REVIEW: Salt & Straw’s Pirates of the Chocolaty Caribbean

As a somewhat low key Disney fanboy and not so low key Salt & Straw fanboy I was completely puffed with joy when I read that the two would be collaborating for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  Very rarely does a smaller craft brand like S&S get the chance to work with one of the entertainment industry’s titans, and I was genuinely excited not only for this release, but for what the relationship could mean in the future.  I was so excited that I read the press release at least five times, and in fact, I think it’s so well written that I’m going to stop my intro here and just post the official description from a couple weeks ago:

“Pirates of the Chocolaty Caribbean captures the sweetness and spice of rum and toasted sugar flavor of the island spirit by infusing a caramel ice cream with cinnamon, allspice, orange peel, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, and star anise. The real magic of this caramel spiced rum ice cream is the one-of-a-kind chocolate inside—single-origin chocolate from Trinidad, sourced locally from Bar Au Chocolat, studded with pop rocks that go off like pirate cannons between your teeth. Dig into the true flavor of the Caribbean in every scoop!”

Of course, this was a super limited time offering, only available at ONE shop in Los Angeles, but somehow, through the goodwill and kindness of Kim and Tyler and Salt & Straw, I was able to acquire a pint, and give it a taste for the skillet.

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By Salt & Straw standards this base is incredibly subdued, and for my personal tastes, a bit too mellow.  When I read the description of all the spices going into the ice cream my heart lit up, but they’re much harder to detect than I had anticipated.  Usually with S&S when they say something is in the flavor it is IN it and always executed with intense finesse, but here I had to really search for any prominent spicy notes.

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The ice cream is incredibly smooth and rich with a soft caramel essence that isn’t too sweet and finishes with a lovely buttery flavor that accentuates the high quality dairy like a well balanced sweet cream.  There is the slightest touch of cinnamon and nutmeg at the end, but even that is very subtle, with no star anise, cloves, or cardamon to be found.  There also isn’t any boozy rum flavor going on, which given the description of “caramel spiced rum ice cream” would have been really nice to taste as well, although I get the feeling the spices were supposed to emulate rum rather than alcohol being a prominent flavor.

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What really works wonderfully in this flavor is the pop rock studded dark chocolate, which delivers on everything it promised to be.  It’s incredibly dark and bitter with tons of small pop rocks that immediately start sizzling the second I chomp into them; and it really does feel like cannons going off in my mouth.  The chocolate is integrated in broken thin sheets and dispersed throughout the pint with perfection – some small shards of chocolate and some big chunks that keep each bite slightly different in bitterness and crunch.  It’s a funny juxtaposition to put such a novelty candy into high quality single origin chocolate but it works wonderfully, adding excitement to every bite.

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While I wish this ice cream had a true spiced rum base to compliment the very well executed chocolate, I can’t deny that it is still an incredibly well made and delicious product.  All of the more interesting ingredients fall to the background and simply temper the sweetness of the caramel for a more grown-up spin on flavors that are very familiar to ice cream aficionados.  In all honesty this is just a very high quality and slightly elevated chocolate chip ice cream, and a damn good one at that.

Rating: 8/10
Found at: Salt & Straw Los Angeles

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REVIEW: Little G X MdoughW Red Velvet

Red velvet cake is pretty straight forward, yet somehow easy to not do proper justice.  A red colored chocolate cake adorned with cream cheese frosting.  Two crucial elements that need to balance each other out to create a symphony of sweet, chocolatey, tangy, and rich.  For their limited batch collaboration, Little G and MdoughW chose to take on the classic cake and smash it into a pretty pint consisting of cream cheese ice cream with red velvet white chocolate chip MdoughW pieces.

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No surprise here – the cream cheese base is executed wonderfully.  Incredibly smooth and velvety, it has the signature cream cheese tang that has been tempered with the perfect amount of sweetness to keep it from going savory.  It channels the frosting it is emulating in ice cream form beautifully with a brilliant balance of sweet and tart that leaves a lingering cheesy flavor in my mouth.  The cream cheese aids in the already decadent texture of Little G’s ice cream and makes for a very delicious and complex bite.

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The red velvet pieces from MdoughW pack a serious cocoa-heavy chocolate punch that hinder on bitter with a lovely deep red velvet color.  The addition of white chocolate chips give a small crunch that is welcome with MdoughW’s notoriously soft texture.  The cookie pieces occupy a space somewhere between your traditional fully baked cookie and cookie dough, and are an incredibly organic fit for putting into ice cream.  When the two components come together on my spoon it is spot on like taking a bite of super moist red velvet cake in melty frozen form.

