner Chuao started doing this a while back, coming out with such Willy Wonka-esque hybrids as chocolate and popcorn bits, chocolate and strawberry bits and, of course, chocolate and bacon bits. Trader Joe’s own crazy idea is to combine dark chocolate (although the exact percentage dark is left unspecified), combined with “popping candy” bits, chipotle chile, and cayenne pepper. The result is kind of crazy. When you first bite into the bar, yes, it tastes just like a low percentage dark chocolate bar, more sweet than bitter, smooth and of course chocolaty. But then things start exploding in your mouth and you get concerned. These, of course, are our “popping bits”, a generic name for what is essentially pop rocks. Ground up small enough that you will rarely encounter one of these crackling bits of sugar, they are nonetheless very noticeable, as your mouth gently hisses and snaps as the chocolate dissolves on the tongue.

Secondary to this effect is the “fire” part of the “firecracker” chocolate. Although it contains, as previously stated, chipotle chile, pasilla chile and cayenne pepper, it’s not in sufficient quantities to light anyone’s mouth on fire. It is, however, plenty enough to give you a warm glow and tingle to go along with the nice bittersweet chocolate.

Overall, it’s a pretty good effect – pulling your mind and your taste buds in at lest three directions at once as you feel and taste your way through this cavalcade of bittersweet, fiery explosions. This is really a chocolate bard to be savored in small bites, and let melt luxuriously onto the tongue. It may be the same size as any of TJ’s other chocolate bar, but you’ll derive many times the satisfaction from it. After the swing-and-miss dark chocolate and ginger confection I tried earlier this week, it’s a relief to see that they can also deliver something this good. You may not want to come back to this bar every time you feel a chocolate craving – but you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you pick it up at least once.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yeah! Don’t be afraid guys – Trader Joe’s is doing something pretty cool here.

Would I Buy It Again: I’d definitely pick one up to share.

Final Synopsis: Dark chocolate + pop rocks + chili pepper = a surprisingly good candy bar.

Trader Joe's Fireworks Chocolate Bar - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Fireworks Chocolate Bar – Nutrition Facts