Sunday, August 28, 2016

Village Bakery Chocolate Chunk, and Kitchen Sink Cookies (Aldi)

VILLAGE BAKERY CHOCOLATE CHUNK COOKIES

Bakery-style softness and chewiness, without the bakery.

You know how there's that well-known adage that says you should never visit the grocery store hungry? It's true, and I can vouch for it. But there's a lesser-known alternative to that side of the coin: don't go to a grocery store full, either. Sure, you might save a little on your grocery bill since nothing looks even remotely appetizing, but you're going to end up with barely anything in your cart except sweets.

And that is how I ended up with this in my cart. And their name-brand cupcake knockoffs. And ice cream. Yet not even enough food for the rest of the week. Oh well. These enticed me because I'm a plain person who loves the simple taste of chocolate chip cookies, and these seem to be pretty well loaded with them evenly across each cookie. They had another variety called “kitchen sink” cookies that lost me with the inclusion of coconut (along with, as the name implies, about thirty other ingredients); I've since learned they won an award as Best Private Label Cookie of 2015 according to the PLMA (Private Label Manufacturer's Association, an actual organization). I'll probably be going back for those next time.

But that's a story for the future: the focus now are on Village Bakery's Chocolate Chunk Cookies, available all the time at Aldi stores nationwide. The cookie looks like a cookie, which is a good thing. Each one is pretty uniformly round, and you can tell just by looking at them that they're going to be chewy—that's a good thing for me (and most others that I've talked to about preferred cookie strength), but if you like yours burnt or crispy, then this is probably not the cookie for you. Sure enough, a single bite confirms exactly the softness that I thought. The actual cookie here is pretty much standard cookie, though it is pretty flavorful, with a sweetness that gradually gives way to some kind of finish that I can't accurately detect because I have a terrible palate. It's good, but nothing to write home about.

As it should be, the main focus is on the chocolate chunks, and each cookie is loaded with them. There's no reason that, assuming you are a fully-grown human being, you should end up with a bite completely devoid of them, because they're all well spread throughout. The chocolate chips are nice and sweet, but not overly so, and blend very well with the cookie portion. In other words, these actually approach the same flavor and consistency of supermarket bakery cookies, at least in my humble opinion. But of course you're not going to be paying the price for fresh-baked cookies...I honestly don't remember the exact price, a fact that I am ashamed of, nor can I find pricing info online, but I believe they are $2.79, or thereabouts. For ten cookies, that runs about a quarter each, which is a great deal for cookies this delicious.

I'll end this story with an anecdote that explains how I actually first encountered these: I was at a friend's party and helped myself to a cookie. Upon taking a bite, I stated (it was an upscale party, hence the larger words) how delectable the cookie was, and inquired if he was the baker responsible for creating such a delicious treat. That's when he pointed to a large Aldi poster he had hanging on his wall. Without saying a word, I understood, and began to nod approvingly. That's a true story. Well, some of it.

Overall: 8/10. I don't eat sweets all that often, but after loading up on lunch at a tasty local establishment, I was craving dessert, and ended up with these (and ice cream, and cupcakes, etc.) in the cart. This is a delicious cookie, nice and chewy with the perfect texture. The chocolate chips are milk chocolate (my favorite), and are fairly sweet, but not overly so. The cookie itself is sugary (of course), but also has an added flavor (Perhaps vanilla? My tastebuds suck) that actually gains in intensity; it wasn't the plain, boring cookie that I was expecting. The end result is a bakery-style cookie that beats out most other store-bought cookies. This is actually the first time I've ever bought them myself, but I will definitely be grabbing another package, and in the near future, too.

VILLAGE BAKERY KITCHEN SINK COOKIES
Don't get too excited...they're basically a very good peanut butter-chocolate cookie.
On our last shopping trip, we bought some Chocolate Chunk cookies from Village Bakery; it had been a long time since I'd had them, and some chocolate chip cookies sounded really good. I quickly skimmed to see what other varieties they had available—I think I saw an oatmeal raisin something or other, which doesn't appeal to me—and was about to call it a day when a purple label caught my eye. It was called “Kitchen Sink”, an obvious ode to all the ingredients that it has being akin to them putting in everything “but the kitchen sink.” I was slightly intrigued, but we decided to stick with the chocolate chunk version.

As soon as we got home, I fired up the old computer and did a little research on the ol' Kitchen Sink cookies. What did others think of them? Were they that good? Much to my surprise, I could find little in the way of other bloggers' reviews for them, but what I did find piqued my interest level up even more than most reviews could: A PLMA award for best cookie of 2015. Enticed, I also looked up the PLMA, because I had no idea what the hell that was or what this prestigious award stood for.

I learned that it stands for Private Label Manufacturers Association. They have end-of-the-year awards where they go through dozens of off-brand products across three dozen different categories (everything ranging from cereals, to side dishes, to cakes and pies, and just about everything in between), and pick a product that they feel best exemplifies that category. Obviously, it's not just limited to products at Aldi, but rather any store-brand product across the entire nation (in fact, out of all the different categories, Aldi only claimed the top spot on two of them). So out of every single cookie the judges tried, this one took the top spot.

Look at all those delicious, unnecessary ingredients...

So what are these Kitchen Sink cookies, you have probably been asking yourself the entire time it has taken you to read the previous three paragraphs? After all, there are really no set recipes for these; it's just a way to clear your pantry by throwing as many sweet things in as you can. In Village Bakery's version, they are peanut butter cookies with chocolate, and peanut butter chips, chunks of white chocolate, little bits of pretzel, and finished off with some coconut. How can all of these possibly combine into something that doesn't taste like a complete mess?

