Friday, September 18, 2020

Kroger Frosted Chocolate Fudge Toaster Treats (Kroger)


In looking back to my childhood, I can kinda see why everyone called me "weird". Exhibit #259: Whereas most kids would eat chocolate of any kind, I never liked chocolate toaster tarts, of any variety. So while most kids would jump at the chance to eat chocolate for breakfast, I was always more than content with the "standard" strawberry variety, never really wandering outside of that flavor until my later years.

And, on kind of a random side note, isn’t it a little bit crazy how things we do as a kid can shape the routines we make as an adult? There are so many things I refused to eat as a child that I still harbor the same resentment towards, some thirty years later. And my current perception of these products are often shaped entirely by the random, sporadic memories I have of trying them as a child. For example, I used to love raisins, until I ate them with a cheddar-filled hot dog…trying to force both down at the same time so that I wouldn’t disappoint my babysitter turned me off both of those products ever since. And while it was the first time I'd ever tried a cheddar-filled dog, I actually liked raisins up until that point.

Alright, enough trips down memory lane for now: let’s focus on these rectangular pastries sitting here before us, shall we?

First off, there’s that trademarked packaging again! I think I've said before that all the major store brands (at least around me) have the same packaging design and font across the board no matter which store you purchase them from, and here’s the proof: this one looks just like Meijer’s wrapper. Again, this leads me to believe that all the stores have the same manufacturer, and that very well could be the national brand!

What’s this white shit all over the top? I’m not really sure, but it’s completely unnecessary, considering all it does is fall all over the place. It’s like getting those greeting cards made of glitter, where the only purpose it serves is to make a mess once you open it. Come on guys, we don't need sprinkles on everything.

The chocolate tastes way better than I remember it. Really, this whole toaster pastry does. The outside of the pastry is soft and inviting, while the two types of chocolate—the hard icing and the soft filling—both compliment each other pretty well. The brown pastry does well to give the illusion of chocolate, and maybe there’s a slight hint in there, but overall it’s just a straightforward pastry that acts as a carrier for the toppings and filling. And that’s really all you should expect of it, so no hard feelings there.

The main downsides are the aforementioned random white crusties that fall all over the place, as well as the main complaint I have about all toaster pastries in general: that pesky outer edge, which I always dreaded reaching as a kid and still have un-fond memories of as an adult. Anyone who’s had one knows what I’m talking about: the entire edge has absolutely no icing and no filling whatsoever, making it a dry wasteland of boring pastry that can be roughly equivocated to “church communion wafer”. There’s a strategy to eating these, and it entails ensuring that you don’t get stuck with a corner…a double-helping of dryness that derives no possible enjoyment for the consumer.

Other than that, this is a solid duplicate of the national brand, and for a pretty solid price, too: an 8 ct. package retails for just $1.25, making it a pretty solid deal, especially as far as Kroger is concerned, and putting it about on par with Aldi’s 12-ct. boxes, which retail for $1.65.

Overall: 6.5/10. These are way better than I remember them being as a kid. The chocolate filling isn’t nearly as bitter as I thought I remembered them being, and the soft pastry has some inviting texture. There are some random white crusties on the top that serve no purpose besides making a mess, as well as the standard sides that have neither filling nor icing—a problematic staple of toaster pastries for years—but the value is solid at $1.25 per 8 ct. There are still a few other flavors I’d strongly prefer over this one, but this is a pretty good deal for fans of this particular flavor. It didn't win me over enough to make a spot in my normal rotation, but it broke away my preconceived notions about chocolate toaster tarts being gross, so that has to count for something!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Baker's Corner Confetti Cake Mini Muffins (Aldi)


Better than I was expecting, and a "fun" treat for most young'uns.

I already reviewed the blueberry version of these, so I won't get into a huge introduction here. Actually, I never would have bought these at all if it weren't for our three-year-old son, who is going through a phase where he doesn't want to eat anything except sweets all the time. He wasn't a fan of the blueberry muffins, so when we saw Aldi carried these, we figured we could ply him with a snack that combines two of his favorite things: colors and cake! In short, it didn't work, so we were left with a whole box of uneaten muffins that he wouldn't even look at, let alone touch. (Why are kids so annoying?)

I couldn't just let them go to waste, so I grabbed a bag for myself to see how these would compare to the other small muffins that I've had, even though this wasn't something I'd normally care to try.

