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Friday, December 29, 2017

Trader Joe's Stroopwafel

"There's only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people's cultures...and the Dutch."

A little Austin Powers humor there for you. But you gotta admit. The Dutch make a mean cookie. I mean waffle. I mean...stroopwafel. Stroop! There it is!

These things are like the sexy illegitimate love-children of a naughty sugar cookie and a super sultry, syrupy waffle. They're pretty sweet. I mean that both literally, and as in, like, "Sweet, dude!" They taste like buttery, bready sugar cookie waffle things. And the texture...the texture is even harder to describe. The packaging says "crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside." That's not inaccurate at all. But...they're so much more surprisingly awesome than that sounds. I feel like I've had "crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside" before, but I wanna say this is just a whole new mouthfeel here with these stroopwafels. Also, there's a quaint, collectible tin.

It was once suggested that we here at What's Good at Trader Joe's? are nothing but "Belgian World Domination Puppets" due to our love of speculoos cookie butter in all its majestic forms. Well, watch out, Belgium, you've got some competition. Your friendly Netherlandish neighbors are revving up their TJ's game. I'll be first in line for Stroopwafel Butter.

Watch Sonia's video for pics of the product, nutrition info, and a cool trick where you place a stroopwafel on top of a coffee cup and it gets all warm and gooey. It's like the Dutch version of a Tim Tam Slam.

Four stars from Sonia. Four and a half from me.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Cashew Beverage

Here it is, just about 2018, and we still haven't solved one of mankind's most benign yet vexing issues...

No, it isn't parallel parking or the fact that the letter o and number 0 are practically right on top of each other on a keyboard. I cannot tell you how many times per review I still have to fix that while writing...and I' used a keyboard all my life. The guy who invented the QWERTY display didn't entirely think that one through.

Nope, talking about reheating properly in a microwave, namely so the vessel containing its edible treasure doesn't become so hot that it can barely be touched, without the contents still remaining cool or lukewarm at best. I've never got it licked.

Still haven't with Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Cashew Beverage. It can served either warm or chilled, and seeing as though it was at its normative shelf-stable temp when I cracked it open, and it's now in the single digits here, you best believe I was going to try my bestest to warm it up.

Mug got as hot as a dancing bobcat with its butt on fire. TJ's cocoa-nut drink shrugged and went up maybe a few ticks. Gosh darn it.

Once I could lift my mug without fear of losing my fingerprints, I'll admit my first impression was that I was going to be underwhlemed. Sure, the cocoa smelled good...but something seeemed somewhat amiss. Couldn't put my finger on it. But the taste seemed to follw suite, naturally. Upfront, the drink is fairly cocoa-y, with a little earthiness from the almonds and cashews. And it's creamy, too, not gritty or chalky or anything like other nut milks I've had. But on the back end is its shortcoming, I think. Whereas most other chocolate drinks would perhaps go for one last sugary push to notch another level of decadence, or would at leastr attmept to hold the cocoa-line, this one just kinda quits.

As in, still vaguely like chocolate, but not as much as from the outset. And certainly not as much as it could go for. In a way, it kinda tastes like somewhat disappointing cereal milk - just enough of a tease to give ya hope, just to let ya down.

I don't mean this as a total knock. Certainly, for $2.29, it's worth a shot, especially if you have dairy issues, or for whatever reason like my wife try to avoid cow milk. But to me at least, there's a richness being sacrificed that's not worth it unless you have a compelling reason to. Make sense? I sure hope so...because my microwave sure doesn't to me, and unlike my nuker, I don't want to burn ya or leave ya out in the cold.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Cashew Beverage: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, December 22, 2017

Trader Joe's Crème Brûlée Tarte

I'm not sure if there are just fewer Christmas items this year, or if they were just sold out of most of them at our local Trader Joe's, but this is about the most Christmassy thing we could find on our last TJ's run. I mean, there's nothing unChristmassy about creme brulee, but there are also no conventions I'm aware of that would insist that it be consumed this time of year in particular. Nevertheless, this is the post we leave you with on this 22nd of December, and it's likely the last post you'll see until after Christmas Day.

So. Hmmm. I followed the directions to the letter. And I'm not sure if my broiler just never got hot enough, but I don't think the sugar ever melted the way it was supposed to. I let the oven preheat for significantly longer than the estimated 5 minutes, just to make sure it was broiling, and I left the product in for at least 2 minutes. I did take it out shortly thereafter for fear I'd burn the entire thing. After reviewing another creme brulee product a few years back, a reader commented in regards to the sugar topping: "You need a blow torch." 

At first—foodie-hack that I am—I thought he was joking, but then I realized that there is such a thing as a culinary blow torch. Well, I didn't own one then and I certainly don't own one now, so...I considered improvising and holding a can of Sonia's hairspray or Lysol up to a lighter and seeing if that would do the trick, but then my better judgment got the best of me, and I decided it wasn't worth risking the clean and fresh fragrance of disinfectant or the alluring odor of a women's aerosol hair product ruining the flavor of this tarte altogether. Caramelized sugar tastes just fine whether it's completely melted or not.

So after allowing the product to cool for 3 minutes, I prepared to slice it. Wait a minute. Since when do you slice creme brulee? Since it became a "tarte" apparently. This is more like a pie with creme brulee-flavored filling than actual creme brulee. Not bad, just different. It actually has a crust. It's a thin crust, but it's unmistakably crusty and bready.

The filling is thick, rich, and somewhat custard-like, similar to real creme brulee, but something about the flavor just fell flat in my opinion. I feel like the topping was nice and sweet, but the flavor of the filling was perhaps a bit too "eggy" for me, if that makes sense, and it lacked a bit of that sweet creamy vibe in certain other creme brulee selections that I've tried. It's nothing to complain about, but in the end, nothing to write home about either.

Sonia had similar sentiments about this dessert overall, though her opinion of the filling was slightly more positive than mine. She'll give this product three and a half Christmas stars. I'll go with three.

Happy holidays!

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Trader Joe's Irish Whiskey Caramels

In Connecticut, in order to be fit for sale, a pickle must be able to bounce.

In Maryland, it is illegal to curse while driving.

In several states and locales there are strict laws about not walking backwards past a movie theater with an ice cream cone in your back pocket on Sundays.

Sure, there are many dumb state laws, but the one that brings me the most grief: the strict laws about where one can buy alcohol in Pennsylvania.

Can't buy it most places other states take for granted. And definitely not in a grocery store, unless there's a cafe attached to the store that can be thus considered a restaurant/establishment. And even then, it's just beer and wine, and not the good hard stuff. That's reserved for the state-owned-and-operated liquor stores. I kid you not.

So no...we did not purchase Trader Joe's Irish Whiskey Caramels at a Trader Joe's in good ol' PA. How'd we get our hands on them? We're not gonna snitch ourselves out, but if the authorities really wanted to know, they probably would already. You know, Elf on the Shelf and all that. He's the snitch.

But yes, we got these TJ whiskey chocolates just in time for the holidays. Major thanks to one of Sandy's friends are in order. If you have local access to these, thank your stars, because these boozy bonbons are the bomb. The dark chocolate shell is, as usual, right on point - dark and decadent with fantastic cocoa flavor. I'd say by taste it's probably around 65-70% dark, though I could be wrong. It's certainly not too terribly bitter, and instead lends a rich decadence to the product.

So, of course, the Irish whiskey gets infused into the oozy boozy caramel core. It's single malt, so fairly light and mild, without much bite that other whiskeys have. It's most noticeable right after the initial sugary touch of the caramel, and again with the slightest of boozy burn at the end, but in the middle it's pretty rich, almost too sweet caramel. Key word: almost. The sweetness gets held just enough in check to make it a smooth, almost velvetty experience.

Needless to say, these are really good. Just one or two are enough, and that's a good, you'd probably need to eat a palletful to get a buzz from the whiskey, and you'd be more likely to go into diabetic shock from the experience. Each eight pack runs $3.99, making it a nice sized little gift if you need such a thing, even if just for yourself. Really wish these could be legal in my state, but if they were, who knows what other kind of heathenry could be let loose? Maybe...selling cars on Sundays (also currently illegal here)! Double fours from the wife and me.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Irish Whiskey Caramels: 8 outof 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Trader Joe's Mini Cannoli

I know at least two members of the WG@TJ's team have been to Italy. The closest I've ever been to Italy would have to be Little Italy in New York City—I mean, physically, the closest I've ever been would be Spain or France—but if you're talking authentic Italian pizza, pasta, and desserts, NYC would be it for me.

While there, I picked up a cannoli from a little pastry shop. It was surprisingly inexpensive and deee-licious. Since then, I've had a few other cannolis from Italian restaurants and delis, but they all pale in comparison to that amazing Little Italy cannoli so far. So how does Trader Joe's offering size up?

It's pretty darn good. The shell isn't bad at all, but it's hard-pressed to compete with a just-baked one, fresh off the cooling rack from a professional pastry chef. Trader Joe's offering comes frozen, and you simply thaw for a while at room temperature or in the fridge. Considering its recent frozen-ness, it's honestly quite amazing.

And the filling is even better. Buffalo milk ricotta. Yep. It's just a little more tangy than other cannoli fillings I've tried, and I love it that way. It's still sweet and blends nicely with the dark chocolate, but there's just a little something in this version that gives it an extra zip—I assume we can attribute that to the use of buffalo milk instead of just plain old cow juice...? It's like a very high-quality cream cheese almost. Whatever it is, I like it. I should also note that regular cow's milk does appear lower down on the ingredients list, so if you have some kind of cow's milk allergy, you still may need to be wary here.

The bready part of these pastries is soft and crumbly, and the filling is super creamy in texture. The dark chocolate adds even more complexity and a slight rigidity to the shell, and there's just the right amount of it.

I'm certainly no cannoli expert, but these are at least the second-best cannolis I've ever had. Four bucks for six cannolis—er, cannoli? Is the plural still just "cannoli" with no "s" as the packaging would imply? Any Italian-speakers up in this piece?

These treats are indeed "miniature." A single mini cannoli isn't really a full dessert just by itself unless you have that...that thing where you don't keep eating until you're bursting at the seams each meal. Oh yeah, I think it's called "self-control" or something like that. You'll either need to combine these with other mini desserts to create your own sampler platter or just eat three at a time like the nutrition info suggests. Who am I to argue with Trader Joe? Three cannoli it is...but only because he twisted my arm.

Double fours here.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Trader Joe's Smoky Honey Seasoned Kettle Chips

Really, the last thing needed right now is potato chips. I *like* chips, I do not *need* chips. Once upon a time, not so long ago, I'd rather eat raw spinach straight up than indulge in some chips...back when I was crazy about dropping weight and being healthy and all that stuff. Which is all good, but not where I am now. It's dark, cold and icy for a good morning run, which cuts down on my dietary indulgence margin, and my fridge is currently half-full with holiday party leftovers, with more holiday parties coming up...but the more cookies I eat, the more room for fruits and veggies, right? So goes my logic. It's got some holes in it.

