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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Trader Joe's Sparkling White Chardonnay Grape Juice

I've always been terrified of champagne bottles. It has something to do with the deafening pop and the lethal projectile that shoots out of the nozzle when you open it. 

On our honeymoon, Sonia and I had a couple of bottles thanks to some of our good friends. Each night, I'd try a new technique to open the bottle. I tried prying the cork off with a knife. I tried shaking the bottle like they do in the movies. That one's a great method if you don't mind wasting half the bottle and getting wine all over the room. So then I tried opening the bottle while holding it over the shower. 

Sonia offered to try, but like a good husband, my protective instinct (AKA foolish pride) kicked in, and I insisted on performing the risky task myself, night after night, adding one more thing to stress over on top of my already fraying nerves.

This bottle is no exception. Only this time, it's not champagne, it's chardonnay. But it's non-alcoholic chardonnay. It's apparently still "chardonnay," because it's made with actual Chardonnay grapes from Spain. Sorry, booze-hounds.You'll have to do all of the work associated with a regular champagne bottle, and alas, there's no buzz inside.

Nonetheless, this stuff makes a pretty good glass of bubbly for New Year's and such, especially if you're the designated driver, a non-drinker, or a law-abiding under-21-year-old. It's right in the middle of the dry/sweet spectrum, maybe favoring sweet just a bit, yet not feeling syrupy at all. It almost tastes a little appley to me. It tastes like a very high quality maybe a sparkling grape cider with a dash of apple juice...?

The carbonation level seemed just about perfect to me. Just the right amount of bubbles. Enough to tickle my mouth, but not so much that it burns. Sonia thinks it's very similar to dessert wines she's tried, but without the alcohol.

It was $2.99 at our local TJ's. That's a pretty good price for an item made with imported grapes. It's very high quality, and we'd definitely buy it again for another special occasion.

Sonia gives it 4 out of 5 stars. We're absolutely on the same page with this one. It's been a while since we've reviewed a beverage on here, and it's always nice to be able to say that Trader Joe's has produced another winner.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Trader Joe's Chocolate Peppermint Cupcakes

The packaging declares these cupcakes "Minty, delicious, and festive too!" Well, they're certainly minty and festive. On that other point, however, I might not agree so enthusiastically. It seems peppermint desserts like Pretzel Slims and Chocolate Covered Joe-Joe's can be hit or miss at TJ's. And new things like Peppermint Macarons are apparently fairly tasty. But, personally, I would call these cupcakes another miss.

Don't get me wrong, they didn't taste bad. They were moist, they had plenty of frosting, and as far as I can tell, they were made with quality ingredients. The icing tasted sweet, minty, and cream cheesy. But unlike other sweet frostings, I felt that the flavor conflicted with and overshadowed the chocolate cake part of the product. Chocolate and mint can easily complement one another. Just look at York Peppermint Patties or Andes candies. I'm not sure what exactly is working in those products that failed in this one, but I definitely tasted more peppermint cream cheese than chocolate cake.

It didn't taste like toothpaste, which is a plus. But it also didn't taste like a dessert to me. Even the cream cheese, sugar, and peppermint elements of the icing seemed to cancel each other out a bit, even before the chocolate came into play. Again, I could be wrong. There's a lot of positive buzz out there about these cupcakes. But I have to offer this dissenting opinion. There's nothing gross about them, but there's not really anything I would describe as "delicious" either. Sonia enjoyed them significantly more than I did, but she also admitted that she didn't see herself buying these again in the future. There are just too many other products at TJ's that we do find "delicious," and I don't want to waste my precious RDA for calories and fat on something I would say "meh" to.

I'll give these a very neutral 2.5 stars. Sonia gives them 3 stars.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Trader Joe's Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies

Chocolate. Hazelnut. Cookies. Let's repeat that again, and let it sink in. Chocolate. Hazelnut. Cookies. Let the wild drooling rumpus begin!

There's very few word trios that hold that kinda sway over me. Maybe "pizza/ wings/ beer" or "baseball/ boxseats/ beer" or maybe, from the looks of things, just "yada/ yada/beer." How can these be bad? And how could I have held strong, and walked past these shopping trip after shopping trip, and never give into temptation like I have been so tempted to before?

