Sunday, December 21, 2014

Candy Christmas: Choceur Belgian Seashells (Aldi)

Probably the prettiest things you'll eat in any holiday season.
This is another seasonal product from Aldi, only available around the holiday season.  I had tried them a few years back, remembered liking them, but for some reason never decided to pick them up again--until this year.  While I won’t go so far as to say I could see these becoming a holiday tradition for me, as the cocoa-dusted truffles are for my wife (I have the Candy Cane Pie for that), I found them to be delicious little treats, whose addiction can be magnified depending on your love for hazelnut.

For starters, and probably the first thing you will notice, is that these things are actually really pretty.  Even though they’re called “Belgian Seashells” (and they are, in fact, made in Belgium, at least according to the packaging), only about half of the designs seem to be seashells; you also get a starfish, and a seahorse thrown in there for good measure.  Each design is very meticulous and surprisingly detailed, at least as far as mass-produced chocolates are concerned.  Adding to the beauty is that they use marbled chocolate, so you get swirls of milk and white chocolates combining to form one delectable little treat.  They really are a sight to behold.

Following the tried-and-true formula of holiday chocolates, the marbled chocolate exterior is hard, while the hazelnut/chocolate interior, which reminds one of Nutella in terms of taste, is melt-in-your-mouth smooth.  Both go together quite well.  I must admit I’m not a huge fan of hazelnut, one of the reasons this will probably never be a required holiday tradition for me, but I did end up liking these a lot more than I thought I would, and they satisfy my holiday chocolate cravings quite nicely.  If you’re into chocolate, and at least have a tolerance for hazelnut, you should give these a shot.

Overall: 7/10.  Marbled chocolate on the outside, melt-in-your-mouth hazelnut filling on the inside.  The designs, which focus on sea life (there are some seashells, along with a starfish and seahorse) are so beautiful and detailed, at least as far as mass-produced chocolates are concerned, that you might be a little hesitant to eat them.  But you’d be missing out, as both layers go together quite well.  I’m not a huge fan of hazelnut, which will probably prevent this from being a holiday tradition for me, but they do a great job of satisfying my holiday chocolate cravings.  If you are a big hazelnut fan, adjust the score accordingly.  If you don’t like it, just stay away altogether.

GUEST POST!: Choceur Cocoa-Dusted Truffles (Aldi)

GUEST POST! My wife reviews these!
I do not like dark chocolate.  At all.  Therefore, I think these things taste like turds, and won‘t go anywhere near a box.  But you know what?  I don’t think it’s fair to give low scores to something that I never like.  So I asked my lovely wife, who has a completely different palate than I, to step in and give her own take on these treats, available annually around the holiday season at Aldi.  Her thoughts start below:

When it comes to food and drink, I think I would be considered the man of the family.  My husband’s tastes skewer toward the sweet, to the point that he cannot drink coffee, beer, most wines, or dark chocolate.  They have evolved for the better over the years--I eventually got him to like sauerkraut and bleu cheese--but I can’t see him ever taking a liking to any of the four things I first mentioned.  Oh well, not everyone is perfect.

While he never eats Choceur’s Cocoa-Dusted Truffles, they have become one of my holiday traditions from Aldi; I get them every year.  And since it’s one of the few things he doesn’t like, it’s one of the few things I can look forward to enjoying all by myself.  Now, the inner part of these truffles are actually very sweet, and very chocolatey; think the popular ball-shaped truffles you can get around this time, with the soft, melty chocolate in the middle, and the hard chocolate on the outside.  What my husband takes offense to is the cocoa dusting on the outside, which is certainly a very bitter, very unsweet dark chocolate.  For me, these truffles represent a perfect balance, with the bitter exterior giving way to a very sweet interior.

Like the aforementioned “ball truffles”, these also melt in your mouth, to the point that I usually don’t even chew them, letting them melt slowly on the tongue.  They are also made in Belgium, a fact pointed out by the item’s packaging.  Does that have anything to do with why they are so addicting?  I have no idea.  All I know is, being made in Belgium certainly can’t hurt, as that place is known for some of the best chocolate in the world.

Overall: 9/10.  These are a favorite holiday treat for me, with the super-bitter outside giving way to a delectably sweet, melt-in-your-mouth interior.  It’s not for everyone, like the super-sensitive palate of my husband, but if you don’t require your chocolate to be sickeningly sweet, there’s a good chance you’re going to end up making this one of your own holiday traditions.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

L'Oven Fresh Cinnamon Crumb Cake

A delicious, delicious thing worth killing someone over.
Back when I was a wee tyke, my mother used to make me boxed cinnamon streusel bread.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  It was cinnamon bread, with a  streusel topping, and it came with a little tube of vanilla icing to squeeze on the top.  She didn’t do it all the time, but that’s what made it more special--I remember waking up to go to school, and having a couple slices waiting for me, complete with a glass of milk.  The only downside, and I don’t know if it was because it came from a box, or if it was my mom’s doing, was that it was pretty dry.

L’Oven Fresh’s (no matter how many times I see that name, I still hate it) Cinnamon Crumb Cake tastes exactly like that boxed bread, only it’s not dry, and there’s actually plenty of vanilla icing to go around.  In fact, not only is it not dry, but it’s surprisingly moist; I’ll bet most supermarket chain bakeries aren’t putting anything out at this level, especially for this price ($3.99), which gives it good value.

On to the flavor, everything meshes exactly as it should:  The cake, on top of being moist (as we’ve already established) has a very good, light cinnamon flavor, that gives way to the delectable streusel-style cinnamon topping.  Adding to the deliciousness is the vanilla icing, which compliments the cinnamon very well, and there’s a good amount of it drizzled on the top.  In fact, I make sure the icing and cinnamon topping are the last things I eat, as I tend to eat the cake first, then save the best bites for last.  Mmmm…my mouth is watering just thinking about it!

If you need an alternate opinion, my wife is not a big fan of cinnamon anythings at all, but even she really likes this cake.  It’s the perfect option for cold winter’s nights; while I don’t drink coffee (something this tends to be paired with), it goes great with a nice cup of hot chocolate, or if you don’t need warmed up, a nice, cold glass of milk.  If you like cinnamon in any capacity, you should definitely give this a go.

Overall: 9/10.  Bought two of these within a month, and didn’t have a problem finishing them off within a week either time.  A perfect, surprisingly moist blending of cinnamon cake, with a cinnamon streusel and vanilla icing topping that would pair well with coffee or hot chocolate.  All the flavors blend together very well, and the end result is a highly addicting combination that should be available year ’round (as of now, it’s only available as a Special Buy at Aldi stores).  Even my wife, who’s not much into cinnamon at all, really enjoys this.  A must-try for those who are into this kind of thing.

Deutsche Kuche Baumkuchen Ring Cake (Aldi)

This is a weird-looking little cake with some cool packaging.
 Every once in a while, I like trying new things.  And at the risk of sounding like a commercial, that’s what I feel like is one of the great things about Aldi…with their constantly-rotating weekly special buys, and their longer-standing seasonal ones, they always have a few things that I would normally never buy, that end up tempting me.

Then there are products that are so weird, I just have to give them a shot.  A good example would be Meiji’s Chocorooms, which are chocolate cookies in the shape of mushrooms, which Aldi sold a couple of years ago.  Or, there were also the Peanut Puffs, which were also a part of the Deutsche Kuche German line and tasted like Cap’n Crunch with no milk, and all forms of sweetness removed.

Well Deutsche Kuche is at it again, and this time it’s in the form of a cake that looks like it’s a tree!  Well, not exactly at first glance…at first glance it looks more like a children’s toy covered in chocolate.  But slice it open and voila; the inside resembles the rings of a tree.  In fact, baumkuchen literally translates to “tree cake”, information that’s readily available on the packaging, and that I found to be so simultaneously weird and intriguing, that I had to give it a shot.

First of all, you slice the cake as if it was a cake.  That may sound obvious, but if it wasn’t for the packaging, I’m not sure I would have known that.  So you slice it straight down, from the top, to the bottom.  It gets the appearance of “rings” from the manufacturing process:  Each “ring” is actually a very thin layer of cake; layers upon layers are applied until the cake reaches a desired height.  Most baumkuchen’s are made up of 15 to 20 layers, which looks to be around the number of layers we get in this one.