Anyways, I *knew* I shouldn't have bought Trader Joe's Smoky Honey Seasoned Kettle Chips. NO NEED for these in my kitchen. NONE. But...but...I like kettle chips. A lot. "Smoky" and "honey" sounds good. And the packaging is reminiscent enough of one of the last chips I fell in love with it...dangit...the bag is coming home with me.


These chips kinda have a split personality to them. On one hand, the crisps are remarkably snackable, to the point where inhalation of the bagfull seems entirely plausible if not outright encouraged. That's the allure of the kettle chip - extra crunchy, more girth, more grease perhaps. So good, so remarkably good, and these TJ kettle chips are a textbook example of quality in that regard. Definitely had to exercise some willpower to close the bag and put back on the shelf.

It's the flavor that's a little disappointing. It's not awful, but the taste seems neither smoky nor honeylicious. Instead, it's like a pretty mild barbeque flavor that's pretty pleasant and certainly not heavyhanded, with a small touch of sweetness presumably from the honey. But smoky? No taste of that thus far. And I like smoky.

Anyways it's like $2 for the bag, and I will have to remind myself it's not a single serving next time I open. If the flavor were stronger or something more to it, it wouldn't be as easy to just keep on eating and eating and eating...that must be what they're going for. Sandy and I liked them alright, as did our kiddos. Nothing too much else to say except let's go with double 3s.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Smoky Honey Seasoned Kettle Chips: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Trader Joe's Apple Cranberry Herbal Tea Blend

Ahhh, there's nothing like a warm beverage on a cold day. Blizzards, polar vortices, and Arctic blasts are the perfect kinds of weather for herbal tea. You can always put on more layers of clothing, but I can't think of a better way to put something nice and warm inside you.

This tea has a delicate flavor, with a soothing herbal essence, and both subtle apple and cranberry flavors coming through—although it smells like apple much more than it tastes like apple. There's a slight tang to the flavor, no doubt thanks to the cranberry.

Both Sonia and I wanted to put sweetener of some kind in it. That's not been the case with every Trader Joe's tea—in particular, the Harvest Blend comes to mind as a tea with a very similar fruity flavor, but one that didn't beg for added sugar or honey for some reason. I could drink that one plain. This one's not terrible by itself, but I think the overall flavor is a little more pleasant with something added.

Sonia made another video to explain her feelings in a little more depth, and to show off the beautiful December snow we recently had in our area.

Three and a half stars from Sonia. Three stars from me.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Trader Joe's Fruit Fancies

That time of year again, of course...nah, not how I meant it a few posts back. In a different way. It' gathering season! Gather round and be merry, y'all.

Sandy and I hosted our usual holiday cookiepalooza this past weekend, which was a blast and, quite naturally, a fair amount of effort to be ready for. But that's nothing comnpared to this upcoming week, where we're going to almost ten different Hanukkah/Christmas/holiday parties. I'm not kidding. I'd figure out that thee exact number, but that requires thinking, then thinking of how crazy that is, so it'd better not to and just go with it. But all the cookies. And treats. And beverages. And maybe the need to bring something thats, you know, a little healthy or snacky but looks good and could be used as a present of some type in a pinch... it's as good a time as any for some Trader Joe's Fruit Fancies.

Look at 'em. You can't tell me they're not reminiscent of sushi rolls in appearance. Literally it's the first thing I thought of when I picked them up. Fruit and nut sushi. Cool. There's two varieties in the neat wooden tray: cherry coconut almond, and apricot walnut sesame. Both types are predominantly mixed with fig paste, so you gotta like those to have a shot at liking these fancy figgy faux fishy festive feats.

Between the two, the cherry almond is better IMHO. The cherry tartness plays out better with the almond and coconut for a better tasting bite. For the apricot walnut, that taste is alright enough in of itself - really no complants - but the sesame seeds seems just kinda odd. It's a bit strange to have small crispy seeds in a slightly firm yet chewy morsel. Once accustommed, the mouthfeel was certainly acceptable, but the first couple nibbles were a little offputting.

Both varieties are fairly muted and earthy flavorwise - no added sugar or anything to jazz them way up. Nah, this is a good, wholesome kinda treat that would be welcome at most holiday parties, I would think. The package says it pairs well with cheese - it doesn't give too many suggestions, but with a little imagination it'd probably work. I'd personally reach for a few while trying to pace myself between meatballs and chocolate chip cookies and whatever else might be on the smorgasbord.

Plus, like briefly mentioned, it comes packaged in a really neat little wooden tray. Ours will probably end up as property of our kids and some type of art project, but I kinda want one for myself. Not that I'd have any great use or idea of what to do with it.

I think the TJ fruit fancies cost $5.99, which isn't an awful deal for treats of its ilk. There's similar bagged fig/fruit bite type deals at Costco, which cost roughly in the same neighborhood per unit if my slightly suspect memory is clicking right. I'd pick them up again, and hope for a little variety to be coming down the pipeline.

Nothing too strong to say about them one way or another. Sounds like double threes.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Fruit Fancies: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, December 8, 2017

Trader Joe's Sugar Glazed Mixed Nuts

Let's pause for a moment to remember an older, oft-forgotten Christmas movie that shares its name with this product—that's right: Mixed Nuts, starring Steve Martin. It centers around a suicide-prevention hotline, features a cross-dressing Liev Schreiber, a young ukulele-playing Adam Sandler, and a serial killer known as the Seaside Strangler. Sound a bit awkward and weird? It is. Each character introduced is more strange and unexpected than the ones before...very much in contrast to this bag of nuts from Trader Joe's, which features all the usual suspects.