As it turns out...I could have waited and not missed much. I'm shocked at those words I just typed. But it's the truth. Let's analyze this. It's not the fault of the cookies, in this case meaning the twin hazelnut shortbread discs on either side of the chocolate filling. Oh no. Those are ab-sah-freakin'-lutely delish. Soft, crumbly, sugary, nutty, melty-in-your-mouthy...if it were a simply a box full of simply those, despite any restraint I am trying to cultivate within me, these would have been demolished within seconds, and Sandy and I probably would have inadvertently ruthlessly bloodied  each other as we fought each other off for every last little crumb. That would have been awkward to explain at the forthcoming family Christmas gatherings. But much like these similarly flawed shortbread-inspired snacks, there's a certain something that otherwise holds them back from being all they can be. This time, it's the middle.

Perhaps it's not really all that fair, but when I see the words "chocolate" and "hazelnut" together, my mind kind melds them into one word that stands above most others in this world: Nutella. Nutella's the standard, and despite several noble attempts to duplicate its success, well, you just can't. Coming close and falling short is okay, but to miss it completely, like the choco-nutty filling of these guys do, well, that's unacceptable. Them's the rules. It's not really the flavor itself, though it's not quite rich enough to really stand out from the rest of the cookie. It's the texture. I'm not sure if it's tough or kinda chewy or just plain hard, but to when your teeth sink right thru the wafer and strike upon the middle, it's a rude awakening, like digging through soft soil only to run into some hard clay. It's certainly not the "creamy" the package purports it to be, probably in an effort to fool you into thinking there's a reasonable Nutella knockoff dwelling inside. Not a fan.

Overall, the cookies would be better off either a) skipping the chocolate filling altogether 2) packaging a little jar of spread inside, separate from the cookies, in order to spread your own on or d) with you scraping off the spread then dipping them into Nutella. For me, this makes three not-so-glowing cookie reviews in a row...I'm beginning to question if I like cookies as much as I think I do...I might finally have to cave in and try the cookie butter to see what all you kids have been raving about for months on end. Sandy's not so huge on them either, for all the same reasons. We're waffling between a 3 and 3.5 each, when really, I wish we were talking another holiday pantheon candidate. Sigh.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons   

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Trader Joe's Pfeffernüsse

Pfeffernüsse are a traditional German treat. The name literally translates to "pepper nuts," but they're really a kind of gingerbread-ish cookie. They've got some unique spices and they're sweet, soft, and covered in a layer of powdered sugar.

Once again, we find a perfect instance for the Trader Joe's company to use one of their ethnic names - we encountered Baker Josef last year, and he was pretty good at what he did. Though "Josef" might be from any number of European nations, Deutschland is certainly among those he might be hailing from. When I studied German in school, the name I chose for myself was "Jörg." Although "Josef" is a better translation of "Joe," I think "Trader Jörg's Pfeffernüsse" has a nice ring to it.

On the box, there's mention of a German tradition in which pfeffernüsse are dipped in wine when served to guests during winter holiday parties. After trying the cookies, both Sonia and I thought that sounded revolting, so we had them with milk instead. However, in the days following, out of curiosity I looked up which wines might pair with something like these cookies. The sites I found mentioned some dessert wines, such as a Riesling, which made some sense, as well as Pinot Noir, which fascinated me thoroughly. How could gingerbread go with a flinty red wine?

I found an excuse to pick up a bottle shortly thereafter and immediately dipped one of the "pepper nuts" into my Napa Valley Pinot Noir Wine Glass as one might dunk an Oreo into cold milk. I was amazed. It was delicious - and very unique. It was at once dessert-ish, earthy, and spicy. I highly recommend the combo. Some of you lucky enough to live near a TJ's that sells wines might be able to pick up some Two (or Three) Buck Chuck Pinot Noir. I tried it back in my California days, and was pleasantly surprised, not that I'm any kind of connoisseur. In case you were wondering, we've only done one wine review on this blog, thanks to PA's archaic alcohol laws.

By themselves, these cookies are tasty enough. If you like particularly spicy gingerbread, you'll probably enjoy these little German treats. Of course, in this case, when I say "spicy," I don't mean hot in any way. I mean they're full of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg. And technically, I guess they're not really gingerbread—they just remind me of it.

