Thursday, June 29, 2017

Baker's Treat Cinnamon Streusel Snack Cakes (Aldi)

Technically "good", but very small and still overpriced.
I like those cheap factory-made bakery desserts (think Hostess), but I don’t buy them very often for two reasons: 1.) they are terrible for you, and 2.) they are overpriced to all hell. I mean, upwards of $4 for a package that amounts to nothing more than sugar and fat? No thank you. But that doesn't mean that I can't indulge every so often, and on my last shopping trip, I noticed these. Has Aldi always carried streusel cakes? It's possible that I've just trained myself to skim passed them, but I don't recall ever seeing them there before.

First of all, I have to admit that the packaging on Baker’s Corner treats is very spiffy. I don’t comment on the appearance of many Aldi products, but the new template has a clean, inviting design that really appealed to me. That’s what initially caught my eye. Then my eyes wandered to the word “streusel”, and that was it: it was in my cart. It had been a while since I had a factory-made bakery treat, and I felt like I was rather overdue for a caloric splurging.

I don’t think I’ve had the national brand of this product, so the first thing that I noticed was how small these are: they are pretty teeny, to the point that I could see most people eat two, or maybe even more, as a single serving. And I couldn’t blame them...it’s barely enough to fulfill my craving for something sweet, but have no way to eat any more because one is all my wife packs me for my lunch at work.

It’s what you would expect: the streusel topping is sweet and cinnamon-y, with a good amount on each pastry. The bottom half, consisting of the “cake” portion, is pretty good and, perhaps more importantly, nice and moist: there’s nothing worse than dry cake! It won't remind you of the savory streusel cakes your grandma baked for you when you were younger, but I didn't have that problem, because my grandma never made me any.

My biggest complaint is the price: they’re upwards of $2.49, if memory serves me correctly. Yeah, that includes 8 cakes, but they're so small that many people will need to eat more than one to fill their cinnamon craving. Hell, you can buy cinnamon streusel bread mix at Aldi for around half that price, and make an entire loaf, with the benefit of the included icing. These are no doubt way more convenient, but they feel like something that should retail in the $1.99 price range, especially since they offer no real health benefits.

They're good, but are being sold at a price that hints at something that should be spectacular.

Overall: 5.5/10. If you're like me and love cinnamon streusel, these will fulfill your cravings...but it will probably take more than one, because they're so tiny. The cinnamon topping tastes exactly like you would expect it to, and the cake is moist, however $2.49 seems a bit excessive given the fact there are only eight (which will amount to four servings for the average person) in a package, and there is nothing about them that is anything even remotely above your average streusel taste. It's a lot for me to pay for a product that's strictly junk food, and it will be a long time before I ever grab them again.

Baker's Treat Chocolate Cup Cakes with Creamy Filling (Aldi)

BAKER'S CORNER CUPCAKES
"Good", but small and still overpriced.
I’m going to start this off with an uncomfortably personal anecdote: One of the few memories I have of my father back from when I was a child, was walking to the gas station down the street, a Clark store if I remember correctly, and getting the national brand cupcakes for the walk home. I don't know how that image stayed in my head after all these years, but I remember it pretty clearly (we haven't talked in about fourteen years for reasons that I will obviously not get into on this blog.)

Ever since those days, I've pretty much avoided those cupcakes—not at all because of the memories, but because now that I'm paying for things myself, I'm not going to pay the inflated prices they want for cheap cupcakes. That's money that can be better spent on other things. Yet on a recent trip to Aldi, I noticed that they carried these. Have they had them all this time, and I just haven't noticed them? Or have I just always subconsciously passed on them? Either way, it had some pretty snazzy packaging, which is what first caught my eye, and after a little internal argument with myself about whether or not I wanted to waste money on these, I came up with the answer of “yes”. Good call, too, because they ended up being a tasty little addition to my lunches at work.