Peanuts, almonds, cashews, and pecans. I can't think of four more "normal" nuts. I mean, I guess walnuts could have made the cut since they're vaguely holiday-ish. But I don't think they would have enhanced this mix at all. Quite frankly, I'm not even sure this is a holiday product, but we'll treat it as such. It's kosher, too. So...if you're throwing a Hanukkah bash, keep these in mind. 

Personally, I wouldn't have minded some macadamias thrown in there, but no doubt they would have upped the price point by $20 or so. All four nuts in the bag are represented pretty adequately, except for the pecans. At least in our bag, they were quite scarce. 

Sweetened by cane sugar, the nuts are high quality and feel fresh. They're nice and sweet, but not to the point where you have to stop eating after only a nut or two. They're not completely covered in an actual glaze, but each nut is peppered with hundreds of granules of sugar. It makes them somewhat messy, but I'd rather eat granules of real sugar than something less authentic. There's no Christmas spice mix here. No berries. No chocolate. Just "sugar nuts," which, incidentally, is Sonia's favorite nickname for me...

Just kidding.

And on that note, we'll give our final scores. Three and a half stars from Sonia. Three and a half from me. Nothing spectacular or original here, just a solid nut mix sweetened with cane sugar.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Trader Joe's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup

"Syrup in my coffee? Why didn't I think of that?"

That's one of those sneaky underrated lines from Elf, our favorite Christmas movie. In fact, it's repeated quite often in our kitchen on those few mornings where Sandy and I have enough time and peace to enjoy a cuppa joe together. Especially guessed it...from time to time we put maple syrup in our coffee. It's actually pretty good in place of sugar if you've never tried.

Of course, if you're familiar with the movie, that's not maple syrup Buddy's putting in his mug there...go with me and let's say it's bourbon. In the movie, hilarity ensues. For us, it raised the question: what would bourbon flavored maple syrup taste like?

No more guessing for us! We finally caved and bought Trader Joe's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup. I say "caved" because we've been tempted often, but let's just say as a growing family we're somewhat value conscious, and $9.99 for a little bottle of maple syrup seems to be more aligned with luxury than necessity.

Not that it's a terrible price for quality maple syrup, given the cost factors that go into production, but it's worth a mention.

Anyways, as someone more acquainted with the darker amber and more maple-y flavor depths of Grade B maple syrup, it really struck me at first how light and super sugary sweet the TJ's borubon maple syrup is. It's a big step to Grade A. Wow. I could almost feel a cavity forming after my first taste. But once that shock wore off, the subleties of sweetness here began to come out a bit. It's kinda like a layered effect, and I'm not sure how to describe it except there's like these micro ebbs and flows with how sugary sweet this particular syrup is.

And there's a legit bourbon presence as well. It seems to slip in, about halkway thru, and provide like this little flourishing underpinning. It's quite delicious and seems to meld nearly perfectly with the sugary high notes. I will say that the bourbon is less apparent when sampled with things like pancakes and waffles - damn carbs soak up all that booze, it seems.

And yes, it works well in coffee. And better than bourbon barrel coffee too.

Leave the kids with Aunt Jemima or whatever - this is some pretty decadent syrup to not let go to waste. Savor and enjoy. At least that's what we're trying to do and ration out, as now our maple syrup line item on the family budget is tapped out for a bit...I kid. Good stuff, give it a try. Just wish there a Grade B version. Matching fours from me and the wife.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, December 4, 2017

Trader Joe's Scandinavian Tidings

You might remember some other Scandies we reviewed on here a while ago. This time, Trader Joe dropped the chuckle-inducing title of "swimmers" and went with "tidings," as in: tidings of comfort and joy or something like that. 

TJ's holds the holiday theme high here, as this product features a bold Christmassy red resealable bag, snowflake art on the packaging, and three ultra-merry colors/shapes/flavors: green trees, red ornaments, and yellowish stars. I say yellow-ish because, well, they're somewhere between yellow and off-white. That's just fine, because they went with vegetable-based coloring in this product, as we've seen from TJ's in the past. We don't need our candy to be electric-neon-radioactive yellow. I'll take the blackcurrant, carrot, and pumpkin colorings any day over "yellow number five" or whatever carcinogenic nonsense the other guys use.

As far as flavors go, there are three distinct tastes. The red ornaments are my favorite, and they taste just like classic Swedish Fish if you ask me. The stars are slightly softer than the other two shapes, and they taste like...I dunno...something sweet. Call me crazy, but I feel like the green trees taste slightly appley. There's no apple listed in the ingredients, so...I guess I could be wrong.

Both Sonia and I would have enjoyed these more if they were sour, in the manner of the legendary T's and J's. And honestly, I think I prefer the swimmers over these. 

Why? Well, at least three out of the four flavors present in the swimmers were pretty tasty. Here, I don't think the flavors are quite as unique or memorable. Plus—there are only three shapes, as opposed to four. I guess you could make a big tree shape out of all the trees in the bag and then pretend to decorate it with the stars and red balls, but that's not nearly as much fun as staging battles between dolphins, giant lobsters, seahorses, and rock fish. 

I mean...not that I actually did either one of those things.