Tastewise, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the closest American cake I could compare it to, would be a sponge cake; the cake itself doesn’t have a whole lot of flavor, so thankfully it’s all enveloped in a thin layer of chocolate, which acts as the “frosting”, more or less.  At first, it was more of a curiosity, as we didn’t know what to expect.  But once the flavors sunk in, our interest grew, to the point that we both agreed unanimously we would definitely get another one of these.

I mentioned that the cake doesn’t have much flavor, and believe it or not, that’s actually one of the things this product has going for it.  In a world where more is more, and desserts seem to be trying to outdo each other in pure sugar volume, this is a refreshing step in the opposite direction; a light, almost minimalist, dessert that still manages to satisfy without needing to resort to mountains of frosting, or a gooey chocolate center, or anything else of the sort, to be delicious.  The outer chocolate shell is semi-sweet, but not overly so, and it melts in your mouth the way a good chocolate should.  Good stuff.

Overall: 7.5/10.  While not something I could eat very often, this is a refreshingly simple, almost minimalist dessert that’s refreshingly light and delicious.  Layers of cake are smothered in a thin layer of milk chocolate that’s semi-sweet, but not too much so.  While the cake doesn’t have a whole lot of flavor (reminds me a bit of a sponge cake, to put it in American terms), it pairs very well with the chocolate coating.  Never judge a book by its cover, because this weird little cake started off a curiosity piece for my wife and I, but a couple of pieces later, ended up winning us over.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Choceur Dark Chocolate Hot Cocoa K-Cups (Aldi)

The pinnacle of American convenience.  At least, until single-serve, pre-poured glasses of milk become available.
My wife drinks a lot of coffee, so we got a Keurig for Christmas last year.  I don’t drink straight-up coffee at all.  The only coffee beverage I ever indulge in is the occasional French vanilla cappuccino.   So even though I find owning a Keurig to be unnecessarily expensive (I know, I know, it’s all about the convenience), I still get excited to overpay for products every once in a while just to enjoy stuff that I like.

The latest such product are Choceur Dark Chocolate Hot Chocolate K Cups.  I was actually researching hot chocolate K cups a long time ago, when we first got the machine, and saw that, at least based on reviews, there were really no good options.  This is because all of them used an artificial sweetener, sucralose, on top of sugar, which gave them all a terrible artificial taste (I tried one brand and can definitely verify how terrible it was).  One possible explanation that was given was that there really wasn’t enough room inside the K cup for an adequate amount of sugar to make it taste like legitimate hot chocolate (it sounds good, though I don’t know the plausibility of such a statement).

Choceur’s version is more or less the same, with a mix of real sugar, and fake sucralose, but this is by far the best K cup hot chocolate I’ve had.  The chocolate is rich and tasty, at least, as rich as hot chocolate made out of water can be, and while you can still taste the artificial sweeteners, the chocolate is strong enough that it becomes more of the focal point.  Note that this review pertains to a medium-sized cup…I’m sure if you were to “brew” this into a large cup, it would taste like little more than hot water with a hint of cocoa.

I certainly have a major complaint, so let me rant on for a bit here.  It probably has more to do with the Keurig explosion in general than it does this specific product, but I’m going to vent anyway.  First, is the price.  For 12 of these hot chocolate K cups, it’s $5.  Forty-two cents per serving.  Sadly, this is considered a great deal in the world of K cups, where convenience more or less trumps logic.  But I could (and still will) buy 12 packets of hot chocolate mix, use milk instead of water, and get a much creamier and more satisfying end product for $2 (plus the cost of milk, which still works out to less than $5).  I know, I know, it’s much easier to push a button and forget about it, and that’s what Keurig’s are all about, but it’s not that much harder to rip open a packet, dump it in milk, and stir.

Overall: 6/10.  This review opened me up to a quandary of sorts:  On the one hand, it’s the best hot chocolate K cup I’ve had, and it’s also fairly inexpensive as far as these are concerned.  Yet better hot chocolate can be had for even cheaper using packets of hot cocoa mix, and milk, something the Keurig cannot handle.  So I’m recommending it solely for what it is:  A matter of convenience, which is entirely what those machines stand for.  If you’re a die-hard Keurig user, you can do far worse from giving these a whirl.  As for me, I prefer sticking to the old-fashioned method.

Choceur Hot Cocoa K-Cup Variety Pack (Aldi)

A great deal for those that own no spoons.
One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of other K cup hot chocolate brands is that they are often “fortified” with artificial sweeteners.  This leads to some chemical-y initial tastes, and some medicine-y aftertastes that are completely off-putting.  A quick glance at the flavors in this Choceur collection revealed nothing but sugar, so I was pretty anxious to give these a try.

This collection is 24 K-cups spread out among 4 different flavors, so let’s see how they fared individually:

MOCHA: This was the first one I tried, and also my favorite.  It has a nice, deep chocolate flavor with some surprisingly deep richness for what it is (a water-based hot chocolate made out of a machine).  Of course, it’s not going to match the rich decadence of a nice packet of the powdered stuff, with milk instead of water, but if you have a Keurig, you probably don’t want to be bothered with having to do any manual labor, like ripping open a packet of powder and stirring.  So as far as convenience is concerned, this bests the hot chocolate of my previous review, and becomes the best hot chocolate I've ever had out of the machine. 8/10.

PEPPERMINT: One of my favorite hot chocolates is Nestle’s mint chocolate cocoa packets, which are generally (at least to my knowledge), only available around the holiday season.  It’s got a smooth richness to the cocoa, and a perfect balance of delicious mint flavor that truly shines in milk.  Since using milk isn’t possible (or, at least, recommended) in Keurig’s, I figured Choceur’s version wouldn’t be as rich, but I was at least hoping it was a lot closer than it was.  The peppermint reminded me more of the peppermint found in peppermint tea, and, at least in my opinion, tasted out of place with the chocolate.  Not a good mix at all. 5/10.

SALTED CARAMEL: This was the most interesting flavor of the lineup, at least on paper, and I really wasn’t sure what to expect heading into it.  What you get is a very strong, super-sweet taste of caramel that’s overwhelming to the point of overkill.  "Salt" may be in there somewhere, but there’s not nearly enough of it to counterbalance the ridiculous sweetness.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a sweet tooth when it comes to beverages, but this took it too far, even for me.  4/10.

IRISH CRÈME:  I actually put this off until the very end because it was the one that made me the most nervous.  I don’t know why, but I just pictured it being way too sweet.  It actually turned out to be one of only two flavors worth getting this collection for.  It tastes like hot chocolate with sweetened, condensed milk added.  But unlike the caramel, the sweetness isn’t so strong that it makes you nauseous--instead, it’s a perfect balance that goes down easy.  I really liked this one. 7/10.

Now that we’ve looked at every flavor individually, let’s take a look at the collection as a whole, and let me re-word the rant I provided in the above review:  For $10, you get 24 cups, which rounds up to $.42 per serving.  For hot chocolate.  That won’t even allow you to substitute water for milk.  And that only fills up about six ounces of a cup.  Sadly, that is actually a really good price.  So for what it is, you get some good value, and convenience in spades.  Personally, while I honestly do like using the Keurig every once in a while, just for the fun of it, I’m not so lazy or so pressed for time that I can’t dump a packet of powder into a cup of warm milk and stir for a minute, a method that results in a much better cup of hot chocolate that no K-cup can ever match.

Overall: 6/10.  For Keurig lovers, there is value to be had here, as each up comes out to only $.42.  I also like that you get four different flavors across the 24 K-cups, which is neat, because variety is the spice of life.  The problem lies in the fact that I was only impressed with two of the flavors (Mocha and Irish Crème), which kind of dampens the perceived value.  Also, you can’t add milk, so you’re paying a premium for water-based hot chocolate, which is pretty lame.  If you’re on the fence about buying this, I’d probably suggest you do, simply because taste is subjective and you might end up liking them more than I did.  But then again, if you don’t, you just wasted $10.  Such is the cruel beast known as life.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Clancy's Nacho Cheese Flavored Tortilla Chips (Aldi)

FUN FACT: That's my wife's arm in the picture.
Well we previously reviewed Clancy's ranch version, so let’s take a look at how the nacho cheese version fares.

