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Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Trader Joe's Hot Cocoa Cream Cheese Spread

Trader Joe's has gone and made hot cocoa flavored cream cheese. It's everything you'd expect it to be...I mean, unless you were expecting it to actually be hot. Of course it's not hot when you pull it out of the fridge. That would be silly to think that. I mean, I suppose you could heat it up and melt it and find some uses for it that way, but now we're getting off track...

This cream cheese looks, smells, and tastes like actual hot cocoa. It's a milky light brown color, and it spreads like any other cream cheese. It's super smooth. No flecks of powder or chunks of marshmallow or anything like that—although Trader Joe's Hot Cocoa Cream Cheese with Marshmallows doesn't sound bad to me at all.

As soon as you open the tub, the smell of hot cocoa hits your nose. And it tastes like hot cocoa, too—like a medium-sweet milk chocolate made with real cow's milk, cocoa, and sugar. It goes great on bagels and anywhere else you'd use regular cream cheese. Sonia is fond of sprinkling Trader Joe's Cocoa Cinnamon Sugar Blend on top of this stuff for an extra blast of sweetness and maybe a bit of Mexican Hot Chocolate flair from the cinnamon.

$2.79 for the tub. Would buy again. Four stars a piece from the beautiful wifey and me for Trader Joe's Hot Cocoa Cream Cheese Spread.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Trader Joe's Figgy Cheddar

Well, it's Christmas yet again. And in lieu of figgy pudding—which I've still never even tried, by the way—we've got some figgy cheddar cheese, which we'll be munching on throughout this soggy winter's day, along with some all beef sausage and crackers.

This block of cheese is a fine mild cheddar, produced in the U.K. It's nice and soft and not very sharp at all. Most of TJ's cheeses are high-quality, so that's usually not something you have to worry about.

But it has figs in it. Weird, right? Does it work? Yeah, sorta. The figs lend a faint sweetness that otherwise wouldn't be there, which I expected. What I wasn't prepared for was the odd crunchiness from the fig seeds. Just as you get a bit of grittiness when eating a dried fig, there are whispers of crunch in this block of cheddar. It's a tad odd, but it's still a tasty cheese.

The "spiced" part of the figs is negligible. You don't really taste much, if any, of the coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and fennel mentioned in the ingredients—not that I was really hoping to. This is figgy cheddar after all, not pumpkin spice cheddar. Shoot, I better not give them any ideas for next fall...

The fig bits could be bigger, honestly. I think it would help the unique flavor shine a little more, but then there would be more of that weird sandy grit, too, so...never mind. $8.68 for our block, priced by weight—looks like $11 per pound I think. Sonia likes it a little more than I do. She'd buy again, while I'm on the fence. Four stars from the beautiful wifey. Three and a half from me for Trader Joe's Figgy Cheddar.

Merry Christmas, everybody! Thanks for reading!

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Trader Joe's Cranberry Butter Cookies

We've been plugging away at Trader Joe's brand Christmas goodies rather industriously here for the past couple weeks, so I'll spare you a long soliloquy today and keep this one short. I don't really have a ton to say anyway, so let's get to it.

Trader Joe's Cranberry Butter Cookies have a good taste and an okay texture. They're a little harder than I would have liked. They are firm and crumbly rather than soft and delicate. The cranberries lend a hint of chewy satisfaction, but there's not enough of them.

The flavor is sweet and buttery, tart and tangy. They taste a bit like the All Butter Shortbread Sandwich Cookies, but I liked the texture on those a good bit better than these. I feel like these cookies are too solid, and they lack the smooth jelly filling of the sandwich cookies.