They're not the taste sensation that the PLMA was leading me to believe they would be, but what we have here is basically an above-average peanut butter-chocolate cookie. Since the cookie base is peanut butter, and there are added peanut butter chips, it makes sense that's the dominant flavor, with large chunks of milk chocolate coming in right behind. The rest of the ingredients leave little-to-no-mark on the proceedings...I love white chocolate, and didn't really notice it all that much, while the pretzels and coconut seem to add only to the texture, by giving the soft, chewy cookies some added crunch. I was a little worried about the coconut since it's one of the few things I don't like at all, but I couldn't taste it one bit.

I was very disappointed at first, but over the course of what amounted to almost the entire package (my wife did not like them and only ate two or three out of the included ten), I really grew to like them for what they were. They aren't as mind-blowing, or even as complex, as all the ingredients would lead you to believe, so dial back your expectations a bit and you should be just fine.

Overall: 7.5/10. Really, these are just an unnecessarily over-the-top presentation of a typical peanut butter-chocolate cookie. Ignore a majority of the ingredient list, because the white chocolate is barely noticeable (at least it was to me), and all I can tell that the pretzels and coconut left behind is a crunchier texture. I don't generally like peanut butter cookies, but these are perfectly soft, and the peanut butter is counterbalanced by the chocolate, so it's not the overwhelming flavor. Once the disappointment of expecting a much crazier taste explosion died down, I slowly grew to appreciate these for what they were, and I would definitely get them again at some point in the future. For the sake of full discourse, my wife was less than impressed.




Sunday, August 21, 2016

Millville Golden Corn Nuggets, and Honey Puffs Cereal (Aldi)

MILLVILLE GOLDEN CORN NUGGETS

Pretty accurate stuff.

I liked the national brand version of these growing up, but it was never one of my favorite cereals; that's why I've never tried them the few times I've seen them available as Special Buys. The last time I saw them, I opted for the Honey Puffs instead (a honey-comb shaped cereal), and was very disappointed with the end result. I would have been just fine buying neither of these this time around, were it not for my wife, who had much fonder memories of these as a kid, and wanted to take a trip down memory lane (I also bought a box of the Honey Puffs again, hoping that they changed their formula...results can be seen below).

Just like pretty much all of Millville's cereals, this looks pretty darn close to the national brand...it's based on foggy memories from over two decades ago, but I would go so far as to say it's pretty much exact. They're also nice and crunchy, right out of the bag, which is always my preferred texture with cereal. But how would these properties change with the addition of milk? I poured some on and dove in to find out...

This is a pretty darn good cereal. I always remembered this as being a cereal more geared toward the “kiddies”, probably due to seeing these advertised during Saturday-morning cartoons as a young lad, but it's really not all that sweet, at least compared to most cereals peddled to kids. There's just a perfect little touch of sweetness that pokes through what could have otherwise been a pretty boring cereal, and it's enough to make it kind of addicting.

The downside is that, despite my wife's assurance to the contrary, these get really soggy after a short amount of time. The upside is that they don't lose their flavor, but they're also not very texturally-enticing by the time you get to the bottom of the bowl (unless you're a very focused, insanely fast eater). Then again, this really isn't that crunchy to begin with—since these aren't flakes, but rather “puffs” of corn—I guess it kind of makes some sense that they would get soft quicker, but it's still a little disappointing. And as someone who's usually doing something while I eat (such as getting caught up on emails, reading articles online, or writing something), it generally takes me a little while to make it to the finish line. I'll just have to make sure to eat these when I have nothing else to do, I guess.

Overall: 6.5/10. I remember seeing the national brand advertised a lot during Saturday morning cartoons, but in retrospect, that seems a little misleading, because this isn't really a cereal that I would equate with the taste buds of normal children...case in point, while I enjoyed it as a young one, it wasn't even close to one of my favorites. It still wouldn't be, but I think I can appreciate it more now as an adult, as the puffy corn pieces are given just the right amount of sweetness to keep it from becoming dull. The downside is that the pieces are already soft to begin with, so it doesn't take long for the individual bits to be overwhelmed in the white liquid, making them pretty soggy by the time I get to the bottom of the bowl. For under $2 a box, though, there's some value to be had. I'm not super-crazy about these (somehow, this is the cereal that has singlehandedly jump-started my wife's interest in cereal lately), but I would get these again down the road as an alternative to my usual choices.


MILLVILLE HONEY PUFFS

Hope you like your cereal soggy and flavorless!

Here we have a honeycomb-shaped cereal that's available as a Special Buy from Aldi stores. I had bad memories of this cereal the last time I got it, but decided to try it again for two reasons: 1.) I didn't review it the first time, and 2.) I was hoping either my memories were misplaced, or the recipe had changed. It did not, and Millville's Honey Puffs still remain one of the worst, if not thee worst, cereal that I've ever had from the German discount chain.

Before I go on a tirade detailing everything that's wrong with it, let's start with the positives: right out of the box, it looks very similar to the national brand, which I used to enjoy as a child. I popped a couple in my mouth without milk, and it's a really solid knockoff, with a light touch of honey-infused sweetness that goes perfectly with the light, puffed cereal. Everything is off to a perfect start so far.

Unfortunately, milk is almost a necessity with cereal, and it's the addition of this liquid substance that starts the immediate downward spiral. You might get a couple of decent bites in before the milk completely ruins it; if you're not as into milk as I am, and just use a bit to get the bottom of the bowl wet (I fill my bowl up at least halfway with the stuff), then you might be good for a few more. But, inevitably, as the cereal gets coated with the liquid, it will immediately start to get soggy. This is where the fatal problems occur.