For starters, a quick visual examination also seconds what we saw with the ranch tortilla chips, and that’s that there is a generous helping of nacho cheese seasoning on each chip.  However, here’s where I feel the whole snack is derailed:  The nacho cheese seasoning, at least in my opinion, isn’t on par with the ranch in terms of being compared to the national brand.  It’s fairly close, but something to me just feels a little…off.  Like it’s missing some kind of cheesy “pop”.  Aside from this, the same complaints that we saw with the ranch, still apply here:  You really get a lot of the corn flavor, which doesn’t happen so much in the national brand.

Now in the case of the ranch, I thought that minor problem was overshadowed by the nearly spot-on ranch seasoning.  But in the case of the nacho cheese, I felt that minor problem was compacted into an even bigger one considering the nacho cheese seasoning isn’t nearly as…smooth (for lack of a better term), as the national brand.  There’s just something about it that’s not quite right, and that, when paired with the overall corny taste, stands out a lot more.

Now this isn’t to say that these are inedible…not by a long shot.  In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that my wife really liked them, which shows you nothing except just how subjective everyone’s tastes truly are.  Regardless, I must also give these extra points for value, as a bag is $2-3 less than the national brand, which are pretty substantial savings.  It’s also a perfect price point to be able to tell if these nacho cheese tortilla chips will hit the spot, like they did for my wife, or if they just end up falling short of the mark, as they did for me.

Overall: 6/10.  While this runs into the same problem as the ranch chips, namely that the taste of the corn clearly comes through, I thought that issue was compacted with a nacho cheese seasoning that just didn’t do it for me.  That’s not to say these aren’t edible, because they are, but to be perfectly honest, I will admit that I prefer the national brand.  Extra points have to be awarded for value, though, as a bag of Clancy’s is $2-3 cheaper than the national brand, giving you a great incentive to find out if you agree with my wife, who really liked these, or me, who wasn’t all that impressed.

Sorry Mike!  But hey, 1 out of 2 ain't bad!

Clancy's Ranch Flavored Tortilla Chips (Aldi)

If you're a fan of processed junk food, you've gotta try these!
Well it took about a year, and was put off thanks to bouts of forgetfulness, alternated with busyness, but I’m finally getting around to typing up a requested review for Clancy’s flavored tortilla chip line.  Better late than never, right Mike?  Haha.

Anyway, it should be pretty evident from the color of the packaging what product this is trying to emulate, and since it’s a well-known chip, I don’t really feel the need to preface anything, so I’m just going to jump right into the good stuff.

Upon examination, these chips actually look pretty exact to the national brand.  There’s also a generous helping of ranch seasoning on each chip, which is a good thing to see.  Oftentimes, I’ve found the major differences between national brand and private label chips, is that the private labels tend to have lesser flavor, so seeing this definitely upped my expectations quite a bit!

But how does it compare in the most important part:  Taste?  The seasoning itself is pretty spot on to the name brand, with just the right amount of tang mixed in with the cool ranch flavor.  The texture is also pretty darn close, as each bite gives you the nice, big crunch that you would expect from tortilla chips.  The only downside, as far as I’m concerned, is that you can definitely taste the corn of the tortilla chip itself a lot more.  In the national brand, the corn taste is virtually non-existent, and that’s how Clancy’s version starts off.  But the more you chew, the more the corniness becomes prevalent, until it becomes outright noticeable.  Now it didn’t bother me that much at all, nor did it bother either of the two other co-workers of mine that tried them and really liked them, but if you’re a flavored tortilla chip connoisseur, it might turn you off a little bit more.

As great as these things are overall, they get even bigger points for value, as a bag of Clancy’s tortilla chips are under $2.  Even when on sale, you can expect to pay at least $1 more for the national brand, and if you are used to paying full price, then you could be saving upwards of $2 or even $3 a bag.  Hmmm, all of a sudden think you can get used to that corny taste, huh?  That’s what I thought.

Overall: 8.5/10.  A great knock-off of a classic product, Clancy’s Ranch Tortilla Chips provide a generous blast of “cool ranch” flavor, and a nice crunch.  The only downside is that the corn of the tortilla chip peeks through a lot more than in the national brand.  It’s wasn’t that big of a turn-off for me, but it’s certainly noticeable.  Value is also here in spades, as an 11 oz. bag retails for well under $2, saving you big over the national brand.  This is a must-try product.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Specially Selected Garlic and Olive Oil Pasta Crackers (Aldi)

Ever craved pasta, only in cracker form? If so, here's your chance!
In the above review, I went into what a “pasta cracker” is, so if you need an introduction, head there.  Otherwise, I’m just going to jump right in.

Even though I found Specially Selected’s marinara pasta crackers to taste pretty good, I did mention that there would have been no way I would have been able to detect that they were marinara-flavored if I was blindfolded.  It tasted nothing like it.  So I decided to try their other flavor offering, garlic and olive oil, as it seemed like that flavor profile would be a lot easier to hit in chip form.

My theory proved to be correct, as this definitely is way more accurate than the marinara version.  Olive oil even happens to be second on the ingredients list, and you can tell just from sampling a bite:  I was expecting the garlic to take front and center, but it’s actually the olive oil that does, followed up close behind by the expected garlic.  I also think these are a little bit stronger than the marinara ones, so you’re probably going to want some gum, or at the very least, mints, if you’re going to be talking to anyone right after eating these.

Although I didn’t get a chance to do so, I think dipping these in some French onion, or even some ranch veggie dip would probably take them to an entirely different level.  Maybe someone will give that a try and let me know how it goes.  Straight out of the bag, though, these have a nice, light texture and big crunch that does hit the spot.  The only downside to the stronger flavor, is I seemed to get sick of these a lot quicker than I did the marinara ones.  Then again, I don’t think garlic and olive oil are two flavors that anyone can really pig out on for that long to begin with.

Overall: 6.5/10.  Even though these are more accurate than the marinara pasta crackers, I still think I prefer those.  For starters, garlic and olive oil are a lot stronger flavors than tomato, so these tend to get to be too much after a short snacking session, and I have to stop eating them.  The light texture and crunch is nice, and the $2 price tag (per 5 oz. bag) provides some good value.  On a side note:  They would probably be very good in ranch or French onion dip, something I’ll have to try at some point in the future.

Specially Selected Marinara Pasta Crackers (Aldi)

Aldi ads are the only store advertisements I receive every week through my email, and I make sure to visit the site every week to see what they are carrying the following week (you can also look two weeks out, which makes it great to be able to plan for meals and Special Buys before most people are aware of them).  So needless to say, I pretty much know everything that will be coming in.

But these Specially Selected Marinara Pasta Crackers totally caught me off guard when I caught them in the store one day, as I did not recall seeing them at all in the weekly ads (I’m sure they were there, but I thought something weird like this would have caught my eye).  According to the bag, they are “Real pasta and Italian-inspired flavor in a thin, crispy chip.”  Okay, that made them sound so unappetizing and pointless, I just knew I had to give them a shot!

Sniffing the bag, you can pick up a faint scent of marinara, but I think I got more garlic and onion than anything else.  The crackers themselves actually look like thin little pieces of pasta, complete with serrated edges, but they also look very delicious, as they are coated with a generous helping of seasoning and parsley flakes, which I guess gives them the Italian look they are wanting.

Tastewise, I’ll admit that I was a little shocked, because these are pretty good.  Now if you were to blindfold me, I don’t think I would ever in a million years guess they had anything to do with marinara, or Italian pasta in general, for that matter, but the seasoning (made up of tomato powder and parmesan cheese, among other things) is tasty.  If you’re looking for something that’s going to overwhelm your taste buds, this is definitely NOT the snack for you, as each cracker is relatively light, in both weight and flavor.  The only downside is that it’s very easy to eat way more than you intended to, as I finished off half the bag the first time I picked it up.

Overall: 7/10.  A delicious, light cracker that is way better than its weird description makes it sound.  The seasoning, while tasting nothing like actual marinara, seems to consist mainly of garlic and onion, and it’s pretty darn tasty.  Don’t be nervous about the texture, either--even though it proudly claims on the packaging that it’s made out of real pasta, the texture is exactly that of a typical cracker.  If you’re looking for a snack that’s going to blow up your taste buds, this isn’t it.  The seasoning is modest, and that’s what makes it work as well as it does.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Goldfish Mac & Cheese (Nacho Cheese, Cheddar, and Butter Parmesan) (Dollar Tree)

We reviewed all but the Cheesy Pizza, which sounds just absolutely disgusting.
While the Goldfish name certainly doesn’t evoke thoughts of budget foods, after all it is only one of the most popular snack crackers available, the attempt to cash in on it as a mac n’ cheese line was pretty much dead-on arrival.  As a result, excess stock of the stuff appears to be liquidated to just about every discount store on the face of the Earth, as I’ve seen boxes at both Big Lots, and Dollar Tree, and they were only $.33 per box at each place.