I give Trader Joe's Cranberry Butter Cookies three and a half stars. Sonia gives them only three, also stating that they're too hard and need to be dunked in a hot beverage. $2.99 for the five serving pack. They're not the worst cookies I've tried, but knowing what else is out there, these are probably not a repeat purchase for us.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Trader Joe's Iced Gingerbread Squares

Few foods are as overtly Christmassy as gingerbread. Apple pie is jovial and jubilant and all, but it's just as appropriate on the Fourth of July as it is during the holiday season. Pumpkin stuff is fair game around Yuletide, but those goodies are also ubiquitous in October and November. I guess peppermint and egg nog are flavors you can't separate from late December, but as far as actual food items go, gingerbread is about as inextricably woven into the fabric of Noël as anything I can think of...and that's one of the reasons we have to hold it to a high standard.

These iced gingerbread squares aren't exactly a disappointment, but I certainly wouldn't put them at the top of my Trader Joe's holiday wish list. When it comes to appearance and texture, these morsels are about as far removed from homemade as you can get. They look and feel fake, overly processed. The perfectly squared off gingerbread pieces feel almost rubbery to the touch while the icing looks and feels like hard plastic.

The mouthfeel is fine, however. Once you start chewing the product, the gingerbread is nice and soft, the icing may be a little stiff but not hard. Still, there's the sense that these sugary slabs were made by machines rather than human hands.

There's a molasses and brown sugar sweetness to the taste, and the spices are blended fairly well. They're not overdone or harsh in any way. If anything, once you factor in the layer of icing, the squares may teeter on the verge of being too sweet.

The flavor, while pleasant, isn't particularly memorable. Of all the goodies we've sampled this year, this is about the only one that didn't disappear in short order after opening the package. Even the Holiday Vegetable Hash, after discovering a few ways to prepare it that we really enjoyed, is long gone from our fridge. Sonia and I aren't exactly fighting one another for the remaining gingerbread squares.

While it's not a terrible product by any means, this one just isn't among our favorites. About five bucks for six bars. Probably wouldn't buy again. Three out of five stars a piece from Sonia and me for Trader Joe's Iced Gingerbread Squares.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Trader Joe's Holiday Cheer Unexpected Cheddar Cheese Spread

Not all that long ago, Sonia and I purchased our very first tub of Trader Joe's Unexpected Cheddar Cheese Spread. It became our most recent addition to The Pantheon. In other words, we freaking love it. It came to our attention around that same time that TJ's also offers a hatch chile version and a holiday version of unexpected cheddar.

In true Trader Joe's fashion, they yanked the hatch chile iteration from the shelves before we could get our hands on it. (Please bring it back next year!) But we did manage to acquire some of this Holiday Cheer cheese spread, so here we go!

They've added dried, sweetened cranberries, riesling wine, and cinnamon into the mix. How is that gonna work?? Pretty well, honestly. Surprisingly well. But in the end, as tasty as it is, I feel like one of the strengths of the original flavor is its versatility and I think those additives make this holiday version slightly less so.

Of the three added ingredients, cranberries influence the look, taste, and texture of the product the most. On average, there's a couple shreds of cranberry in every bite. It lends a bit more sweet and tart to the spread. The riesling is also sweet, but it's very subtle. If you pay close attention, you can taste a whisper of sweet white wine. Likewise, the cinnamon flavor is barely there. If it were any more intrusive, it might not have worked, but as is, I say it's fine.

The spread still pairs deliciously with plain water crackers. It would go great alongside dessert wines, fruit, and maybe certain sweet meats. I don't know if I'd use it all willy nilly on cold cut sandwiches like I did the original flavor, though. Sonia added a couple spoonfuls to some spicy veggie chili, and I was certain it wouldn't work at all. But I was wrong. It was unique and quite tasty.