The chocolate kicks things off and it’s pretty close to how I remember the national brand being all those years ago. In paying attention to it, though, I can taste the fake artificiality in it…it might just be this brand, but it reminds me of those really cheap boxed brownies with the multi-colored chocolate candies on top. Don’t get me wrong, I really like those things, but let’s be real here: the chocolate taste really isn’t all that accurate. The texture and appearance are largely spot-on, right on down to the white icing swirls, so I appreciate the aesthetics.

The “cake” portion is appropriately moist and inviting, with a taste that once again tastes off, when compared to normal chocolate cake, but I have a feeling it's spot-on when compared to the product this is attempting to replicate. Rounding everything out is the cream-filling, which, in terms of mass-produced confections, is a thing of absolute beauty. It's soft, fluffy, and ultra-sweet, which is exactly the kind of characteristics you're looking for in a dessert like this, and it tastes better than the cream-fillings I've had from award-winning local doughnut shops. It really rounds this out and makes it a tasty little treat.

I do have a couple of knocks, and they're the same ones that pertain to the streusel cakes that I review below: These are very small. Again, that can always be construed into a good thing, because it helps to limit caloric intake, but I remember the size of them when I was a kid, and these are probably around half of that. Which leads me to the same knock as before: price. These are, again, $2.49 for a package of eight, which just doesn't feel like the right price to pay for something like these. It also makes it pretty clear which of the mass-produced dessert companies is making these for Aldi, because these aren't a whole lot cheaper than their own overinflated products. This is around the low-end price-point for Specially Selected products, which at least give off the appearance of being “gourmet” in nature, so it seems kind of pointless, at least for me, to spend this much on some crappy cupcakes. Maybe once we have a kid and lunches start becoming a thing, this might make a little more sense, but as long as it's just my wife and I, I don't see a reason to get these often, if ever again. There are much better sweets and treats under an Aldi roof for around the same price; in some cases, even cheaper.

Overall: 5.5/10. Same pros and same cons apply to the streusel cakes reviewed below. They taste pretty accurate to the national brand, which is definitely a plus, even down to the cheapy, low-quality chocolate flavor. The icing is fluffy and super-sweet, but oh so delicious, and the trademark icing swirl on the top completes the replica. However, each cupcake is much smaller than I remember them being as a child, and there are only eight in a pack for a whopping $2.49. That may be cheaper than the national brand, but this is Aldi—you can get much better desserts and treats for around the same price. If you're a huge fan of the original, then this is a good way to get your fix for a little cheaper; otherwise, you're better off spending the money on something else.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Savoritz White Cheddar Cheese Baked Snack Crackers (Aldi)

Fantastic.
I’m usually pretty privy to the items that Aldi carries on a weekly basis. I always read the weekly ad (the only company I do that for), and I generally take time to peruse the lists of what’s new in their stores, and once in a while, their new low prices. So it’s not often that I’m caught off guard by a particular offering.

But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t completely blindsided by Savoritz White Cheddar Cheese Crackers. I’ve championed the regular cheddar ones in a previous review, which they have carried for years, but have never seen the white cheddar kind being offered at any of their stores. Since it’s my wife’s favorite kind of the national brand, and one I haven’t tried for years, we picked up a box to see what it was all about.

My last memory of eating the name brand white cheddar cheese crackers was about twenty-years ago. I was a fourth grader (if memory serves me correctly), and I was trying out for a pee-wee football team. I hated every minute of it--to this day, that experience has completely burned me out on organized sports, where the line between entertainment (which is what I wanted to get out of it), and completely serious job (which is how everyone else took it) is constantly blurred. Anyway, I would get dropped off to practice early, usually with a snack while I waited for everyone else to arrive, and I remember it would sometimes be the white cheddar crackers. Just a random bit of info for you.

Back to the present day, where I spend my free time reviewing off brand products. Now it’s time to dive into this box. All I can say is, wow. These things are incredible. They’re so accurate, they take me back to that Godforsaken football field from twenty years ago, only I mean that in a good way. The cracker itself tastes rich and buttery, perhaps even moreso than the regular cheddar cheese kind. The blending of white cheddar, and “regular” cheddar cheese powders provides a flavor that’s both familiar, yet unique, all at the same time. It’s more tart and bold than the regular kind, but every bit as addicting--I had to force myself to put the box down after only a few, because I could have easily put away the whole box if I didn’t. My wife, who as I said loves the national brand white cheddar cheese snack cracker, felt the exact same way I did; namely, that these are on par with the name brand, if not even better.