All it will take is a quick internet search to reveal that this stuff did not go over well.  At all.  And they were even sold only in Wal-Marts.  If Wal-Mart’s nightmarish clientele couldn’t even find use for this stuff, then it must be really, really bad.  I mean, from Wal-Mart at $.98 per box, to closeout at $.33 a box just a year later…it’s got to be terrible.  Right?

Well we grabbed each flavor, except for Cheesy Pizza, which both sounds and looks disgusting.  So if you want to try that one, you’re on your own.  But here are my thoughts on the remaining flavors, and some of them might surprise you.

In my opinion, this is by far the worst flavor of the lot.  (Amazon agrees, with users giving this a 1.7 out of 5 stars, not that the rest fared much better).  I was really reluctant to even try it, because just the combination sounds pretty repulsive, but figured it might be surprisingly good.  I don’t know if I just have built up an insane tolerance to mac n’ cheese flavors over the years, because while I would never get it again, I didn’t have a problem finishing the bowl. 

To me, it’s not that the flavor is offensive or repulsive so much as it’s not really there.  Sure, you can taste some butter (probably the butter you added to make it), but I didn’t get much of a parmesan taste at all.  There was a faint sweetness about it, which is fairly disturbing because neither of the titular ingredients are all that sweet, but no real discernible cheesiness at all.  I would avoid this one in the future, even though common sense told me to avoid it in the first place.

Overall: 3/10.

I am not going to lie…the wife and I actually liked this stuff.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I realize that it’s terrible for you, and that it’s severely processed, and I even understand that, even by nacho cheese standards, the flavor is incredibly exaggerated and tastes nothing like actual nacho cheese.  I get all of those things.  But you know what, we bought a couple of boxes of this stuff, ate it, and then went back to get a couple more, so go on, keep the judgments coming.

At its original price (which as I understand, was $.98 at Wal-Mart), I would never have given it a chance.  Even now that I’ve tasted it, and can say I like it, I would still say a dollar per box is flat-out robbery.  But for $.33, it’s a decent value, and a “meal” that can be quickly thrown together whenever neither of us actually feel like making real food.  And come on, it can’t be any worse nutritionally than your typical box of shells and cheese, or the national brand's own line of mac n’ cheese offerings, so I don’t get where all this vitriol is coming from.

So while it will never become a staple in our house, I thought the nacho cheese flavor tasted pretty good (in an exaggerated, almost cartoony way), and was a decent alternative to the other heavily-processed mac n’ cheese products out there.

Overall: 7/10.

This is the one that’s closest to your “typical” macaroni and cheese.  Like the others, I had to cut back a little bit on the amount of milk used (the 3 tablespoons recommended under the “Classic Prep” instructions resulted in an end product that was way too runny), but the end result still ended up pretty creamy.  The cheese flavor is more or less what you would expect from this kind of product…nothing to write home about, but pretty much on par with other boxed macaroni and cheese products. 

That being said, offering these for only $.33 per box definitely adds some value.  Even though the flavor is similar to other store-bought mac and cheese’s that I’ve had, they cost substantially more than this one, so that’s reason enough to grab this.  Why pay more for something that tastes pretty similar?  My wife and I both liked this one the most, and wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another box of these if we came across them.

Overall: 7.5/10.

PRO TIP: The recipe on the box calls for way too much milk.  I followed the initial instructions for “Classic Prep” (3 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons milk), and found it to be way too watery for my tastes.  So from then on out, I cut back to 2 tablespoons of both butter and milk, and the end result seemed to taste exactly the same while being, I guess, slightly “healthier”.  That’s just my two cents.

SUMMARY: I didn’t find most of these to be as bad as I thought they would be.  With the exception of Butter Parmesan, which was terrible all around, the cheese flavors were surprisingly edible, and…dare I say it…even good.  But the scores listed above are assuming a price of $.33 a box--anything more, and the value is pretty much gone.  The 5.5 oz. boxes only make two servings, as opposed to other brands, which give you three servings, and the shortage is definitely noticeable.  If you see these on a clearance shelf somewhere for under 50 cents, pick them up.  Otherwise, spend a little more and go with the macaroni and cheese in the blue box, or even better yet, Aldi's brand.

Larry the Cable Guy White Cheddar & Bacon Shells (Big Lots)


Great to keep on hand if you run out of dog food.
Let’s just get this out of the way, because it’s inevitable:  I HATE Larry the Cable Guy.  Hate him.  He’s the perfect example of what’s wrong with American comedy and, if you decided to delve deeper, you could further that by making a case that he’s a good example of what’s wrong with America in general.  His jokes are lower-than-the-lowest common denominator, his accent and redneck appearance is completely faked, and perhaps worst of all, he’s now so popular he gets to put his name on food products and rake in the dough without having to do a single damn thing.

But you know what?  I also love macaroni and cheese and I’ll be damned if I was going to let a personal hatred of a celebrity get in the way of at least giving this a shot.

I totally should have, because now I‘ve found a reason to hate him even more.

This has to be food that was actually made for dogs, but accidentally marketed to human beings.  It’s complete slop.  You’re probably thinking “What did you expect”, and to that, I have no real response.  I guess I should have taken it as a clue that the box declares “Made with real bacon!”, while completely ignoring the cheese, which looks like mayonnaise, and tastes like mayo mixed with a heaping helping of human feces.  In a world full of processed supermarket garbage, this somehow manages to be two notches under “below-average“, which is ironically an exact parallel with the career of the man on the box.

Even if you are a huge fan of Larry the Cable Guy, and I realize there are way more than there should be, do yourselves a favor and pass this up.  Use the savings to buy a Larry the Cable Guy yoyo, or something.  Go to the dollar store and get two Larry the Cable Guy DVD‘s.  Buy two tickets to a Larry the Cable Guy show.  Whatever you do with the two dollars you were going to spend on this product, please just do us all a favor and spend it somewhere else. 

Overall: 0/10.  The only thing worse than Larry’s “comedy” career is this joke of a product marketed to his redneck minions.  But even they will be disappointed by the mayonnaise-y “cheese product” that tastes every bit as horrid as it looks.  But hey, at least that bacon is real!  One of the worst things I’ve ever had the misfortune of eating.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Block Party Hard Lemonade 6-Pack Bottles (Aldi)

An overly sweet, but refreshing hard lemonade.
When I first started shopping at Aldi very nearly a decade ago (my best estimates peg the year 2005 as the year I first set foot in one), they carried a hard lemonade by the name of T-Dubs.  To put it plainly, it was swill, with a flavor more akin to a lemon cleaning product than the actual tart fruit.  Yet I still bought it anyway, if only for the reason that it was (if my memory serves me correctly) $5 for a six-pack.  Well, I couldn’t have been the only one that found it offensive, as a short while later it was pulled off the shelves, never to return again.

But the only problem was, it wasn’t replaced by anything.  As a non-beer drinker, Aldi’s options are severely limited, to either wine, or the occasional special buy coconut rum or strawberry daiquiri.  I’ll even down a good cider, but for reasons unknown, they never get any of those in, especially considering Trader Joe’s has a fantastic one that could easily (at least in my head) be ported over to Aldi stores.

So imagine my surprise when, after at least seven years, a quick perusal of an Aldi advert revealed--a hard lemonade!  Then imagine my brief letdown when I saw the name: Block Party.  I mean honestly, could they have picked a more ghetto, ridiculously cheesy name than that?  Still, my interest was more than piqued, and I knew that no matter what, I was going to try one.  And I also knew that there was a good chance it was going to be terrible.  After all, this was the same company that thought T-Dubs was fit for human consumption.  So I grabbed the first six-pack at my local Aldi, went home, grabbed one, twisted off the cap and…

…was incredibly shocked.  This is what Mike’s Hard Lemonade strives to be; a refreshing mix of authentic lemon flavor and carbonation that dissipates into a sugary sweet finish.  There’s no bizarre aftertaste or bitter notes, it’s just a very sweet, very refreshing drink for a summer’s day.  Granted, even for someone as in to sweet drinks as I am, a little bit can go a long way, so you probably won’t be downing more than a couple in one sitting, but it’s pretty delicious.