I dug into the bag around 6:30 a.m. At work one morning, before I had time to eat anything else. Well, that was a bad idea: they tasted so sweet that they made my stomach churn. The flavor wasn't at all bad, I just sometimes have an issue with eating a lot of sugar on an empty tummy—in retrospect, it probably wasn't the best time to give them a fair shake (although, in my defense, muffins are breakfast food, so I didn't really do anything outside the norm here).

With that in mind, I decided to wait a little while later before polishing off the final two muffins, in order to give a more accurate report.

The final serving came much later, somewhere around the noon hour, and I have to say that it was a much more enjoyable experience. The sweetness didn't seem as off-putting once I had some other items in my stomach, and they actually do taste a lot like cake, which actually kind of shocked me, while still maintaining the same texture of a muffin. There's also a generous amount of the “confetti” in each one, which gives them that cool multi-color look that most kids will no doubt love. (Except our son, apparently, even though he usually goes ape-shit for anything with “sprinkles”.) They don't seem to add much to the texture or taste, but they're fun to look at.

I will say these small muffins are never super moist to begin with, and having what appears to be a layer of sugar on top (at least, that's what I'm assuming those small reflective crystals are) made them feel even dryer on the inside. It's not a big deal when eaten with a liquid (as most people tend to do), but sometimes I don't have anything else handy, and these just end up sucking out the remaining saliva I have in my mouth, which makes me feel like I'm chewing on them for days before I can swallow (that goes for any brand and flavor of mini muffins, not just this one).

This isn't something I would normally try, as I go out of my way to avoid other types of “sweet” muffins chocolate chips belong in a variety of places; muffins are not one of them), but I have to say they were better than I was expecting. I still won't get them very often, and when I do I'll know to eat them more as a mid-day snack than a breakfast item, but if nothing else, this is welcome proof that muffins and cake are not all that far off from one another. Who knew?

Overall: 6/10. I very much dislike when dessert items are combined into non-dessert breakfast breads (I'm sorry, but chocolate chips don't belong anywhere near muffins), and that's why these never appealed to me. However, I have to say that they are a lot better than I was expecting, delivering up a flavor that really does taste similar to cake, and with a generous amount of soft “confetti” sprinkles for added color and fun. I couldn't eat them for breakfast (too sweet to eat first thing in the morning for me), but as a mid-day snack or quick dessert, these are actually pretty good. The $1.99 price tag also makes them cheaper than the national brands by a pretty convincing margin. Not something I'll get with regularity, or maybe ever again, but also not something I regret trying.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Elevation Protein & Probiotic Mini Cookies (Aldi)

Extra protein in standard mini-cookie form? I'm in!
I like cookies, and I don't think I'm alone in that sentiment. So it makes sense that a good way for me to eat “healthy” is to pack some necessary nutrients in cookie form, which is exactly what those good folks at Elevation (as they are now known; they've dropped the “by Millville” from their moniker) have gone and done.

So what is the point of these mythical, magical cookies, and what exactly makes them “health”-oriented? Well it says so right on the front, in the name of the product: they contain protein and probiotics. What are probiotics, a question I myself had to look up despite hearing the word dozens of times before? Really, they seem to be more of a modern marketing “keyword”: according to the U.S. government website I visited, the benefits of them are still being studied, with very little actual benefits proven. And yet, they're on products everywhere in the supermarket these days, generally touting their improvements to digestive health, or similar statements.

I can't really pretend to care about the benefits of probiotics, but if I can get some protein in cookie, why not? I need all the vitamins and nutrients I can get. Especially since I've noticed that my health and activity has significantly dropped when compared to last year, thanks to reduced work hours, where I did a majority of my daily steps and the occasional heavy lifting.

These are actually pretty good. And by “pretty good” I mean that they taste like any other hard mini-cookie that I've ever had. The cookie itself is pretty bland, with a slightly sweet flavor that doesn't really do much, but the chocolate really shines through, giving you that sweet, familiar taste that we all know and love. Since there are a generous helping of chocolate in each one, it helps to make these go down easy.

The one thing I do tend to get concerned about is sugar content: if I get a ton of sugar, I feel drowsy and sluggish and my brain just gets in a fog. It's why I can't drink sugared energy drinks anymore, and tend to stay away from sodas altogether. I'm not sure about the typical sugar content in cookies, but these pack about 1g per cookie, which doesn't seem like that much to me (a nine-cookie serving has 8g), especially when there's 7g of protein in that same serving. Granted, I don't generally eat nine cookies at once, so I'm getting less protein, but also less sugar. Sodium is relatively high at 190mg, which sucks, and there's a rather alarming amount of saturated fat (7g) which kind of lessens the impact, especially since I already have borderline high cholesterol.

