Sunday, September 25, 2016

Crazy Candy Co. Gumballs, and Sour Gummy Belts

CRAZY CANDY CO. GUMBALLS
Lots of flavors and gumballs for under $2.

My wife is a child. No, literally. Well, not literally in the sense that I'm a pedophile (she is 27 years old), but literally in that she has many of the same interests that children do: she purchases kiddie pools for herself to lay in, alone, over summer; she enjoys coloring in kid's coloring books to pass time; and she will often try to talk me into buying her candy at checkout counters, much in the way a child would. In other words, she's essentially a kid in grown-up form. I mention this not as an interesting psychological study, or out of spite, or to place our relationship under a microscope, and I'm also willfully excusing myself from such a spotlight (I could mention the child's basketball hoop I traveled 30 miles to purchase for $5, just so I could shoot hoops in our living room—and this was just five years ago), because all that is beside the point. The only reason I'm bringing this up at all is just a long, extended, roundabout way of saying that the moment I saw gumballs featured in Aldi's Special Buy ad, I thought of one person, and one person only.

All it took was me pointing these out at the store during a shopping trip for her to pounce on them, although I would be lying if I didn't admit that part of me was actually looking forward to trying these out, too. I remember having a small, cheap (well, kind of...it was made of glass and metal) gumball machine when I was a kid—the kinds where you insert a penny and get one small piece of circular gum—and I used to love refilling the machine and chomping on them every once in a while. With both of us a little too anxious to relive our respective childhood's vicariously through a plastic container of gum, it only took us a day before we dug in.

The main thing I've always remembered about gumballs is how quickly the flavor disappears—that was a complaint I had as a child, and it's still a valid complaint today. I kind of understand this problem twenty years ago—after all, I don't think even the “legit”, packaged gum had flavors that lasted very long—but in this day and age, it seems like we should be able to get a fruity flavor to last longer than five minutes. It probably has more to do with the business aspect (companies don't care how long a flavor lasts once they have your quarter), but I was hoping the flavor in these gumballs would last a while.

They don't at all, with each flavor totally vanishing within the ten-minute mark (this might be generous, as it felt closer to five). The downside to this is obvious, because just as you're getting settled in, the flavor is gone; the upside, is that I was able to test drive every flavor within twenty minutes, without spitting them out too early and wasting them. There are five colors, with each one having a different flavor, as you would expect: orange, white, red, pink, and yellow.

*Orange is, as you would expect, flavored like an orange. I'm not usually a fan fake orange candy, but it was more accurate than I was expecting, and had a very strong flavor that burst out immediately upon biting into it. It was the first kind that I tried, and definitely one of my favorites.

*We were expecting white to be either coconut, or pineapple (which sounds weird, but I'm pretty sure in machine gumballs, this is the case), but oddly, it was neither. In fact, as far as we can tell with this one, Crazy Candy Co. just completely threw out the whole fruit theme altogether: it tastes just like vanilla frosting, with maybe a hint of amaretto. No joke. There's not even a fruit that's anywhere near this taste spectrum. I thought this one was terrible; my wife really liked it.

*The red I thought was cherry, and it still might be, but the flavor isn't as in-your-face as I was expecting: it's like a slow-burn build-up to a vaguely sweet fruity flavor that may or may not be cherry. At this point, I'm losing my mind, because what I thought would be a straightforward trip down memory lane is actually becoming a confusing confrontation with everything I held dear in my childhood. Why would Aldi confuse us like this?

*The yellow, which I didn't even realize existed until two days later, is another classic fruit flavor: lemon. And like the orange, it explodes right off the bat with an authentic taste that's very welcome after a couple of near-duds. Up there with orange as my favorite of the five-flavor bunch.

*The pink looks like it would be a straightforward bubblegum flavor, and thankfully, it is. No weird surprises, just the typical taste that you've probably experienced many times as a child. This was one of the last flavors I tried, and so it helped to end things on a good, and familiar, note.

