Sometimes I have great ideas on my own. Other times, other xoJane writers and editors have great ideas and I execute them. Not because I think I will enjoy the task at hand, but because I think it sounds like something within my wheelhouse or I just want Emily to love me. Why else would I wear this to the beach?
Such was the case when s.e. suggested that someone try "every pumpkin spice flavored thing at Trader Joe's."
Given that I am currently staying half a mile (as the crow flies) from a Trader Joe's and I like -- nay, love -- getting attention for my crazy food antics, I volunteered.
Full disclosure: I know I missed some items. They were out of the toaster pastries and the Pumpkin Joe-Joe's but I think I did pretty good overall. I also didn't get the Pumpkin Rooibos tea because I don't like Rooibos tea; it's a personality flaw of mine.
Anyway here is The Haul:
Obviously, this is a task that will take some doing. This isn't something I can blast through in a couple of hours; this is a JOURNEY. Heck, it's practically a lifestyle change.
By swapping out "normal meals" for those of the pumpkin variety I'll not only be ensuring that my pores secrete cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, I'll be boosting my intake of vitamin A, fiber, and carotenoids. (Except probably not really because most of these are desserts.)
I stroll through each aisle of my newly local Trader Joe's, eyes peeled for those tell-tale "WE HAVE PUMPKIN" cards. I fill my cart, formulating explanations for the cashier.
Surprisingly, there was no need to defend my actions. The cashier nods somberly and says, "Good call. Stock up now."
Instead of trying each item completely on its own, I decide that it might be tastier and more efficient to combine a few, subjecting my mouth to a completely immersive pumpkin experience.
My first creation takes the form of a breakfast which I will call "Pumpkin Nonsense Three Ways."
To create this meal, you need Trader Joe's Pumpkin Waffles, Pumpkin Cream Cheese Spread, and Country Pumpkin Spice Granola Cereal. The waffle is the weakest link in this meal. It's nothing more than a barely spiced Ego.But this shortcoming is almost an advantage in this case, as the cream cheese is basically spreadable pumpkin cheesecake. If the waffle were as sweet and spicy as its topping, we might run into a pumpkin sensory overload issue.
The granola is a good granola. It's crunchy and lightly sweet, but unlike most of the other items I picked up, it has a solid pumpkin backbone, and the spice is a complementing flavor rather than the star.
I realize that not everyone has time or desire to toast a frozen waffle in the morning. For those that value those extra five minutes more than a hot, pumpkin-y breakfast, may I recommend this little pairing?
Actually, I can only recommend one of these items, as the other was a great disappointment. Let's talk about that first, so we can end on a high note.
Trader Joe's Pumpkin Spice Chai Tea Latte is mix is gross. The main issue is the cool sweetness that attacks your tongue right off the bat. The flavors that follow are pleasant enough and it has a nice creaminess, but that initial taste prevents me from taking more that two sips before I dump it down the drain.
THE MUFFIN THOUGH. Do you like carrot cake? Good. This is like (very moist) carrot cake but take out the carrots and add a bit of pumpkin. The cream cheese filling is lightly sweetened and distributed throughout the ENTIRE muffin, eradicating the need to remove the top and throw away the rest. This muffin (not just the top) is indeed "all that." (Though it is not whole-grain or low-fat.)
Unfortunately, the other pumpkin grab-and-go option is this stupid yogurt.
It's just not good. It's chalky. Any pumpkin flavor is quickly overtaken by a ton of acid. It's just not pleasant. At first I was going to chalk it up to being nonfat, but then I remembered that I have had decent nonfat Greek yogurt.
If you are one of those people who gets up early enough to actually cook a proper breakfast, or if you like pancakes for dinner, you could do a lot worse than either of these pumpkin pancake mixes.
In the interest of obtaining a completely unbiased review, Sean prepared each type of pancake and conducted a blind taste test. Though I was able to correctly guess which pancakes were gluten free, I would be lying if I said it wasn't difficult. The traditional mix does have a slightly fluffier texture, but I wouldn't have spotted the difference if I wasn't looking for it. Both mixes are more spicy than pumpkin-y, and neither are very sweet, allowing you to douse them in maple.