Currently at $1.79 for a 12.4 oz. box, picking these up should be a no-brainer to anyone who either loves the name brand, or is looking to give them a shot for the first time. You really can’t go wrong.

Overall: 10/10. I desperately want to deduct points, because I see perfect scores as a personal fault, but I honestly can’t; just like Savoritz’s original cheddar cheese crackers, the white cheddar version is pretty much spot-on to the national brand. It’s every bit as addicting, with a tart white cheddar cheese blend that hits the taste buds, and then makes them beg for more. I usually don’t have a problem putting down snacks after I’ve had a few, but with these, I literally have to engage willpower, lest I down half the box--or more--all in one sitting. And at a mere $1.79 for a 12.4 oz. box, there is value in spades. Just all around fantastic stuff here.

Savoritz Reduced Fat Cheese Baked Snack Crackers (Aldi)

Almost just as good as the "real" thing. 
Savoritz's regular version of the popular cheese cracker is one of my favorite buys at Aldi: it's a spot-on replica of the national brand, and one of those things that are too affordable, making it way tougher than it should be to walk by them without buying them. I kept seeing the “reduced fat” version they always carry and was interested to try it, but for whatever reason I just didn't. Then that great wife of mine reminded me about their existence by pointing them out during a shopping trip, and urged me to get them. Since my motto is “there's no time like the present”, I decided to stop putting it off, and picked up a box.

Honestly, I think part of it is just a mental block, because I don't quite feel like these are as addicting as the regular kind, despite tasting almost exactly the same. I haven't analyzed the boxes or nutrition labels to tell what's different between the two versions (usually in order to cut back on an ingredient, it must be filled with more of another, or entirely different ingredients altogether to maintain the same taste) but I believe the front of each box gives us most, if not all, of what we need to know: The “full-flavor” box declares “made with real cheese”, while the reduced fat version boasts: “made with real cheese and natural cheese flavor”, with everything under “made with real cheese” in suddenly much smaller lettering. This leads me to believe that they simply use less actual cheese and add in “natural” (aka “lab-created”) flavoring to kind of “clone” the rest. They do a fantastic job because it's nearly impossible to tell the difference.

For those looking to cut back on the amount of fat that they eat, this provides a good way to do so without really sacrificing anything in the way of flavor. Aside from that, health differences between the two don't seem to be too much: the reduced fat has an added gram of monounsaturated fat, but cuts back on the rest of the saturateds (neither contain trans). The full-flavor has 4% calcium while the reduced fat has none, but the reduced fat has an extra gram of protein and three extra carbs. The biggest difference is exactly as advertised, with the reduced-fat containing 5g of fat (still a pretty healthy dose) compared to 8g for the regular; it's just a couple of minor things here and there.

Now, obviously, even with the decreased fat, this is still junk food, of which I'm sure we are all aware. But 3g (per serving) is a decent reduction and, while it probably won't take it into the level of a “guilt-free” snack, when you're watching your figure, every little bit counts. Honestly, since they are the same price, I will probably just stick to the regular version, because something about this one seems ever-so-slightly off to me (and again, I think it might just be a mental thing), and they're not as addicting to me. Although, maybe that's not such a bad thing after all...

Overall: 8/10. These are excellent and taste pretty much exactly the same as Savoritz regular, full-flavored version of this product, but I feel like they're not quite as addicting. Now, I fully agree that it might just be a mental thing, and even then it's not entirely a bad thing (I didn't find myself wanting to polish off half the box all at once), but if I want an unhealthy snack cracker in the future, I'll probably just stick to the regular stuff considering it's the same price. However, for those on a diet or looking to cut back on the fatty stuff, the 3g of fat (per serving) reduction is a pretty decent amount, and every little bit helps. A great product at a great price no matter how you look at it.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Specially Selected Spinach Ricotta Bistro Style Frozen Flatbread (Aldi)

Not very good.
Here we have another Specially Selected flatbread, which is available as an occasional Special Buy from Aldi stores across the States.