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This ice cream overall is much less mix in heavy than the usual offering from Little G and showcases her ability to churn out extremely high quality bases.  Something that I very rarely think when getting pints from Little G is wanting more mix ins, and that might actually be the case here.  While the doughie pieces are fantastic, there was only around 6 or 7 in the container, and as good as the base is, the cake pieces are essential to making the red velvet experience sing.  Still, this is one of the better red velvet ice creams I have had, and the attention to detail and balance in the flavors is remarkable when they’re both actually there.

Rating: 7/10

Found at: http://www.goldbely.com (use promo code seanpancake0 for $25 off of your first order!)

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REVIEW: Little G X MdoughW Cinnamon Caramel Churro

Collaborations are one of the greatest elements of hip hop, but they can be pretty damn cool in the food world too.  Usually reserved for big brands like Taco Bell teaming up with Doritos, Baskin Robbins with Oreo, and recently, Pop Tarts with Jolly Rancher, it’s much less common that smaller independent companies collide to release a joint product – but today that narrative is straight shook.  Gourmet ice cream goddess Little G and cookie cup titans MdoughW have joined forces to release a limited edition run of cookie and brownie (“doughie”) loaded pints of indulgence decadence.  Utilizing MdoughW’s signature doughies, aka wildly soft cookie cups stuffed with delicious fillings, and Little G’s super premium ice cream bases and swirls, the two combined to churn out six epic flavors, and today we take a first dive into Cinnamon Caramel Churro, which is cinnamon ice cream with MdoughW churro pieces and a salted caramel swirl.

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The cinnamon ice cream is absolutely spot on.  It has a giant, robust, and spicy cinnamon flavor that has the cinna-slut in me satisfied in ways not many ice creams have done before.  There is a genuine spice-heavy, almost floral zing that tastes like freshly ground cinnamon was dumped generously onto a sweet cream base and it is absolutely magical.  Visually the base is studded with brown flecks that translate the cinnamon flawlessly.  It should go without saying that the ice cream itself is incredibly rich and creamy with a succulent melty mouthfeel that is divine.

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The churro pieces are incredibly soft with a nice salty pop that register much more like dough than they do the crispy fried stick I associate them with.  The pieces are of generous size and have upheld their dense chew well in the sea of cream, but without any sort of crispy crunch they could easily be cinnamon bun pieces or snickerdoodle cookies and I’m not sure I would be able to tell the difference.  Imagining the way the dairy would soak into the fried exterior of a churro to create a crispy squish has me wishing there was more, but the cinnamon-heavy, almost grainy base helps emulate that experience to a degree.

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The biggest element that’s a bit of a miss for me in this pint is the salted caramel swirl.  I know what Little G is capable of when it comes to swirls (the best in the game up there with Salt & Straw), and with this flavor the swirl is more subtly incorporated into the base than standing out on its own in big gooey puddles of deliciousness.  Every so often I’ll get a bite that has a sweeter, smoother punch to it, and that is where the caramel comes into play, but I miss having thick succulent ribbons that deliver a deeply sweet, salty, and caramelized flavor.

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This is a great flavor of ice cream for cinnamon lovers, but it doesn’t really hit the mark completely when it comes to what I know and love to be a churro.  Although it has one of the best cinnamon bases I have ever had, some crunch is really needed to drive the desired flavor into full effect, and I really wish I had some serious caramel to send it to the heights I know Little G can ascend to.

Rating: 9/10
Found at: http://www.goldbely.com (use code seanpancake0 for $25 off your first order!)

REVIEW: Hostess Golden Cupcakes

Childhood nostalgia is a helluva drug.  The sights, sounds, and flavors of our youthful formative years trigger powerful associations of the best and worst of times, and when it comes to junky snack food those still-developing tastebuds can hold onto memories of food that was mind-blowing at the time and may or may not hold up to the standard of a full grown and seasoned palate.  Among the best examples of such memories are my experiences with snack cakes, which, before I understood the magic that could happen inside of a real oven at 350 degrees, were some of the best things in the world.  One of my favorite snack cakes was the Hostess Golden Cupcake, which since the bankruptcy scare in 2013 I hadn’t seen back on shelves, until now.  Amidst the slew of mint and berry flavored treats that pop up during the spring are these once semi-standard now semi-rare iteration of the cellophane cupcake that combine frosted yellow cake with a creamy filling and the signature Hostess squiggle.