Perhaps you like to start your mornings with something warm and gooey?
TJ's Pumpkin Rolls with Pumpkin Pie Spice Icing come in one of those refrigerated tubes that are so fun to crack open. I had a really hard time peeling off the (two!) pieces of paper encasing the cardboard, but that could have been on me. (Or the tube could be poorly made, your call.)
But it's what's INSIDE the tube that's important. The rolls aren't super pumpkin-y, but they bake up real nice and are quite tender, if a little bland. The icing tastes like Pumpkin Spice Latte syrup but given that the rolls aren't super flavorful, it actually works pretty well.
Had the rolls been lined with a little pumpkin puree mixture, they would have been something truly great.
This last breakfast item requires a bit of planning, though very little effort. These Pumpkin Croissants only need about 15-20 minutes of baking, but they need at least 7 hours of proofing (allowing to rise at room temperature).
The waiting is the hardest part.
If you do remember to set these frozen pastries out the night before, you will be rewarded with a buttery, flaky, pumpkin-y croissant fresh from the oven, and your day will be the better for it.
Trader Joe's somehow managed to put just the right amount of pumpkin-pie flavored filling in this pastry; any more and this would have gone from "breakfast" to "dessert."(Hey TJ's, if you're listening: Add this filling to the rolls next time. Kthx.)
Speaking of Desserts
Let's start with the best dessert of all: ICE CREAM.
I love ice cream. Besides creme brulee, I rarely order a dessert that doesn't come with ice cream.
Not only does TJ's offer a pumpkin ice cream, but a pumpkin CARAMEL is also available for purchase. For a pumpkin lover who isn't lactose intolerant, this is the dream.
Except for one problem.
This pumpkin ice cream tastes like bubble gum.
At first I thought I was having a stroke; there is no way a pumpkin ice cream would taste like bubble gum. How could that get past quality control? Someone would have noticed, right?
I took another bite and again, the unmistakable taste of bubble gum accosted my tongue. The taste eventually faded, and my tongue was greeted with warm, creamy, pumpkin-y flavors, but there was no denying the flavor of bubble gum up front. I had three other people try it -- just in case I had finally lost it -- and they all confirmed this terrible truth.
The caramel, on the other hand, is delightful. Warm, full of autumnal spices, and perfectly gooey and sticky. I cannot recommend it enough. Buy it and put it on ice cream that does not taste like bubble gum.
Now the moment you've all been waiting for: pie time.
Making a pumpkin pie isn't hard, but sometimes not doing things is way more rewarding than doing things. Trader Joe's has two ways for you to not make a pumpkin pie. In either case, the most activity required of you is opening a package.
With frozen and fresh pies available for purchase, a taste test of each was required.
The most obvious difference is that you can buy the frozen weeks ahead of time and not worry about it going bad. Based on empirical data collected by myself, the fresh will start to grow mold in about five days.
In terms of flavor, someone could pass off the fresh pie as homemade (but like, "from a can" homemade, not "roasting pumpkins yourself" homemade). The frozen tastes decidedly store bought, and has a sweeter, creamier taste with an impossibly smooth texture. The fresh has a much stronger pumpkin backbone, and would be preferable by most people. (I preferred the frozen, but I also love frozen banana cream pie and brownies from a box, so.)
Both crusts were underwhelming in their mediocrity.
But the crusts on TJ's Mini Pumpkin Pies are delicious. I wouldn't call these a "good representation of pumpkin pie," because the sweet, shortbread-like crust overwhelms the small amount of filling, but I would call them "very tasty."
In short: It's a delicious pastry, but a mediocre pie.
Let's talk cake.
This is basically a large version of the muffins sans cream cheese. To remedy this shortcoming, I toasted a couple of slices and put cream cheese on them (both plain and pumpkin).
Another cake-shaped offering is the Pumpkin Cheesecake. It can be found in the frozen section, making it a good dessert to have on hand "just in case." This also makes for easy hoarding, so that you may cling to the last bit of pumpkin season well into Christmas.