In the end, it's another great product and it definitely tastes very similar to the traditional unexpected cheddar. The cranberries, in particular, make it taste, look, and feel just a bit more Christmassy than its predecessor and I think we'd buy another tub next year. $4.99 for the tub. Four stars from yours truly. Four and a half stars from the beautiful wifey for Trader Joe's Holiday Cheer Unexpected Cheddar Cheese Spread.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Trader Joe's Raisin Walnut Apple Bars

Looks just like some kinda fancy raisin bread broken up into mini-loaves for easy consumption, but I can't tell for sure. Let's see the write-up on the packaging. I'm sure it will tell us what the gimmick is here and how best to heat these little morsels. No write up. to the rescue. Ah, these are protein bars? I never would have guessed that in a million years. And they contain "high gluten enriched flour." Does that mean they add extra gluten? I guess whatever they remove from the gluten free products has to wind up somewhere, right? What a clever use for repurposed gluten.

Anyway. The bars. How are they? They're like really dense, really doughy raisin bread but with dried apple bits and walnuts, too. Kinda sweet. Kinda soft. Kinda chewy. They're much more filling than just a typical slice of cinnamon toast or other specialty breakfast bread. Not bad, not bad.

But they're so much better toasted. A little butter or cream cheese here goes a long way here since there's already a natural richness to the product. Filling, sweet, nutty, and fruity, I don't even know if these are supposed to be holiday or not, but I think something like this would do well year-round.

About 6 bucks for 8 bars. Sonia likes them a lot. Would buy again. Four stars a piece from the wifey and me for Trader Joe's Raisin Walnut Apple Bars.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Trader Joe's French Apple Tart and Trader Joe's Teeny Tiny Apple Pies

On our last Trader Joe's run, we might have overbought a little, and I don't think there's any way to review all of these goodies before Christmas. So in the interest of consolidating our blog posts, this edition will serve to compare and contrast two popular apple pie products available this holiday season: Trader Joe's French Apple Tart and Trader Joe's Teeny Tiny Apple Pies.

The first and most obvious difference between the two products is the presence of enormous apple slices on the French tart. They're both Granny Smith and Northern Spy varieties. Some of you might recall the legendary Rustic Apple Tarte employed the use of Northern Spies. It's a lightly sweet and juicy species, while Granny Smith is tart and crisp. The teeny tiny pies are filled with a more traditional apple pie filling, with very small minced pieces of fruit—again using Northern Spy apples from Canada.

Flavor-wise, the French pie not only flaunts some sour apple pieces, but it uses apricot bits as well, lending it even more sweet-tart tang. The teeny tiny iteration boasts more of a cinnamon and brown sugar flavor and a much sweeter filling blend.

As far as crust goes, the teeny tiny apple pies have a traditional apple pie crust on the sides and bottom with an apple crumble-style coating on top. The tart is much less reliant on breading with nothing but a modest layer of shortbread underneath the layers of apple and apricot. There was an odd grittiness to the shortbread on the French apple tart that was just a tad off-putting.

Value-wise, we're looking at four servings in each of the products, though Sonia and I both agree you could easily stretch the French apple tart to eight servings. However, at $7.99, it's also pricier. The teeny tiny fellows will run you five bucks for the quartet of mini pies.

In the end, the French apple tart tastes more natural, and it'll serve a greater number of people, at least potentially. The teeny tiny apple pies have a very safe, classic apple pie flavor with cinnamon and brown sugar, they offer three different heating options right on the box (while the French tart includes none). The grainy texture in the French tart's shortbread bothered me a little more than Sonia, but she did notice it. Here are our final scores:

Trader Joe's French Apple Tart            Trader Joe's Teeny Tiny Apple Pies
Nathan: 3.5 stars                                  Nathan: 4 stars
Sonia: 4.5 stars                                    Sonia: 4 stars
Bottom line: 8 out of 10.                    Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

And if you're still on the fence about which purchase to make and you don't want to try one of each, we offer this last bit of guidance: if you're a family of four or less, go with the teeny tiny pies. If you're a family of five or more, go with the French tart.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Trader Joe's Raspberry Croissant Carré

All right, we did our obligatory vegetable-based product yesterday, so it's time to get back to indulgent, fattening holiday treats. I mean, it's practically the weekend. Up next: this raspberry croissant pastry thing. I've never heard of carré before. Apparently, it means "square" in French. Pronounced like "car-ray."