Pulling this out of the box, it looked pretty much like any other number of similar offerings that Aldi has had over the years…there’s lots of green, lots of cheese, and some mushrooms for good measure. So pardon us that my wife and I weren’t all that excited to give it a shot once we opened it up. But then I re-read the box, and remembered that this doesn’t feature a pizza sauce, or a pesto, or any other sauce “typically” found in supermarket pizzas…it features a “sweet onion” sauce. That was actually enough to perk me up, because I’ve never heard of such a sauce on a pizza before. Also illuminating: there are bits of ricotta cheese randomly placed throughout. It now had my attention.

Well let me just say that the sauce puts the “sweet” in sweet onion, and then some…to my astonishment, it went completely overboard. In fact, it’s so sweet, and with the onions by nature, so strong, that it pretty much pummels all the other flavors into oblivion. In case that doesn’t quite spell it out for you, it borders on “sickeningly sweet”, and anyone whose read this blog with even occasional frequency should know by now that my palate clearly favors sweet. The ricotta does add a nice bit of creaminess to the texture, with some of that flavor peeking through at the end, but the frozen mushrooms (which are pretty small) do nothing to add to the flavor. I couldn’t even really taste the spinach or the Ementaler cheese.

I have to say this is pretty much a failure, and we will not be trying it again. It’s at their standard price point for frozen pizzas (and flatbreads), which is $3.99...since it’s pretty much the same as every other kind, it doesn’t earn any extra points for value, nor does it really give anyone incentive to give it a try. There are enough solid options from their constant inventory (such as their spinach and goat cheese pizza) that you should never have to resort to getting this.

Overall: 4/10. On paper, it sounds pretty good: spinach, Emmentaler cheese, mushrooms, and dabs of ricotta (well, not crazy about mushrooms, but the rest sound good). But where it goes wrong (and, ironically, what intrigued me the most about the pizza before actually trying it) is the sweet onion sauce…it’s simply too sweet. Like, ridiculously so, to the point that it pretty much ends up sabotaging the rest of the flavors, overpowering them into submission. The ricotta does give it a nice creamy texture, at least in the bites that it’s present in, and you can generally taste it in the back of the taste buds (once the taste of the onion sauce dissipates a bit), but as for the mushrooms and spinach and cheese…not so much. At $3.99 per box, the price is in line with almost every other frozen flatbread/pizza that Aldi offers, so there’s really no argument that it’s going to save you any kind of money. We will not be picking this up again.

Specially Selected Bistro Style Bruschetta Frozen Flatbread (Aldi)

Why I hate taking pictures.
Well another week, and another pizza! This time, we have the Bistro Style Bruschetta Flatbread, released under the Specially Selected label at Aldi stores. We got this one because it’s a pizza fit for vegetarians, so it was one I could enjoy with my wife--although at a quick glance it looks like there’s chicken on the pizza, it’s simply made up of tomatoes, onions, and cheese, with a crème fraiche sauce, and some garlic in there somewhere.

Admittedly, we were a little pressed for time when preparing this--my wife had to be at work in under an hour--so our attempts to shave off some cooking time backfired a little bit; the edges were nice and crispy, but the center was still soft. It was cooked enough, but easily could have, and should have, served some more time in the oven. So the texture was a little off, but that was completely our fault. Still, the flavors remained largely unchanged, so while the onions were a little flimsier than they probably should have been, it didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the pizza very much at all.

For starters, not having a tomato-based sauce on a bruschetta pizza (bruschetta being an Italian appetizer, kind of similar to salsa in appearance, though not so much taste, that is made up of about 90% tomato) is a pretty gutsy call. I mean, even most margherita pizzas, which feature tomato as the main topping, also have a tomato-based sauce; not surprisingly, this means there’s not a real heavy tomato flavor. Instead, we get a strong dose of garlic and onion, along with a sprinkling of tomato in there somewhere…I’m really kind of baffled as to why they picked to market it as “bruschetta”.