My wife gives these pfeffernüsse 4 out of 5 stars. I'd give 'em a 4, too—if they came with a mini bottle of Pinot Noir. 3.5 stars as they are.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Trader Joe's Peppermint Macarons

As I alluded to a few posts ago, I am actually trying to eat a little healthier the past few weeks when I'm not bouncing around from holiday party to holiday party. It's kinda slowly but surely working. My typical weekday breakfast is now an apple followed by a few cups of coffee at work, with a Clif bar (only a buck each at TJ's!!) for a mid-morning snack, followed by another apple, some baby carrots and a reasonable entree for lunch. I stash a little dried fruit in my desk for the drive-by rumblies I sometimes get. At dinnertime, I kinda eat whatever but keep it to an actual serving, instead of whatever I can jam into my tummy. I've heard it advised to try and cut about 250-300 calories a day from your diet, and although I haven't been keeping a strict count, I'm pretty certain I'm in that range. It's slow, small steps, and they're actually beginning to work, as evidenced by my decision on a recent solo TJ's trip that, while very hungry, I opted to pass up one of these delectable treats (which I totally could have gotten away with) for yet another apple instead. I'm getting there.

That whole mentality I'm trying to live into is what initially made me protest us buying Trader Joe's Peppermint Macarons. If there's two things I know about macarons, it's that they're tasty, nutritionally unnecessary, little bits of decadence, and that they're French. In my mind, however (in)accurately, I equate French food with lots of fat and calories, kinda like these. Like I said, I protested, however meekly. Sandy protested my protesting, and then pulled out the number one irrefutable reason to buy them: "Review them for the blog!" That love of mine sure knows to twist my arm. Okay, okay, for the blog, for no other reason, it can't be that they look amazing and their autumn cousins were hit with the rare perfect score back in September....nope.

All that being said, I feel a little let down by them. Maybe it's because I was expecting more out of them. It's not that these macarons are bad. Like their similar TJ cohorts, they're frozen and you sit them out to thaw for half an hour before eating them. Unlike other desserts prepped in a similar fashion, there wasn't any trace of freezer-y taste. So there's a plus. The peppermint cookie part is juuuuust minty enough for my taste, and has the typical tougher outside/softer middle ratio going on. As for the chocolate ganache in between,'s been a few days since we ate them, and I don't recall too much about it one way or another. Let's say that means that it's neither outstanding nor revolting. It probably leans a good bit more towards good than bad on the taste-o-meter, but it certainly wasn't redlining. Altogether, it's not a bad macaron (if such a thing even exists), but I'd relegate these to a supporting role on your holiday cookie tray instead of center stage. Maybe I'm just spoiled by my mom's cookies.

Anyways, I was happy to see at least a serving of these were reasonable enough fat and calorie-wise, especially in comparison to some other TJ cookies. I'd buy them again, but probably not until they semi-hopefully reappear next holidays as the Annual Shelly Family Christmas Cookie Onslaught looms ever closer. I'll be a little generous and swing these guys a four. Sandy? Not as impressed, which I found surprising. "If these were fresh and not frozen, they'd be way better," she says. She's had more macarons in her life then I've had in mine, so I'll presume she knows what she's talking about when she gives 'em a three.  

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Peppermint Macarons: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Trader Joe's Vegetable Bird's Nests

Whenever Sonia and I see something that we've never heard of before in the aisles of Trader Joe's, we make a beeline for it. Inevitably, one of us will think it sounds delicious and the other will turn up their nose. In this case, I was the more interested party. 

Neither of us had ever heard of a food called a "bird's nest" before, but TJ's has done magical things with veggie-based dishes in the past, so I figured it was worth the gamble.

I'm a fan of tempura-anything. I've had scrumptious vegetable tempura from a number of Japanese restaurants, not to mention some excellent meat and seafood tempura's as well. We've reviewed one other tempura dish from TJ's, which got a low-ish score, although this extraordinarily unique vegetable tempura concoction redeems Trader Joe's reputation with tempura completely, at least in my book.

If you've had vegetable tempura before, you'll know that it's usually just one tempura-ized vegetable at a time. In this case it's several, including onions, which I've never seen in the form of tempura before. But I think it's the onions that really make this dish extra flavorful...just don't kiss anybody right after eating it. There are also carrots, kale, and of course, tempura batter. It's a delicious combination that winds up resembling the conglomeration of twigs, strings, and mud in a typical bird's nest. And if that comparison isn't very appetizing, just try the product, and you'll quickly forget about any negative images in your mind.

To add to the taste-tacularity, the dipping sauce is simply brilliant. It's a simple soy sauce, but with just enough sweetness and savoriness to make it seem like a gourmet chef's original creation. It comes right in the package with the bird's nests, and there's plenty of it.

One complaint: it's greasy. The nutrition info makes it seem relatively lean and low-calorie, but for crying out loud they claim that one piece is the recommended serving size! Sonia and I each ate 4 within minutes of pulling them out of the oven. If you're like us, you'll put away more than half your RDA for fat before you even have time to think. There's just something about these things that make them melt in your mouth and slide right down into your tummy. If we had bought two packages instead of just one, we would have immediately thrown the second one into the oven right after finishing the first. For the sake of my gut, I'm glad we didn't.

But other than the fattiness, I can't recommend this product enough. It was a pleasant surprise for both of us. Just click here to watch Sonia and I tasting it for the very first time.

I give it 4.5 stars. Sonia does too.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10 stars.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Trader Joe's Sweet Corn Tamales

So, a few weeks ago, I started a new job. It's closer to home, it's less stress, and it pays a lot more. Those are all good things. That's not to say that the place isn't a little bit of an unusual environment. Walk inside and probably the first thing you'd notice is the giant indoor walk-thru arboretum, and if you happen to glance off to the side, you can see the little pond with picnic tables around it. That's pretty sweet. And there's a pretty decent little employee cafe inside with made-to-order sandwiches and whatnot. My previous job didn't have any of that, not even the cafe. If you wanted a sandwich, it had to come from a vending machine. And that was at a flagship, otherwise state-of-the-art facility. Oh, and their microwaves sucked. My new job even has the same microwave that I own, and it's a good one. What they lack, though, is almost comical. There's no sink or hot water tap in almost any of the break rooms, making my routine morning French Press o' coffee a tougher task. But get this - they don't even have a freezer where people can store their frozen meals. There's none. There's a fridge, though, which keeps most lunches semi-frozen enough until lunch. You'd figure, if they can stock a pond and have some indoor trees that require upkeep every two weeks, there'd be a freezer somewhere. Maybe that's just me.

I mention all this because no matter where I work, I gotta eat lunch, and for the longest time, Trader Joe's tamales have been a staple of my noontime feasting. They're easy to make, they're inexpensive, and as Nathan pointed out a while ago, they're surprisingly good. In Pittsburgh, at least, the Sweet Corn Tamales are a new option, which I was only too glad to pick up, as the chicken, cheese and beef ones get a little old after a while.

They're...okay. Not great, but not bad, either. I'm not sure if the tamales themselves or my work's lack of freezer-hood are to blame, but they're kinda a weird texture, at least in my experience. It's definitely a different masa than the other types, which I could tell before even tasting due to its lighter color and softer, kinda soggier texture. A lot of folks on our Facebook page said to be sure to place a wet paper towel over them while nuking, lest they get all dried out. I didn't, because it's impossible to get to a sink without going to the bathroom where I work, and yet, after three minutes in the microwave, they're pretty soggy still. I'll be willing to split the blame.

As for taste, the corn masa exterior tastes like good sweet ol' cornbread, which I'm all about. Inside there's a respectable amount of fresh-ish sweet corn and little green chiles. The chiles don't add much (if any) heat, and the manchega cheese (which is fairly mild anyways) isn't all that prevalent, so overall, these tamales just taste like sweet, semi-chunky cornbread. Some slightly spicier chiles, and some queso mas fuerte, and they'd be much better. As is, they'll probably make my semi-regular lunch rotation, but I think that's more a function of TJ's small cheap lunchworthy entrees than anythng else.

