REVIEW: Salt & Straw’s The Great Candycopia

Today is the one year anniversary of my first review on Sean’s Skillet. While I had written and rambled on about food on many occasions, October 30 was the day I finally took the plunge, and it all started with a review of a dark twist on one of my favorite Baskin Robbins flavors growing up – Trick Oreo Treat. It only seemed fitting that my one year anniversary review would be of my favorite ice cream company’s version of a trick-or-treat inspired scoop, with Salt & Straw’s The Great Candycopia; which combines a salted butterscotch ice cream with homemade snickers, whoppers, heath bars, and peanut butter cups. UPDATE: for 2018 S&S took out the whoppers and replaced them with homemade Twix bar chunks

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First things first, Tyler at Salt & Straw absolutely nailed this salted butterscotch base. Butterscotch is such a unique yet subtle flavor, defined by cracking the sugar at just the right time and balancing it with enough butter, vanilla, and salt to carry those soft creamy notes, and this ice cream hits it on the head. The flavor is unmistakably butterscotch, just like popping a cold and super velvety Werther’s original into your mouth over a long conversation on grandma’s floral print couch. There’s something nostalgic and whimsical hidden inside all of its sugary glory, and it’s those warm melty sweet notes that make butterscotch such a throwback autumn treat. While butterscotch can oftentimes comes off as a too intense sugary punch to the face, the salted aspect of the ice cream helps balance out the potential over-the-top nature of the base for a well rounded and decadent experience that is full bodied and glorious, with moments of reprieve.

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Reese’s and Snickers are two of my favorite candies of all time, and both of the in-house versions of these specialties are fantastic. The peanut butter cups are in large delicious chunks with a very smooth and rich peanut butter that reminds me of the great mini cups at Trader Joe’s. The PB is fatty and nutty without being too sweet, which makes it stand out against the beautifully intense butterscotch. The Snickers are a little bit farther from the original but just as delicious, with perfectly soft and smooth caramel inside of lush snappy chocolate with little bits of nuts to tie it all together. There are no peanuts in the ingredients but there are pecans, and I think they went with that autumn staple in lieu of the peanut, which gives some additional contrast against the flavor in the cups.

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Whoppers and Heath bars are much lower on my list of favorite candies, but goddamn do they work wonders in the recipe here. It’s no secret that toffee is terrific in ice cream, and the deep, burnt, brown sugar caramel notes exist in perfect harmony with the butterscotch, delivering a huge satisfying fatty crunch. The whoppers play a similar role, maintaining all of their crunchy character and bringing a funky malt flavor to the profile that once again plays perfectly with the butterscotch and pops with huge chomp-y satisfaction. UPDATE: While I had no problem with the Whoppers, there’s no doubt the Twix is a big upgrade The cookie is softer than what you find the packaged variety with a massively thick layer of S&S’ top tier caramel.

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From the first bite in all the way to the bottom of the pint this ice cream is like trick-or-treating in the best way. Digging into the sea of orange-y tan and chocolate brown I never knew what I was going to pull out, and oftentimes I didn’t know until I bit in. Would the bite be soft and creamy or hard and crunchy or smooth and sweet? It’s like reaching into a candy-stuffed pillow case after a successful night on the halloween prowl, pulling out treat after treat after treat. Fantastic.

Rating: 10/10
Found at: Salt & Straw (www.saltandstraw.com)

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REVIEW: Boo Berry Monster Cereal

Few things signify the start of the junk food spooky season like the arrival of Count Chocula. The count is one of those rare figures that pops up only during the dimly lit autumn months and vanishes as soon as the winter garland gets hung. Unlike a lot of seasonal products, Count Chocula isn’t a twist on an already existing item, like the myriad of cookies and crackers that get pumpkin’d or dyed Halloween colors; he is solely a haunted cereal spokesman and does not exist outside of the realm of spook. Being that I adore autumn, the Count was one of my favorite cereals growing up, and the fall snack season wouldn’t be complete without at least one box.

As much as I loved the Count, I wasn’t a big fan of his pal Franken Berry, and realized this year that I completely overlooked his other sidekick, Boo-Berry, entirely! To be fair, he did join the gang a little later, two years after the Count and Frank began their alliance, but as the first blueberry cereal to ever hit shelves in 1973, it’s finally time for me to give Boo his due.

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The cereal is made up of the same fun Pac Man-esque ghost-shaped puffed corn and multicolored marshmallows as the Count, but with a blue hue and a unique set of monster marshmallows. The ‘mallows look to be ghosts and uhhh…spooky blue and purple blobs? I’m not entirely sure what General Mills was going for with these shapes but the colors look good and pop against the dark pieces of cereal.