So fans of tomato might be slightly disappointed. But I thought the flavor was good right out of the gates, and I would pick this flatbread up again in a heartbeat. The crème fraiche is good as it always seems to be, even in processed frozen foods, and adds the perfect first layer of toppings to the proceedings. The cheese is also rather scantly placed, so don’t expect a lot of it, but I liked that it was light and not overly cheesy--it allowed the other flavors to shine through.

My biggest gripe, and I believe I’ve mentioned this before under a similar product, is that, much like the name insinuates, flatbreads are very thin. Yet these retail for as much as Aldi’s other pizza products. I don’t care what angle you come from--Specially Selected seems to be the discount grocer’s more “upscale” products--paying the same price for a clearly smaller amount of food just feels, well, kinda stupid. My wife and I each ate three pieces for dinner, and it wasn’t nearly enough, so I went back and ate two more later, which still wasn’t very filling. I guess what I’m trying to say is: Why pay for this, when you can get something twice as filling for the same price? As I said, the flavor is good, but nothing so outstanding that it’s worth the inflated price tag.

Overall: 6.5/10. Let’s get the “knocks” out of the way first: Why it’s marketed as a bruschetta product when there’s barely any tomato on it (even the sauce is crème fraiche, and not tomato-based at all) seems kind of pointless; so is the fact this retails for the same price as Aldi’s other pizza products, despite being very thin and unfilling. But the flavor, which mainly consists of garlic and onion, is pretty good. If you want something that more resembles a snack, or if you’re just eating this all by yourself, or you’re not at all hungry, then you might get more of your money’s worth. I ate this with my wife, and was still pretty hungry after we split it, so I didn’t feel like there was much in the way of value. I’d get it again, but not in the near future, and not very often.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Nature's Nectar Wild Cherry Flavored Juice Pouches (Aldi)

I still suck at getting the straw through the little foil target, and the taste isn't really worth the effort.
Aaaah, the juice pouch. While other kids' drinks were in boxes, one company had to come along and put it in a pouch instead. One of my favorite childhood memories involves trying to poke that sharp straw through the small hole at just the right angle that it would puncture it and go into the drink, instead of impaling the pouch all the way through, forcing me to basically shotgun it so that all the juice didn't leak out. To be a kid again. 

I'm actually finding I still have the same struggles...I managed to poke the hole open without getting the straw in, and when my wife went to show me how to do it (she's a pro), she got juice all over the place, thanks to my error. Oops. (At least I can say from my failures that the drink is clear, so chances are good there aren't any artificial colors inside). Thanks to the extra hole she pre-scored right underneath the manufacturer's straw hole, I was able to finally get it in and take my first drink.

I have to say that I'm rather underwhelmed with this one. Granted, cherry would have never been my first choice (I knew my wife would want it and bought it for her), but it tastes a little watered down to me. I guess that was always a characteristic of the national brand, too...the tastes always seemed a little weaker to me than the ones in boxes. But that could also just be because I usually got the boxes and was more familiar with them. The cherry itself is made up of “natural flavors”, so there aren't actual cherries anywhere to be had here, but from what I can taste of it, it's pretty accurate. There is a strong cherry aftertaste that lingers in the back of the throat for a while.

Now that I've sipped it a few more times, it tastes like a white cherry Icee, which were passable, but never my favorites. It's got that kind of syrupy taste that you can tell was created in a lab. Similarly, I find these to be decent, but nothing that I would get for myself—I don't like this flavor nearly as much as my wife does. It is good for a change of pace between all the juices I've been getting, and these have 25% less sugar than most boxed drinks (according to the packaging, anyway), so there's that. Now if only we could put some actual fruit juice in these, that would be even better...