Sandy doesn't really like tamales based chiefly on texture. We've been to Mexico and have eaten some fairly authentic ones, and even then, the masa shell makes her gag a little. So, in fairness and to avoid unilateral Golden Spoonage awarding, I asked our Facebook page what they thought about them. Overall, it was a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from amorous declarations ("I totally love these!" says Lindsey; "I eat them all the time and they rock!" says Kristine) to utter contempt ("I love tamales...these disappointed on all fronts" says Karen), with most folks in the middle. The average score that peeps gave them was about a 2.5 to 3, which seems about right. I'm not utterly opposed to them, but I definitely like the chicken and cheese ones much better. So, it's a 2.5 or 3 from me as well.      

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Sweet Corn Tamales: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
P.S. - I completely whiffed on snapping a picture of the nutritional info for these. I'll add it the next time I buy'em.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Trader Joe's Fruit & Nut Log

The really short version: if you like dried fruit and pecans, you’ll love this thing.

The kinda short version: as Trader Joe states on the packaging, this product is basically a traditional pecan log, but with cranberries, apricots, and pistachios, too. They’re all rolled onto a nougat cylinder, making a “new festive holiday treat.” That’s accurate enough, I think. Plus, it’s kosher. Happy Hanukkah, friends!

I was surprised at how much Sonia loved this thing. I didn’t think she was a big dried fruit fan. But apparently, she’s been hiding that part of her identity from me. Now I know.

I, on the other hand, really like dried fruit. But I think I prefer just plain pieces of dried fruit to this holiday concoction from TJ’s. I have nothing against it. I guess I’m just a little freaked out by the massive quantity of creamy white nougat stuck between the fruit and nuts. Despite the nougatiness, this product is still relatively good-for-you. Please note that I said relatively good-for-you. People usually fall into one of two categories: (1) the group of people who wouldn’t even try this because they think it’s some kind of health food, and (2) the group of people who think I should be tarred and feathered for insinuating that a giant stick of glucose syrup is in any way “good-for-you.” I fall directly in between these two groups. The fruit and nuts are probably healthy, but the nougat…maybe not so much.

And if I’m going to eat something that’s not completely good for me, I want to eat something really, really tasty. And I’m probably going to eat a lot of it. This stuff was nice to try, but it wouldn’t be the dessert of my choice. I’d pick regular dried fruit for a snack, and then I’d pig out on pumpkin pie later on.

Sonia disagrees. She’d like to make this item a staple in our home for snacks, desserts, and not just for holidays. Sorry, Sonia. I think this is just a seasonal treat…

At any rate, she gives it 4.5 out of 5 stars. I give it 2.5.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Trader Joe's Cranberry Orange Cookies with White Chocolate Chips

Ever have those chocolate oranges at Christmas time? It doesn't seem like it should work, but chocolate/orange is an excellent flavor combination. Case in point: The Chocolate Orange.

This product from Trader Joe's is a little light on the chocolate end of the equation, especially for dark and milk chocolate lovers, but it's kinda the same idea. These cookies taste a bit more like "candied oranges." They've got real citrus flavor, and they're super sweet.

The dominant flavor in these cookies is definitely the orange. Sonia agrees. She's not fond of citrusy cookies, but I am. TJ's has done the citrus cookie thing before, and they did it pretty well. In this product, the cranberries add a bit of tartness, but you don't really taste cranberry per se. Likewise, the white chocolate adds sweetness, but you're not really tasting chocolate. You're tasting a cookified, extra-tart, extra-sweet orange. And I think it's brilliant.

My wife, on the other hand, wasn't as pleased with the overwhelming citrus flavor. She likes the cranberry part of the cookies, but wishes it were more prevalent. She likes the white chocolate (although, I know from experience that she'd be at least as happy with dark or milk chocolate). And we both loved the soft, bready, cookie part of the product. Sonia pointed out that they're vaguely reminiscent of Subway's birthday berry or white chocolate raspberry cookies...with way more citrusiness. The overall texture is sorta like a sugar cookie, in that it's a bit buttery and delicate.

While Sonia couldn't bring herself to give them higher than 3 stars, I was tempted to give them a perfect score. If I had tasted the cranberry and white chocolate just a tad more, I think I would have. 4.5 stars from me.