Only conventional oven heating instructions are given on the packaging, but we winged it in the air fryer on low heat (325°F) for about five minutes. It worked. The pastry was still soft, flaky, and buttery on the outside—like a croissant—and the filling was nice and hot, smooth and sweet, like the center of a high-quality jelly doughnut.

The filling is made with real raspberries and lemon juice, so it tastes authentic and fruity. It's mostly sweet, but there's a nice dose of tart flavor in there, too. 

The edges of the pastry favor the bread quite a bit, while the middle is positively bursting with the purple jam. Both elements are delicious and pair beautifully with one another as a fancy and festive French dessert treat.

$5.99 for the six serving loaf. I don't even know if this is an explicitly Christmassy thing. Raspberries are kinda summer fruits, no? I'm sure they could make this with apples, oranges, figs, or plums and it would still be interesting to try.

Anyway, we would definitely buy again next year. Four stars from me. Four and a half stars from the beautiful wifey for Trader Joe's Raspberry Croissant Carré.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Trader Joe's Holiday Vegetable Hash

Trader Joe's is selling the good stuff now. And it's not just any hash, it's a special strain cultivated for this magical holiday season. But try as I may to roll it up and light it up, I just couldn't get this bud to burn. Somebody gotta tell Joe to dry his goods before selling them. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to eat these little hash chunks. They even give you suggestions for using them as edibles right on the package. You can make super stimulating soup or stoner stuffing with this stuff. Far out.

All hash jokes aside, our mixture seemed like it was teetering on the verge of being too dry, honestly. A bit more moisture would have been quite pleasant here. The squash and sweet potato bites were a little too hard and even the celery seemed stiff. We did consume it a couple days before the "best by" date, but it seemed like maybe our batch had seen better days..?

It's not a mix I'd ever want to eat on its own. In addition to the lack of moisture and abundance of firmness, it's a very odd flavor combo to me. When cold, the onions clash with the sweet potato and squash, and the herbs and spices are overrepresented.

As far as seasonings are concerned, we're looking at parsley, sage, rosemary, and...wait. What? Just parsley, sage, rosemary...and no thyme. I bet Simon and Garfunkel are rolling over in their graves right now. Wait. What? Neither of those guys are dead yet? Well, that's good, I guess. Time for a reunion tour then, maybe?

As an additive to other foods, I guess I'm failing to find a soup that suits this unusual mishmash of not-super-Christmassy oddball ingredients. Sonia sautéed it with salt and olive oil, and I must say I like this melange much better when served warm. The oil helps with the dryness, and all the flavors blend into a nice savory snack—much less harsh and bitter than when consumed raw. It works amazingly well as an accompaniment to eggs.

The beautiful wifey has big plans to serve up the remainder of our hash with a Cornish hen, but I don't think we'll get to that before this review gets posted. In light of how good this stuff is when served as a hot dish, I'll have to give it the benefit of the doubt. Sonia agrees.

$4.99 for the 18 oz container. Three and a half stars a piece from the wifey and me for Trader Joe's Holiday Vegetable Hash.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Trader Joe's Gingerbread Ice Cream

I'm definitely an ice cream-all-year-round kinda guy. Most of my life, I've lived in places with four seasons. Ice cream in December might make sense to Southern Californians, but it might not be the norm for folks in the Mid-Atlantic or Upper Midwest. 

Actually, I take that back. In my hometown in central Pennsylvania, there'd be folks in line for ice cream at The Igloo all throughout the winter months. And the Berkey Creamery at Penn State never closed even in the freezing cold. I guess it's just part of the culture when you live in places surrounded by dairy farms.

At any rate, we never shy away from newfangled ice cream from Trader Joe's even if it's cold outside, so let's dig in. The actual ice cream here is gingerbread flavored. There are also nice big pieces of ginger cookies and a molasses-esque "gingerbread swirl." I think a vanilla base would have worked a little better here than the spicy brown base they used. A bit more creamy and sweet would have helped put the ginger spices in check, in the manner of Cookie Butter Ice Cream.