There's certainly nothing wrong with these candies, but they're neither the most fun nor the best tasting gummy candy we've seen from Trader Joe's. It's a decent bit of gummies for $2.99, and the overall quality is on par with what we've come to expect from TJ's. I'll go with three out of five gummy candy Christmas stars. Sonia gives them three and a half.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Trader Joe's Chocolate Peppermint Almond Beverage

Holiday shopping season. Hurrah.

If it's not Black Friday then it's Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday or Giving Tuesday or it's any of those extended for one whole week or more. And of course it's complete with the TV ads and jingles and must-buy lists and all that. Apparently this year I am supposed to find a good deal on something called "Fingerlings" for my kids. No, not play potatoes....something like some sort of animal toy that hangs on to your finger. Flamingos and sloths or something like that. It's another must buy item at a must buy time of year...because someone is telling us so.

Well, I can't be too opposed to the whole notion behind all this holiday buying nonsense....because you must go buy Trader Joe's Chocolate Peppermint Almond Beverage! Right now! While supplies last! Your holidays will be incomplete without it! Go! Go! Gooooooooooooooo!!!!

Alright, alright, let's catch our breath a little bit. I mean, this seasonally festive TJ's drink is a pretty decent beverage after all. There's a little extra creaminess that most almond-based milk-type substances seem to lack that's a real nice touch. It's smooth and very non-chalky, with a small hint of almond taste to give away that it's not the usual cow juice type deal for its base. That nuttiness certainly isn't too heavy handed. The chocolate part is fairly rich and somewhat decadent - it'll hit your sweet tooth for sure.

It's the peppermint part that could be construed as problematic. If consumed cold, the mint is bit much, like these matching Christmas pajamas. There's nothing too wrong with it, and it's kinda cute, but it's just a bit much. Yet when heated to hot cocoa-type temperatures (i.e., it's prime consumption mode) a lot of the mintiness just disappears. It's still there, but the chocolate really kinda takes over, with only a hint o' peppermint. I wish it'd be more minty then.

Regardless, for a dairy-free holiday option, the chocolate peppermint almond beverage is a pretty good and reasonable buy. It's only $1.79 for the quart carton, so it's a good product at a reasonable price...and since it's shelf stable at room temperature, hey, stock up if that's your thing. Just no trying to charge five times MSRP on eBay for it. I'm thinking of you, you Fingerling hucksters, you...grumble. Both the wife and I are gonna hit it with a fourspot.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Chocolate Peppermint Almond Beverage: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trader Joe's Cheesy Trees

It's funny how snacks marketed for children often use animal shapes: Goldfish, Teddy Grahams, and of course, classic animal crackers like Barnum's Animals...

And I'm not saying you couldn't pull it off, but if you were throwing some fine holiday soiree, it would be a little weird to put giraffe and elephant-shaped crackers out to enjoy with wine and fruit, for example. However, if said crackers were shaped like evergreen trees, nobody would bat an eyelid.

And if there was any doubt that these trees are alluding to Christmas trees in particular, there's a spiel on the packaging that starts with "O Tannenbaum." 

Furthermore, this product flaunts a particularly wintry theme on its packaging, including a fox with a scarf and a rabbit wearing gloves. There's evidence of snow on the ground, and even the songbirds are bundled up with earmuffs and knit caps.

I'm not sure why cheese-flavored tree crackers are particularly seasonal, wintry, or Christmassy, but it works somehow. And indeed they do pair well with a nice Cab. They boast a strong, sharp cheddar flavor, but their texture is relatively thin and delicate. They're buttery to the touch—completely covered in real cheese. They necessitate napkins. And as you can see in the photo above, the depiction of the crackers on the box is pretty close to their actual size.

Unfortunately, about half of our trees were broken at the time of consumption, which might be a bummer if we were concerned with presentation or were attempting to impress guests. But luckily for us, it was just Sonia and I gobbling up the crackers by ourselves after a nice hike with our poorly-behaved pets.

After wolfing down a good portion of the bag, a bright lightbulb appeared over Sonia's head. 

"What is it!?" I exclaimed.

"Tomato soup!" she replied.

She scrambled over to the pantry and parted a row of chicken noodle and lentil and produced a lone can of Progresso Tomato Soup. She held it high above her head and The Hallelujah Chorus mysteriously poured out of each corner of the room as a brilliant, pure white light filled our house, its source unknown.

She proceeded to heat the soup and served it up in two bowls, which were swimming with tree-halves just moments later. And it was heavenly.

Sonia was enthusiastic about the trees from her first bite to her last. She gives them four and a half Christmas stars. I liked them just fine, although I don't think I'd snack on them just by themselves on a regular basis...but I'd never discourage Sonia from keeping some on hand, just in case I get a hankering for a bowl of tomato soup again. Three and a half Christmas stars from me.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Trader Joe's Cornbread Stuffing Mix and Trader Joe's Kettle Cooked Turkey Gravy

Stuffing: Both a noun and a verb. Particularly this time of year. Discuss.

I know, I know....this particular review of Trader Joe's Cornbread Stuffing Mix and Trader Joe's Kettle Cooked Turkey Gravy woulda been a little more timely and helpful last week, particularly before that big ol' Turkey Day holiday last week. Sorry, but we kinda busy...doing nothing. Nada. It was WONDERFUL. I love Thanksgiving and all, and usually it's a big get-together with dozens of relatives and a verifiable smorgasmicbord of all sorts of different dishes and desserts and everything...but not this year. Kept it lowkey. Watched the Macy's parade and some of the dog show on TV at Sandy's mom's for breakfast, came home, took a rest, and made Thanksgiving dinner for just me and my girls before watching Elf as is family tradition.