Bottom line 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Tots

Back on Thanksgiving, Sandy and I decided to try and give sweet Lil' Baby M a sweet little treat. At a little over 4 months old, she's being staring at us pretty intently whenever we've been eating or drinking something*, so we decided that maybe she was ready to try her first bite of "real people food." So, Sandy scooped up a little bite of our baked sweet potatoes, mixed in a little mama milk, and mashed it up and plopped into Lil' Baby M's mouth. I, of course, had our de facto video recorder (read: iPhone) running to preserve the moment for all of time. And her reaction? Well, to ask that question assumes that she had one. She just kinda looked and blinked and swished it around and spit some up and might have managed to swallow a little, all with a completely blank, pretty uninterested expression on her little face.** Guess she ain't ready yet.

And I'm pretty sure her reaction would have been exactly the same if her first bite would have instead been a Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Tot, because, well, that was pretty much ours when we had them a few nights ago. Minus the spit up, of course.

It's not the taste that doesn't work. They're pretty legitimate sweet potato mini-nuggets. No real problem there. It's more the texture. You know how a tater tot is supposed to be - crispy on the outside, kinda soft/kinda firm in the middle, and a little greasy too? Indeed, TJ's makes some freakin' excellent ones that are perfect right from the oven. These...are more like baked mush. Anything purporting to be a tater tot cannot simply be a dollop of potato mush, with the outside being slightly less mushy mush. Doesn't work. And that was even after baking them for a little beyond the 35-40 minutes the instructions give for a crunchy tater barrel. I think to get anything resembling a crispiness or a crunchiness we would have had to flat-out blacken these suckers.

That's part of the sweet potato curse. Kinda like salty/chocolate combos, or stuff made with whole grain, or (for my taste) wheat beers, there's a balance that has to be struck. They can be absolutely great, but if not done well, it doesn't work. A little unlike those examples, sweet potatoes almost always taste great, but texturally they either work very well (like these frites) or not at all (look at these gnocchi! Ugh). I'm not sure what really separates them from their regular cousins in that regard - I guess it's something that has to do with the additional natural sugars softening them up during preparation.       

Anyways, out of our veggie corn dog and tater tot dinner, these were the absolute disappointment. "They're basically like a baked version of the gnocchi," Sandy said. Oooh, that's a deep insult. She gave them a two, based solely on the texture. I'll be a little more generous than I might otherwise and say a three.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Tots: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
*She's the most interested whenever we drink a beer. I guess she likes what's in her bottle so much she wonders what's in ours. I don't know how to feel about this.
**We have so many nicknames for her. "Little Face" is one that Sandy came up with. I wish I had veto rights over nicknames, like what we granted each other when discussing actual names, 'cause man, I hate that one.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Trader Joe's Vanilla & Cinnamon Black Tea

There's some holiday traditions that frankly, I just don't get. Chief among them is the movie "A Christmas Story." You've probably seen it a hundred times, which is roughly how many times it gets played on TBS (or whatever station) this time of year, including nonstop on Christmas Day itself. What's the point of the movie, besides Ralphie actually getting his Red Ryder BB gun while not actually shooting his eye out? I mean, really, the whole movie is a bunch of somewhat amusing snippets of some slightly aggrandized yet skewed version of some every day life which, honestly, are mostly downers. Sure, you may get to beat the crap out of the neighborhood bully every once in a while, but the rest of the time it's getting your tongue frozen to the flagpole (why they opted for the yank method over some warm water, only God knows), your husband winning an ugly trashy leg lamp he insists on proudly showcasing, you breaking your prized ugly trashy leg lamp you insisted on proudly showcasing, your top secret decoded message turning out to be a lousy Ovaltine ad, your furnace is always breaking, your neighbor's dogs ravaging your holiday turkey, making you settle for Chinese for Christmas goes on and on. About the only thing that does go right is Ralphie not losing his eye, but still busting his glasses, which if I were his old man I'd not be amused.

On the other hand, there are holiday traditions that I fully support. Homemade cookies. My Grandma sending us pajamas every year. Pictures on the staircase. These are all great things. To a somewhat lesser (but still great!) extent, there's all the holiday goodies Trader Joe's puts out, some of which we've already reviewed. Trader Joe's Vanilla & Cinnamon Black Tea, or what I prefer to simply call "lemur tea," probably has to be my absolute favorite.