That being said, there are a couple downsides.  As I just stated, the sweetness will be a turn-off for many, as each bottle feels the equivalent of drinking three cups of sugar.  The price is also a little alarming; at $7.99 (in OH; price may vary elsewhere) per six-pack, there’s really little incentive for people to give this a try, as it’s just about the same price as the main brand of hard lemonade.

Overall: 7/10.  Though it will undoubtedly be too sweet for many, I found this to be a refreshing mix of authentic lemon flavor blended with lots and lots of sugar.  If you’re looking for something to get drunk off of, you’ll probably want to steer clear and look for something else, but as a patio drink on a hot summer’s day, this just might be the perfect beverage.  However, the $7.99 (in OH) price tag is also a little off-putting, as it’s very close to, if not the exact same price, as the national brand of hard lemonade.  I would still recommend this to those that are into this sort of thing, as I am.

Vivache Peach Moscato (Aldi)

Old pic I stole from the internet.  The bottle looks different now.  I've really got to get better about taking pictures...
I am not, by any normal sense of the term, a wine drinker.  Sure, I’ve been known to throw some down with my wife, but my only requirements are that it has to be sweet--dry wine, at least to my unrefined palate, is the equivalent of drinking rubbing alcohol with the faint taste of grapes--and it has to be cheap.  I can’t see spending even half of what a typical connoisseur might drop on a single bottle of wine, so I tend to look for offerings that are in the $10 or lower price range.

Even though my wife can go far dryer than I can, her favorite kind of wine is moscato, which as you probably know is a light, sweet, and often sparkling wine.  Obviously, that’s right down my alley, too, so we often buy cheap moscato’s just to give them a whirl.

So imagine our excitement when we saw Aldi was offering Vivache Peach Moscato for just $6 a bottle.  Curious as to the origins of this wine, I discovered it was exported by a Prestige Wine and Spirits Group.  A little further digging through their portfolio revealed they produce a large selection of labels in both spirits and wines, of which I am familiar with exactly zero (I guess that’s what happens when you do most of your alcohol purchases at grocery stores and convenience marts).  Curiously, the brand Vivache is missing from their wine brand list, and a quick Google search only reveals hits from Aldi stores.  Could this be a label made specifically for Aldi?  It sure looks like it.

Anyway, being unfamiliar with fruit-flavored moscato, I was a little nervous as to how this would taste.  How “realistic” would the peach flavor be?  How would it blend in with the existing flavor of moscato?  A sniff right after twisting off the cap revealed a very strong, and very welcoming, peach aroma that is very akin to a wine cooler (sure enough, its label reveals that this is, in fact, a “wine cooler with natural flavor”).  Alcohol content is pretty lame, at 6%, but that's in relation to what you would expect from this kind of beverage, so if you’re looking to get drunk, I would definitely look elsewhere (you’ll probably get a headache from the sweetness before you even get hammered).

But if you’re just looking to sip some wine by the poolside, or out on the deck on a nice warm day, this is the perfect drink for you.  The peach takes center stage, with a mouth-watering flavor that I really didn’t find to be fakey at all, yet you can also taste the moscato hovering just below the surface.  I thought the flavor combination was pretty incredible, and the wife and I unanimously agreed that we wouldn‘t hesitate to pick this stuff up again whenever it becomes available.  Unfortunately, it was gone within a couple weeks after becoming available at our Aldi store, so it seems that we’re not the only one in on this secret.

Overall: 8.5/10.  As with many of the alcoholic beverages I enjoy, this will no doubt be too sweet for some, and true wine drinkers will scoff at the mere recommendation of a wine cooler, but I thought Vivache’s Peach Moscato is an excellent blend of the two titular items.  The peach is pronounced, and is complimented by an equally-sweet moscato background…honestly, the two flavors seem to feed off each other in perfect balance.  The 6% alcohol content is pretty lame, but what you would expect out of a wine cooler, so you can’t really knock it for that.  Value at $5.99 a bottle (in Ohio; it's usually $1 or $2 cheaper elsewhere) is very good, and for those that are just looking for a refreshing summer drink, I can’t recommend it enough.  Act fast; stock was out within two weeks at our store, so if you happen to see a bottle, grab it before it’s gone!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Busy Baker Tangy Cheddar Squares (Dollar Tree)

Don't be afraid...they're better than you think.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I always get a very hesitating feeling wash over my body any time I pick up a food item from Dollar Tree.  And it’s not without its reasoning, as more than a few food items I’ve purchased here have been pretty…subpar, to put it politely.  So imagine just how nervous I was when I grabbed a box of Tangy Cheddar Squares off the shelf, knowing full well that Aldi’s knockoffs are every bit as good as the national brand.  Could there possibly be room for another one?

In a side-by-side taste test, I found Aldi’s Savoritz crackers to be a lot closer to the taste and texture of the national brand.  Busy Baker’s crackers didn’t have quite the same cheesy punch, and they feel a little less crunchy than Savoritz’s version.  On the value front, both boxes are pretty close to a tie--although Busy Baker’s offers a 7 oz. box for $1, Savoritz offers their 12 oz. box for less than $2, so really the ounce-for-ounce comparison is pretty neutral.

But don’t go looking at this like it’s a complete loss for the Busy Baker’s version, because while it doesn’t have the same flavor as Aldi’s version or the national brand, that almost works to its advantage.  The taste is just different enough that it almost feels like its own separate product; like it’s just a unique twist on the same thing, yet it‘s still so good that I found it hard to limit myself to just a handful or two.  The cheese is muted a little bit, giving you a slightly more subtle (but still completely noticeable) cheesy flavor that would also be perfect in a soup or dip.

There’s also 90g fewer sodium in Busy Baker’s version.  While in the grand scheme of things, it’s still pretty high (250g per 27 cracker serving), that’s still a whole percent less sodium per serving than Savoritz’s crackers, so for those eyeing their sodium intake to a “T”, you could save a little bit going with the Busy Baker (though curiously, there’s four times more saturated fat per serving, despite similar overall fat content, which could negate that advantage).

Overall: 7.5/10.  While not as close in taste to the national brand as Aldi’s Savoritz crackers are, Busy Baker’s Tangy Cheddar Squares are almost every bit as addicting.  The cheese flavor is dialed back just a little bit, but there’s still plenty to go around.  There’s also 90g fewer sodium per serving, which can certainly add up.  If you don’t have an Aldi store nearby, or just want to try something a little different, I’d definitely urge you to give the Busy Baker a try.  For $1 per 7 oz. box, you won’t be disappointed.

Savoritz Cheddar Baked Snack Crackers (Aldi)

Any guesses as to what product this may be knocking off?
If you are a fan of the national brand, and chances are you can tell exactly what product this is emulating simply by looking at the box, go out and buy some, because these are every bit as addicting as the “original“, and for at least a dollar less per box.

I had my reservations the first time I grabbed Savoritz’ Cheese Baked Crackers from Aldi…who wouldn’t?  After all, the product on which it is based is a nearly perfect snack, with a nice, satisfying crunch, and a delicious cheese powder that leaves you coming back for more.  The margin for error was such that I thought there was no way that these could compare.

Everything here is just about perfectly emulated, even down to the national brands’ sole flaw (at least in my eyes) of being pretty darn salty.  Don’t get me wrong, it never stopped me from shoving these down my gullet by the handful, but it’s something that you notice, especially the longer the snacking session continues on.  The texture is every bit as crunchy, while the cheese flavor is pretty much spot-on.  I’ll just keep this one simple and to the point:  If you like the national brand, I can confidently say that you are going to like these.  And if you like saving money, then you’ll like these even more.

Overall: 10/10.  Not much needs to be said about these, other than the fact they are an almost perfect replica of the national brand.  The crunchy texture, the strong cheddar flavor, and the heavy dose of salt are all here in overabundance.  Even better, it’s at least a dollar less for the same size box, making it an excellent value.  Once you buy these, you may never go back to any other brand…not even the original.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Millville Honey Nut Crispy Oats Cereal (Aldi)

All the box is missing is a cartoon bee.
There are just some nights when I have to have a bowl of cereal.  But since the name brands are so ridiculously overpriced (really, $4 for a box full of corn and sugar?), I’m always looking for alternate options.  Malt O’ Meal is probably my favorite secondhand cereal company, but Aldi’s own Millville line is a close second, offering knockoffs that are generally very close in quality and flavor to the national brands.