And since for those family Thanksgiving dinners I was really never really asked to bring anything more than salt and pepper, or to chip in a little bit for the turkey (which my dad always seemed to do for me), Sandy and I really didn't have great top secret family recipes to make or do, so we kept it simple, hence our purchase of those two Thanksgiving staples.

First up: TJ's cornbread stuffing. Call it filling if you'd like...I'll think you're odd but won't comment out loud. If you stop and think about it, stuffing doesn't really sound like a tasty idea: warm, salty bread mush. But dang it if it's not some classic comfort right there. Trader Joe's boxy blend is pretty top notch. We had no bird to stuff, so we went for the oven prep method and went lighter on the water in the hope of more crunchy tidbits. That's exactly what we got. Now, the ingredients list "white bread" and "corn bread" before mentioning the word croutons...I didn't notice any white bread morsels, so maybe these were carby combo cubes? The spice blend was pretty classic too - rosemary, onion, garlic, etc added a really nice savory touch as one would expect. It is important to note that 1) it's not gluten free 2) there's chicken broth, so not vegeterian/vegan friendly and 3) there's mushrooms in there - which we didn't notice but post a sleeper allergy concern for some. I may be wrong, but I think a GF-friendly stuffin' made with veggie broth and no mushrooms wouldn't have sacrificed much in terms of flavor or satisfaction while being able to be enjoyed by more folks. That's my only real knock. Better than Stove Top (although when reheated the difference is less apparent), open to any additions (raisins, apple bits, bacon, etc), fills a void, pairs well with cranberry sauce...

Or gravy. In our case, TJ's Kettle Cooked Turkey Gravy. Wish I had much to say about this gravy, as I grew up a big gravy fan (both literally and figuratively) and I've yet to find a commercial gravy that approximates my mom's (even though I know hers is just jarred mixed with pan drippings - there's something else about it I can't figure out). TJ's gravy is good, not great. I mean, I coated my turkey with it and piled up a stuffing/mashed potato mountain just to make a huge gravy crater in the middle, so I can't say I disliked it. Maybe the fact that it's a little thicker and gloopier than what I'm accustomed to is why. Certainly tasted like decent turkey gravy, but nothing really stood out. It's probably open to some customization and doctoring, which I probably could have done but eh well.

So, in case you have to bring something easy to another holiday feast, or just want a simple classic taste for dinner, you can do a lot worse than this combo this time of year. We're higher on the stuffing than the gravy, but together they make a good team. We're thankful for the blessing of good, warm food and family, and hope to continue to enjoy that this holiday season. We hope for that for you as well.

Bottom lines: Trader Joe's Cornbread Stuffing Mix: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons. Trader Joe's Kettle Cooked Turkey Gravy: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Trader Joe's Turkey Cranberry Apple Salad

This year, I'm thankful we found something pseudo-appropriate to put up the day before Thanksgiving. I mean, this tub of Turkish delight—er, excuse me—turkey-ish delight is a great little mini Thanksgiving meal all its own. It's kinda like a Gobbler Wrap without the wrap.

My wife, whom I'm very thankful for, loved it even more than I did. She holds this snacky salad on par with the classic Wine Country Chicken Salad. I wouldn't go quite that far. But it's close.

Chunks of apple and cranberry lend both tartness and sweetness to the blend. There are huge cubes of high-quality turkey and generous amounts of mayo here, too—and just enough sage to make it interesting. It's perfect for slathering on crackers, making sandwiches, or eating straight out of the tub. At least around these parts, the only three meats you'll find with regularity are beef, pork, and chicken, so I'm always grateful to have another choice on hand.

I wish turkey were more common year round. I mean, sure, there are turkey hoagies here and there. But I'd choose turkey burgers more often if I could. Likewise, why isn't turkey salad just as common as chicken salad or tuna salad? Are we scared we'll run out of turkeys come November? 

No matter. I'll enjoy this turkey salad while it's around. Like many foods this time of year, it's a little on the fattening side...but let's all pretend it's not since it's the holidays...and that will be our little secret.

Likely many of you are traveling today, pigging out with family tomorrow, and doing some Christmas shopping over the Black Friday weekend, so I'm very thankful for whatever readership we do get right now. Hope you all have safe and happy Thanksgivings! And I'm thankful that you enjoy reading our blog.

Four and a half stars from Sonia. Four from me.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Trader Joe's Hot Cocoa O's

It's not just Thanksgiving this week for the Western PA half of the WGaTJ team. Nope, Sandy and I (Russ) are also celebrating another annual notch on the marital belt. Eight years now, we've officially been a team...and been through a lot together. Mostly good, occasionally tough. Not gonna get too boring or sappy or whatever - believe me, I can, just ask my wife - but there's no one else I'd rather keep on spending my time with.

Especially when it's Netflix and cereal night.

Maybe it sounds dull and unexciting - and maybe it is - but it's the best. Get the kids snuggled in bed after dinner, then retreat to our third floor for a night of cozy couch time bingewatching Dr Who or Stranger Things or whatever movie or show. And even better when accompanied with a bowl of some super sugary cereal we'd never let those kids touch. Those weirdos love the healthy stuff, like their favorite purple cereal. We've housed a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch in less time than it takes a Dalek to say "Exterminate!"

So, obviously, Trader Joe's Hot Cocoa O's debuting right around time of said anniversary and new Stranger Things episodes...absolutely the cereal became a must buy.

