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.
Some days I wander the aisles of Trader Joe’s, vainly seeking for something that piques my interest, and sometimes Trader Joe’s makes it easy. There was certainly no way in hell, for example, that I wasn’t picking up Trader Joe’s Uncured Bacon Ganache Bar. If there’s such a thing as baiting the trap too richly, this is it – metaphorically and literally. We’re talking about a bar of bold, 70% dark chocolate, injected full of chocolate cream sauce and infused with crispy bacon bits. The resulting trip is as delicious and intense as that description makes it sound.
|What it is:||Dark chocolate bar, with ganache and bacon filling.|
|Price:||$1.99 for a 3 0z. bar|
|Worth it:||Yes! An intensely delicious ride for cheap.|
Not since Trader Joe’s Sweet Srircha Bacon Jerky have I encountered a product name with such scene-stealing panache. Or ganache, as the case may be. Clearly Trader Joe’s has seen what Chuao has been doing with their amazing candy and spice infused Firework bars, and decided they can one-up them at their own game.
The Uncured Bacon Ganache bar is, shockingly, exactly what it says it is. Starting with a rich, semi-sweet (read, “bitter”) 70% dark chocolate, Trader Joe’s has then piped each individual square full of syrupy caramel-and-chocolate-ganache mixture. This makes the candy bar decadent, but what really sets it apart are two things – the heavy touch of smoked salt, and the crunchy bits of bacon peppered throughout. The result is a tongue-top riot of deep bitter chocolate, super sweet caramel, and savory, tasty saltiness. In short, it’s beautiful.
The success of the whole bar depends heavily on the intense ganache filling. I have to admit that despite hearing the word almost constantly nowadays, I didn’t exactly know what a “ganache” was. In it’s basic form, it’s just dark chocolate mixed with cream to create a velvety chocolate sauce. Again, that’s in its basic form. Trader Joe’s modifies their ganache so dramatically that it probably doesn’t deserve the name any more. In addition to the melted chocolate and cream, TJ’s adds a healthy dose of pure, and unheralded, caramel that really ups the sweetness factor.
The real star, however, is the alder smoked salt. Rather than dusting the bar with salt, like they’ve done with their recent dark chocolate and sea salt offerings, the salt seems to be mixed into the ganache itself. The result is a salty-caramel-chocolate syrup filling. Like we saw with Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate and Sea Salt grahams, and their Milk Chocolate Jumbles, a little sea salt and chocolate is a winning combination.
That equation adds up here too, where the salt content has be ramped way up and melted into the candy itself. In fact, there’s so much salt in the filling that it tastes more salty than sweet, at least at first blush. I actually liked this, because it balances out the darker, heavier tones of the dark chocolate, and also helps bring a little life to the bacon crumbles.
The bacon, by the way, needs all the help it can get. Despite top billing, the bacon doesn’t make much of an impression in this bar. Its presence is limited to a sprinkling of small crumbles which are baked into the chocolate itself, rather than incorporated into the filling. Whatever savory or salty taste the bacon still has is overpowered by the intense dark chocolate and the saltier ganache. You’ll mainly only notice these nubs as bits of texture, tough flecks of a vaguely meaty substance that show up from bite to bite. While they do lend a very subtle bacon flavor to the candy bar, there’s not really enough to make much of an impact, and the bar would be just as good without it.
Underwhelming bacon performance aside, this is a fine fine chocolate bar. Taken alongside the new Firework Bar, it signals a delicious future for Trader Joe’s chocolate aisle.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, to lovers of intense chocolate everywhere.
Would I Buy It Again: Sure, once I’ve recuperated sufficiently from this one.
Final Synopsis: A tasty bar without much bacon, but more than enough caramel, salt and dark chocolate.
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.
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I picked up Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Ginger because, well, it sounds kind of terrible. Why would I do that to myself? Perhaps I’m insane. Perhaps. At any rate, I like both dark chocolate and ginger, but taken together they sound a little bit off putting. Both alkaloid rich dark chocolate and intensely strident ginger are strong, acquired tastes that are best used sparingly. So what was TJ thinking when they decided to give us huge globs of dark chocolate, stuffed full of spicy, candied ginger? I can’t begin to imagine, because really, these globs aren’t particularly good.
This is a classic case of what you see is what you get. If you look at these big chunks of dark chocolate and imagine that beneath a thick semi-sweet coating rests a big nugget of ginger you have the right idea. The only real surprise is that the ginger isn’t a solid single chunk, nut a tight wad of small ginger chunks. This is actually a pleasant reveal as I was preparing myself for the teeth gluing, tongue-burning action that a really good sized hunk of crystallized ginger is uniquely capable of delivering
While that isn’t the case here, there is still plenty of ginger in these hefty morsels, and that strong ginger taste simply does not mesh very well with the strident bitterness and subtle sweetness of the dark chocolate. There is a way to enjoy these, but it isn’t by snacking on them. Instead, these fall squarely into he camp of sophisticated thinking-man’s sweets. To enjoy the experience of eating one of these you really need to be thinking about it – thinking about the clash of spicy, sharp ginger with its own crystallized ginger exterior, while simultaneously appreciating that whole clash as it clashes with the bittersweet dark chocolate its enrobed in.
That’s a whole lot of clashing and honestly, in my opinion, it’s not worth it. Yes it’s a novel taste – but not so novel as to make up for all the sugar and fat you’re eating. There are plenty more sophisticated chocolate tastes in the world, such as Trader Joe’s Stone Ground Salt and Pepper Chocolate, and if you’ve got a candied ginger hankering crystallized ginger is pretty good on its own. Combining these two does neither any favors and should probably be relegated tot he dust bin of novel failures, along with Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Nibs.
Would I Recommend It: I’d recommend either of these things separately, but not like this.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope. Done with these.
Final Synopsis: Two great tastes that taste confusing and strange together.
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 chocolate 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.
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.