I mean, what's not to love? Let's start with packaging. Look at the lemur's face! There he is, probably lost, cold from the snow, missing his home in Madagascar, and somehow he got tangled up in Christmas lights while holding a mug of tea. Yeah, it makes no sense but it works. It's cute and funny and can't help but make you smile. And that's before you even take a sip of this steeped perfection. Just by itself, it's good solid black tea with a healthy dose of vanilla and little hints of cinnamon here and there that tastes very grown-up and refined. It's excellent that way. If you're a little more like my cohort and crave something sugary and sweet, well, just add a good dose of cream and a little sugar, and you've got yourself a very tasty treat. Either way, there's very few other ways I'd prefer to warm myself up than grabbing a tea kettle, a big mug, and a bag of lemur tea. Have some while snuggling under a blanket reading, lounging on your couch with a movie, working away in your just doesn't matter where or when, it's fantastic. Overall, it's just well-balanced, good, honest tea that TJ trots out every holiday season. There's not a single bad thing that can be said.

Sandy likes it almost as much as I do. "I'm not much of a tea person," she said, "but man, I love lemur tea!" That's me, too. I'll drink iced tea all summer, but there's no other hot tea I make a point of buying and consuming at every reasonable chance other than this one. I'm a little confused by the labelled gluten-free stamp on the box...Is there gluten in other teas? Isn't there some form of gluten in the typical lemur diet?...but regardless, this is a perfect five from me. Not one single teeny-tiny complaint from me. Sandy had the audacity to give it only a four, I think, which is way too low. I'm going to assume I was so shocked by her saying "four" that I missed the part where she said "and a half" so I'm tacking that on. If there's one TJ's tea that deserves Pantheon-hood, it's this one.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Vanilla & Cinnamon Black Tea: 9.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, December 3, 2012

Trader Joe's Unsweetened Cocoa Powder

After living the first five years of my life in Hershey, PA, just blocks from the famous intersection of Cocoa and Chocolate Ave, and then growing up no more than an hour away from Hershey after that, I developed a mild sense of brand loyalty to the massive chocolate corporation. I'm not a chocoholic by any means, but I don't go out of my way to avoid chocolate, either. Who does?

And, as many of you regular readers may know, I'm open to try new things and I can provide the average person with a few insights about most Trader Joe's foodstuffs, but my child-like sweet-tooth refuses to be ignored. I'll often choose a "chick-drink" over beer, and I very rarely drink coffee because I want my caffeine to taste like candy. So I indulge on energy drinks instead. Likewise, I'm all about white chocolate and milk chocolate, and haven't much love for the dark stuff.

Now, I'm married to a beautiful Mexican-American woman, and one of the prerequisites for that is a love of traditional Mexican beverages, such as champurrado and Abuelita, which is pretty similar to Trader Joe's Spicy Hot Cocoa. All those beverages get a big thumbs up from me, as does microwaved Hershey's syrup and milk. But this stuff is darker than them all. It's bitter. Even after the specified tablespoon of sugar, my hot cocoa was thick, rich, dark, and not very sweet. I put the sugar in myself. It's scary how much sugar I put in. A tablespoon is big. There was practically as much sugar as there was milk. And still, no sugar shock. No sweetness surge. That's something I'm looking for in a chocolate. That's something I crave. And there are those of you who would tell me that if it still wasn't sweet enough, I should have just gone ahead and put another spoonful into the cup. But I couldn't. That would have been wrong. Like asking Santa to bring me diabetes for Christmas. It was just a bit disappointing.

But for those of you with "refined palates," you'll agree with my wife: this stuff is delicious. Coffee connoisseurs and lovers of beany things, rejoice. And go buy a box. The packaging proclaims that the product is made with Tumaco beans from Colombia. Apparently, Juan Valdez and his ornery mule picked up a sack of cocoa beans while he was out there in the bush collecting coffee, and he sold it all to Trader Joe when he came to port. I googled "Tumaco cocoa" and more than half of the results I found referenced this Trader Joe's product. I'm not sure if that reflects the success of Trader Joe's brand or the fact that "Tumaco cocoa" really isn't that famous. Either way, I think you folks that like dark coffees and chocolates will like it.

On that note, I don't want to give it a deceptively low score. I can tell that it's a quality product. It's just not my cup of, hot cocoa. I'll give it a 3.

Sonia, predictably, gives it a 4.5. She loved the drink and would like to add that it's good for baking, too. She used it in a cake she made. It was yummy.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

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