It's a lighter cheesecake, and seems to have almost equal parts cream cheese and sour cream. I prefer a thin layer of sour cream on top of my cheesecake, not mixed in, but that's just a personal preference. If you're looking for big pumpkin flavor, you should probably look elsewhere; this is mostly pumpkin spiced (though still very edible).
Perhaps my favorite pumpkin item at Trader Joe's -- the one I look for every season since their release -- is the macarons. The instructions say to let them thaw completely, but I like them frozen; they're almost reminiscent of little ice cream sandwiches that way.
The texture of these are on point. The crunchy exterior quickly gives way to chewy deliciousness; it's all there. The flavor is delicate. There may not be enough pumpkin for squash enthusiasts, but no one could claim that these aren't delicious.
If you are in need of something warm and comforting, the Pumpkin Bread Pudding is something you should add to your cart.
The pumpkin custard has all the spices but about half the sweetness of pie filling. It's egg-y and warm, and the gourd really shines. Since it's not very sweet, I suggest piling on the ice cream. Just make sure you use vanilla, and not that bubble gum crap.
This next item is being lumped in with the desserts because it helps with the flow of the article. Scones are more of an afternoon tea thing anyway, right?
Unfortunately, these scones are dry dry dry. They look super moist, and they leave a visible oil spot wherever you set them down, but somehow they defy logic, crumbling into a sandy texture once in your mouth.
I can practically taste the baking powder.
Topping them with a bit of Pumpkin Butter helped. The butter has a good amount of pumpkin flavor (and spices) and is more tart than one would expect. It's alright on a baked good, but it sings when paired with cheese.
I never thought I'd be putting two pumpkin-flavored items on my cheese plate, but Trader Joe's Pumpkin Cranberry Crisps are a triumph of a cracker. They are sweet and savory, crisp (duh), and studded with chewy dried cranberries. Oh, and they have all your favorite pumpkin spices.
Top with the sharpest of cheeses and dot with some pumpkin butter and you have your new favorite fall-themed snack.
And yes, I know I'm still in "desserts" but cheese is part of the dessert course, is it not?
Pumpkin salad anyone?
I enjoy a carefully planned salad. A salad with flavors and textures that really compliment each other. If left to my own devices at a salad bar, I will inevitably end up with a pile of food comprised of things that should not go together. Instead of one pungent item, meant to compliment and highlight other flavors, I will end up with a pile of pungent -- onions, pickles, olives, feta, etc. -- it is delicious (to me), but sometimes it's nice to eat a salad that somebody thought about beforehand.
This salad was well planned. Baby kale, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin cornbread croutons (which can be purchased separately), and a pumpkin vinaigrette make up this "Harvest Blend." It all sounds like too much, but the bitter greens play well with the cinnamon spiced croutons, crunchy seeds, and sweet vinaigrette. I don't taste a ton of pumpkin in any one ingredient, but I do taste the spices usually associated with it in both the croutons and the dressing. (My only criticism is that this salad is lacking in cheese. Blue would have been nice.)
Add pumpkin soup to your salad, and make it a meal.
About that soup. I really wanted to like it, but it is very bland. It does taste like a liquefied pumpkin, but almost nothing else. You could use this as a base, adding curry powder or sage or, heck, even some salt would go a long way, but this soup needs to be doctored before serving.
If you wish to carry the pumpkin theme into dinner, TJ's pumpkin ravioli is a quick and filling option.
These are very rich and sweet, so a heavy, cream-based sauce would be a mistake. The bright lemon, salty parm, and herbaceous sage in this sauce helped cut through some of the dense filling. By themselves, the ravioli feel a little one note, but tossing them in a complimentary sauce transformed them into something truly delicious.
I honestly wish there had been more savory items. A pumpkin chili would have been really good. Maybe a pumpkin salsa with some pumpkin seed quinoa tortilla chips? I don't know. It's not my job to think of these things, but those are free, Trader Joe.
All of that being said. I never want to taste a pumpkin-infused item again. I don't even want to hear the word "pumpkin." I don't even think I can stand listen to Billy Corgan's alternative rock band that was founded in 1988; pumpkin overload has reached its apex (or nadir, depending). So I hope some of you get something out of this.
I do it for you, you know. It's all for you. (And the attention; I also do it for that.)