Honey Puffs don't just get soggy when they get soggy: they also get grainy. So we go from having these smooth, light puffs of well-textured cereal, to soft, grainy bits of cereal that fall apart in your mouth. It's actually a rather gross feeling, that's compounded by the second little problem: the milk completely washes away all the taste. So not are you only getting grainy globs of rapidly-dissolving cereal, but you're getting completely tasteless globs of rapidly-dissolving cereal.

By the time I get to the bottom of the bowl, the milk is the only thing that has any taste to it. I remembered this being a problem the last time I bought these (over a year ago), but thought maybe I was exaggerating how bad it was in my head. I was not. This is a shame, because out of the box it has the look and the taste of the national brand, but by the end, it's nothing more than a tasteless glob of inedible mush.

Overall: 2/10. If you or your child enjoy eating cereal straight out of the box (I remember my mom giving me Cheerios as a snack during church when I was a wee one), then this is well worth the purchase price. If, however, you like to add milk to your cereal, then don't even bother picking this up. It looks and tastes like the national brand, but once milk is added, it not only gets soggy, but completely grainy. Even worse: all of the flavor washes away the longer it sits in the liquid, so by the time you reach the end of the bowl, you're left with tasteless bits of complete nothingness. You might be able to prolong the inevitable by either adding only a teeny bit of milk, and/or eating it insanely fast, but why should you have to alter your eating habits just to avoid being disappointed by a cereal product? This is the only Aldi cereal I can recall that wouldn't be worth it at any price.




Sunday, August 14, 2016

Gridlock Lo-Carb, and Summit Sugar Free Red Thunder 4-Pack Energy Drinks (Aldi)

GRIDLOCK LO-CARB ENERGY DRINK

Better than most other Aldi energy drinks, but that's not saying anything.
Original Gridlock pretty much sucks, which I made fairly clear in my review for that product.  But in a desperate need for some energy while inside an Aldi store, I had to think quickly and act fast.  I wanted to grab the white can of Gridlock, apparently modeled after a similar drink from a national brand, but they must have been special buys, because they were completely sold out.  So it was either original Gridlock (blech), Red Thunder (once fantastic, now blech), their “multiple-hour energy” knockoff (which is great, and dirt cheap, but I like savoring a big can), or Gridlock’s Lo-Carb version, which I have never tried before.

Judging from the title of this review, I think you can tell which one I chose.

Opening the can, I was a little nervous because it pretty much smells exactly the same as original Gridlock, down to what I call the “mechanical tartness” (because it tastes like you’re sucking on metal).  But I learned a long time ago that you can never judge a book by its cover; substitute “energy drink” for “book” and “smell” for “cover”, and the same statement holds true here.  So I forced down a quick drink.

I have to say that, while this is nowhere near the top of my list of favorite energy-enhancing beverages, it has somehow claimed a spot near the top for Aldi energy drinks.  The terrible tartness of the original (and now, Red Thunder) is gone, replaced with a much calmer flavor that’s still very much drinkable.  While there’s a slight “diet” aftertaste, it’s not too unpleasant or too heavy to detract from the main taste, which isn't often the case with low- or no-sugar alternatives.

To say I’m “impressed” might be a little far-fetched, but “pleasantly surprised” is a lot closer to the truth.

Overall: 6/10. It’s not my favorite energy drink by a long shot, but thanks to the terribleness of original Gridlock, and Red Thunder’s sudden decline, it’s the best non-energy shot offered at the German retailer.  The “mechanical tartness” (so-called because it’s akin to the taste of licking a robot’s arm) of the original, which is disgusting, is thankfully missing here in the low-carb version.  The “diet” aftertaste, while noticeable, isn't as bad as it can be in other diet beverages, while the flavor itself doesn't have that terribly fakey sweetness that accompanies many similar drinks.  There are plenty of better options available elsewhere, but if you need a quick blast of energy, and happen to be in an Aldi, this is one of your better bets.

SUMMIT SUGAR-FREE RED THUNDER 4-PACK

Better than the sugared version, but that's not saying anything.
Oh, how time (and a changed formula) has not been kind to Summit’s Red Thunder energy drink. For many years, it was one of the best combos of taste and value available in the world of energy drinks—that is, until Aldi inexplicably changed the formula in favor of one that is way more bitter and metallic, rather than the smooth and delicious perfection that it was. As a result, it dropped from a perfect score, all the way down to below “5”. Talk about a steep decline in quality!

I always favor “regular” versions of most drinks because the vast majority of diet drinks just taste absolutely disgusting to me. They’re just watered-down, artificially sweetened take-offs that have people fooled into thinking they’re being “healthy” by avoiding sugar and calories; but let’s be honest here, is a soda ever really going to be healthy? Besides, some science seems to suggest that diet drinks are every bit as bad for you, if not worse, than the regular drinks, because of all the chemicals involved in their creation (especially the artificial sweeteners, which do more harm than good). What’s the point in drinking them if they have no proven health benefits, and taste like absolute crap?

On the flip-side, I’ve grown to tolerate diet energy drinks. After all, what is an energy drink anyway but a collection of several chemicals thrown together to form a rather crude-tasting liquid that’s solely meant to give you a shot of adrenaline? So if the regular, heavily-sugared versions are already a cesspool of chemicals and unhealthy additives, I figure what’s the difference between that, and drinking an artificially-sweetened cesspool of chemicals and unhealthy additives? Here, though, at least in my head, there is a specific benefit: by limiting the amount of sugar consumed, I’m also reducing, if not entirely eliminating, the hard “sugar crash” that results from drinking most energy drinks.