Milville’s Honey Nut Crispy Oats are no exception.  Obviously a private label take on Honey Nut Cheerios, Millville’s version offers up a delicious honey kick that is not too sweet, but not too subtle.  For some reason, the taste reminds me of caramel popcorn, but that’s probably just me, so don’t quote me on that.  It has seriously been some years since I’ve last had the name brand, so I can’t really say how it compares to them, but it has an addicting sweetness that has made it one of my main go-to cereals from Aldi.  The corn “O”s are also pretty resistant to milk, so they don’t get soggy as quick as some other cereals do.  This is a good thing, because I tend to hate soggy cereal, or at least ones that have a habit of getting that way almost immediately after you pour the milk on.

And for under $2 a box (for a 12.25 oz. size), it also provides some good value that you won’t find with the national brands, at least short of cutting a bunch of coupons, or buying thirty boxes and mailing in for a rebate.  As we all know, a good deal makes everything taste a little sweeter now, doesn’t it?

Overall: 8/10.  As stated earlier, I have not had the name brand version of this in a long time, simply because they tend to be ridiculously expensive.  Since cereal is a staple in our household (mainly just because of me), I don’t have time to wait, or look around for sales, because I always like to have some on hand, as it makes a great snack and occasional supper substitute.  Specifically, one of my main staples is Millville’s Honey Nut Crispy Oats, which is a perfect blend of sturdy corn “O”s that don’t become too soggy too quickly, a light touch of honey, and a delicious sweetness that’s always seems to hit the spot.  Even better is the fact a good-sized 12.25 oz. bag is under $2, which somehow makes it taste even better.  Whether or not you’re a fan of the national brand, I suggest you at least give these a shot.  With Aldi’s Double Guarantee, what do you possibly have to lose?

UPDATE:  I actually just accidentally bought the national brand, ironically from Aldi, earlier this year.  If anything, I felt that the name brand did have a slightly stronger honey taste, but certainly not enough for me to justify spending the extra $1+ asking price from most retailers.  I’ll stick with Millville, thank you very much.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

liveGfree Gluten Free Brownie Mix (Aldi)

You won't be able to tell these are gluten free. No joke.
When my wife announced she would be making gluten-free brownies, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  While I have enjoyed some items from Aldi’s Live G-Free line, others, like the pasta noodles, have been far less than satisfactory.  At best, I was expecting a decent chocolate flavor with a slightly-sandpaper-ish texture, while at worst I was expecting a crumbling mess of something not at all resembling a brownie, either in taste or appearance.

Right after my wife completed the creation, the first thing I noticed was how…normal it looked.  It looked exactly like a glutenous version of a brownie, and I thought maybe my best-case scenario would be far surpassed.  It even cut like a “normal” brownie, meaning the texture was pretty much spot-on as compared to a “normal” brownie.  But just because it looks like a brownie doesn’t mean it tastes like one…so how do these things taste?

Now I’m not a brownie connoisseur, but if I didn’t know in advance that this brownie was gluten-free, I never would have known.  It’s almost eerily spot-on.  Even though the texture was convincing while it was in the pan, I figured once I popped a piece in my mouth, that the façade would end there, that something would be off just enough to ruin the ordeal.  But nothing like that ever occurred.  The brownie was soft, and almost melted in my mouth, the way a typical brownie does.  The chocolate flavor was surprisingly deep and authentic, which I really wasn’t expecting at all.  When it was all said and done, this was a brownie, plain and simple.

Though I haven’t tried a whole lot of the products in the Live G-Free line, I can say that this is by far my favorite one.  Everything is flawless when compared to the “real thing”, and at $2.99 per box, it’s also pretty affordable, at least as far as gluten-free products go.  I’m pretty convinced that even the most discerning child wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between this, or a gluten-filled brownie, so even parents on the diet that are afraid of subjecting their children to the sometimes “off” textures and tastes of gluten-free products shouldn’t have anything to worry about here.

Overall: 9/10.  If you don’t tell anyone these are gluten-free, no one will ever know.  This package makes a spot-on gluten-free imitation of a brownie that was absolutely delicious.  The chocolate flavor is very chocolaty and rich, while the texture is exactly what you would expect out of a delicious brownie.  At $2.99 a box, it’s also pretty darn affordable, especially as far as gluten-free products are concerned.  Whether you are on the diet, thinking about starting it, or just curious to see what a gluten-free brownie can taste like, this is a shining example of how products can be adapted for just about anyone to enjoy.

liveGfree Gluten Free Pizza Crust Mix (Aldi)

Great way to make a gluten-free pizza.
My wife just started a gluten-free diet not too long ago, and so that means I’ve kinda started one, too.  So now when she makes spaghetti, it’s with gluten-free noodles, and so on and so forth.  While even my unsophisticated palate can detect a taste difference when these items are eaten plain, thankfully, they’re generally covered with enough sauces and/or meats to hide the difference in the finished product.

But even then I must confess to being completely overwhelmed with terror when my wife brought home a box of gluten-free pizza crust mix.  I mean, think of your favorite pizza…chances are, the taste of the crust is at least part of the reason you enjoy it so much.  And since gluten-free products, at least in my opinion, generally have weaker flavors, I was not too excited to see it ruin our tasty homemade pizzas.

Each box of the mix makes two pizza crusts, which I would estimate at around 12” in diameter.  The crusts were very thin and crispy, which thankfully is a style both of us like, so I give it some points for that.  I tasted bits of the crust without anything on it, and must say that, true to form, it was relatively bland.  Really, it didn’t taste like much at all.  But it did have a great crunch and a texture consistent with “regular” pizza crust.  And considering the awful flavors that I imagined at great length while the dough was setting in the refrigerator (it must sit in the fridge for 30 minutes before use), a lack of flavor was actually very welcome in my book.

In the end, we topped it with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, ground sausage, onions, and topped it off with some freshly-grated parmesan, and it was seriously one of the better pizzas I’ve had in a long while, either restaurant or otherwise.  Of course, the other ingredients played a bigger role in that, as the crust’s only job is holding all the toppings, but again, the thin crust and satisfying crunch definitely added to the pizza experience.  Even when we heated up the leftovers (that we refrigerated) the next day, the crust lost none of its texture or crunch, and the pizza itself was just as good, if not better, as it was the day before.

We bought these back when gluten-free products were only available as Special Buys, so it's good to see that they have added some of these items permanently in their stores.  Gluten-free products can get very pricey, but most of them that I've tried from Aldi (pasta notwithstanding) have been affordable and pretty tasty.  Hopefully they will expand the line as the months go on.

Overall: 8/10.  While short on flavor, it does what a pizza crust is supposed to do (hold toppings) and does it well.  I also gave it high marks for texture, as it was thin and very crispy out of the oven, giving most bites a nice, satisfying crunch.  I also liked that the box contained two roughly 12” crusts, which allowed both my wife and I to make our own pizzas, and at just $2.99, I didn’t think the price was that bad at all.  In short, I would definitely scoop these up again in a heartbeat, and will definitely be less nervous when trying other items from their “liveGFree” line.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Choceur S'mores Bites (Aldi)

I’m a sucker for anything s’mores, which is an odd thing to say, considering an actual s’more is so easy to make, it makes me wonder why there’s a sudden influx of s’mores products.  Normally if I saw mini s’mores bites anywhere else, I would have taken a pass.  But once I saw these at Aldi, and saw they were in the exact same container as their heavenly peanut butter cups, and made by the exact same brand (Choceur), I knew I had to give them a shot.

As you would probably expect them to be, Choceur’s S’mores Bites are nothing more than marshmallows and a graham cracker cookie, all smothered in rich milk chocolate.  The chocolate coating was actually my favorite part…it’s creamy, melts in your mouth, and is a vast step up from the rest of the ingredients.  The marshmallow, which works in the real thing only because it’s so warm and gooey, here just tastes like a normal, bland marshmallow.  The little graham cracker cookie more or less tastes like a graham cracker cookie.  But without the warm fillings, nothing combines the way they should, and what you’re left with is a poor imitation of the real thing.

