REVIEW: Little G’s Cookie Butter Crunch

People love to lose their goddamn minds over cookie butter, and as much as I am a proponent of sugar, spice, and everything nice – I’m not one of ‘em. Yes, cookie butter is delicious, but I bought exactly one jar of it, enjoyed it, and have never had the urge to buy another. My problem is I don’t really know what to do with it, because while it’s good on pancakes and waffles I like maple syrup and butter more, and if I’m gonna eat something straight-out-the-jar like a savage it’s gonna be peanut butter. What I am a fan of though, are actual speculoos cookies, aka autumn’s shortbread, that deliver the big spicy flavor of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg in a crunchy little buttery cookie that go marvelously with a morning cup of coffee. Even though I think the buzz on cookie butter is a bit overzealous, I’m always down to get down on something cinnamon-y, which is why I am pumped for Little G’s Cookie Butter Crunch, which dunks crushed speculoos cookies in a cookie butter ice cream with a cookie butter swirl, and mini chocolate chips.

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As expected, this pint of ice cream tastes like cookie butter. The cookie butter base is light and subtly spicy, but it’s honestly hard to discern how much of the flavor is coming from the base itself and how much is coming from the pieces of actual cookies. The important thing is that the flavor is very similar to diving straight into a jar of the pure brown good stuff. The speculoos crumbs have integrated themselves pretty prominently throughout the actual ice cream, so while there’s still some melty creaminess going on, a bit of a the luscious mouthfeel I want from a premium ice cream gets lost for the sake of the flavors intensity.

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The actual speculoos chunks and cookie butter swirl do exactly as advertised. The bigger pieces of cookie have softened with a nice chew and have a wonderful spicy, slightly dark flavor with a hint of molasses-y caramelization.  The cookie butter swirl is predominantly smooth with some slight grittiness. It’s interesting eating cookie butter frozen instead of at room temperature, as some of the fats have hardened and solidified like peanut butter and the texture has changed ever so slightly, which fades more as the ice cream tempers. Unfortunately the flavors in the base, swirl, and cookies are all so similar that after a serving of Cookie Butter Crunch it starts to feel kind of redundant and I wish I had more contrast to keep the scooping more endearing.

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Ironically, what really doesn’t work for me in this flavor are the mini chocolate chips. While on one hand they’re the lone non-spicy non-cookie component in the container, there’s simply too many of them. Even though they break up the speculoos party with a pop of bittersweet cocoa, they ultimately take away from the sweet, creamy, and spicy balance that this flavor sets out to achieve, and I find their consistent chocolatey crunch distracting and unnecessary.  The chips are so ample that there is at least one, and usually more, in nearly every bite.

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While this flavor isn’t bad by any means, it’s a perfect example of trying to do too much and simply needing to pull back for a self edit. I would have enjoyed trying these components in Grace’s stellar vanilla bean or even a caramel base so that the cookies and swirl could really stand out. I would have also skipped out on the chips, or at the very least dialed them back by half so I can get into a true spicy groove, even though they really are the only element that bring the crunch of the flavors namesake.

Rating: 7.5/10

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

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REVIEW: Little G’s Bangin’ Baklava

Baklava is a decadent pastry characterized by crispy layers of filo dough on top of gooey sweet honey and nuts, usually highlighting the pistachio. It originated in Istanbul, and I usually find it as a dessert option in Mediterranean restaurants after polishing off a tasty falafel wrap or chicken schwarma. I’ll never forget the first time I had baklava. I was at a Philz Coffee shop in 2009 shortly after moving to San Francisco and wanted a classic scone or cookie to go with my joe, but the only option was this puffy tan square that I had never seen before. From my first bite in I was taken aback by the flaky layers and caramelized richness of the nuts, and for the last eight years I’ve tried many varieties and enjoyed almost all of them. As much as I dig the dessert, I’ve never had it in frozen form, and leave it to Little G to pop my flavor cherry with an inventive and indulgent take on something I already know and love. It seemed only right that my first flavor to dive into from the 2017 Summer Favorite’s pack is Bangin’ Baklava, which combines honey ice cream with baklava chunks, candied walnuts, roasted pistachios, and a honey caramel swirl. Yikes!