Still, this is a decent ice cream flavor, particularly if you love gingerrific ginger snaps. Every few bites or so, we got a piece of powerful, sinus-clearing raw ginger. I didn't really mind it since it wasn't in every bite. There were enough sweet and desserty elements that the raw ginger bits helped to balance them out, and they blended well with the molasses, cinnamon, and nutmeg flavors.

$3.79 for the pint. In summary, this ice cream is a festive, high quality, specialty dessert. It'll hit the spot for folks that absolutely love ginger. For other folks like Sonia and me, it was fun to try just once, but we'll return to vanilla-based ice creams that balance out the ginger spices a little better in the future. Three and a half stars a piece from the beautiful wifey and me for Trader Joe's Gingerbread Ice Cream.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Trader Joe's Pretzel Bread Pudding

Neither Sonia nor I grew up with bread pudding, but we've reviewed a couple versions from Trader Joe's throughout the years. See: pumpkin and salted caramel varieties.

This hot new product looked buzzworthy, so we decided to embark on another bread pudding adventure. After a bit of full-contact Christmas shopping over the weekend, Sonia and I were both getting hangry and teetering on the verge of a full blown verbal sparring session as we arrived at home, so we took the shortest path to raising our blood sugar back to normal-ish levels by yoinking this product from the freezer and popping the little desserts in the microwave.

The results? Quite decent. Forty-five seconds never tasted so scrumptious. A few bites of the sticky sweet concoction had us laughing and smiling like our normal, good-natured selves again.

The bread pudding is glazed in a pleasant amount of a salty caramel sauce that keeps the product sticky and syrupy. The flavor is sweet and buttery. The texture: soft, wet, and doughy.

The product wasn't even a bit chewy or rubbery even after a spell in the microwave. The bread does seem a bit firmer and puffier than your average bread pudding bread—perhaps because it's bread from actual pretzels. Has this been a thing for a while? Why didn't anybody tell me about this?

$4.49 for two very filling dessert cups. Good stuff here. Worth a purchase. Would eat for dessert after Christmas dinner. The beautiful wifey is on board for four and a half stars. Put me down for another four and a half and a thumbs up for Trader Joe's Pretzel Bread Pudding.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Trader Joe's Double Fold Bourbon Vanilla Extract

Like most people, I love the smell of vanilla extract. I love it as an ingredient in all manner of desserts and cakes and I enjoy the flavor it provides. However, unlike most people, I even like the taste of it straight out of the container, plain. I mean, I wouldn't drink a whole bottle of it like that, but I probably could on a dare or some similar situation.

After taking in a few whiffs of this Double Fold Bourbon Vanilla Extract, I was absolutely enchanted. I informed Sonia that I was going to try it straight. She cautioned me against it in the same manner that my parents used to, but being the wild man that I am, I proceeded to pour a teaspoon full and lap it up like so much fragrant water.

It's harsh and full of alcohol, for sure, but I mean, some bourbon can be pretty harsh and astringent, flavor-wise. It's got a distinct bourbon flavor and plenty of pure vanilla, too. It's like a shot of regular vanilla extract mixed with a dash of straight bourbon, slightly stronger than a spoonful of normal vanilla extract.

As an ingredient in food, it lends a nice earthy sweetness. Sonia made some pancakes using this elixir, and they came out just a little more vanillatastic than pancakes made with normal vanilla extract. I made a London fog beverage with some Earl Grey, half and half, honey, and this stuff, and it was lovely.

At first $7.99 seems a little steep for just 3.55 fluid ounces, but considering the quality and the fact that it's imported all the way from Mauritius, it could be a lot worse. Hard to score something like this. I think I'll throw out three and a half stars. Put the beautiful wifey down for four on Trader Joe's Double Fold Bourbon Vanilla Extract with Vanilla Bean Seeds.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

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