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The cakes look and feel just as I remember – soft and spongy with a greasy sheen that only a true chubby child can appreciate and look at with adoration.  The top chocolate layer is hard and much more resembles a shell than frosting, but if it was slick and gooey that would be far too natural and probably make me ill.  The smell is sweet and very reminiscent of the Chocodile, or more simply put, chocolate covered Twinkie.  Going in for a bite I’m afraid the nostalgia got the best of me as this really does just taste like a chocolate covered Twinkie in hamburger shape instead of hot dog.

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The cake itself is moister than what you get with most Twinkies, but it doesn’t have any special yellow cake flavor, and the golden element here is really just bland, sweet cake that does nothing to excite my tastebuds at all.  My favorite part of yellow cake is the distinct eggy-ness you taste from the use of tons of egg yolks, and while I knew I wouldn’t get that much of an authentic flavor, I got absolutely none of it and my favorite rare childhood Hostess release is letting me down like when the young aspiring athlete finally meets Tom Brady and he shrugs him off to step into his limousine.

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The chocolate layer on the top is also boring, with just a hint of cocoa flavor and a predominantly sweet and grainy texture that adds nothing to the overall experience.  The creme filling on the inside is exactly what you would expect it to be, but with the rest of the cake being so bland and sugary single-noted, it loses all of its impact and simply blends into a sea of bleh.

The only other limited cupcake I’ve had since Hostess relaunched is the Pumpkin Spice one, which I thought was really awesome, so I’m not sure if my hopes were too high or nostalgia too strong, but these cakes were an absolute miss for me and another forgettable part of what I thought was great in my childhood.

Rating: 5.5/10
Found at: Target ($2.99)

REVIEW: Limited Edition Firework Oreo

I’m no stranger to the junk food industry and our consumer-based society in general launching my tastebuds and wallet well into the future when it comes to holidays.  I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Valentine’s candy and cards pop up the day after Christmas, pumpkin-on-my-everything starting in August, and Christmas beginning on November 1st, but the latest Oreo release had me asking myself, “is it summer already?”.  The packaging, adorned with explosions and patriotic colors, stirred up memories of poorly lit bottle rockets, cheap beer, and the sweet scent of charcoal, aka, the Fourth of July.  Since we’ve only had six weeks of spring, the middle of summer seemed like a stretch, but then I realized, I’m a dummy, and for once, the cookie-peddlers have gotten their timing right – Memorial Day is May 29!  Just in time to pay our respects to the men and women serving our country, Nabisco have released Limited Edition Firework Oreo, which add explosive popping candy to the iconic chocolate creme sandwich.

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Opening the package reveals the slightly bittersweet and creamy smell you know and love from Oreo, with cookies that fit the smell-bill and look identical to the original except for little red and blue dots in the creme.  Biting in is exactly what you would expect – crunch, squish, and chocolate, but then right as the creme hits my tongue the party begins – POP.  The popping candy starts to sizzle via saliva activation, and I’ve gotta be honest it’s pretty damn fun.  The more you chew the more they dance, with continual bacon-in-a-skillet sound effects even after I swallow.

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The popping candy doesn’t change the flavor at all.  There is no strawberry or blueberry flavor added to the rocks, and the effect here is purely an experience rather than a taste.  It’s kind of impressive that they were able to present a product that looks and feels different but has the exact same flavor profile as the cookie that has been leading the pack for over 100 years.  While an additional candy flavor would have been fun, I suspect it might have come off as cloying, although I wouldn’t mind if they added a crazy flavor like grape to really funk the experience up.

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I’m kind of stumped how to rate this cookie.  The firework-spin doesn’t take away from the original Oreo at all, and in some ways even enhances it – just not with taste.  It also doesn’t really add anything particularly ground breaking that makes me feel like people HAVE to try this, but it’s got a serious fun factor that I can’t deny.  Since Oreo are my favorite grocery cookie of all time and they nailed the execution, I’ve gotta give them the benefit of a doubt with a solid thumbs up. While I think I would still take the Double Stuf over these for general munching, I wouldn’t mind seeing them pop up every Memorial Day for a fun-filled snack attack.

Rating: 8.5/10
Found at: Safeway ($2.99)

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REVIEW: The Peanut Principle’s “Going Green” Pistachio Butter

I’m a nut butter nut, and when it comes to creamy, fatty, crave able jars of spreadable protein I’m always down to try something new.  I’ve had many types of pulverized nuts in my days, including Trader Joes’ great Mixed Nut version, but never have I had or seen a pistachio butter…and the times, they are a changin’.  The Peanut Principle are a gourmet nut butter company from New York, making buttery goodness out of nearly every kind of nut from plain and flavored peanut to hazelnut, walnut, macadamia, pumpkin seed, and lots more.  I ordered a huge sampling of peanut butters last year and was overall very impressed, so when they announced pistachio I had to jump on the opportunity.  Going Green is a creamy pistachio butter that’s as basic as it gets, with the lone ingredient being organic dry roasted pistachios – no salt, no sugar, no BS.

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The taste of this butter is everything the look of the jar promised – pure, rich, thick, intense pistachio.  It’s a very unique-to-the-green-nut-flavor that is deep and roasty, slightly sweet, and cleanly fatty.  The texture is insanely thick but less lip-smackingly mouth-drying than peanut butter tends to be, which I think might be due to the lack of salt.  Despite the absence of saltiness there’s no lack of pop, as the nuts themselves pack a big wallop of flavor that needs little help to be incredibly robust and huge.

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On toast the flavor becomes a bit more subdued and blends in with the bread well.  Some of the richness mellows but the sweet flavor of the pistachio stays intact.  As good as that flavor is, I didn’t think the butter offered as much as a traditional peanut butter or salted butter so I tried it with cinnamon and sugar, which still was just okay, and then strawberries, which also were just alright.  I could see this being tasty spread on some pancakes, dolloped onto some vanilla ice cream, or used in conjunction with some pistachio pieces to make a killer stuffed french toast.

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Make no mistake, this is a premium product, and at $11.99 for an eight ounce jar it’s four times the cost of a regular peanut butter, even from a gourmet company like Peanut Principle, whose sixteen ounce jar of regular PB goes for $5.99.  It may be expensive, but it absolutely delivers on what it set out to do, and packs the punch of what feels like hundreds of pistachio’s into a small glass jar.  Pistachio’s aren’t one of my favorite nuts, but if you’re a fiend for the little green guys, this stuff will send your morning bread into hyperdrive, or be a perfect pick-me-up straight from the jar, without the hassle of shells.

Rating: 8/10
Found at: http://www.peanutprinciple.com ($11.99)

Quick Nutrition: 2 Tbsp. – 160 cals – 13g fat – 3mg sodium – 8g carbs – 2g fiber – 2g sugar – 6g protein

REVIEW: Blue Bunny Mint Cookie Crunch

Blue Bunny have expanded their line of ice cream flavors, and I hope that means they’re expanding their distribution too.  While they have distro-deals in place with major retailers like Walmart, for whatever reason, in the Bay Area with our lack of Wally World’s, Blue Bunny is kind of hard to find.  Many grocery stores carry the novelty items like the mini cones, but quarts and pints of the Bunny are hard to come across.  Growing up in Nebraska where Blue Bunny was much more common, I was super stoked to find a fresh new flavor at a local discount grocery store.  Mint Cookie Crunch combines mint ice cream with fudge swirls and mint chocolate cookie chunks.

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The mint base is light and creamy with a refreshing minty-ness that steers clear of any dominant peppermint flavor.  It’s a pleasant and genuine base that isn’t too sweet or too powerful in any way.  The fudge swirl has a very distinct Hershey’s chocolate syrup kind of flavor with just a bit more thickness than the stuff that pours from the brown bottle.  It’s a little light milk chocolatey for what I would commonly associate with fudge, but it seems fitting for a swirl swimming in glowing green cream.

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The cookie “chunks” pop up in the form of little balls that have a big satisfying crunch and haven’t lost any of their bold cookie texture.  This crunchy-preservation is achieved by coating the balls in chocolate so the actual cookie never makes contact with the melty dairy.  It’s a clever move very similar to the cookies in Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Peppermint Crunch (RIP) and they work just as well here as they did in that more chocolate heavy pint.  It’s a very different experience than a mint cookies and cream, and I appreciate the crunch factor that adds extra depth and excitement to the ice cream.  The flavor isn’t as mint-forward as the heralded Girl Scouts Thin Mint, but the cookies definitely have a minty-ness that let’s me know it isn’t just a chocolate cookie.

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When you get all of the components together in one bite they work together seamlessly with a lovely balance of mint, chocolate, and smooth dairy.  Blue Bunny have put together a really solid product that isn’t as intense or fatty as a super premium ice cream but tastes of significantly higher quality and less gum-filler-y than Dreyers or Breyers.  A fantastic middle-of-the-road scoop that’s a great bang for your buck.

Rating: 8/10
Found at: Grocery Outlet ($2.99)

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