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Honey ice creams are extremely underutilized, and when executed well are one of my favorite bases for a delicious scoop. No surprise here, Little G absolutely killed it with the honey base and the ice cream has a rich, golden sweet flavor that blends seamlessly with the high quality dairy for a big, luscious, true-to-the-bee flavor that leaves a lasting honey presence in my mouth buzzing with perfection. The honey notes aren’t subtle at all, but they aren’t cloying either – they’re dialed in and balanced with sugary sweet finesse that sings with success. My only concern is that there may be too much honey in the base, as it melts and breaks down really quickly, losing its ice cream character in the blink of an eye. 

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The pieces of baklava are impressive, and the filo dough has maintained all of its delightful crunchiness. Even submerged in a pint of cream the pastry crunches and I can feel the layers just like the first time I bit into the Mediterranean treat. The honeyed nuts on the inside of the dough accentuate the flavor of the base with a wonderful chewiness and the experience is a creamified version of eating baklava to a T. In classic Little G fashion the chunks are actually chunks and are sizable enough that I get all the elements I want from baklava spoonful after spoonful.

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The nuts are also super on point. The roasted pistachios are abundant enough that they add a bit of fatty, slightly savory relief from the generally sweet profile, but not so much that they take over entire bites like in last season’s White Chocolate Macadamia Nut MdoughW. I wish they were a touch more salted (or salted at all?) to add some more contrast, but that’s honestly just a nitpick-y preference and not a deal breaker in any way. The candied walnuts are also fantastic, I didn’t get very many in my pint, but when I did they were entire nuts perfectly caramelized and sweet with a sugary flavor that reminded me of Christmas. Even though I love the indulgence of getting whole nuts, it could have been more effective to cut them in half if each container is only going to get 3-4 so they come through more consistently. 

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This was the most aggressively tempered shipment I’ve gotten from Little G to date, and even after popping my order back into the freezer for awhile the pints were still pretty soft, and a lot of the honey caramel was integrated into the base, but pooled nicely at the bottom. When I was able to isolate it it was everything that it set out to be – slightly dark, rich caramel with some interesting, pleasantly astringent honey notes that set it apart from any other caramel I’ve had before. While it doesn’t stand out as much as a traditional caramel against vanilla or chocolate, it ties the baklava experience together with a lovely golden gooey ribbon further making this a fantastic, albeit a bit soft, ice cream-ed version of the traditional treat it aims to emulate.

Rating: 9/10

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

REVIEW: Tillamook Oregon Marionberry Cheesecake Frozen Custard

If there’s one thing Oregon does really well, it’s probably craft beer. And if there’s something else they do really well, and my personal favorite, it’s gotta be the harvesting and utilizing of the marionberry. Developed in Corvalis, Oregon in the 1940’s, the marionberry is essentially the biggest, juiciest blackberry you’ll ever eat, and its use in pies, cakes, and ice creams gets me completely amped every – single – time. No stranger to cranking out some of the Pacific Northwest’s finest dairy, Tillamook use the berry for a flavor in their premium custard line that highlights this wonderful fruit in Oregon Marionberry Cheesecake, which combines a chunky marionberry swirl with graham cracker pie crust in a mascarpone custard.

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Diving into this glisteningly gorgeous white base let me tell you this stuff is CREAMY. The texture of the mascarpone custard is rich, decadent, and buttery with a fatty dairy mouthfeel that is divine. Those extra egg yolks drive this ice cream into overdrive with a decent amount of sweetness but nothing that’s too over-the-top. Unfortunately I’m not getting any kind of cheesecake-y tang that I want from a flavor that calls itself cheesecake, and instead the gentle only slightly cheesy flavor of mascarpone takes over and I find myself really wanting a bit more funk to make the profile more interesting and engaging.