The only big remaining question is how's the value? I was particularly concerned with that here, since most items in the Elevation brand are pretty expensive, seeing as how they are usually knock-offs of “premium” protein bars. Honestly, I think the $2.99 price tag is actually fairly reasonable, considering each bag contains roughly 32 cookies. That's 3.5 servings of increased protein for $3. Granted, you can get five or six-packs of protein bars from the same line for around $5, but if you don't like the taste of those, these provide a good alternative at a similar per-serving price.

Overall: 6.5/10. The taste is nothing spectacular, as they taste like every other hard mini-cookie on the market, but considering there's a good amount of protein in there, that makes it a slightly better accomplishment. The $2.99 asking price (for 3.5 servings) is also pretty decent, putting it on par with other bars in the Elevation line. However, the biggest drawbacks are what you have to put up with to get the probiotics and protein: namely 7g of saturated fat and 190mg of sodium, which seems fairly high for a serving of cookies. Either way, these are a pretty good entry into the overall excellent Elevation line.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Baker's Corner Blueberry Mini Muffins (Aldi)

If you like the national brand, you'll like these.
I’ve always liked the national brand version of these, but curiously, my favorite flavor (banana nut) doesn’t seem to ever be available at Aldi. (I’m thinking it's a manufacturer thing: there are two major companies that make small muffins and only one makes a banana nut variety, leading me to believe it's the other company that makes Aldi's private label brand.) However, I was in the mood for some small muffins, and also figured our son might like them as something different, so I grabbed me a box.

One thing that I've always hated about these things, even as a kid, are the product counts: in each box, you get twenty total muffins. Okay, that's a bigger deal when it's the name brand and costs over $3, but not so bad at Aldi, where a box retails for $1.99 (effectively making $.10 the cost-per-muffin). However, it's the way they're broken down: five packs of four muffins each. What the shit is that? That has always irked me for two reasons: 1.) Four muffins is a ridiculously small amount; they're gone by the time I even realize I'm eating them, and 2.) This leads to an uneven number of packages. Sure, you could argue that five packs cover a whole school or work week, for those packing them in their lunches, but I've always thought it would make much more sense to do four packs of five each. Maybe that's just me.

Anyway, once you crack a package open, you pretty much know instantly what you're in for, with the candied scent of artificial blueberry overwhelming the senses. This isn't really a drawback for me; in fact, it's entirely what I was expecting, since I ate them as a kid. The muffins themselves are fairly moist, and as the smell would indicate, pack in quite a lot of sweetness and fake fruit flavor. To heighten the illusion of reality, there are also some actual blueberry pieces inside, although I can't say for sure if they add much to the flavor—the muffin itself seems to be saturated with a strong amount of the taste already, and the blueberry I ate on its own didn't seem to have much substance. It's fairly sweet, and will certainly be too much for some, but I think it's a pretty good balance overall.

One thing that I will say—and maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me—but there were a couple muffins in the box that kind of tasted different than the rest. They weren't very sweet, and tasted almost salty, for lack of a better term. Not overly so, but enough that I noticed it occasionally. Maybe it was just a weird batch, or maybe it was just a glitch in my tastebuds, but considering how sweet most of them are, it definitely stood out to me. Thankfully, this only happened a couple of times (and across a couple different packs), so I'll just chalk it up as an anomaly, but it was still a rather bizarre occurrence worth noting.

Even dismissing the weird flavor changes, these still aren't my favorite blueberry muffins in the world, but they're a nice change of pace every once in a while when I get sick of everything else in Aldi's breakfast aisle. And an item that most people accustomed to the name brand will enjoy, especially considering the lower price.

Overall: 6/10. These aren't the greatest blueberry muffins in the world, but they're good enough to satisfy those craving the artificial blueberry taste of mini muffins, especially when the $1.99 price tag is taken into consideration. The muffins are acceptably moist, and pack in a good amount of artificial blueberry flavor without being too sweet or overly fakey. I did notice a couple muffins tasted less sweet than other ones, which might have merely been a weird batch flaw, or a random glitch in my own tastebuds, but it was oddly noticeable the couple of times it happened. Even dismissing the bizarre inconsistency of flavor, at the end of the day, these are decent muffins that I would get again, but not with any regularity or consistency.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Elevation by Millville Dark Chocolate Cinnamon Pecan Nut & Spice Bar (Aldi)

Pretty tasty - and different - for what it is.