Overall: 5.5/10. To be fair, cherry isn't my favorite flavor (got them for the wife), so take my opinion with a grain of salt (as you should take any opinion anyway), but I was pretty underwhelmed by these. The taste reminds me of a white cherry Icee, though the cherry flavor seems a little watered down to me; it does lead to a strong cherry aftertaste that lingers. Apparently, they have 25% less sugar than regular juice drinks, but that still amounts to 16g per pouch, which seems pretty high. Still, $1.79 for ten pouches is pretty inexpensive, so there are some savings to be had for those that enjoy these more than I do. On a side note, I still suck at opening these pouches, 25 years later...

Nature's Nectar Iced Tea and Lemonade Beverage (Aldi)


It tastes good, but it's not always all about the taste, as you will see in my investigative report below...
My wife and I were on the hunt for something that never showed up to our usual Aldi location, so we ended up going to a different one to look for it. While there, I saw this plain-looking container of the combination frequently referred to as an “Arnold Palmer”: sweet tea and lemonade. My wife almost immediately mentioned she thought it would taste like the tea company named after a state (hint: Phoenix is in it), but I quickly dismissed that notion, because Aldi actually carries that name brand (the theory is that Aldi only carries name brands when they cannot find a supplier than can accurately mimic it; once they do, they get rid of the main brand and replace it with their own knockoff). Besides, this bottle didn't resemble that brand's aesthetic at all: it was shaped differently, the colors and fonts were completely different...usually something is there to allude to what product it's knocking off, but this had none of it. So I just figured it would be its own thing.

Lo and behold, my wife was completely right: this is just about an exact knockoff of the national brand Arnold Palmer. It's a mix of black tea and lemonade, and both parts are balanced well enough that they each get a chance to shine. It captures the same flavor with a very low price (a 64 oz. bottle retails for $1.49) so there's really no reason not to try this. Other than that, not much else I can say about it, except that it's a Special Buy, so chances are good that, by now, your store won't have any left.

Except, are you actually getting a good deal? It also brings me back to the quandary I posed earlier: Why would Aldi have a Special Buy knockoff of a brand that they always carry? Digging in a little deeper: Why would they undercut themselves by offering the national brand version for even cheaper? It doesn't really make sense, but that's exactly what they did! In the next paragraph, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will break it down for you.

I just bought a jug of the name brand, from Aldi, for $2.49, the price it has been lately. Even assuming this price is temporary, I've never seen it go above $2.79. Inside the “jug” are 128 oz. of tea, which equals one gallon. As you can see from earlier in my post, a 64 oz. bottle of Aldi's version costs $1.49; doubled, that means a gallon of Aldi's version would run you $3, which is more than I've ever seen a single gallon of the name brand stuff go for there. As you can see, while the flavor is every bit as good as the name brand, you're also paying a higher price.

Now, I know things like this aren't always cut and dry, so while the above math is correct, it might not make sense for everyone. For example, smaller households might not have enough people that can drink an entire gallon, in which case paying a little bit more (in the long run) for this, would make more sense than spending more for a gallon and wasting half of it. I get that. And even so, it's not like $1.49 is a ridiculous price to begin with, for 64 ounces of liquid refreshment. But for me, it makes much more sense to stick to the name brand, at least as long as Aldi will continue to offer it for such an affordable price.

Overall: 5/10. This is another review where I'm put in a quandary: this is almost an exact knockoff of the popular iced tea/lemonade mixture made my a company that shares the same name as a state in the U.S. (hint: it begins with the letter “A”). The only problem is, at least at our Aldi, they actually offer gallon jugs of the name brand stuff, for just $2.49. Nature's Nectar's 64 oz. bottle is $1.49, meaning the name brand is a whole 50 cents cheaper, per gallon. Still, it's a sloppy business model for Aldi to undercut themselves, and why they even offered this as a Special Buy defies all logic. I guess if your local Aldi doesn't carry the national brand version of this, then this might be a pretty decent deal. Ditto for smaller households that can't drink an entire gallon before it expires. For the rest of us, though, it's probably a better idea to just stick to the name brand, since it's less expensive to begin with.