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The best way to describe eating this cereal dry, and I know this isn’t helpful to most, is nostalgic. There’s a generic sweetened corn cereal flavor that is very particular – a nondescript artificial berry mixed with grain and a solid toothy crunch. It isn’t overbearingly sweet, and the fruit flavor is fine, although not very true to anything that actually grows out of the ground. I imagine this is the same general flavor they rolled out in ’73, and hey, for what it is, it’s not bad at all.

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In milk is when Boo really starts to shine. The crunchy aerated marshmallows get slightly softened and their sweetness pairs up wonderfully with the more subtle cereal pieces. I’m not sure if it’s the seasonal nature of the entire brand, but the monster cereal marshmallows taste fresher and fluffier than a lot of their competition. The blueberry flavor is there, although very mild, but for what it lacks in fruity depth it makes up for in sheer fun factor. While it isn’t nearly as bold or crave-able as the chocolatey Count, Boo-Berry brings the same spooky crunchy feelings that I loved as a child into my Sunday morning mellow flow with eerie conviction.

Rating: 7.5/10
Found at: Target ($2.49)

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REVIEW: Graeter’s Limited Edition Pumpkin

While it’s relatively commonplace to find fun seasonal flavors from all the big players in the grocery ice cream game like Breyer’s, Dreyer’s, Haagen Dazs, and Ben & Jerry’s, it’s a much more rare feat to come across a higher end brand sneaking a seasonal release into the frozen aisle. Oftentimes a craft-leaning brand will only get the most likely to sell and core flavors at a store, maybe 4 or 5 varieties tops, and all the special ones will need to be ordered online or picked up at a (non-existent on this coast) scoop shop. A fortunate outlier to this equation has popped up, likely due to the mainstream infatuation with everything pumpkin, and at my local Whole Foods I was able to score Graeter’s spin on the trendy flavor, simply dubbed, Limited Edition Pumpkin.

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As expected from a super premium high fat ice cream, the texture is incredibly smooth, creamy, and dense. The flavor is sweet, subtly spicy, and mostly notably pumpkin-pronounced. The finishing note is pure squashy goodness and carries one of the most authentic and vegetal pumpkin flavors I’ve ever had in ice cream. There are notes of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, but they definitely take a backseat to the gourd-forward ensemble of flavors in the container.

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It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Graeter’s, a company that prides itself on presenting classic, mostly refined and uncomplicated flavors executed with pure richness, went a very straight forward route with their pumpkin ice cream. The flavor is simply called “Pumpkin” and not “Pumpkin Pie” or “Pumpkin Spice”, so the spice being more of an undertone is exactly as advertised; but it also limits how good this ice cream can be. Similar to a very well executed vanilla, no matter how good it is it can’t compete with more complex flavors that incorporate multiple textures, mix-ins, and techniques to create a more engaging pint.

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I would love to see a company with very high quality base ice cream like Graeter’s incorporate a caramel swirl or a white chocolate spin on their renowned chocolate chips to bring some extra textural contrast and depth to their fantastic pumpkin flavor. I don’t want to call this one “boring” because it’s very well done, but it isn’t the type of pint I need to seek out year after year as it does’t satisfy any urge a solid pumpkin pie filling can do perfectly well – especially at the higher price point.

Rating: 7.5/10
Found at: Whole Foods ($6.99)

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REVIEW: Talenti’s Pumpkin Pie

You may or may not know this, but ice cream and gelato are not the same thing. Yes, “gelato” in Italian does mean ice cream, and the end results of both processes are similarly delicious, but there are a few key components that make for big differences. Gelato is churned at a slower speed than American ice cream, and as a result has less air and is a bit denser than your average stateside scoop. Even more importantly, it uses less cream and eggs and more milk, which results in a lower fat content and translates the flavors differently, oftentimes more intensely, than typical high butterfat ice cream. Because there’s less fatty interference to coat the tongue, the flavors, especially fruit based ones, shine like they never can in the American stuff.

It’s no secret that I’m a big ole ice cream junky, but I also really love gelato. I’ve had more gelato in random shops or restaurants than purchased pints, and I was surprised that over the course of the last year I gave -zero- love to the classic Italian dessert on this blog. I decided that was unacceptable, and time for a rescoop of a seasonal staple from the biggest grocery gelato name of them all – Talenti’s Pumpkin Pie.

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This frozen take on Thanksgiving’s finest combines a spiced pumpkin gelato with a brown sugar swirl and pieces of pie crust. Immediately upon opening the container there is a massive spicy sweet bouquet of cinnamon and pumpkin, which is impressive because the temperature of frozen desserts often keeps them from smelling anything close to how wonderful they taste.

