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Monday, October 27, 2014

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Spice Chai Tea Latte Mix

Of all the pumpkin products I've tried this year, I think this one's the most underrated. It certainly doesn't have the internet buzz that many other fall foods do this year, but sometimes the best things come when they're least expected.

This beverage certainly isn't much to look at. But dishwater gray or not, this stuff is sweet and flavorful, and in my opinion, exactly what you'd want a pumpkin chai to be. There's still plenty of classic chai spices in the mix, like clove and cardamom, but they blend very nicely with the more pumpkinesque spices like nutmeg and allspice. And it seems as if both types of drinks traditionally contain ginger and cinnamon. Mix it all together with sugar and a base of black tea, and you have yourself one tasty, exotic brew.

I'm generally into cold beverages more than hot ones, so I followed the directions for a "cold chai latte," pouring the drink over ice after mixing. I substituted water with milk. I tried both almond milk and cow's milk, and I honestly think almond worked best with this mix (although there is powdered nonfat cow's milk in the mix already). You really have to stir this stuff like crazy to get all the little crystals to dissolve in the liquid, but the excessive agitation not only swirls all the ingredients together, but gives the drink the slightest bit of foaminess, too. The tea definitely has some caffeine in it, so get ready for a little buzz with your beverage.

Now I must admit that some of that buzz just might be from the sugar, though. Sonia thinks the mix is too sweet, so she simply used less of the mix in her milk. I guess 23 grams of sugar per serving safely excludes this product from the category of "diet drink," but it's still significantly less than say, a can of coke, for perspective—and sweet-toothed me drank it up like a fat kid at a soda fountain.

At $3.99, a can containing eight quality chai lattes is a decent deal. Sonia is still holding steady with her string of solid four's for this year's pumpkin blitz. This time, I'm going with four stars also.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Trader Joe's Creamy Almond Butter

This probably isn't a surprising revelation, given that this review is now our 575th in our semi-long, somewhat illustrious history, but there are some reviews that I've written that upon further review I wish I could take back. A good recent example? My write-up re: cashew butter a couple months back. I seemed somewhat ambivalent about it at the time, but in the days or weeks that followed, I fell deeper and deeper in love. I'd eat a jar a week, easy, mostly by spreading on apple slices then dipping the knife back in a for extra licks. No one else was eating it, I don't think, so I didn't feel bad. Sure, the first go-around or two from each jar was drippy no matter what (which I dislike strongly) but after that, and a couple days in the fridge, it solidified perfectly. Lots of flavor. Given another chance, I'd be tempted to pantheon that. Too lazy though.

Also, now too knowledgeable: Not paleo.  It has sunflower oil, and the added salt is kinda frowned upon. Doh! I'm still defining how strict I want to be about those kinda things, but I guess if there's an alternative out there that might match those restraints closer, give them a try.

Thus, Trader Joe's Creamy Almond Butter making an appearance in my fridge over the past couple weeks. Ingredients are pretty straightforward here: Just almonds and a small smidge of cashews for whatever reason (less than 1%). No added oil. No added salt. Just nuts, glorious, glorious nuts.

And compared to the cashew butter, it ain't even close. Doh!

First off, no matter how close I get to the bottom of the jar, how much I stir, how long it chills in the fridge - this stuff is a drippy, runny mess. It's ridiculous. Try spreading some on an apple slice without dripping a drop - I bet you can't. I've tried multiple times and cannot. Persistently drippy nut butter annoys me to no end. Who knew almonds were so much more naturally oily than cashews? I sure didn't.

And the taste...well, that implies there is one. Sure, I can taste it if I eat some from a spoon straight, or as it magically transforms surface chemistry as it sticks to the roof off my mouth for ten minutes afterwards. But it just tastes like boring, plain, ordinary, non-jazzy almonds. Almonds are like the cornflower blue tie of the nut world - nothing wrong with them, they're reliable and a classic, but nothing stands out, either. Cashews goodness, aren't they good? Even thinking about walnuts and pecans and hazelnuts accelerate my hungerometer, but almonds? Nope. And any almond taste gets easily overpowered by whatever's being eaten along with it - more than anything else, this butter makes my apples taste like they have funky residue on them.

I've heard the almond butter is one of the most popular TJ's products in terms of annual sales, so maybe I'm completely missing the boat here. Maybe this is a taste I will grow into and enjoy more as my tastebuds reprogram and refine themselves. Don't know though. Maybe me here, lonely on the dock, oar in hand, lifejacket on, will one day figure that out. Have fun without me 'til then.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Creamy Almond Butter: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Trader Joe's Toasted Coconut Pancake Mix

A couple weeks back, with my folks in town for the weekend, I made coconut flour pancakes for breakfast. Look at me, trying to be a fancy caveman on a diet (down close to 30 lbs now!). They weren't that hard to make - a little coconut flour, a banana or two, a henhouse worth of eggs in the blender - but to be honest, they weren't that great, in my opinion. There's a problem, I think, with trying to make one thing taste like something else while omitting a key ingredient or seven - if you know what it's "supposed" to taste like, chances are, you're not gonna be happy with an alternate outcome. Prime example: these not-so-great English muffin wannabes. Granted, perhaps I'm speaking from a position of privilege (no major food issues or allergies or conditions), but to me, given no health restraints, if you wanna eat a pancake, just go make some real pancakes, even if you're on a paleo diet. You'll live. Cavemen would probably still be around if there were a prehistoric IHOP or two. Just sayin'.

With this in mind, when I saw Trader Joe's Toasted Coconut Pancake Mix, I figured it'd be worth a try and a small dietary cheat. Admittedly, at first I was a little enticed with the presumptive hope that they'd be paleo-friendly with the ease of "just add water", but a quick scan of the ingredients revealed otherwise pretty quick. Eh well.

Tell ya what: as a guy who's always been much more eggs-and-bacon than breakfast-carb-centric, I enjoyed these quite a bit. There's not much that's real special, per se, about these flapjacks, except they work in a very simple, straightforward, satisfying way. While the batter is typical hotcake matter, there's ample coconut flakes interspersed throughout that while cooking get a little crispy and add a lot of coconut flavor that stands out. And like a good pancake, the edges got a little crispied themselves (my favorite part) that, despite my very limited pancake-making prowess, turned out pretty well. Making them was a cinch - I've had other pancake mixes that turned into clumpy disasters when aquafied, but not these. A double batch made twelve decent sized pancakes, which were devoured easily by the wife, the toddler, the teenager, and me with a little maple syrup. I'd imagine with the coconut, some tropical fruits or powdered sugar would make a great accompaniment as well.

Sandy enjoyed them right around the same amount I did. "Yummmm....I just wish you were better at making pancakes," she said. Fine, rub it in that I slightly blackened or squished one or two. Not every one can make the fantastic crepes like you can, dear. You should try that with the remaining mix, by the way. Regardless, this mix is a hit - can't go wrong for the couple bucks it'll set you back.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Toasted Coconut Pancake Mix: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons