REVIEW: Honey Bunches of Oats Pecan & Maple Brown Sugar

I’ll never forget when I was first introduced to Honey Bunches of Oats. Although I don’t remember the exact day, I remember being taken aback by a cereal that was a legitimate bridge between the sweet technicolor bowls I always wanted and the boring brown clumps my dad tried to force feed me. Honey Bunches represented a turning of the tides, an exercise in compromise, and a cereal that was legitimately tasty without any marshmallows. I loved the original Honey flavor and Almond, and have dabbled in the various berry editions as well, but when Post dropped their latest creation I knew I had to try it. Honey Bunches of Oats Pecan and Maple Brown Sugar combines all of the best elements of breakfast (except donuts) and puts them into one crispy crunchy bowl.

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The cereal is a tonal range of tan colors and has a relatively short list of ingredients to achieve this brown-bo of sorts. There’s straight ahead corn flakes, lightly sweetened corn flakes, some somehow crisped up looking whole oats, and those beautiful little pecan bunches. Some of the bunches are more granola-heavy and some of them have more visible pieces of pecans. The mixture carries a lovely sweet and nutty maple pecan scent with a cutting undercurrent of corn.

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Tasting the cereal dry is everything I want it to be – crunchy, nutty, maple-y, and only slightly sweet. As with all Honey Bunches varieties the different elements compliment each other very well and balance each other out for consecutive cohesive bites that pop with the occasional big cluster. I’m not sure how they do it but I always felt there was a creaminess to Honey Bunches cereals that not many other had. Maybe it’s the inclusion of small pieces of nuts, but I get a wonderful smooth vanilla presence here that I also get in the original Almonds flavor and it’s a real treat.

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Bringing milk to the party softens some of the sweet maple notes and drives up the corn-y flake flavors. While I feel like the sweetness was perfect in the dry cereal, with the additional moisture I could use just a touch more sweetness, especially in regards to the maple, to hold up to the sogg-ing effect of the milk. The corn flakes are very thin and soften pretty quickly, while the clusters hold their own and stand strong against the milk. The more that I eat the cereal the more I realize I want more pecans. The pecans are mostly in small pieces and end up getting lost in the flurry of milk and flakes. I wish they were bigger and I wish the corn flakes got less floppy but I also wish my bowl would refill itself automatically because I just love eating this stuff.

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Honey Bunches of Oats are a classic cereal that should hypothetically please all palates at the breakfast table. I love the maple flavor in this new version but don’t think I would put it above the OG Almond because of the backseat the pecans take as compared to the prominent amount of almond slivers in the classic blue box . All in all you will not be disappointed putting this cereal into milk, onto ice cream, or simply into a ziplock bag for snacking all day long.

Rating: 8.5/10
Found at: Safeway ($3.99)

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REVIEW: Salted Caramel Oreo Thins

It’s already been well established that sweet and salty is one of the greatest flavor combos known to man, so naturally, salted caramel is one of the more readily available flavor profiles that really gets my digestive juices flowin’. Shockingly, as popular as this pairing has been in recent years, Nabisco overlooked making a salted caramel Oreo in favor of, you know, cotton candy, root beer float, and rainbow sherbet – BUT NO MORE!! …sort of. To get our beach bods prepped for long summer nights, Oreo have hit us with Salted Caramel Oreo Thins.

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I like Oreo Thins, but straight up the flavor on these limited slimmies is simply not strong enough. The package lets out a nice artificial caramel smell that channels packaged caramel corn mixed with the golden vanilla of the Oreo wafer and a hint of carnival nostalgia. Biting in as a whole the cookie has a verrrry subtle caramel flavor with a touch of saltiness that makes the overall experience a bit less sweet than the regular Golden Thin but not really venturing into the “salted caramel” territory proper. They actually remind me of a more muted version of the recent Waffles & Syrup Oreo the way that they hint at graham cracker and are generally sweet but with a deeper flavor than you would find in white cookies with white creme.