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The texture is exactly as a gelato should be – smooth and creamy with an airy density that has a velvety-ness more akin to a perfectly made smoothie than your average premium ice cream. The cinnamon, nutmeg, and pumpkin notes are big and bright with perfect authenticity. The most surprising aspect of the profile is how prominent the nutmeg is, with all of its sweet nuances on full display. The pie crust pieces are mostly on the small side but taste terrific. Many of them are soft with a squishy give, and occasionally one will pop up with a crunchy butteriness that reminds me of the slightly charred outer-crust goodness. The brown sugar swirl is more integrated into the base than it is a stand out component on its own, but it definitely brings a pretty intense sugary pop that weaves through the entire pint.

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My only issue with this flavor, and it’s one that I run into with gelato from time to time, is it is very sweet. The lower fat content is both a blessing and a curse, in that the spices don’t get held back by the fat and are able to show their full potential, but there’s also no fat to mellow the sugar and add depth to the experience. The aspects of gelato that make this pint strong are the same ones that hold it back from being perfect. It isn’t bad by any means, in fact it’s one of Talenti’s strongest offerings, it just becomes a bit too much for me after a serving, and leaves my mouth feeling a bit like my ears do after listening to a great song on mediocre headphones – all treble and no bass…but damn that’s still a good song.

Rating: 8.5/10
Found at: Target ($4.99)

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REVIEW: Baskin Robbins Candy Bar Mashup

This review is a big one for me, as it marks the one year anniversary of Sean’s Skillet. While the actual day isn’t until the end of the month, this blog began on October 30, 2016 with a review of Baskin Robbins’ Treat Oreo Treat Dark, and since then writing about the Flavor of the Month has been the only constant recurring series I’ve done – a true labor of love. Although BR are the biggest scoop shop chain in the world, they get largely overlooked by real ice cream aficionados, and a lot of the folks that I observe frequenting the shop stick to the classics or one of the 30-40 varieties that are familiar in the dip case.

I love Baskin Robbins, I grew up going there and have always been fascinated by the limited flavors and some of the incredible seasonal’s like America’s Birthday Cake. For years my October would truly feel real at the sight of Oreo’s with orange creme, and they are put to no better use than in the Baskin staple Trick Oreo Treat. Much like last year, BR are keeping the original TOT as a seasonal offering and bringing us an all new Halloween themed scoop to welcome the spookiest time of year. Candy Bar Mashup combines Snickers, Milky Way, and Twix in chocolate ice cream swirled with a caramel ribbon.

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The chocolate base is very standard in terms of its flavor, but immediately jumps out at me as feeling lighter than what I’m used to. It has a mellow, creamy chocolate presence that isn’t very exciting or offensive, but the lighter texture is a bit distracting. While I would never consider BR to be super premium, I am used to them being fairly close to the density of Ben & Jerry’s, at around 15 grams of fat per serving, and this is inching closer towards Dreyers territory (but not nearly that thin, and not gummy at all). Baskin Robbins do offer some amazing chocolate in Mississippi Mud and Superfudge Truffle, but this base is incredibly basic, and unfortunately, boring.

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The mix-ins bring a bit of halloween flair, but let’s be honest, where are the peanut butter cups? The Twix pieces are exactly the same as this years’ Made with Twix, which utilized separate pieces of the shortbread cookie covered in chocolate with no caramel. These pieces are the most prominent mix-in, at least in my scoop, and have the wonderful buttery crumbly crunch of the Twix cookies that add a little bit of intrigue to the relatively flat chocolate. The caramel swirl is minimal but present with the occasional gooey sweet highlight that naturally compliments the cookie very well.

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Snickers and Milky Way are definitely the co-stars here, and make only a few appearances in my cup. The pieces are significantly smaller than the Twix, and the Milky Way are only identifiable by their oddly hardened nougat-caramel combination and don’t really stand out against the already present chocolate and caramel. The baby chunks of Snickers bring a slight fatty peanut pop, which is great, but leaves me asking again – WHERE are the PB cups?

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While Candy Bar Mashup isn’t a failure by any means, it feels pretty safe, uninspired, and lacking in any true spooky holiday whimsy. I wish Baskin Robbins had brought back Trick Oreo Treat Dark, who’s dark fudge ribbon really set the flavor off to indulgent depths that this mashup only wishes it could touch.

Rating: 7/10
Found at: Baskin Robbins ($2.99)
Quick Nutrition: 290 cal – 15g fat – 9g sat fat – 150mg sodium – 35g carbs – 1g fiber – 28g sugar – 5g protein

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REVIEW: Cookies & Screeem M&M’s

In my youthful trick or treating heyday there was definitely a hierarchy when it came to the candy come-up. Not including the occasional full sized candy bar, individual Reese’s cups were always number one, followed by Snickers, Twix, and Milky Way, with all non-chocolate candies being lesser than chocolate – unless they came in big-seeming ‘fun sized’ bags. There was something about the small bags of candy that seemed like a real victory, most notably Skittles and M&M’s.

A bag of M&M’s, usually milk chocolate or peanut, felt like it had twice the value of all other candies that weren’t orange and written in cursive, and getting a couple of those in my hollowed pumpkin head was a real treat. Now, as an adult, I continue to be impressed by bags of M&M’s, as their graphic design game has been incredibly on point, and I still marvel at their size, being forced to buy giant bags to try the limited editions. This year Mars dropped a new particularly eye-pleasing package with Cookies and Screeem M&M’s.

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These spooky poppable treats have one of my favorite packages I’ve ever seen, and I nearly bought them on the visual appeal alone. Despite what the name and image might imply, these M&M’s don’t actually have any cookies in them, which seems like a missed opportunity to really knock this cookie-themed flavor out of the park.

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The candies are a really cool looking black and white speckled shell with a layer of dark chocolate and an inner ball of white chocolate – one of the cooler looking M&M’s – I’m sensing a theme here. The dark semisweet chocolate is slightly bitter but still pretty sweet with a very smooth and melty consistency. It’s clear that it isn’t milk chocolate, but once I hit the bigger, more prominent white chocolate part, it gives me a much more milky essence with cool, creamy, buttery notes. The combo of semisweet and white has a different sensation than either of them on their own, and in construction does emulate the sandwich cookie format of an Oreo.

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They’re chocolate and sweet so they’re good, but why isn’t there any crunchy texture? The cupcake Kisses and Pretzel M&M’s have both been successful with some added crunch inside, and I wish I got some of that here. As the flavor finishes I do get a touch of wafer-y cookie taste that’s more than pure chocolate, a trick that must be embedded within the ominous “natural and artificial flavors”.  For how great the packaging is, I wanted more to truly make my tastebuds screeeeeem, and these ultimately end up feeling like opening the big-looking ‘fun sized’ bags in Halloween night to reveal just 4 or 5 candies – tasty, but simultaneously a bit of a letdown too.

Rating: 7/10
Found at: Target Exclusive ($3.49)
Quick Nutrition: 1 oz – 140 cal – 7g fat – 4g sat fat – 10mg sodium – 20g carb – 18g sugar

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REVIEW: Baskin Robbin’s Trick Oreo Treat Dark

At Baskin Robbins the season of the spook remains the season of the scoop. From festive seasonal flavors like candy corn and the decadent pumpkin cheesecake, the 31 plus arsenal’s most consistent autumn offering highlights all kiddies’ favorite past time in October – trick or treating.  BR’s Trick Oreo Treat debuted in 2011 and for the first time, in 2016, the iconic flavor gets an upgrade.

Trick Oreo Treat Dark builds on the success of its predecessor, which combined vanilla ice cream with spooky orange creme Oreos, Baby Ruth bars, and Butterfinger pieces. The dark twist is the same mischievous concoction of goodies, only this time housed in rich dark chocolate and enrobed by a silky fudge ribbon. TOT version 2.0 – it WORKS.

While I am generally a bigger fan of lighter bases (vanilla, caramel, etc) the chocolate base in this ice cream absolutely blows away the flavor of the original. Its rich cocoa notes and velvety texture are taken to the next level by the ample fudge ribbon. Periodically making its way onto your spoon in gooey gobs, the ribbon helps the ice cream eat more like a sundae and adds a nice textural contrast to the chunks of candy you will inevitably run into as you continue to dig.

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What some folks may find challenging, and I actually love, are the candy pieces themselves. The Butterfinger generally gets dispersed evenly in thin little flakes of buttery goodness with an occasional big chunk, but the Baby Ruth pieces tend to be larger and as a result, harder. Apparently the combination of peanuts, caramel, and chocolate nougat doesn’t freeze well (even though it’s fine in the BR Snickers flavor) and at times you’ll encounter a candy piece your teeth can’t quite handle. Luckily, if you allow the Ruth to sit in your mouth for a couple of seconds and gently chew, the caramel will get soft again and the reward will be worth the risk. What’s the fun in a treat without a little trick anyway?

The only area where the dark version of this ice cream takes a step back from the original is the pop of the Oreo cookies themselves. The flavor of the wafer gets lost a bit in the sea of chocolate, but still adds a nice dusty texture and orange colorful contrast to the overall experience. The chocolate on chocolate onslaught reminds me of one of my favorite limited Baskin Robbins flavors in recent memory, last years’ Oreo Malt Madness, and I’ll take that homage over standard cookies and cream any day.

Rating: 8.5/10