Let’s just continue our Elevation kick with an impulse buy, shall we? I was in the checkout line at Aldi, when all of a sudden the first growls of a hungry stomach rang out. As tempted as I was to run back into the store, I also didn’t want to leave my spot in line; just because no one was behind me right then didn’t mean even a quick run to grab something else wouldn't lead to me ending up in the back of a three- or four-person line. And I had a family to get home to.

So I frantically looked around the checkout area for something within my reach that would function as a snack—and that’s when I saw Elevation’s Dark Chocolate Cinnamon Pecan Nut & Spice Bar, an old friend, peering back at me. I'd tried this once before a while back, when Aldi first started carrying them, but never reviewed it, and had completely forgotten what it tasted like; why not give it another shot?

Man, this is a weird combination of flavors here, but “weird” is definitely a welcome change over, say, the disgusting wretchedness of their Apple Pie Bars, which just might be one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. I do not like dark chocolate much, something I’ve said in a million posts before, but it’s a good choice to lead with here: the “bitter” of the dark chocolate combines well with the semi-sweetness of the cinnamon to create a rather interesting combination of tastes that isn’t mind-blowingly good, but is different enough to keep the tastebuds interested, if not outright excited. This is rounded out by a good helping of pecans, which just add the typical nutty taste and texture.

Where this bar really shines—especially as far as checkout counter impulse buys are concerned—is on the nutrition label: this is an innocuously healthy little bar with a lot to offer. For starters, there’s just 25mg of sodium per bar, good for a meager 1% of the recommended daily sodium content, which is incredibly low. There’s also 7g of fiber (25%), 5g of protein, 6% iron, and 4% potassium; perhaps not incredible numbers, but great for those looking for a fairly healthy snack on the go.

But how’s the value? I mean, usually these kinds of bars often go for about a dollar a bar (or more) when in multi-packs, which means single bars could be as much as double that cost. I was actually a little nervous about this myself, since the price sign underneath was for an incorrect product. Sure, it’s Aldi, but they still upcharge for “impulse” items like every other retailer…it just might not be to the same degree (I still do remember when they were briefly selling individual bottles of water for $.99, if I’m not mistaken…the same kind you could get a 24-pack of for about a dollar more).
As it turns out, these are $1.19 each, which isn't bad for a "convenience purchase" in the checkout counter of a supermarket. I’d definitely get these again, or maybe even try some of their other varieties, of which none really sound all that appealing, but who knows? Maybe I’ll find another diamond in the rough.

Overall: 7/10. I’m sure people often wonder: “Why does this guy even get things that he doesn’t like?” Well, products like these are the reason why: it’s not something I would have normally gotten, but it’s way more interesting than I thought it would be, delivers up a decent amount of vitamins—along with a mere 25mg of sodium—and does it all for $1.19, which is a pretty decent price for a single health bar at the checkout counter of a chain supermarket. The combination of cinnamon and dark chocolate – not one I really would have thought would work all that well, especially considering my aversion to dark chocolate – is somewhat hard to explain: it’s not sweet at all, yet also isn’t really bitter, hitting up a taste that hits squarely in the middle of “bitter” and “sweet” flavor profiles. It's that interesting blend of tastes that elevate this above the average "health" bar.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Kroger Chewy Chocolate Chip Granola Bars (Kroger)

A plain, standard chocolate chip granola bar...which can be a good thing if that's all you want.
Aaaah, the granola bar: arguably the most boring and “standard” of all breakfast foods. It’s that one food item that are only popular because everyone has them, but no one actually really looks forward to eating them; thus, they become the “fallback option”, only getting eaten when everything else in the pantry is gone, yet you’re desperate for a snack.

That was more or less the situation here when I grabbed one of the first things I saw on my hurried way out the door for work...and that happened to be one of these granola bars, which was sitting front and center, as if it pushed itself to the front of the shelf and dared me to find something better. I easily could have, but I didn’t have time to think, so I grabbed one of the little guys from the box, sighed a little sigh of sadness to myself, and headed out the door.

Once there, I un-eagerly cracked the granola bar open and once again let out a sad whimper. True to form, these are pretty boring, but no worse than other granola bars, with a soft and chewy texture that gives way to a decent helping of semi-sweet chocolate chips. It goes down dry, but fairly easy; it's just a textbook example of boredom in food form; nothing at all to write home about, and nothing really worth getting unless you just want the boring plainness of granola. Which no one really ever does.

At $1.33 per 8-count box, value isn’t bad, but also isn't the best compared to similar products: At Aldi, a ten-pack is $1.29, giving you two more bars essentially for free, while Walmart's Great Value line offers up a multi-flavor 24-pack for just $2.84 (for the sake of comparison, at Kroger's going rate it would cost $5.32 for 24 of them). It’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to pay for one of the dullest, most over-purchased items on any store shelf. Seriously, it’s 2020 and people still buy these just to get pushed to the back of the pantry and forgotten about, where they will sit collecting dust until they’re expired, then eventually tossed in the trash without so much as a second thought?

Overall: 5.5/10. Just your standard granola bar, through and through, with nothing at all to even remotely differentiate itself from the rest of the pack. This is fine assuming you’re a person that enjoys the boring taste of granola mixed with semi-sweet chocolate chips, which I even happen to myself every once in a great while. So while flavor is pretty much on point with every other line, it's just that, with so many varieties of granola bars out there, and with all of them pretty much tasting exactly the same, it all comes down to price. And while the $1.33 retail for eight
bars isn't terrible, it's still bested by the likes of Aldi's ($1.29 for 10 bars) and Walmart's ($2.84 for a multi-flavor 24-pack) store brands, making it a less appealing value overall.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Vremi 13-Pc. Mixing Bowl Set (Online)

As functional and affordable as they are colorful.
After being impressed with Vremi's solid (but small) cookware set, we kept our attention on them when it was time to upgrade our mixing bowls. Similar to the multi-colored pots and pans set we purchased, their mixing bowl set comes in a variety of eye-popping colors, which certainly stand out in a sea of boring, neutrally-colored kitchenware. Beyond that, reviews were even better for this than they were for the pots and pans, while the value—under $20 for two mixing bowls (one large and one small), one strainer, one colander, four measuring cups, and five measuring spoons—was pretty well off the charts.

These have also performed admirably throughout the years, although without the requirement of being heated up and beaten around like pots and pans can be, that probably should be the case. As with most mixing sets, these are made of plastic, but you can tell just from holding them that they're built to last a while; they're pretty lightweight, but not so much so that they feel fragile. Sure enough, we've dropped these many a-time throughout the years without so much as a scratch to show for it—if anyone has cracked one, I can't even imagine what kind of blunt force trauma that poor thing must have gone through.

Even the measuring cups feel very well-made, with what appear to be several layers of plastic forming a rigid shell that suggests it can survive almost anything short of a house fire. I'll admit that, based on appearance, I was a little worried by the design of the handles at first, which curve around in a “U” shape, and are fairly thin, but those fears were allayed once I handled them. They don't feel flimsy at all, even now, three years after the initial purchase.

About the only sign of “damage” is a common one, at least in the sets we've bought before: the size markers on both the measuring cups and spoons, have pretty much worn off, probably due to multiple trips in the dishwasher. (On a side note, why don't manufacturers find ways to imprint them, or coat them so they don't wear off so easily? This has happened to virtually every set we've had, and can get a little frustrating when you're looking for a specific size and can't tell one apart from the rest.) Other than that, though, both sets have held up admirably well. Some have even ended up in our three-year-old's kitchen, where they are subjected to the whims of a small child—and not even that is enough to break them (he's actually generally pretty gentle with his kitchen toys, but is always prone to sudden, nap-avoiding breakdowns).

While I was impressed with the Vremi cookware, as I hinted at in that review, I would probably never buy that same set again, simply because the pots and pans are very small. This set, however, I wouldn't hesitate to replace as-is—especially since they've somehow managed to keep their price under $20 in the three years since we originally purchased it. It might not be quite enough for baking professionals, but for home use, the pieces have delivered well, and show no signs of letting up anytime soon. And that's why these are highly recommended.

Overall: 10/10. This is a fantastic set that, three years after we bought it, is still being offered for the same fantastic price. This thirteen-piece set offers pretty much all the measuring-related basics that a first-time homeowner (or dorm inhabitant, or small family, etc.) could ever need, including both large and small mixing bowls, measuring cups, and measuring spoons—and all for under $20. My wife has used each of these pieces dozens of times throughout the years (with some even ending up in our son's “kitchen” for long periods), and have held up impressively well—not just “for the price”, but for any price. There are some slight scuffs to the inside of the large mixing bowl, but there are no cracks to the bowls or cups, and no warping to the spoons, despite several trips into the dishwasher. While we do have more than just this one set in the house (my wife does occasionally go through intense spells of baking), these have held up way better than we ever expected, and we wouldn't hesitate to purchase this set again should the need ever arise. This isn't just a fantastic set "for the price", it's a fantastic set at any price.