Man oh man...I don't care that I'm 35, I get excited about this kinda stuff. Look! Chocolate cereal with marshmallows in it! Granted, this isn't exactly a cereal innovation much unlike anything the world has ever seen...but call it Hot Cocoa O's just makes it sound even more enticing. Cereal...that tastes like hot chocolate? Yes please! Even if the box refers to the tidbits as being "hoops" which mildly annoys me for whatever reason.

For as much seeming promise as these circlo-cocoa crunchies hold, there's something perhaps slightly amiss. It's not the crunch, as the oat/corn hybrid holds up fairly well even after getting drenched in milk. And it's not exactly the taste either - there's nothing too terribly wrong, but the problem that plagued my bowl is much like what can derail a cup of actual hot chocolate. If not chocolately enough, hot cocoa still offers some comfort and tastes fine and all, but it can be better. Much better.

Kinda the same deal here. There's just not quite enough chocolate to really satisfy my guilty pleasure-seeking sweet tooth. And of course, if the cereal isn't quite that way, neither is the leftover milk. That's almost the whole point of adding milk to cereal - all that leftover milk soaking up all the sugar and flavor for one last little treat - nah. Not here as much. Could be that Sandy and I primarily use almond milk, so cow or other milks may have a different experience.

Seems to me that Cocoa Puffs still reign supreme in the choco-cereal kingdom. But for $2.99 for the box, the TJ's brand is far from failure. I ate some dry, and it strikes me as a good snack to enjoy that way. You could also probably make a decent Rice Krispy Treat-type deal with them. But when it comes down to it, I wanted to feel compelled to binge on these, and they just don't do it for me. Not in that way.

But my beautiful bride by my side, still a fair amount of Stranger Things to watch, and some half-decent cereal to munch on too. 'Tis a good week to be thankful, indeed.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Hot Cocoa O's: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, November 17, 2017

Trader Joe's Almond Nog

Sonia's first words after taking a sip of this beverage: "WOW! I definitely like this better than regular egg nog."

If it's not obvious already, I'll go ahead and tell you she's not a true lover of traditional egg nog, while I most definitely am.

My first words after trying this drink: "Hmm. Yeah. I definitely don't like this as much as normal egg nog."

They should have called this Trader Joe's *Almost* Nog. Only two letters' difference. 

Surprisingly though, I didn't hate it—but it's absolutely within the realm of possibility that other egg nog connoisseurs won't even tolerate this almond-based nogoff.

Now I'm fine with almond milk in place of dairy. Flavored almond milk? Sometimes it works in my opinion, and sometimes it doesn't. Sonia and I were similarly divided when it came to last year's pumpkin spice almond beverage, with the wife giving it a solid thumbs up, and me, not so much.

I'm not nearly as enthused about egg nog-flavored things as I am about egg nog itself. Even egg nog ice cream pales in comparison to the real deal in my book.

Here, we have not a true alternative to egg nog, but a beverage that is merely egg nog-flavored. I mean, for vegans, the lactose-intolerant, and people with egg allergies, this must be a dream come true. For the rest of us...meh.

The texture is far too thin to compare with traditional nog. If you look at the picture, you'll see the myriad tiny bubbles that result when you "shake well" as per the instructions on the carton. It's just a tad thicker than water. Flavor-wise, it's distinctly egg noggish, but with a greater level of nuttiness, and less of...pretty much everything else. I think they could have stepped up the spice game a notch here, which would have not only offered a bolder flavor, but perhaps masked what I perceive to be other slight weaknesses in the taste department. Of course, if one were so inclined, he could add his own spices...not to mention other additives of the "spirited" variety that might help cover up said shortcomings of this seasonal potation.

And to those of you who think we're jumping the Christmas season gun by reviewing this overtly Yuletidey product before Thanksgiving, I'll just say this: I associate egg nog not only with Christmas, but also with Thanksgiving. Sure, the whole Christmas thing encroaches on earlier months more and more each year it seems. I mean, we did a bit of Black Friday shopping this year a full two weeks before Black Friday, because now there are "pre-Black Friday sales," which promise great deals with only a fraction of the physical confrontations and full-contact shopping experience. But I digress. What I'm trying to say is that we're trying to give you our opinions now so that you'll be informed before you make those holiday TJ's runs.

Just for kicks and giggles, I compared the nutrition info of this product to a carton of actual egg nog. Yeah. Ordinary nog has nearly four times the calories and six times the fat. So...there's that to consider.

Sonia gives this almond nog four stars. I'm torn between two and a half and three—but I'll go with three for the benefit of those who cannot or will not enjoy actual egg nog this holiday season. It's absolutely worth a try if you're not into milk, eggs, the thick texture of traditional nog, excessive fat and calories, or the joys of seasonal obesity.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Trader Joe's Hasselback Potatoes

Now for something completely exciting...potatoes.

When packing a lunch for school for our kindergartner M, either Sandy or I like to draw her a little note for her to see at lunch time. A little something to make her laugh or think is cute or whatever to let her know we're thinking about her. And by either Sandy or I, I usually mean Sandy, because I can't draw worth a crap. Recently, we've been on a Thanksgiving theme kick, and just so happened that I had to do one for her last week on a particularly busy morning...

I drew her a potato.

I mean, kinda cute one, maybe...or at least recognizable as potato, with haphazard Kawaii style eyes, a smile, with the words MASH ME. M at least said she liked it and smiled when I asked her, but yeah, she was not too excited about her potato.

We're not all that excited about these Trader Joe's Hasselback Potatoes, either.

It's not that it's a bad potato. It's....just a potato. I don't get it. I don't understand what the deal is. Maybe I'm unenlightened and all that...but seriously, these hback taters seem to be nothing more than a spud half-slashed by Wolverine and stuck in a box and frozen. Sure, a little butter and salt, but the outcome tastes not unlike a regular baked potato that you may or may not want to dress up a little more yourself.

Unlike other prepared veggie side dishes, you can't even really make a convenience argument here. Here's how to make your own for a fraction of the cost. That...doesn't really look complicated at all. Granted, these TJ taters take about half the time, so they must be at least partially baked before getting iced over...which reminds me. If you do buy these, bake for a little longer than the instructed 30 minutes. My spuds had some ice-cold nether regions on them still after half an hour. No bueno.

Kids liked them, we liked them...we're partially Irish, of course we're gonna like potatoes. But there's nothing special or cool or Trader Joe's-y or anything about these taters. Not even like a funky/cool spice blend. They're just partially baked/partially sliced potatoes, in a freezer box, and I'll be darned if their existence didn't make me try to think of potato/David Hasselhoff puns for at least half an hour and I can't think of a single one. Do you understand how frustrating that is? There's got to be at least one. Please. Help me.

Not a complete failure, but far from a success. Between all of us here, can't muster any excitement or a higher score. Matching 2s.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Hasselback Potatoes: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Trader Joe's Stelle Di Notte

If you "Search This Blog" for the word "cookies," you'll get 10 pages of results. Granted, those results include items like cookie butter, which aren't actual cookies per se—but I still counted in the ballpark of FIFTY types of actual Trader Joe's brand cookies reviewed on this blog. And for those of you who know your Joe, you'll know that we're barely keeping pace with the new cookie varieties as TJ's rolls them out.

That's especially true this time of year. In case you haven't noticed, there's an international conspiracy to make us Americans fatter during the holiday season. 

Even the Italians are in on the action. So they exported these Stelle Di Notte (stars at night) cookies just in time for the season of overeating.

They have a nice cocoa-ish flavor. I thought maybe the stars would function as marshmallows "floating" in the cocoa, but they're basically just there for decoration.

These cookies are crispy, light, and brittle. There's a dryness about them that just begs for a complimentary beverage. I've had them with both cold milk and hot coffee, and they go great with either.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with these chocolatey treats, but there's not much to set them far ahead of the many, many other cookie offerings we've tried from Trader Joe's, either. If you like cocoa-flavored crispy cookies, check these out. They seem somewhat festive, as there's a nice wintry theme going on here, although as far as I can tell, it's not particularly attached to any one religious holiday. If I worked for TJ's marketing department, I might have named them "Trader Joe's Jovial Non-Denominational Winter Cocoa Dunkers" 

...which is probably one of the many reasons why I'll never work for Trader Joe's product marketing department.

Sonia and I give these cookies three and a half "stelle" a piece.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Trader Joe's Sweet Potato & Marshmallow Pixie Pie Mix

According to my lovely wife, with whom I am about to celebrate eight years of mostly happy-occasionally stubborn marriage, there are some very questionable Google results out there if you were to search for the words "pixie pie" on the interwebs. I'm just gonna take her word for it, and perhaps try to lessen anyone's chance of coming across any, by writing this review here of Trader Joe's Sweet Potato & Marshmallow Pixie Pie Mix.

Mmm...pixie pie...I never heard of it. What is it?

Well, can't find out without doing that web search. Oh well.

Anyways, we'll go with the box description, which says something to the effect of "magical treat" and "little pick me up" and all that jazz. Sounds good. We'll go with that.

Unlike our last baking expedition, I didn't help this time around, but from what I hear, it's simple enough to make. Inside the box are three mix packets: one for crust, one for potato filling, one for marshmallow fluff, Good lord, there's a lot of marshmallow, almost like a cross between the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and a crime scene. All you need to add is a little butter and "maybe" a little water and an egg, follow the simple instructions, and voila, in about half an hour's's pixie pie time!

It's a really tasty dessert. Boasting a classic graham cracker crust, the shell gets rigid and buttery and solid actually surprisingly well. All the better to hold all the gooey innards, I'd say. The sweet potatoes get warm and smooshy and offer so, so much comfort vibe with some brown sugary goodness, it's almost off the charts. And those marshmallows...I swear. Sandy said she put in less than half the packet. I almost can't believe that, because of how well the fluff covered and caramelized on top, while switching up layers and selfblending with the potato portion. All that gives up a sugary binge that verges on being overwhelming before melding well with the other tastes of the pie.

Altogether, the pie tastes something like a blondie, and has a not-quite-brownie, not-quite-usual-pie feel. It might be worth a shot to throw in some chopped pecans to approximate a pecan pie, if that's your thing. Actually, if there was some way to Frankenstein together this pie with those maple pecan bites from a few weeks back, there might be the most perfect dessert ever! Even as is, the pie is pretty rich and fairly decadent - take too big a piece, you'll want a nap.

Needless to say, the pie is a total, complete, ineffable calorie bomb. That's our biggest thing. Like, eat a slice, and it's salad for the next three days. Sandy, the more healthy bean-counter out of us, has no other complaints than that, and in act of solidarity, me neither. Darn good dessert, and for only $2.99! Nice! Matching fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Sweet Potato & Marshmallow Pixie Pie Mix: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons