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.
|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.
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.
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.
Oh, what a disappointment you are Trader Joe’s Salted Caramel Gelato. Trader Joe’s has brought so many wonderful things into my life, I try and not get too let down when something falls flat. They dream big, and for that, at the very least, they deserves our every consideration of leniency. And yet I am simply crushed by overwhelmingly lackluster execution of what could have been a mouth-melting delight.
Deserts, like everything else in life, can be broken down into closely detailed hierarchy of what-beats-what (this is the sort of thing usually done by bored nerds. For instance, me, right now). The way I see it, frozen deserts generally beat baked deserts (ice cream beats cake). Within the domain of frozen treats, we have ice cream at the bottom, then sherbet, then sorbet, and finally, at the very top, theoretically you have your gelato.
Unfortunately, what we have here is a failure of gelato. What I look for in a good gelato is something creamy, dense and bursting with rich, overwhelming flavor. For something like salted caramel it seems like this should be a grand slam. Salted caramel, so simple but under-appreciated for so long, is one of the most satisfying flavors on the market. When it comes to intense, tongue pleasing tastes, there are ways to get fancier with it (and ice cream makers certainly twist themselves in knots coming out with convoluted, over-the-top flavors), but you just can’t beat the simple blast of savory and sweet you get from a well executed salted caramel. My tongue tingles just thinking about that rich buttery sugar melting into flashes of brilliant salty bursts.
This is the first gelato Trader Joe’s has ever brought to market, and it makes sense to choose such a decadent flavor – so why does Trader Joe’s Salted Caramel Gelato fail so badly?
Mainly, there really isn’t anything interesting going on here. The gelato is creamy, but lightweight – more like a scoop of Rite Aid Thrifty brand vanilla than a premium ice cream experience. This wouldn’t be such a failure if the gelato itself was as rich, sweet or salty as you might expect it to be. Instead of being blasted by a tongue-grabbing saltiness or charmed by impossibly sweet and creamy custard, you’re presented with a blandly “meh” sort of middle of the road flavor. Less creamy than their vanilla, less sweet and savory than their cookie butter ice cream, there’s no reason to come back to this mediocre confection.
In fact, Trader Joe’s has a plethora of delectable ice cream treats to choose from. Despite the name on this bucket, don’t expect it to beat out any of the other ones. I’d buy much more likely to buy another half gallon of Trader Joe’s Soy Creamy Frozen Desert before I bought more of this – not just because it’d be healthier, but because the vegan soy milk is at least doing something interesting with flavor.
Would I Recommend It: No way – go for the Cookie Butter ice cream first.
Would I Buy It Again: Not so long as I have any other choice.
Final Synopsis: “Salted” “Caramel” “Gelato” that fails to live up to any part of the name.
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.
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.