I just don't understand the benefits of merely prolonging a nap instead of outright avoiding one, which I feel like I'm doing when I drink a sugared energy drink—it's almost like you need a second one later just to stave off the crash sleepiness. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Besides, as I’ve said earlier, most energy drinks have a crude flavor to begin with (I like them, but they’re technically not sweet, and intentionally seem to go for a weird “metallic” flavor as the standard), so the weird, medicinal addition that results from adding an artificial sweetener is less noticeable to me in this form.

And that is why I'm recommending Summit's Sugar Free Red Thunder energy drink over the regular version. It does have the medicinal taste I alluded to earlier, but it cuts back on the strong taste of rust that you get with the full-flavor, ever since they changed their formula. It's drinkable, and gives me a kick of energy every time I down one, so it obviously does what I need it to do. It's not the best-tasting energy drink on the market, but there's at least no crash later, and leaves me raring to go for quite a while afterwards. Maybe the biggest reason is the price: These are $2.49 for a pack of four 8.5 oz. bottles (which I also believe are .1 oz. more than the name brand), which is around what you can expect to pay for a single can of the national brand stuff, and this works just as well.

I still don't buy these very often, as Aldi is really kind of disappointing me with their standard energy drink options, but if you find yourself in a pinch, this is one of the better ones they carry.

Overall: 5/10. It's still nothing to write home about, but Summit's Sugar Free Red Thunder Energy Drink is one of the better energy beverages that Aldi carries. There's the medicinal, fake taste inherent in all “diet” drinks, but it's no worse than the pungent “rust” flavor that we get with the full-flavor, ever since they changed their formula. But, a four-pack (of 8.5 oz. cans) is a mere $2.49, which represents some excellent value, especially when compared to the national brand. I do get a burst of energy that lasts for a little while after drinking one, without the crash, on account of them being sugar free, so they work for what I need them for. The taste just isn't there, and that's what prevents me from buying these more often.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Moser Roth Milk Chocolate, and Limited Edition White Chocolate Cookie Bars (Aldi)

MOSER ROTH MILK CHOCOLATE BAR

WAY better than you would expect...outstanding chocolate for the price.
I have mentioned this before, but for the uninitiated or unaware, Aldi has two main chocolate lines: Choceur, which are their knockoffs of cheaper chocolate brands; and Moser Roth, which is their “premium” line. Moser Roth's chocolate bars look pretty large, and are just $1.99, but take a closer look at the packaging: this is not one large bar but rather five individually wrapped smaller ones. There's still a good amount of chocolate inside, but always figure that's worth noting.

They have many different varieties, but most sway toward the “darker” side, and I just can't get into dark chocolate at all. Which makes sense, considering it's the “healthiest” of all the chocolates; I just don't do well with things that are “healthy” (dark beer supposedly has health benefits, but I hate beer; I like wine, but not red wine, which is also supposedly good for you in moderate amounts; water is a necessity, but unless I'm parched or active, I literally have to force it down in its plain form). That pretty much leaves me with their milk chocolate, which is fine by me, because that's my favorite.

Each bar is unwrapped to reveal a small, delectable bar emblazoned with the “Moser Roth” logo. It looks like a cute little “fun size” bar that you would get as a child, although it's a little bit bigger than that—unless you're having an absolute craving, or are a chocoholic, one bar should be sufficient enough to satisfy your urge for something sweet. Be careful when you handle it, though, because they are always on the cusp of melting. That's a great thing when you're actually eating it, because it starts melting in your mouth immediately, but not so good when you forget that it's in your hand and have a chocolatey mess within seconds.

As for the actual flavor, these are absolutely worlds above your typical impulse-buy-at-checkout-mass-produced chocolate bar. They are very sweet, but not overly so, and are ridiculously rich and creamy, almost to the point of perfection. I don't even chew mine, instead rolling each bite around on my tongue until it naturally melts away, leaving nothing but chocolate heaven in its wake. Curiously, no matter how hard you roll these around on your tongue, or how many times you fold them over, it's virtually impossible to get a piece to break; this is a testament to its flawless, rich texture.

This is definitely one of the best mass-produced chocolates I've ever had, and it's at a price point that just about anyone can afford. If you haven't tried these yet, pick yourself up a bar, and you'll understand how chocolate is supposed to taste. Don't be surprised when you can never go back to national brand chocolate again.

Overall: 10/10. A ridiculously creamy, rich milk chocolate bar that melts on your tongue the instant it enters your mouth. This is seriously one of the best chocolates I've ever had, and at just $1.99 for five individually-wrapped bars, at a price that almost anyone can afford. If you consider yourself a chocolate lover, you absolutely owe it to yourself to give these a try; if milk chocolate isn't down your alley, they have a variety of darks (including one with chili powder) that will have your palate covered. To try it is to fall in love; don't be surprised when you can't go back to the national brand chocolates afterwards.

MOSER ROTH LIMITED EDITION WHITE CHOCOLATE COOKIE BAR

Disappointingly familiar.
Oh man, there isn't a descriptor that gets me more excited for dessert than “white chocolate”. I know, I know, it's not technically chocolate, which tends to raise the ire of more advanced choco-snobs, but I like my chocolate sweet (can't stand dark), and white tends to be even sweeter than milk chocolates. My love affair for the Caucasian chocolates began in the '90s, when I was just a wee little guy around the age of ten, upon first sinking my teeth into an Alpine White candy bar (as a side note, is there a candy bar more deserving of a comeback?)

This one, though, well let's just say it pretty much tastes exactly like the national brand cookies and cream candy bar. I guess that's not a huge knock, because it's actually one of my favorites in terms of mass-produced bars, but I honestly had much higher hopes for Moser Roth's version, since it tends to be Aldi's premium chocolate line (with Choceur being the “lower-end” version). The cookie bits are bountiful and pretty tasty, blending well with the intense sweetness of the white chocolate.

The only difference that I can tell is that, as is usually the case in head-to-head comparisons, Moser's chocolate is creamier and richer, both in appearance as well as texture. The national brand chocolates always look like they're made out of plastic, at least to me, but this looks like a more inviting chocolate bar. As it turns out, it's not just confined to appearance: these bars start to melt the moment you pop them in your mouth, which is excellent for the texture.

Like the other chocolates in the Moser Roth line, each pack comes with five individually-wrapped chocolate bars, making you feel like you're genuinely getting something more special than a typical candy bar. In the case of their regular chocolate, that would be correct: it's smooth, creamy, and utterly delicious, and well worth the $1.99 asking price. These, on the other hand, taste so similar that it's a wonder why they weren't just released under the Choceur label, in bags of individually-wrapped single-serving candies like their other knockoffs of major candy bars. If that were the case, I would have given these much higher marks, because I would have known what to expect, and gotten exactly what I was expecting.

Here, though, it also feels like a slight rip-off: The entire package is 4.4 oz. total, broken down into five smaller segments of individual bars. Walmart offers twelve packs of the snack size national brand (.45 oz. each) for $2.06. Some quick math reveals that the national brand package offers a whole ounce more of chocolate, for just an additional $.07. In other words, there's no value to be had from Moser Roth's version. Obviously, if it tasted better, or different, then a case could be made for purchasing Moser's version over the name brand, but since they're pretty much exactly the same, it's already an apples to apples comparison.

In usual cases, a “tie” in tastes between an Aldi product and a national brand product is usually a clear win for Aldi, but here, it was a huge, HUGE disappointment for me.

Overall: 5/10. It tastes exactly like the name brand cookies and cream bar, with loads of cookie bits melded together in a little white chocolate bar. On paper, that's a win for Aldi, right? Normally so, but these were released under the Moser Roth label, which are (generally) Aldi's premium chocolates. A package of five individually-wrapped chocolates, totaling 4.4 oz. of weight, is $1.99. Other retailers sell snack-sized packages of the national brand bar for around the same price—only you get a full extra ounce out of their packages! I will say these have better texture and immediately start melting in your mouth, but those are just small, pointless victories. Why these were released as “limited edition” chocolates under Aldi's premium label is completely beyond me, because, aside from the creaminess of the chocolate, they're no more premium than the stuff you get at supermarket checkout lanes. I won't be getting these ever again, when I can get the name brand for cheaper.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Benton's Fudge Mint, and Double Stuffed Creme Sandwich Cookies (Aldi)

BENTON'S FUDGE MINT COOKIES

Ever wanted Thin Mint cookies, without the hassle of actually supporting anything?
These little guys snuck up on me by surprise, showing up at Aldi out of nowhere one day. I peruse the ads constantly, so it's rare that there's a product I'm not expecting, but my eyes captured the word “mint”, and I had to move in for a closer look. No way...could these possibly be the world-famous Thin Mint cookies, as peddled by Girl Scouts everywhere at certain points throughout the year? It sounded way too good to be true, but the entire package was a ridiculously-affordable $1.25 so I could spare the expense of finding out.

In short, yes, these are Thin Mints, so run to your nearest Aldi immediately to stock up! My wife says they look slightly different (she thinks the sides of the “official” cookies are smooth, whereas these have a little more texture), but we both agreed that the taste was about as exact as physically possible: they feel light, with a rich chocolate coating that gives way to a perfect little blast of mint, and they even melt in your mouth just like the original cookies...I honestly feel like this is one of the best discoveries I've ever made at an Aldi store!

Curiously, these showed up under the “New at Aldi” section online (something I saw after the fact while checking to see if I had somehow missed them), but there was nothing in-store indicating this, so I'm lucky to have spotted them. I thought these were the first time they've ever been available—I've shopped here for over a decade and had never seen them before—but a little research revealed that they've been available as far back as 2011. They seem to be a seasonal thing, but again, there was no mention of that on the sign, so I would stay on the safe side and load up on these while they're still here.

I'm also a little baffled as to what the Girl Scouts are thinking by allowing other companies to sell private label versions of their products (Aldi also has Tagalongs, which I don't care for much, and Walmart also sells a version of Thin Mints, if not others). I mean, I'm assuming they own the rights to these and have some kind of say about who copies them...or maybe it's just some proprietary formula that the Girl Scouts “lease”...? Sorry, just thinking out loud here. Either way, it must not be hurting their bottom lines any, because these seem to have been available off and on (probably during off-times for the Girl Scouts fundraisers) for at least a few years now. I'm sure there are those loyal people that will still pay $4 a box (or maybe it'll go up even more this next season?) to get the real thing, but I won't. I mean, look, the Girl Scouts are no doubt a great cause, but at the end of the day, these are just cookies. Cookies that I get sick of pretty quickly. And if you're telling me I can grab three packages at Aldi for less than the cost one box of the “official” stuff...well, sorry to sound like a dick, but our money is tight, and I'm going to go with the cheapest option.

Then again, this will probably end up being the only package I get all year anyway.

Overall: 10/10. These don't just look or taste like Thin Mints...these are Thin Mints. My wife assures me that the appearance is slightly different, but we both agreed that everything else, from taste on down to texture, is completely the same. And best of all? They're only $1.25 a package. I'm assuming these are available during “down-time” from the Girl Scouts fundraisers (a quick glance on the Girl Scouts website revealed that my zip code is 188 days away from cookie season), so this is a great way to stock up on these while you're eagerly waiting to pony up $4 a box to raise money for your granddaughter, or to support the daughter of a friend's friend. Or, you could just buy a ton of these, freeze them, and not have to declare bankruptcy. The choice is yours!

BENTON'S DOUBLE FILLED CREME SANDWICH COOKIES

This is a placeholder image until I can get to the store and take one myself.
Who hasn't had the national brand version of these cookies when they were growing up? I wouldn't say it was a staple of our home, but I remember having them on more than one occasion, learning to twist them off and dip them in milk to “improve” the flavor even more. They were one of my favorite cookies as a youngster, but I tend to avoid buying them today (simply because they're unhealthy and don't serve much of a purpose, beyond unnecessary sugars and fat).

Well wouldn't you know it that during our three-day inventory at work, one of the snacks management bought for us were the national brand cookies. I had just recently had myself removed off Adderall, because it wasn't working in the ways it should, but it was working in the ways I didn't want it to (focus might have been improved somewhat, and it was keeping me awake and giving me energy during work hours, but I was losing upwards of five pounds a month because I was losing my appetite). The “medicated” me (I was on the upper for about four months) wouldn't have even thought twice about eating them, but with less of the drug in my system, and a “recovering” appetite, I ate more of these than I should have.

Then, that translated to home. My wife had just purchased Benton's version a couple of days prior during a shopping trip to Aldi. At first, I wasn't really interested in them (although they are great with ice cream and hot fudge), but as my sweet tooth was coming back, I started eating more and more of them. Not a whole lot, mind you, but way more than I normally would have. And since I had just eaten the national brand, I can more or less compare these with a greater lucidity than I would've been able to at any other point in my life.

And all I can say is that the taste is pretty much spot-on. I never compared them directly side-by-side (one was at work and one was at home), but Benton's cookie has that same semi-sweet chocolate taste, while the cream is ridiculously sugary, but oh-so-good. This was probably the first time in a while that I'd even tried them plain—just like the national brand, swirl these around in milk for a softer cookie that melts in your mouth, and that even adds some decadence to the otherwise dry texture.

About the only difference, besides the price, is the appearance: Although Benton's version features cookies that are roughly the same size, theirs have five holes, as well as a “floral” design that is missing from the national brand. But you know the saying about judging a book by its cover: this very product is one of the reasons that quote is still so relevant today. Outside of its slightly different appearance, the taste is so similar that I'm convinced they are made in the same factory as the national brand. And the “double stuffed” in the title is not just a catchphrase: there is a noticeable increase in the cream filling, making these even better than the “regular cream” version.

Overall: 10/10. Aside from some minor differences in appearance (these have holes in them, along with a “diamond” design), these are pretty much exact in taste to the name brand. The chocolate wafer itself is slightly bitter, but with a nice chocolate flavor, while the dairy-less cream is very sweet and, as the name alludes to, is in plenty of abundance. Dipped in milk, they take on the same, soft characteristics of their brand name counterparts, with the cookie soaking up the milk and making these ten times better. If you're into this sort of thing, you're doing yourself a huge disservice by not giving these a shot...you may never pay bloated, overinflated prices of the "real stuff" ever again!




Sunday, July 24, 2016

Specially Selected Pesto Macaroni & Cheese, Priano Roasted Garlic and Cheese Risotto (Aldi)

SPECIALLY SELECTED PESTO MACARONI AND CHEESE

Bland and salty.

I would say that I’m not that big of a fan of pesto, though the only times I’ve ever had it, involved buying it from the supermarket.  And that can be enough to ruin just about anything.  Yet I have reviewed both of Specially Selected’s other gourmet macaroni and cheese products (you can see those reviews here), so I figured I might as well go ahead and complete the trifecta.

True to form, I wasn’t really a big fan.  There’s just something about pesto that doesn’t do anything for me, which is certainly odd, considering I like just about all of the ingredients separately.  Of course, like I said, I’ve never had the fresh stuff, and I’m sure something is lost in the translation of shoving it into a boxed, factory-made macaroni and cheese product.

The pestos I’ve had can best be described as “bland and salty”, a combination that you don’t hear of too often; this one is certainly no different.  There’s definitely a cheese flavor, courtesy of the accompanying cheese powder packet, but this it gives way to a pesto flavor that consists largely of salt, maybe a hint of basil, and then that’s about it.  Maybe I’m just expecting too much from pesto; maybe it’s supposed to be a lighter flavor that just kind of shows up and just as quickly disappears.  I thought maybe Specially Selected would have the antidote for that kind of thought process; that they would have the first pesto recipe to truly wow me, and turn me into a believer.

They didn’t.

Overall: 4/10.  Take this review with a grain of salt, because I’m not a huge pesto fan, but I was not at all impressed with this dish.  I should mention I’ve only had pestos a few times, and all of them were in supermarket products; I was hoping Specially Selected would make me a believer of pesto, but they failed in the same regards as other ones I’ve had.  There’s some cheesiness, courtesy of the sauce packet, and then saltiness, followed by a hint of basil, and then…nothing.  That’s it.  Maybe it’s supposed to be like this, and I’m just expecting too much, but I was not a fan at all.

SPECIALLY SELECTED ROASTED GARLIC & CHEESE RISOTTO

Proof that some amazing things can come out of a box.

I’ve had risotto once in my life; ironically, it was at a fancy restaurant that specialized in “small plates”, and their risotto (bacon risotto with an egg cooked exactly to 62 ½ degrees) was ironically one of their most popular dishes. I figured that would be as good a way as any to get my first taste, so I plunked down $11 for the right to try it. It was easily the worst plate of the evening. But since that was my first try, I thought that maybe I just wasn’t into risotto.

This prejudice toward the food continued when my wife informed me she was buying a box of Priano’s Garlic and Cheese Risotto, an Italian Special Buy at Aldi stores. I merely scoffed, told her that risotto sucked, and that it was a waste of money, and then we continued our shopping trip, never speaking about it again.

Flash forward to about a week later, when my wife informed me while I was at work that she had made it--and that it was incredible. Again, I scoffed, but I did make sure to have her hold me a couple bites of that “incredible” risotto, which I knew would disappoint me and simply confirm my suspicions that risotto is simply not for me.

Now, before I go on, I must make a couple of slight disclaimers: 1.) My wife “livened up” this dish by grating fresh Asiago cheese into it, which no doubt heightens the flavor in its favor, and 2.) I ate it cold. I could have microwaved it to approximate the flavor right off the stove, but I was hungry and didn’t feel a need to necessitate such drastic action. But none of this stuff really matters, because this risotto is absolutely stupendous.

It really is. It’s salty, like all risotto is, but the balance of cheese and garlic is perfect, to the point that both leave their mark on the taste buds, but neither one overwhelms the other. This is a tough line to walk, especially with a flavor that can be as strong as garlic, but it perfectly walks that line. After one bite, I was addicted, and I lapped up the rest like a pig eating from a trough--it goes without saying that I would purchase this again without any hesitation.

I’m also speaking from actual experience when I say that we thought this was better than $11 risotto we’ve eaten from a fancy restaurant. We might be the only two people in the world that think that, and we’re certainly no experts on risotto, but taste buds don’t lie. If you like or love risotto, you should really give this a try. It won’t disappoint.

Overall: 9/10. My first (and only) previous experience with risotto was as a small plate from a fancy restaurant, that cost $11--and neither my wife nor I cared much for it. So I figured if high-end risotto didn’t do anything for me, then maybe I just wasn’t a risotto kind of guy. Well, at the urging of my wife, we picked up a box of Priano’s Garlic and Cheese Risotto--and it knocked our socks off. The balance of cheese and garlic is flawless, and after one bite, I was addicted. Neither of us would hesitate to get this again. For the sake of full disclosure, my wife livened it up by adding fresh Asiago cheese, which no doubt helps add to the flavor, but there’s no way the simple addition of cheese would make a bad product this good. If you like risotto, don’t hesitate to pick this up.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Specially Selected Chocolate Mousse Cups, Pueblo Lindo Rice Pudding (Aldi)

SPECIALLY SELECTED CHOCOLATE MOUSSE CUPS

Quite a bit of money for not a lot of substance.

I generally don’t eat a lot of sweets--unless they happen to be in front of me.  To lessen the odds of that happening, I don’t often buy desserts (although I do tend to get in the mood for ice cream every couple of months, or so).  This is true especially when we’re forced to keep a close eye on what we spend on groceries--which we were doing on a recent shopping trip.  Still, you only live once, and so when I stumbled on Specially Selected’s Chocolate Mousse Cups, I decided to appease my wife by getting them.  Well, the fact I was shopping absolutely famished (a well-known no-no) definitely worked in her favor, as well.

How else can I justify paying $3 for two small cups of what is basically chocolate-infused air?  But it looked so good that I didn’t care if it put us in the poor house, and so we took these home, and eagerly finished our dinner in order to give these a shot.

Prepping them is insanely easy: leave them out to thaw, then serve.  Our thawing process was pretty quick, considering my wife just set them near the stove she used to cook up supper, and so by the time we were done eating, they were perfectly cool and ready to enjoy.  I dug in…and have to say that these did not ravish my taste buds the way they did my wife, who absolutely loved them.  The top layer, which is a milk chocolate mousse, was kind of bitter--chocolate fans will probably love it, but I like my chocolate on the sweet side, and so it didn’t appeal to me.  Or maybe it’s just that I don’t like mousse…maybe that could be the problem.  The white chocolate hearts that adorn the top are a nice touch, as these are clearly marketed as a Valentine’s Day treat (which also happens to be my birthday…the only time I will ever mention that depressing fact); as can be expected, they are too small to really contribute anything to the flavor.

It does get better as you go down…there’s a small layer of chocolate cake, some white chocolate mousse under that (which is better than the plain chocolate), some crunchy chocolate candy pieces under that, and the bottom is a plain chocolate mousse that rounds everything out.  I really enjoyed the sponge cake and the candy pieces, and while the white chocolate and plain chocolate layers were better than the milk that started everything off, it still didn’t have me craving any more, as I thought it would.

For $1.50 per cup, I’d file this away under “splurge”, and I would also be fine never getting these again.  I’m not going to say I “never” will, because my wife really loved them and so I could see myself surprising her with them at some point, but if this were the case, I would let her eat both of the cups--they just didn‘t do much for me.  Again, I’m not huge into sweets, so if you’re a chocolate connoisseur, like my wife is, then you will certainly like them a lot more than I did--it just becomes a matter of whether or not you want to pay $3 for two small cups of chocolate.  It's also a matter of finding them, as they are a Special Buy and only made available a couple of times a year.

Overall: 5.5/10. I wasn’t a big fan of these, though I would imagine chocolate lovers everywhere would love them more than I did--in fact, now that I think about it, it would have probably been smarter to have my wife review this as she likes chocolate more than I do.  Oh well.  The cup gets better as you go down, with the chocolate candies and white chocolate mousse layers my favorite, but these weren’t nearly as delectable as I was expecting them to be, considering they cost $3 (for just two small cups that an average adult will have gone in about five bites).  I thought they were overpriced and underwhelming, but if this is your kind of thing, and you don’t mind the price tag, then you might as well give them a chance.  They are a Special Buy, though, and thus only available occasionally.

PUEBLO LINDO RICE PUDDING

You've probably seen these under the Senor Rico label...same thing, only with a private label name.

[NOTE: I originally wrote this review when it was available as Senor Rico Rice Pudding, which was available in Aldi and Walmart stores across the U.S., but for whatever reason, put off posting the review.  Now, it is available under an Aldi house brand, but it's fairly obvious that it's pretty much the same product, though possibly shorn of an ounce, and still retailing for the same price (?).]

Prior to this, I had never had rice pudding before.  Well, maybe I’ve tried a couple spoonfuls at some point in my life, but it wasn’t enough to have any sort of profound effect on me; when I saw Aldi started carrying it at their stores, I shrugged and went on about my day.  My wife, on the other hand, is a huge fan of just about any kind of pudding (chocolate, rice, bread, etc.), and jumped at the chance to try it.  I will say, it was her extremely positive reaction to taking her first bite that initially piqued my interest; I tried a bite myself, likened the texture to tapioca pudding (ironically, one of the few puddings my wife has never tried) and that was that.

A couple weeks later, after sending her to purchase just a couple things from Aldi, she of course came back with a bag full of extra things that were not requested: chief among them, were several more cups of this rice pudding.  At first, I was annoyed; after all, there were several more useful things that our money could have gone toward, besides six cups of dessert.  However, I calmed down because I knew, unlike the vast majority of things my wife buys and then lets sit around for several months, she wouldn’t let these go to waste.  Sure enough, that evening, she cracked one open.  And once again, I asked for a bite…and then another.

Another view of the private label version, which is cut by a full ounce and still retails for the same price as the Senor Rico brand...
I can’t really compare this to any other rice pudding, because like I said before, I‘ve never tried another one, but the texture here is absolutely amazing.  Sure, you get plenty of rice bits, which are kind of weird to me, but the pudding itself has a ridiculously milky creaminess that stops just on the edge of sweetness.  But if you like sweet, like I do, don’t worry, because that comes in the form of a generous sprinkling of cinnamon that sits on the top.  Once you mix that in, this becomes an almost perfect dessert, as the cinnamon adds a much-needed dose of sugar that makes it absolutely mouthwatering.

I must say that the standard 8 oz. cup is too much for me. At the expense of sounding like a whiner, I must confess that I get sick of it by the time I reach the bottom; the excess I either save for later, or pass on to my wife, who‘s always more than willing to finish it off for me.  But this is definitely a sweet dessert that doesn’t disappoint, and one that I’m highly recommending to just about anyone with a sweet tooth.  And at 89 cents a cup, which seems kind of steep upon first glance, there's really a lot more in here than you think.

The main drawback, is that these used to be carried at Aldi stores under the Senor Rico label, which is a national brand distributed by Lakeview Farms (and based out of my home state of Ohio).  Now, they are carried under the Pueblo Lindo moniker, which is Aldi's new private-label line of authentic Mexican snacks and foods.  Okay, so there's nothing new with the idea of the national brand making a private label version specifically for Aldi--that's the case with a lot of the products in their stores.  What I have difficulty grasping, however, is that these are being offered for exactly the same price ($.89 per cup, up from $.85 earlier in the year) as Senor Rico's was, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.  Why not just keep offering it as Senor Rico if you're not going to be able to lower the price any?  Maybe it's some kind of business agreement, and somewhere down the road we'll see some savings, but as of now, this whole switch from national brand to private label just seems completely pointless.

Another casualty of the change is apparently one whole ounce.  Apparently, Senor Rico cups are 9 oz., while Pueblo Lindo's tip the scales at 8 oz., making it even more questionable that it's being offered for the same price as Senor Rico, even while being shorn of an ounce.  What's here is good, don't get me wrong, but it almost has the curious feeling of a bait-and-switch tactic, coming from a company that usually presents itself as being more open and honest than others. And that might be the biggest disappointment of all.

Overall: 8/10.  In terms of the product itself, this is closer to a 10, but recently, Aldi started offering this under the Pueblo Lindo brand name, its private label umbrella for authentic Mexican products.  It replaced the same product available under the Senor Rico moniker, which was also available in Walmart stores nationwide.  Yet during the switch to Pueblo Lindo, the cup size was dropped from 9 oz. to 8 oz., and yet the price remains the same ($.89), making the switch seem doubly-bizarre.  Outside of that, though, this is a fantastic treat.  Unlike American puddings, or, to be more specific, popular American puddings, this isn’t really sweet at all on its own, with a taste that I can only best describe as “milky”.  But for those that are looking for some extra sweetness, it comes in the form of a generous sprinkling of cinnamon that sits at the top-- simply mix it in for a perfectly-balanced taste that quickly becomes addicting!  Aldi's bait-and-switch tactic, odd and uncharacteristic as it is, only slightly detracts from my overall enjoyment of it...these are absolutely fantastic, and a delicious treat I like to have on hand more often than not.