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The pieces of graham cracker pie crust are very ample, popping up in small chunks in almost every bite, but again, the flavor is a little lackluster. The taste is less reminiscent of a golden graham cracker and much closer to standard pie crust, which is fine, but against the not-too-tangy base, they leave a bit to be desired in terms of the ideal balance a great cheesecake can offer. They’re relatively soft and chewy, and without any sweet honey or buttery aspect I find myself getting tired of them pretty quickly. While they definitely channel “crust”, my favorite part of a good cheesecake is that rich, crumbly graham base, and I simply want more from these pieces, even though the density is on point.

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Where this flavor really sings is the marionberry swirl, which is thick, chunky, juicy, bright, and sweet. Marionberry’s have a amazingly sweet and tart flavor that are on full display in this swirl, and work wonderfully in conjunction with the very rich and succulent base custard. There are actual giant chunks of marionberry’s hanging out in the jammy ribbon that bring a huge sugary acidic pop that is undeniably Oregon and undeniably delicious.

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While the swirl is top notch and near perfect, it simply cannot carry the flavor to a full on victory, and as a result this Tillamook custard is a textural dream and a bit of a tasting miss. It’s luxurious and at times delicious, but overall falls a short of a triumphant addition to the custard chronicles.

Rating: 7.5/10
Found at: Safeway ($4.99)

REVIEW: TastyKake Blueberry Sweet Rolls

When it comes to snack cakes I like gettin’ my fix quick ’n dirty. Ya know, little cellophane-wrapped gems with frosting or baby donuts that fulfill that cake-y craving on the cheap and then disappear as quickly as they came. I’m not so much one to buy a big box of cheap donuts, whole loaf cakes, or sheets of sweet rolls, but every now and again I’ll make an exception. The cool cats at TastyKake invited me to try their seasonal summer Blueberry Sweet Rolls, and as someone that has made rolls from scratch, let me tell you, they are delicious but a massive pain in the ass, and if the East Coast Kake boys can hit me with a decent sweet roll without even leaving the house, I’m down to roll the dice.

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From a birds eye view, looking directly down onto this sheet of rolls, it’s not the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. The frosting has an odd, cloudy color to it that isn’t very appealing, but hey, icing congeals, and fortunately, the closer I get the more promising it seems, with some solid blueberry swirls and fluffy yellow pastry. There’s a nice sweet blueberry aroma wafting up from the twisty bread and the filling has a much more appealing-to-the-eye deep shiny purple sheen. I find it kind of odd that these haven’t been cut and I’m not sure how I can preserve them – I guess they’re meant for morning guests or an intense carb binge?

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The yeasty dough is very soft and squishy with lots of moisture locked in and texturally makes for a very pleasant bite. The dough has a stickiness to it that feels pretty authentic, with some solid, albeit a bit artificial, blueberry notes that have a good balance of sweet and acidic. I’m surprised by how restrained the sweetness is on these, and while they’re definitely best friends with the cup of coffee in my hand (as the packaging suggests), they aren’t hitting me over the head with sugar. Just as much as the sweet plays its part, I’m able to taste the yeast and eggs in the roll itself and I really appreciate that part of the execution.

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What I’m missing here, as far as a “real” aka non-packaged sweet roll is concerned, is the contrast in textures from the outside to the center. While the outside is less wet and untouched by the glaze, there is no actual flakiness or crispiness as I move from the outside in. The best part of eating a roll is when you get to the center and it’s completely soaked and soft, and while that’s pretty much the texture of this roll as a whole, I’m missing that big release and variety that makes a breakfast bun so fun. Even though these are blueberry, I do wish there was some cinnamon to help elevate the flavor as well, and give just a touch of spice, which is an easy fix with my 5 types of cinnamon on hand – and a little sprinkle did me proper.

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But who really eats a sweet roll cold? For the ultimate final test I popped one of these bad buns into the microwave. 15-20 seconds later the glaze has been reactivated, getting slightly runny, and the dough becomes even softer and perfectly fresh-feeling. The berry flavor is heightened and in every way the good elements are improved and the so-so ones are lessened. I still want a bit more contrast, so cinnamon is necessary again, but all in all, when zapped up properly, it’s a pretty good roll.

Rating: 7.5/10

REVIEW: Steve’s Ice Cream’s Southern Banana Pudding

The modern age of gourmet ice cream can be highlighted by one dense, intense, and hopefully ample, element: the mix-in. Yes, a super premium base is still key, but all of the things that compliment it are what separate many brands killing it or falling short in the gourmet game. Chunks of this and gobs of that all define the evolution of what craft ice cream has become – but where did it all begin? In 1973 in Somerville, Massachusetts, Steve’s ice cream was the first shop to use the term mix-in, and rather than have the classic array of strawberry or chocolate chip, Steve allowed customers to choose whatever they wanted to mix into their ice cream and create flavors as simple as Heath bar and vanilla (the original) or as insane as their mind could dream up. Of course, this concept is much more reminiscent of what would become Dairy Queen’s Blizzard and McDonald’s McFlurry, but the idea of putting multiple, possibly contrasting, elements into an ice cream base was born in the 70’s by Steve Herrell.

Now that you’ve had a brief history lesson, I’ll share the good news that Steve’s is still making premium ice cream with mix-ins galore, and my first taste of his innovation cream-age is Southern Banana Pudding, which combines banana ice cream with banana pudding and a vanilla wafer crumble.

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The banana ice cream is of great quality, with a smooth and creamy mouthfeel that melts effortlessly and leaves a nice velvety feeling on my tongue. The banana pops through very organically without any strange artificial notes and has a flavor that is strong enough that it doesn’t fade too quickly and leaves a lasting banana flavor in between bites. It’s one of the most enjoyable banana ice creams I’ve had and reminds me a lot of a milkshake made with just vanilla ice cream, milk, and bananas – minus the chunkiness.

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The swirl of banana cream pudding brings more solid banana flavor with a sweeter presence than the base and a jelly-like consistency that seems perfectly accurate for a frozen pudding. The two components play off of each other really well, heightening the banana effect and giving the pint more depth than if they were trying to operate on their own. The flavors don’t seem redundant and operate more like a team, delivering the big bold tropical fruit flavor very successfully.

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The final piece of the banana pudding puzzle are the vanilla wafer cookies, which are integrated very well all throughout the ice cream and have softened even more than their usual self with a texture that feels somewhere in between a cookie and a cake. The subtle vanilla flavor of the cookies is indistinguishable amongst the huge wash of banana, but the textural contrast is great and as well executed as I would expect from the company that started the mix in revolution. All of the components work harmoniously on the spoon and channel the indulgent Southern treat with success.

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

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REVIEW: Ample Hills’ The Munchies

The munchies. A term often associated with the insatiable hunger that comes along with getting mega-baked – a sensation I learned a whole lot about in my teenage years. I remember those gripping moments of hunger that simply could not be stopped, and every single flavor was amplified in a way I never thought was possible. Now when I hear the term I tend to think about the great Flamin’ Hot mix of chips, or creating my own munch-able bowl of sweet and salty goodness. In an attempt to channel the epic-ness that is experiencing the munchies, Ample Hills have crafted a signature flavor baring the same name, which combines a pretzel-infused ice cream with clusters of Ritz crackers, potato chips, and mini M&M’s.

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The pretzel-infused base is impressively on point. It’s creamy and smooth with just a hint of gumminess that I’m guessing comes from the gluten, and a flavor that reminds me of the tough, dark exterior of a giant soft pretzel. I know this ice cream is channeling hard pretzels, and that’s how it was made, but it speaks so truly to genuine pretzel flavor that I’m reminded of the similarities that good quality small hard pretzels have to the big soft ones, and not just little crunchy salty sticks. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact profile but you know when you taste it there’s an essence that makes a pretzel a pretzel and that essence is in shining form here.  The one element I wish came through more prominently is saltiness, as the base has pretty much zero salty presence, and that’s a defining characteristic of the twisty snack that would have worked really well to liven the whole experience up.

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The caramelized clusters in here are really great, and the caramelization aspect is key to keeping the crunch in tact in the frozen abyss. Little pieces of crumbly pretzel and the bigger balls of Ritz and potato chips add a great salty pop to the experience with a wonderful buttery chew. As good as these pieces are, I wish there were more. Throughout the container there were only a handful of the caramelized balls, and beyond that it was mostly small pieces that didn’t live up to the big satisfying crunch that the larger ones delivered.

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The mini M&M’s don’t really work for me. While I know regular M&M’s can have a problem with hard-freezing in ice cream, the mini version seem to have nearly evaporated into the ice cream and I never got any bites with a good chocolate flavor. The color of the shell bleeds into the base and is very visually appealing but does nothing to add any depth of flavor or texture to the ice cream, which is a bummer given the less than desirable amount of clusters.

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I love the innovation that went into this ice cream but the execution left something to be desired. With a name like the munchies it needs to bring a swift kick of sweet and salty satisfaction and the disappearance of the chocolate and lack of saltiness in the base didn’t give my tastebuds the ultimate thrill they were seeking. With a better mix in density and more prominent chocolate this flavor could be a true classic, but as it stands it’s just good, but still more impressive than most pints you could pick up at the grocery store.

Rating: 8/10
Found at: amazon.com via Ample Hills

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REVIEW: Salt & Straw’s Birthday Cake & Blackberries

It should be pretty evident by now that ice cream is one of my absolute favorite foods, and when it comes to desserts, cake isn’t too far behind it. One of the best things about cake is that it instantly screams “celebration”, and whether it’s celebrating another year in the books or capping off a fantastic meal out, if there’s cake in my mouth, I’m feelin’ like a party. I also love it when the two worlds collide, and any number of birthday cake, funfetti, frosting, or otherwise cake-oriented ice cream flavors tend to be go-tos for me in scoop shops, and usually I swoon over the sickeningly sugary, indulgent, sweet-tooth collaboration. For this month’s homage to the berry bounty of the summer, Salt & Straw are attempting to swoon me into submission with Birthday Cake & Blackberries – which combines a vanilla frosting ice cream with blackberry jam swirl and chunks of three-vanilla cake.

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The ice cream has a light frosting flavor that is surprisingly and pleasantly not too sweet. The base channels the frosted outside of Mothers Circus Animal cookies and cereal milk, with gentle vanilla notes that are rounded out and ultimately taken over by a general sweetness – but not a cloying one. The sprinkles add a nice pop of color but don’t add anything by way of texture, as it seems that they’ve been chopped up even smaller than their usual mini-rainbow selves.

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The blackberry swirl is less prominent than I’m used to from Salt & Straw, and definitely much thinner. The consistency of the swirl reminds me more of a sauce than jam, with no chunks of fruit or heaviness to be found. The flavor is also a bit thin, not particularly sweet or carrying any of the tart notes I usually associate with blackberries. When my spoon gets some of the swirl it does add a little more sweetness, but without any acidity to balance it out it doesn’t really add much to the experience. I wish it had the brevity of the jams found in Roasted Strawberry Tres Leches or even this month’s Fresh Cheese and Strawberries, which would bring some more depth to an otherwise pretty “vanilla” scoop.

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Where this flavor really makes me scratch my head is the cake pieces. The pieces themselves are fun-looking – classic funfetti style cake decked out with sprinkles in a vanilla sponge – but they’re very small, and as a result, crunchy. Although they pop with a nice vanilla and slightly buttery flavor, they have none of the squishy bounce or chew that I want from cake, and ultimately feel and taste much more like cookies. More than stand out as pieces or chunks they integrate themselves into the ice cream as a crumble, and do work well in tandem with the frosting flavor from the base.

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Between the more subdued milky frosting notes in the base and the small crunchy cookies, this pint feels more like a nice afternoon at grandma’s house than a celebratory birthday party. Had the name of the flavor been “Sprinkle Cookies and Blackberries” I might have been more prepared for what I encountered, but as it stands this pint left me with little reason to don my pointed party hat. For those seeking a cakey scoop this summer I would recommend Baskin Robbins’ America’s Birthday Cake over this one in an instant, and you won’t have to pay to ship it.

Rating: 7/10
Found at: Salt & Straw ($11.00)