To be fair, these things are far from atrocious, and they will definitely fulfill the occasional sweet tooth.  But if you’re looking for something that might match the utter deliciousness, and creamy perfection, of the actual thing, then you’d be doing yourself a major disservice by purchasing these.

Overall: 5/10.  Though they are definitely edible (thanks mainly to the delicious, almost addicting milk chocolate coating), Choceur’s S’mores Bites are so underwhelming as a whole that, if you are buying these because you have a craving for s’mores, you might as well just buy the stuff to make s’mores.  The marshmallow, which obviously isn’t warm, is just a boring marshmallow, while the graham cracker cookie is…well, a graham cracker cookie. Aside from the chocolate, there's nothing outstanding here in the least.

Choceur Peanut Butter Cups (Aldi)

Forget everything you think you know about peanut butter cups...
When you think of “peanut butter cups”, what word comes to mind?  If that word is “Reese’s”, that’s only because you’ve never tried Choceur Peanut Butter Cups, available at Aldi.

These are everything the national brand isn’t, and I mean that in a GOOD way.  You know how the peanut butter in the national brand tends to be a little…manufactured?  How sometimes the chocolate can be a little…flakey?  How it all becomes one jumbled mess in your mouth?  I mean, let’s be honest here…national brand peanut butter cups taste good, but it’s clearly evident we’re not working with world-class ingredients here.  Well Choceur’s product surprisingly doesn’t run into those problems.  For starters, the milk chocolate is ridiculously smooth, and melts in your mouth the way you wish the national brand cups did.  Like most products carrying the “Choceur” branding, it’s got a delicious milk chocolate taste that perfectly combines with the peanut butter.

And oh, the peanut butter.  You know how it’s just a peanut butter mass in most mass-market peanut butter cups?  How it kind of tastes like peanut butter, but doesn’t really look like peanut butter?  Well this is clearly peanut butter.  Just like the milk chocolate, it’s smooth, and it’s rich, and it tantalizingly swirls out of the cup with every bite, as if daring you to stop eating them.

If you like the combination of chocolate and peanut butter, this is something that you must try.  The only downside, which isn’t really much of a downside, is that Choceur’s peanut butter cups are about a third of the size of the “king size” national brand cups.  But that can also be a good thing, as those with incredibly strong willpower can eat a couple to cover a chocolate craving, without taking in a lot of calories.  In other words, these aren’t just worth the $2.49 asking price, these would even be worth an asking price of $5...and that would even be better, because then I’d be less tempted to buy them every time I walk past them.

Overall: 10/10.  Forget the national brand--Choceur’s Peanut Butter Cups are infinitely superior in every single aspect.  The milk chocolate is creamy, smooth, and melts in your mouth.  The peanut butter isn’t a mass of something resembling peanut butter, like it is in the popular version of these cups--this is straight up rich, fall-out-of-the-cup peanut butter that tastes like it’s fresh out of a jar.  And at $2.49 for a 12 oz. container, they are worth every single penny, and then some.  If you have even a passing interest in the combination of chocolate and peanut butter, you simply have to check these out.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Millville Cocoa Rice Cereal (Aldi)

BREAKING NEWS: Cocoa Rice is also gluten free!

I think I mention this every time I review a cereal from Aldi under the “Millville” moniker, but Millville cereals really are where taste and budget merge together.  Very few of the cereals miss the mark versus the name brands, and even in instances where they might not taste as good, their substantial savings really help to even things out, closing the gap between national brand quality versus price.

Millville’s Cocoa Rice is no exception.  As you would expect, these are small, fluffy, chocolate-covered rice bits.  Visually, they look pretty much exact when compared to the national brand, but seeing as how you didn’t buy this stuff just to sit and look at it, I’ll go a little farther.  The smell reeks of straight-up cocoa, which is definitely a little more reassuring.

Taste-wise is where I could easily see this cereal dividing consumers.  For me, the cocoa flavor is spot-on, easily making this one of my favorite of Millville’s plentiful cereal offerings.  Now, when I say it’s “spot-on”, I don’t necessarily mean in comparison to the national brand, which I haven’t had in so long I don’t think I could make an accurate comparison, but it’s just a perfectly light and sweet cocoa flavor that doesn’t try to be too overwhelming.  Which is potentially where the problem lies:  This probably isn’t a cereal for serious chocoholics.  Even the milk at the end, which is one of my favorite parts of eating this kind of cereal, is usually a light brown color, rather than the darker shades I seem to remember downing as a kid.

So if you are looking to have your taste buds decimated with chocolate flavor, then this probably isn’t the cereal for you.  But if you don’t mind a more subdued cocoa, one that is still obvious but not too bold, Millville’s Cocoa Rice is something that will more than likely be down your alley.

Overall: 8/10.  Though serious chocolate lovers might be a little disappointed, I find Millville’s Cocoa Rice to be an addictive cereal, one that offers a generous helping of cocoa flavor, without being too overbearing.  The cereal is also surprisingly milk-resistant, in that it somehow manages to stay crispy for a while even after being drowned in milk.  Overall, one of my favorite Millville knockoffs, and at under $2 a box, it also doubles as an excellent value.

Millville Cinnamon Crunch Squares Cereal (Aldi)

The downside of private label recipe tinkering: This once great cereal, reduced to crap.
One of the interesting things about dealing with private labels, is sometimes the suppliers change.  And when the suppliers change, so too does the recipe.  Since Aldi is comprised almost entirely of private labels (though more and more national brands keep creeping in, much to my dismay), recipes and formulations seem to be altered almost weekly.  Sometimes, it’s for the better:  Their gelatin fruit cups used to be inedible long ago, but they now just taste like del Monte’s.  Other times, it’s not, and this is sadly one of those cases.

If I had been writing this review even three months ago, I would be talking about how the cereal had a perfect amount of cinnamon, while the squares were light and fluffy.  It was definitely one of the best cereal knock-offs in a store full of good ones.  But something changed between now and then, and it has taken a serious nose-dive in quality, to the point that I will never buy it again (something I told myself last time, only to forget they changed the recipe).

For one, the squares have gotten much…well…crunchier.  While I can see some liking this change, I for one preferred when the squares were softer and almost melted in your mouth.  The upside to this, I guess, is that the cereal doesn’t get soggy so quick.  If this was the only change, I’m sure I could learn to adapt.  After all, who cares about a little extra crunch, right?

Well gone is the delectable cinnamon flavor of yester…month, in favor of a much lighter, almost subtle taste.  Whereas the cinnamon used to jump to the forefront and dance delicately on your palette, exciting your taste buds, this new version can best be compared to the taste of a cinnamon rice cake:  You know it’s there, but it leaves you wanting more.  Even the crunchier cereal square tastes like it’s been burnt, which might explain the sudden change in texture.  But before you go around thinking this was just a bad batch, remember, I accidentally bought this cereal a second time, with the same results, and the odds of getting a bad batch twice are probably one-in-a-trillion.  The original’s pleasant aftertaste is also gone, replaced with something that’s much more metallic and uninviting.

This new version is so bad, I’m tempted to build a time machine, track down the person responsible for the change, and off him before he has a chance to mess with my precious, precious cinnamon squares.  But while we’re all holding our breath for that to happen (and while I go to college for 10 years in order to understand how exactly to build a time machine), I’d just go ahead and avoid it.  At least, until they inevitably change the recipe again somewhere down the line.

Overall: 2/10.  There aren’t many products that I can flat-out say I would never buy again from Aldi, especially in the usually-excellent cereal department, but Millville’s Cinnamon Crunch Squares fit that bill.  Replacing a delicious version of this cereal is a new recipe that features crunchier cereal squares that almost taste burnt, a cinnamon flavor that you have to dig for, and a gross aftertaste that won’t leave your mouth as soon as you want it to.  I still must give it some marks for value, as a box goes for under $2, but value can only go so far when the product isn’t even worth buying, let alone eating.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Millville Blueberry Crunch Squares Cereal (Aldi)

Perfect for when you want something sweet and breakfast at the same time.
I tried Millville’s Blueberry Crunch Squares cereal several years back, one of the many times it has been offered as a special buy in Aldi stores.  I was simply looking for something new besides their typical cereal offerings, and I figured a mix of blueberries and lots of sugar couldn’t be so bad.  After just one taste, it immediately vaulted into my top 10 list of favorite cereals, a spot that it has held through to this day.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what product this is knocking off, as I don’t believe I have seen a national brand make a product like this.  Even a quick search on the internet yields nothing.  Yet there are dozens of private labels that offer a cereal like this, ranging from store brands, all the way down to Malt-O-Meal.  Is this one of the very few original private label items that have gained popularity without the benefit of riding on the success of a national brand?