I'd say at just $1.69 per container, this collection of gumballs is worth the price, but with the caveat that a couple of the flavors are not at all what we were expecting. I wouldn't say that any of the flavors are terrible—I was able to chew all of them until the flavor ran out on its own—it's just that a couple of the taste inclusions are quite baffling. And with no flavor list to reference them by on the packaging, no questions will be answered, at least in the foreseeable future.

Overall: 6.5/10. $1.69 is a good price point for this large container of gumballs (it looks smaller than it is; there are quite a bit of gumballs inside), but the biggest drawback is the lack of flavor information anywhere on the packaging. The orange (orange), pink (gumball), and yellow (lemon) flavors are pretty obvious, but the white (which tastes like vanilla frosting with a dash of amaretto), and red (possibly cherry, but a very weird, inaccurate one) leave more questions than answers. As is always the case with this kind of gum, the flavor disappears around the five-minute mark, so don't expect to get much chew-time out of each serving. There are much better deals in the gum world, but if you just want a reminder of simpler times, when you spent a quarter to get hard gumballs that had been sitting in the machine for a year, then this could be your ticket.

CRAZY CANDY CO. SOUR GUMMY BELTS
Okay, but there are better versions of these out there.
My wife has been known to get the national brand of this candy occasionally when we have movie nights, so naturally when I saw they would be available at Aldi, I got excited on her behalf. While I'm not a fan of sweets all the time, I've also been known to dip into her stash, and quite enjoy the collection of overly-sugared treats. Let's see how Aldi's stack up, shall we?

I was going to review each color individually, but they don't really have much of an individual flavor profile...they're fairly similar in taste across the board, despite the assurance from my wife that there are multiple flavors in here. What they do get right, though, is the proper balance of sweet to sour—many treats try to deliver on it, yet not many succeed. Just by looking at these, it's pretty obvious they have the “sweet” covered, what with the entire outer shell of plain sugar and all, but there's also a satisfying sour kick that came very close to making me pucker. If you like the main brand of these, then you'll like these just fine.

However, due to the similarity in flavors, these get really old, very quickly. I mean, I had one of each color for the purposes of this review, and was about ready to throw in the towel after that; there's just not enough in the way of variety to keep these interesting beyond a few pieces. It has been a little while since I've had the name brand version, but I remember those being a lot better, and a lot more interesting, than these. Crazy Candy Co. does deliver some marks for value: a 10 oz. bag (more than we could even finish after a month) is just $1.69, which really isn't all that bad for this much candy.

Unfortunately, if it's just going to sit there, it's not worth much, and we were “belted” out after just a couple of servings each.

Overall: 5.5/10. A 10 oz. bag is just $1.69, which is a very reasonable price, but what it may have in value, it more than lets up in flavor—even though there are three different colors, they all taste pretty similar to me, meaning they get really old really quick. The balance of sweet to sour is pretty good (these really are sour, unlike many other candies that purport themselves to be), but at the end of the day, it all comes down to taste, and for me, these are just too generic and tiring for me to recommend them to anyone but the biggest of candy aficionados.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Millville Frosted Flakes, and Oat Squares Cereals (Aldi)

MILLVILLE FROSTED FLAKES CEREAL
That bear is more adorable than the dumb tiger from the national brand.
Well here’s another product that I buy so frequently, I’ve never even thought to review it. It’s Millville’s Frosted Flakes, and unlike a lot of the products I critique, this is one of Aldi’s staples, so it’s available all the time.

I’m always initially drawn to the price: a substantial 17 oz. box is priced at a mere $1.59, which always catches my attention when we’re on a budget. I like to eat cereal pretty much daily, either as a snack, or on the rare occasions I’m not hungry, as a meal replacement, and frequently anything under 16 oz. isn’t even worth the purchase for me, as I only get three or so bowls out of the whole box. With these, I tend to get four or five, which means I can at least make it through a week without having to run out and grab something to calm my cereal withdrawals.

Right out of the box, it’s noticeable that these look pretty much exact to the national brand version; that is to say, these are flakes of corn with a noticeable white hue to them, from the delicious sugar that’s attached. It’s been so long since I’ve had the national brand that I cannot compare the two, but what I like about the taste of Millville’s version is that it’s not too sweet. I have no problems eating Corn Flakes straight out of the box, but when I do want to add a little flavor, I’ll add just a spoonful or two of sugar (compared to people like my wife, who like to add half a bag). This reminds me of that, with a nice sweetness to it that doesn’t come off feeling like it was created solely to appease children.

The only downside to it is that it does tend to get soggy pretty quickly. Thankfully, it doesn’t really change the flavor much (i.e., the sugar doesn’t melt away from the soggy pieces, leaving just a bland heap of corn flakes), but as someone who prefers their cereal crispy, it’s a minor annoyance.

This is one of about three cereals from Aldi that I purchase all the time, and it never has disappointed. It’s clearly a staple in our household, but just because I’ve had it so often doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great cereal that, after you factor in the meager cost, becomes an excellent one.  I may not remember the national brand all that well, but I can taste a deal when I eat one, and this is amazing no matter how you cut it.

Overall: 9/10. It gets soggy fairly quickly…but that’s pretty much the only qualm I have with this otherwise perfect cereal. The flakes are lightly covered in sugar, so they’re not ridiculously sweet, giving them just the right amount of sweetness, while the $1.59 price tag (for a large 17 oz. box) ensures they are affordable on any budget. One of the best cereals available under the Millville line, and a constant staple in our household!  The polar bear character on the box is also adorable as all hell.

MILLVILLE OAT SQUARES CEREAL
Ignore the ketchup, and overall mangled look of this box...had to take it out of the trash to get a pic.
For the most part, Aldi's cereal lineup is a pretty darn stellar combination of accurate taste and value; it's pretty rare that I flat-out hate a cereal that they carry, whether it's a part of their constant inventory, or a Special Buy. When I flipped upon Millville's Oat Squares cereal in an Aldi ad, I got excited—my wife and I are always sure to pick these up whenever they are available (I get the regular; my wife gets the cinnamon)--because the taste is very good and the price is pretty reasonable. At least, that's what we initially thought.

Recently, a supermarket chain had the national brand version of this cereal for $1.79 per box, eventually dipping to as low as $1.49, and we both grabbed a couple boxes of our favorite kind. Since I don't normally get such brands, I'm ill-equipped to compare the two flavors side-by-side, but with the taste of the “original” fresh in my mind,

The taste is similar, yet much more different than I remembered. Whereas the national brand is “smoother” in its flavor, with a non-descript oat taste giving way to a slightly sweet finish, Millville's has a stronger initial oat taste, though it eventually fades a bit, ending on a very similar note of sweetness. In either case, it appropriately feels like a rather “light” cereal, in that there's no overwhelming tastes, nor is it very filling; it's the perfect breakfast or snack where you just want to put a little something in your tummy to help get you going.

Other than the slight differential in flavor, the appearance and texture between the two cereals are pretty much exact, with this cereal getting soggy pretty quickly once doused in milk. That's usually a problem that I have with cereals, but the weird design of these flakes doesn't make it such a big deal to me—this is probably the only kind that I can tolerate once it gets soft. Unlike some Aldi cereals, the flavor doesn't wash away with the milk, so that's another solid plus in Millville's favor.

If I had to choose, and I'm aware that I don't, I would actually give the slight edge to the national brand in this one, and my decision has more to do with the financial aspect than it does anything inside the box: Aldi's version retails for $2.49, making it one of the more expensive cereals that they carry. According to Walmart (my main source of info when comparing cereals, though a place I never shop), a box of the name-brand is $3.15, but for three added ounces. That especially makes the price differential a little too close for comfort, at least as far as I'm concerned, and helps to drag down what would otherwise be a pretty excellent product.

Overall: 7/10. Normally, I would have given this cereal much higher marks in the past, but having just gotten a couple boxes of the national brand for $1.79—then, two weeks later, $1.49—from a supermarket chain kind of negates the “value” quotient of Millville's version, which retails for $2.49. Granted, I'm sure Millville is cheaper when it's not on sale, but this is still one of the more expensive cereals that Aldi carries, and that price seems a little high to me (I could also swear it was $1.99 the last time it was offered, though I could be wrong...). Aside from my problems with the price, the rest is pretty even, with the textures between both pretty much exact, while Millville's has a little more “oaty” flavor initially; both versions end on the exact same note of perfect sweetness. It's good, but thanks to the rising price of it, not great.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fit & Active Sour Cream and Onion Cracker Crisps, Clancy's Maple Bacon Wavy Potato Chips (Aldi)

FIT & ACTIVE SOUR CREAM AND ONION CRACKER CRISPS
Not very impressive when taken on their own.

I stumbled on these during a recent trip to Aldi (one in which we spent WAY too much money and got way too much junk food…that’s what happens when you go hungry!) and, in a fit of hunger, decided to scoop them up.  I had tried their Tomato Basil veggie crisps, and these looked pretty similar, so I figured why not give them a shot?

All it takes is one sniff inside the bag to know that you’re dealing with sour cream and onion, and it smells like there is plenty to go around.  These are cracker crisps, which apparently is the name given to awkwardly-shaped crackers; they’re not circular, they’re not square, they’re just bloblike shapes with little cracker holes in them.  True to the aroma, each one is coated with a generous helping of sour cream and onion powders, and it didn’t take me long to dig in.

Tastewise, they aren’t bad at all.  My main gripe is that the cracker has its own taste, one that seems to equal, if not slightly overpower, the sour cream and onion flavors.  So unlike a sour cream and onion potato chip, for example, where the titular flavors stand out, and the potato in the chip takes a backseat, here the potato stands out a lot more.  As a result of this, I would imagine these would taste better when added to something, such as soup, or maybe even a salad, as opposed to snacking on them right out of the bag.

On the upside, they have a very nice, loud crunch, and are also low in fat.  So even if you somehow get carried away and end up eating the whole 4.4 oz. bag, you’re only taking in around 10g of fat, which is around the same amount of fat in one serving of potato chips.  On the flipside, as with most supermarket treats, the lack of fat is made up for in sodium, as these have 330 mg (14%) per serving.  So in other words, don’t eat the whole bag in one sitting.

Overall: 5/10.  A generous layer of onion and garlic powders are matched, curiously, by a strong potato-y cracker taste.  While definitely not bad on their own, I could see these actually tasting better when used in or with something else, such as a chip dip, soup, or maybe even a salad.  These things do pack a loud crunch, and are low in fat (with each 4.4 oz. bag containing roughly 10g), but that’s offset by a rather large sodium content (with each 1 oz. serving containing 330mg of sodium).  It’s worth a shot if you’re looking for something different, but certainly not something I would need to keep on hand at all times.

CLANCY'S MAPLE BACON WAVY POTATO CHIPS
Terrifyingly, alarmingly accurate.  But is that really a good thing?

I think most people reading this blog should know, by now, that I love seeking out weird potato chips. I eat them almost every weekday at work, in a lunch that consists of a sandwich (usually peanut butter and jelly, but sometimes tuna), chips (whatever I’m in the mood for that week), an apple, and an energy drink. That’s probably not the healthiest of lunches, and I’m probably shaving months off my life every year I pack this, but I figure it’s got to be better than eating, say, TV dinners all the time.

Anyway, when you eat chips as frequently as I do, you eventually get sick of all the basic flavors, and want to try new things. I wish you could have seen how excited I got when I saw Clancy’s Maple Bacon Potato Chips in an Aldi ad; the combination sounded so gross that I just knew I had to grab a bag.

And a couple of weeks later, that’s exactly what I did. I was even so hungry after stopping at Aldi on my way home from work, that I cracked open the bag and tried them right in the car. What I tasted is an almost indescribable experience; one that I’m still coming to terms with almost half-a-bag later. It might come off as a novelty product--in fact, it might BE a novelty product--but I have to commend it for being one of the most alarmingly accurate chips that I may have ever eaten. The sad trade-off to this praise is that I’m also not sure that I will ever want to eat them again.

My first bite started with an overwhelming amount of maple syrup; it was so strong that you would swear that each chip would be sticky from having been covered with the stuff. But creepily, they look and feel just like a normal wavy potato chip. Once your taste buds recover from the shock of a sweet potato chip, there’s a good bit of smokiness that pushes its way through. I definitely wouldn’t have guessed the smokiness was supposed to resemble bacon had I not known the flavor going in, but it makes for an interesting, if not entirely successful, combination. Even weirder is the revelation that the sweetness actually overwhelms the saltiness; a curious thing, considering a lot of chips are way too salty for me. By having the maple be the overwhelming flavor, it’s interesting to see it somehow work the other way around.

Again, I’m almost halfway through the bag, and I still can’t say for certain what I think of these. And regardless what I think of them, they are not something that I can eat for long periods of time at all; after a few chips, I start to get a little sick of the sweetness, and have to put them down. Ultimately, that’s a pretty good thing, because potato chips aren’t exactly good for you, but it’s also helping to muddle my opinion of them, because I can‘t seem to really enjoy them the way I would normal chips. I actually haven’t taken these to work with me yet, so I don’t know how well (or poorly) they pair up with other foods, which could be a pretty logistical concern given their overall sweetness. The maple flavor is ridiculously, shockingly accurate for a potato chip, as is the aroma when you first open the bag.

If you’re like me (sadly) and enjoy your chips on the different side, then this is probably about as weird as it’s going to get, at least inside an Aldi store. The $1.49 price tag gives you a lot of chip (probably more than most people will be able to tolerate) for the price, and also ensures that this is an experiment that won’t set you back much if you end up not liking them. I’m leaning toward the conclusion that the whole idea of these chips should have been left on the chopping block, but I must begrudgingly admit that the end product is both better than it has any right to be, and probably the best outcome possible for a maple-bacon potato chip.

Overall: 6/10. That rare chip whose alarming flavor accuracy (at least as far as the maple is concerned) is every bit as much a turn-off as is it a turn-on (figuratively speaking, of course; I do not get sexually aroused from eating any kind of potato chip). The inside of the bag smells strongly (and genuinely) of maple syrup, and that’s also the initial flavor that dances all over your tongue. The taste was so real, that I don’t know how they did it short of drenching each chip with actual syrup, which they clearly didn’t do. The “bacon”, as it often does in these kinds of foods, ends up being reduced to just a “smoky” flavor that creeps in towards the end and is largely unsatisfying. These are so sweet that I can never eat more than a few at a time, especially since the disappointing bacon flavor does little to balance out the taste of this chip. These are chips that probably shouldn’t have ever been made, but they are at least better than they should be.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Fit & Active Fruit Punch, and Lemonade Drink Mix Sticks (Aldi)

FIT & ACTIVE FRUIT PUNCH DRINK MIX STICKS
A pretty refreshing fruit punch, in powdered form.
Water is the most boring thing ever invented, which makes complete sense that it would be the one thing that we absolutely need on a regular basis to keep us alive: God forbid it would be something that actually tastes good. I think my struggles to drink the stuff are pretty well documented in other reviews on this site, so I'll keep the explanation to a minimum, but I have to force myself to down this stuff most days. My plan is to drink at least a cup of this at work with my lunch, but I've found that I usually just don't drink anything at all with my lunch, because I'm either too lazy to walk to the breakroom to grab a cup, or I just completely forget.

Enter these powdered mix sticks, a product that I would view as a completely stupid, unnecessary invention were I not one of the people clearly within the crosshairs of the target consumer. I'm sure these things are bad for you, considering all the chemicals that no doubt go into their creation, and so I don't drink them all the time, but I am genuinely curious: What's worse, barely drinking plain water, or upping my water intake at least threefold when I use these powders?

Anyway, this is the first kind that I tried, given my affinity for fruit punch, and it's the perfect introductory flavor to get into Fit & Active's line of drink mix sticks. My mom and I were pretty broke growing up, so I had plenty of the cheap powdered drink mixes where you add a boatload of sugar and water and end up with a pitcher of flavored sugar water; the taste of this is reminiscent of those, with a nice helping of sweetness blending with a mass of vague fruit tastes. I don't find it as overly sugary as the sugared powder mixes, so the sweet aspects are dialed back a bit, which makes it much more drinkable, in my opinion, and very refreshing.

The price is pretty solid, too, with ten-packs retailing for $1.19. Similar packs of name-brand stuff can be had at Dollar Tree for $1, but those only have 8 in each pack—that makes Fit & Active a slightly-better deal, though the savings literally only come down to mere pennies. Either way, $.12 per stick isn't too bad of a deal no matter how you look at it, so I don't mind getting these once in a while to help me get the water intake that most normal people can do without the need for added flavors or other assistance.

Overall: 7/10. This is a good little flavor enhancer that recalls the fruit punch flavor of the sugared powdered drink mixes we all got when we were younger. In other words, it tastes pretty cheap, consisting of a mass of vague fruit flavors mixed with artificial sweetener, but I can't hold that against it too much, because these are cheap: A ten-pack retails for just $1.19, giving you plenty of servings for the price. The flavor is nothing all that spectacular, but it tastes less sweet to me than similar drink mixes, making them drinkable without being too overpowering—likewise, for using artificial sweeteners, there's not much of the “metallic” taste you get with most drinks that use them.  A nice, refreshing drink on a hot summer day.  Recommended, for sure.

FIT & ACTIVE LEMONADE DRINK MIX STICKS
Like lemon shakeups? These taste eerily like those.

If the fruit punch was any indication, I’m in for a pretty tasty treat here, so let’s see what the lemonade has to offer.

Right after shaking it up I took a little sniff to try to get an idea of what to expect: it smells very lemony. Thankfully, not like cleaning product, unlike some other powdered mixes that I’ve had, but a rather inviting, almost fresh lemon scent. Dare I say, it smells kind of like a lemon shake-up, those tasty beverages that are a staple of fairs and carnivals throughout the nation, featuring fresh lemons shaken up with tons of sugar to create a very sweet, very tart combination.

Shockingly enough, that’s a pretty accurate description of how it tastes, too. For some, it will be too sweet, but for me, it was all-too-easily drinkable. I struggle with drinking water in its natural form (honestly, the thought is enough to make me cringe), and so these powdered mixes, while probably not very healthy for you in the long run, at least get me to drink the stuff. Sure enough, the taste was so good that before I knew it, half the bottle was already gone…unless I’m dying of thirst, that’s a scenario that would never play out with regular water.

Since these are a part of the Fit and Active line, there’s usually some kind of health benefit involved: here, each packet is a mere 60 calories, which I’m sure is just a fraction when compared to an actual lemon shake-up. It's also sugar-free, and while artificial sweeteners can often taste fake and lead to a disgusting aftertaste (see: almost all diet sodas), it's barely noticeable here...you could almost swear that you're drinking the real thing, as opposed to lab-created flavors (it does have “lemon juice solids” in the ingredients...whatever that means).

I have to say that this is one of my favorite powdered drink mixes, though I must acknowledge that the tartness really prevents it from being something I can drink more than once a day. But it's refreshing, it's tasty, and for $1.19 per 10-pack at Aldi, it's an affordable little mix that, assuming your taste buds skewer towards the sweet, you really should enjoy.

Overall: 8/10. I can't drink this all the time, simply because it's so tart, but this is one of the most accurately-flavorful drink mixes that I've ever had. Fans of subtlety, don't even bother, because this is an equal blend of sweet and sour that maxes out both on their respective meters. It tastes astonishingly close to a lemon shake-up, which is a pretty solid feat for something that's made predominantly of chemicals, and the artificial sweeteners taste uncannily realistic, and don't give off any of the typical “fake” taste that a lot of them give off. It's a draining experience, but for the low price of $1.19 (per 10 drink sticks), it's well worth every single penny spent, and then some.  Even my wife raves about these things, and she normally dislikes the powdered drink packets.

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.