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Isolating the creme on its own is similarly disappointing. There’s definitely more caramel flavor that comes through without the two cookies, but even on its own the flavor isn’t particularly pronounced. It’s almost as though even on its own there isn’t enough creme to properly translate a more complex flavor like salted caramel. Eating the cookie open faced style is more of the same, but with the saltiest presence of the different methods – maybe the hint of cookie plus creme gives the best sodium punch as this is the only way any kind of “salted” caramel comes through for me.  Fortunately the creme is very easy to peel off and when I stacked two layers of creme into one sando the combo worked surprisingly well.  The flavor was both salty AND caramel-y and the texture felt thick and dense like caramel too – an easy, successful fix!

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While I was initially pretty excited to see some flavor twists on the Oreo Thins line, the execution here makes me wonder if doing special releases with so little creme and cookie to work with can actually be successful. If Nabisco wants to venture down this path again they need to use bolder flavors that will cut through in smaller quantities like their Lemon Thins, rather than flavors that can be easily muddled like salted caramel. The recently re-released full size Key Lime Pie and Blueberry Pie Oreo creme’s would work really well here, making a light, crispy, refreshing cookie treat, and I’m confident the smaller amount of filling would still pop against the thin golden wafer.

Rating: 7/10
Found at: Target ($2.99)

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REVIEW: Phin & Phebes Peanutty Pretzel

Life is all about second chances. After a very lackluster experience with Phin & Phebes’ Vanilla Malt Cookie Dough, I thought I would give them another shot with a flavor profile I love – sweet, salty, and nutty. Simple enough, Peanutty Pretzel combines peanut butter ice cream with chocolate covered pretzels. How could I lose?

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Going in for a scoop the aroma is solid with a great peanut aura that has my hopes up. Getting a taste the peanut flavor is decently pronounced and tasty with a good balance of sweetness and a hint of salt but the texture is just…off. It’s grainy and almost sandy in a way that I haven’t experienced with ice cream before. It’s not the kind of icy freezer burn or re-freeze texture you get from an unfortunate freezer accident but feels more like the base was simply made improperly or with a powdered peanut butter instead of the real thing (which it wasn’t, I checked the ingredients). When the ice cream softens, and even approaches melting, the problem doesn’t get better, but actually worse, and feels like tiny grains of sand inside the base – not appealing.

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The chocolate covered pretzels are also a miss. The first two pieces I got were completely stale and soft with another undesirable texture that just adds to the overall off-ness of this flavor. Since I’m not a quitter I kept digging and managed to get a couple good pretzels that were properly preserved and popped with a salty crunch that was really tasty. Unfortunately that success was short lived as my next two pieces were once again soft, stale, and straight up not good, which is a big bummer because the bites with the good pretzels actually offset the weird texture momentarily and achieved a pretty solid bite.

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While this pint had moments of quality spoons, my overall impression is once again very low of this up-and-coming and now distributed by Walmart company. While the first flavor I had from them suffered in balancing flavors and depth, this one had straight up miscues in quality that lead to an unenjoyable experience that left me not wanting to dig in for more. I’m not going to completely write P&P off of my list for tasting in the future but I’ll need to do some research on what their strongest flavor is and see if I can find any redemption.

Rating: 5/10
Found at: Grocery Outlet ($2.99)

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REVIEW: Salt & Straw’s The Roxie Road

Popcorn is one of my favorite foods. It’s a volume snack I can put back with light crunchy ease that tastes fantastic AND actually has some fiber and protein to go along with its deliciousness. Whether its the straight ahead low fat sea salt bagged variety, or the naughty oil drenched stuff in a dark movie theater, or a crunchy drizzled sugary treat, popcorn is a mainstay in my diet and I love it. As popular as it is, it rarely finds itself incorporated in my, and America’s, favorite dessert – ice cream. While it may sound kind of strange, the roasty, buttery, sweet and salty potential of popcorn is actually an amazing mashup for making a wonderful ice cream, and for the June Rescued Food series Salt & Straw did just that. Utilizing leftover popcorn from the Roxie Theater, S&S created a popcorn ice cream base and mixed it with their house caramel and a coffee-flour cookie crumble to create The Roxie Road.

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The popcorn flavor in the base is fairly subtle, but comes across in initial bites when I search for it. Beneath the layers of silky smooth high quality dairy are gentle corn notes that finish with a slightly roasted butter flavor. Much more apparent than a straight ahead popcorn flavor is an overall butteriness that aids in the texture and makes it feel and taste like an elevated corny sweet cream. The execution and overall effectiveness of the popcorn experience would have been greatly amplified by a saltier presence, which we know Salt & Straw can do extremely well in their Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons and countless other stellar releases. Even though it’s lacking some salty pop there’s no doubt this isn’t vanilla and it’s a really tasty ice cream.

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The caramel in this pint is the same fantastic S&S caramel that I know and love – thick and rich with an impressively dark burnt flavor that is my absolute favorite caramel in any ice cream. It isn’t particularly salty but does reset my tastebuds to be able to taste the popcorn flavor in the base more prominently, and is a wonderful compliment to pretty much anything it touches.

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The surprise factor in this flavor, and my favorite element, are the coffee-flour cookie crumbles. There are some smaller “crumbles” sprinkled throughout, but also big hunkin’ chunks that explode with a gritty cookie texture and robust coffee flavor that are unexpectedly delicious. The chunks are hard, almost like a piece of toffee, and are equal parts intense coffee grounds and bitter chocolate notes. It’s almost like a super coffee-forward shortbread, crumbling beneath my teeth, and the bitter coffee flavor is very welcome in the sea of sweet creaminess.

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I was ecstatic when S&S announced they were doing a popcorn-infused base, and while it is a fantastic ice cream, I wish it was a bit more popcorn-y. The best popcorn base I’ve ever had was in a Humphry Slocombe seasonal last year called Peaches and Popcorn, and I feel as though I will be forever chasing that buttery salty memory. Regardless of any small flavor preferences, if you like buttery ice cream with sensational caramel and bursts of bitter coffee and are fortunate enough to live in the Bay Area this one is definitely worth at least a scoop, and probably a pint to boot.
Rating: 8.5/10
Found at: Salt & Straw (San Francisco)

REVIEW: Hostess Cinnamon Sugar Crunch Donettes

As a weekly host and attendee of Cinnasluts Anonymous meetings I’m always on the hunt for new ways to get my fix. I’ve got four different types of cinnamon on hand to sprinkle on everything from fruit to chicken to vegetables, and of course a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cinnamon Bun Oreo’s, a couple stocked bags of Cheetos Sweetos, some apple cinnamon yogurt, a bottle of Pepsi Fire…and the list goes on and on. As I was perusing the grocery store to stockpile more cinna-goodies my body came to a jolting stop right after passing the cinnamon swirl bread and into the snack cakes…Cinnamon Sugar Crunch Donettes. That’s right, Hostess have put a spicy spin on their tasty crunch mini donuts, and to be honest it’s such an obvious twist I can’t believe this hasn’t already been done.

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Opening the tall white bag it’s no surprise I’m greeted by a sweet wafting cinnamon sugar smell that is fresh and lovely. The donuts look soft and glisten with a locked in moisture that is a great sign for $2 grocery ‘nuts.

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Biting in the two stated flavors, cinnamon and sugar, and very well represented and lean towards the sugar with a nice crystallized crunch, completing the trinity of living up to their names’ description. The prominent flavor is sweet, but the lovely aromatic spiciness of cinnamon lingers in the back and keeps them from being too sugary. While I love a good punchy, almost spicy hot cinnamon, the balance here is spot on and reminds me of a well executed streusel crumble on top of an apple crisp.

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The texture inside is soft and moist and tastes very fresh. The donette doesn’t crumble at all and has a perfect squish as I chew that works well with the sweet crunchy exterior. These are basically exactly like the classic coconut-leaning Crunch Donettes but with cinnamon, which makes them automatically better, and feel much more authentic to a real donut than a gas station pick-me-up.

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I always loved the straight forward cinnamon sugar cake donuts at mom ’n pop shops for their simple flavors and emphasis on the crispy cake-y dough. They were also the most successful donut I ever made the few times I tried going from scratch at home, and as a result they will forever hold a special place in my heart. While these donettes aren’t as good as the real deal, they’re closer than any other variety I’ve had from Hostess, Little Debbie, or TastyKake at channeling the classic flavors of a bare bones donut shop, and they don’t taste cheap or artificial at all. Whether you love cinnamon or just a quick fix to go with your morning cup, these are one of the strongest baby cakes you can buy.

Rating: 9/10
Found at: Walmart ($2.00)

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REVIEW: Ample Hills Ooey Gooey Butter Cake

Ample Hills are a Brooklyn based ice cream company churning out some of the finest gourmet custard (egg yolk heavy ice cream) in the United States. They pasteurize their cream on site and bake almost all of their mix-ins in house, creating inventive and delectable flavors from top to bottom that can be ordered online or scooped at one of their seven shops in the New York area. Recently some of their flavors have been made available on Amazon, which cuts down on some of the very high shipping costs associated with ice cream and has made cream-heads like myself jump and salivate with joy. My first rendezvous with Ample Hills is Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, which combines vanilla custard with pieces of gooey butter cake – a short, dense, butter-heavy cake that originated in St. Louis in the 1930’s.

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The vanilla custard is insanely creamy, rich, and dense with an absolutely perfect melty mouthfeel that is divine. The vanilla flavor isn’t super pronounced, but instead has a layered cheesecake-y depth that isn’t over the top in terms of sweetness but is through the roof with fatty dairy notes that teeter on savory like cream cheese without the tang. The abundant use of egg yolks gives a different body to the ice cream that is very unique, reminds me of eating custard cones as a youngster, and is overall fantastic. Heavy yet fluid, the only way to truly describe it is succulent.

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The pieces of gooey butter cake are ample and diverse, with a rich, buttery, slightly floury presence that really flourish against the base. Some of the pieces are crunchy with a caramelized exterior that give way to a softer cake interior like the lovely edge of a brownie, and some of them are purely soft with the perfect ratio of dense and squishy. The harder pieces almost feel like they’ve been dunked in a caramel and the slightly burnt brown sugar flavor is phenomenal. This is my first time ever having ooey gooey butter cake in any application and I can’t wait to try it again.

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With a base that is straight forward yet decadent and a singular mix-in that is executed flawlessly, this is one of the most perfect pints money can buy from one of the most flourishing ice cream companies in the United States. An absolute thrill to eat from beginning to end, I recommend getting your hands on some Ample Hills as soon as possible.

Rating: 10/10
Found at: Amazon.com

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REVIEW: Trader Joe’s Sweet and Salty Granola Bars

My first name is Sean, and my last name is Skillet, but my middle name may as well be “SweetSalty” for how much I really love that combination. Opposing flavors that can compliment each other AND make one another greater is a thing of true beauty, and I’ll take sweet and salty in my breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Understanding this wonderful yin and yang of tastebuds, Trader Joe’s are helping me amp up my S&S at snack time too, with their new Sweet and Salty Granola Bars, which they describe as a nutty granola bar dipped in almond butter and Greek yogurt coating.

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This bar is fairly straight forward but very well executed. The saltiness is just enough to warrant the “salty” part of the title, and isn’t overwhelming but comes through in small bursts of little salt crystals evenly distributed throughout bites. They aren’t big and crunchy like sea salt but stand out more than your average table salt mixed into a recipe for balance. The sweetness comes through in the Greek yogurt layer and is a different and refreshing spin, rather than raisins or some other form of squishy sugary burst.

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The mixture of crisped rice, whole oats, wheat flakes, and whole almonds gives a great chewy texture with pockets of crunch and a slightly golden flavor that reminds me of graham crackers. The graham-y-ness is accentuated once again by the Greek yogurt with some tasty vanilla notes and a great soft sweet and salty profile without the aggressive use of chocolate or caramel or another decadent flavor you’ll often find in S&S. The almonds help liven up the bites and add small pockets of fattiness that keep all of the components in check and interesting from beginning to end.

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The prominent finishing note on the bar is almond butter, and it’s a really nice way to seal the deal. The smooth creamy butter flavor enhances the presence of the actual almonds and has just the right amount of fatty flavor to keep it more interesting than your average granola bar. The ingredient list has not only almond but peanut and cashew butter, and while those butters aren’t super apparent there’s a depth to the richness that is great and much more complex than I was anticipating. Overall these little bars surprised me – sweet enough to go with a nice cup of coffee but not so sweet that they feel like candy. If sweet and salty is your thing, let these push your little impulse purchase button the next time you’re in line at TJ’s.

Rating: 8/10
Found at: Trader Joe’s ($2.99)