Enough questions.  All I can say is, this is a delicious blend of blueberries (both naturally and artificially flavored, something I still don’t quite understand), and an almost streusel-like sugar topping that really brings it all together.  I’m not sure that it tastes like a blueberry muffin, which I believe (based on other private label versions with names such as Blueberry Muffin Tops, and, at second glance, the picture of the muffin on the above box) is the point, but taken at face value, this stuff is absolutely delicious.

Now, I realize this is definitely not for everyone’s tastes.  As a matter of fact, if you’re over 16 years old, I think it’s safe to say you have probably outgrown this cereal.  It’s ridiculously sweet; think Cinnamon Toast Crunch but with the added benefit of dried blueberries stuck to them.  That alone should tell you whether or not this is something you would be interested in.  Love cinnamon cereals?  Love blueberries?  Then you’re probably going to take to this.  Even though I’m a huge fan of this cereal, and it seems to be offered pretty regularly as a special buy (I‘d say around four times a year), I still have to be in the mood for it, so I usually only end up getting two or so boxes every 12 months.  So it’s probably not something you’ll want to have on hand at all times.  But if you have a sweet tooth, and are looking for something different, then I think Millville’s Blueberry Crunch Squares will be right down your alley.

NOTE: I really feel like this would be a great main ingredient in a dessert of some sort, but that’s definitely not my forte.  If you've ever used this in a recipe, or have an idea for one, please share it below!

Overall: 9/10.  It can be sickeningly sweet, and for this reason it’s probably not something you’re going to want to eat all the time, but Millville’s Blueberry Crunch Squares is one of my favorite cereals.  Think Cinnamon Toast Crunch, only with blueberries, and you’re pretty much there.  It’s an inspired mix, as both of those flavors go together so well, to the point that I’m almost surprised there haven’t been attempts to mix other fruits with the streusel cereal (a Strawberry Crunch Squares springs immediately to mind).  Anyway, it’s one of many products only available for limited times at Aldi stores as a special buy, but seems to be offered pretty regularly.  If you want something different and want to fill a craving for something sweet, grab a box of this and kill two birds with one stone.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mama Cozzi's 16" Italian Meat Thin Crust Take and Bake Pizza

Pretty delicious.

Whenever my wife doesn’t want to cook, or we’re just looking for something quick and easy, Aldi’s take and bake pizzas are our most frequent go-to option.  They are cheap (a 16” will run you no more than $5.99), and so easy even I can toss one in the oven.  Not to mention they are actually pretty good for the price.  No, you won’t be getting anything near the equivalent of a gourmet pizza straight from Italy, but then again in that price range, you shouldn’t expect one.  What we do agree on is that a take and bake pie from Aldi’s is better than most delivery pizzas nearby, and for half the cost.

Aldi always carries the “typical” pizzas (pepperoni, cheese, sausage, The Works, and a 14” Ultimate Meat pizza are among their year-round offerings), but also offer seasonal take and bakes as Special Buys, which are items carried in limited quantities that are not replenished once stock runs out.  Their latest, and one we hadn’t tried yet, was an Italian Meat pizza.  Truth be told, I actually got this to eat myself, since my wife is generally not a fan of meaty pizzas, but we agreed to save some cash on delivery, and just eat this for a nice, relaxing Friday night at home with a movie.

What really drew me in to this pizza is the addition of some delicious-looking circular hunks of Italian sausage, which are featured as a topping, along with pepperoni, their regular large chunks of sausage, and a blend of five different cheeses.  Let’s see you get a pizza like that for under $10 from a delivery or carryout chain!

As with most of the others we have tried (BBQ Chicken pizza notwithstanding), this pizza was delicious.  In fact, it’s better than most of the others we have tried from Aldi.  I was a little afraid the two sausages would be too similar in flavor that they would essentially cancel each other out.  But both of them were different enough to compliment each other very well (the sausage hunks were more an “American” sausage while the round cuts are more Italian-style).  The cheese blend is also a step above their typical cheese, and while I can’t even pretend to pick out the different styles, you can clearly tell it’s not just mozzarella.  The thin crust, after about fourteen minutes in the oven, was perfectly crispy, and provided the nice, crunchy foundation for the rest.

Of course, there’s a crap-ton of salt in here, to the point that I felt my mouth “tingling” from “sodium burn” after a few pieces.  But thankfully, it doesn’t really affect the taste all that much.  And I’m sure no one buys a meat pizza from a supermarket and expects it to be even remotely healthy, but just wanted to toss that out there regardless.

Overall: 8/10.  While just about all of Aldi‘s take and bake pizzas are good (BBQ Chicken notwithstanding), their Italian Meat pizza is even better than that.  The cracker-thin crust was perfectly crunchy after about fourteen minutes in the oven, the five-cheese blend is a step above their usual, and the flavors of the different meats compliment each other very well.  It might not be saying much, but this is better than the pies at most delivery pizza chains, and for only $6.  Of course, it’s so high in sodium, you can literally taste it, but given the fact it’s a.) a supermarket pizza, and b.) covered in meats, that should come as a surprise to no one.  If you are into this sort of thing, I definitely recommend that you give this a shot.

Mama Cozzi's Hawaiian Style Large Thin Crust Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

A pre-devoured Hawaiian pizza.
Well I had just reviewed Mama Cozzi’s own Italian Meat take and bake pizza, and called it one of the best I’ve had from the supermarket chain.  How was I to know that it would be topped just a couple of nights later?

Also a Special Buy, in that once it’s sold out, it’s gone, Mama Cozzi’s Take and Bake Hawaiian pizza is just what you would expect from such a pizza, except for one semi-odd thing:  Instead of pizza sauce, it has barbecue.  Now for me, that wasn’t much of a big deal, as I rarely eat Hawaiian pizzas.  But my wife, who has eaten a few in her day, was a lot more apprehensive of the sauce switch.

The unique thing about this pizza, is at a quick glance, you’re not going to see any pineapple on it whatsoever.  That’s because there isn’t any on it.  Instead, it comes in a separate plastic container, and you put it on yourself right before baking. This prevents the pineapple from getting too mushy, or getting everything else too soggy.  It also keeps the pineapple fresh, to the point that it tastes like a freshly-cut pineapple.  I was expecting it to be more akin to canned pineapple, but even once it’s cooked, it’s very sweet, very juicy, and very flavorful.

The ham appears in paper-thin chunks, yet is still the perfect counter to the sweetness of the pineapple.  In fact, the ham’s thinness is actually a good thing, as it avoids the taste of being overly salty, something that plagues a lot of Aldi’s take and bake meat pizzas (and a lot of meaty pizzas in general).  The cheese is standard stuff; good, but nothing spectacular to write home about.  However, the addition of the barbecue sauce is a truly inspired moment, as the sweetness of the barbecue perfectly compliments the sweetness of the pineapple.  Even my wife was impressed, giving this pizza surprisingly high marks, and obliterating her skepticism of trading pizza sauce for barbecue.

This pizza is also only available in thin crust, so those that enjoy their pizzas a little more traditional and thick, might want to think twice before purchasing.  However, much like the Italian Meat pizza, it only took about 14 minutes to get a perfect crisp on the cracker-thin crust, and I felt the crispiness made the pizza even more enjoyable.  If you see this one, and aren’t opposed to pineapple on your pizza, I strongly urge you to pick this one up!

Overall: 8.5/10.  A delicious Hawaiian pizza that replaces pizza sauce with barbecue.  Wisely, the pineapple is left off the pizza, and included in a separate plastic pouch, which keeps it fresher, and from getting everything else too soggy.  Tastewise, the sweetness of the barbecue mixes perfectly with the sweetness of the pineapple, while the paper-thin ham chunks provide just the perfect amount of salty to balance everything out (while preventing it from being too salty, like many other Aldi take and bakes are). One of the best of Aldi's take and bakes, and we've tried just about all of them!