Sunday, November 18, 2012

Burger King: Sleeping Giant (Plus Gingerbread Oreos)

Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper Sandwich

There has been a burger renaissance over the last few years, at least in the northeast. Shake Shack, Schnipper's Quality Kitchen, Five Napkin Burger, and others have returned attention to the simple pleasures of a really good burger as an accessible and quick meal. The imprimatur of Danny Meyer has also rehabbed the image of the burger, making it seem like a protein-rich, healthy-ish choice. But these new wave sort-of-fast-food joints with their sleek retro-hip environments kmay have a sleeping giant of a competitor: Burger King.

Before I continue, a full-disclosure moment: Burger King franchisees in the tri-state area have philanthropy built into their culture. At least four times a year, they do some kind of fundraising campaign in their stores. I happen to run Hope & Heroes Children's Cancer Fund, which is one of the charities they support. However, nothing I'm saying here is driven by any other motive than to report on a recent limited edition food experience.

OK, back to the sleeping giant theory. While I don't frequent fast food or chain restaurants all that often, because of my work with Burger King franchisees I usually end up visiting a few of their restaurants each year. I have often thought that their burgers were quite good and a real cut above McDonald's. This is especially true of their limited edition premium items, like the Steakhouse Burger they had a few years ago. As I recall, they charged $7.95 for it, which is real money in a fast food context - but then, it was a real burger. Made with flavorful Black Angus beef and fully featured with crispy onions and a dollop of A1 sauce, among other toppings, it was a delicious and satisfying treat.

Anyone who reads the business section knows that Burger King Corporation has had its struggles in the last decade. Heavy competetive pressure from the McDonald's behemoth (over 12,800 restaurants in the U.S. vs. about 7,250 Burger Kings) has certainly been a factor, as has some less than successful products and ad campaigns. Earlier this year, as I was eating in a BK, it suddenly occurred to me, what if they went head to head with Shake Shake and the like, instead of trying to invade the margins of McDonald's global dominance? Do people who eat at Schnipper's et al know that extremely tasty burgers are available at their local Burger King? Or has fast food been so demonized by the likes of Michael Pollan, Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation, that any place with bright colors and toys for kids is just out of the question for the thoughtful diner?

All these thoughts went through my head yet again when I stopped on the road and tried Burger King's new Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper Sandwich, one of three variations on the classic they're putting out to celebrate its 50th anniversary. After I unwrapped it, I was immediately impressed by the bright colors and fresh appearance of the lettuce, tomato and red onion. I suppose the burger patty is the same as the average whopper, which means it has that flame-broiled flavor. It's also not too thick, giving a nice balance to the flavors and textures of the vegetables, pickles, bacon, and cheese as you bite through. We'll have to take it on faith that the cheddar really is from Wisconsin, however it was thickly sliced and had the taste of real cheddar, which is good enough for me. The bun was substantial and well-toasted and held up throughout the meal, not dissolving into nothingness by the time the burger was half eaten.

My first impression did not diminish: this is a good burger, especially due to the crunchy freshness of the lettuce and onion, and far better than many might expect. Without doing a side by side comparison I can't be totally sure, but I think it would stack up well against Shake Shack's offerings, even besting them, albeit with higher caloric cost (although the Whopper Jr. Is quite comparable). Schnipper's handily beats out Danny Meyer's chain and would likely win out over this one as well. It may not be as heavenly as that Steakhouse burger, but if you're in the mood for a hamburger and the line at your local new wave spot is long, find the nearest BK and grab one of these before they're gone. A bite or two and you'll forget the cartoon colors and toys. Don't forget to order some of those recently reformulated fries as well - they are truly fabulous.

Gingerbread Flavor Creme Oreos

After the debacle of the Candy Corn Oreos, which were reviled by most everyone who bothered to track them down at Target, Nabisco has rebounded with a winner. While these are not in any way revelatory, it's a simple, well-executed idea that flows from their other products. Essentially, they took their standard white Oreo cookie and filled it with a new creme that has a warm and homey flavor. I've really been enjoying them with only one minor complaint: the texture of the thick filling is such that the cookies don't really stick to it. This just means you have to be careful to grab a whole cookie sandwich from the package - so much for mindless snacking!

Availability: Both products should be around through the end of the year.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

M&M's White Chocolate Candy Corn

Halloween is a season all its own and an ideal time to introduce limited edition treats. While still on the hunt for the possibly mythical Candy Corn Oreos, I spotted these M&M's in the supermarket and was intrigued. Naturally, I had to think for a minute about how to describe the flavor of candy corn in order to get a fix on what I was hoping for from this product. While I used to inhale candy corn as a kid, their teeth-rattling sweetness now makes one or two perfectly satisfying. The best ones are made with real honey and at least imitation vanilla extract, giving them a warm, slightly nutty background to the overwhelming sugary foreground. If they're fresh, which is all too rare, they melt in the mouth in a pleasing fashion.

While the idea of candy corn is a fairly slender thread to hang another product from, it does set up certain expectations in the consumer. Part of our enjoyment of food is based on anticipation, after all, and when they are dashed it can be hard to sort out what's happening in our mouth. For example, bringing a juicy hamburger to your lips and having it taste like a peach, no matter how delicious, would be a disturbing experience. While the disconnect with the White Chocolate Candy Corn M&M's is not that great, it definitely exists and ruined my first sample. Their flavor has none of the candy corn notes I was hoping for so they just tasted off.

The ingredients tell the tale: while they list "artificial and natural flavors," there is no honey or vanilla called out specifically. Fortunately, since 2004, FDA regulations have required white chocolate to have at least 20% cocoa butter, which is listed as the second ingredient here. That led me to taste again and turned out that when I discarded any candy corn notions, I found that these were really good white chocolate treats.

Come to think of it, it's about time there were white chocolate M&M's, even if they had to arrive in a candy corn-shaped Trojan horse. So have no fear - pick up a couple of bags before the Halloween stuff disappears. Eat them plain or make a big hit by throwing them in trail mix or brownies.

Availabilty: Throughout the Halloween season, which means you will find them in the 50% off bin on November 1st - if you find them at all.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Eggo Seasons Pumpkin Spice Waffles

Over the last several years, pumpkin growers must have grown increasingly ecstatic over the ever-expanding market for pumpkin flavored seasonal products. From Starbucks to Dunkin' and from pancakes to cosmetics, there's enough pumpkin around to make Linus believe in the Great Pumpkin again. I love pumpkin bread, pumpkin cookies and pumpkin pie, and have enjoyed the pumpkin pancakes at IHOP as well as the occasional pumpkin spice latte, so I'm always eager to try something new along those lines.

Apparently I missed the first in the Eggo Seasons line, which is shocking as I consider myself contractually obligated to to try every S'mores flavored thing out there, even though they are almost always disappointing. While I was somewhat disturbed to see the Pumpkin Spice Eggos in my grocer's freezer before Labor Day, I signed up for a box.

When frozen, they didn't look quite as advertised.
The ingredients were not completely disheartening, with real spices listed and actual pumpkin included, although it was dried pumpkin and not pumpkin puree. Coming out of the box they were less orange in color than I hoped, but they smelled pretty good. While they were toasting, I thought about the flavor of pumpkin and how it might be described. It's a slightly vegetal taste, with warm molasses overtones, and slightly fruitier than its squash compatriots like butternut and acorn. Like those vegetables and also like sweet potatoes, it does very well when paired with cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, brown sugar, etc. I'm sure this all completely obvious, but I wanted to go on record with what I expect from a pumpkin product.

I should say that I'm not the biggest fan of Eggos. Compared to a homemade waffle, they make for a pretty meagre meal and seem to leave you hungry mere minutes later. My son is devoted to the Nutri-Grain variety so I'm grateful to Kellogg's for making something fairly nutritious that he will eat, but I'm never tempted to pop one in the toaster oven for myself while I'm fixing his breakfast.

Now for the anti-climax: I cut into the thing and tasted it straight up, no maple syrup, and...nothing. Not a hint of pumpkin. What there was, however, was ginger. Lots and lots of ginger. Now, for a home baker like me, this is counter-intuitive. Unless it's ginger bread or another ginger-specific product, most recipes (including my go-to pumpkin bread from the Joy Of Cooking), use ginger as a hint to complement the main player, cinnamon. Not here. Kellogg's must have gotten a good deal on ginger because they're tossing it around like salt. Maple syrup helped calm things down a little but the dried pumpkin remained elusive.

Maybe Kellogg's should try pumpkin puree next time - that's what I'm going to use when I make a corrective batch of pumpkin spice waffles.

Availability: Until the end of the season, which will probably be around Halloween when the store aisles begin filling up with Christmas products.


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Nestlé Crunch + Girl Scouts

I grabbed these goodies at the Stop & Shop
In a way, Girl Scout Cookies are the ultimate example of limited availability creating demand, even to the point of possibly elevating the quality of the products in the taste buds of their fans. After all, you can't just buy your Samoas, Thin Mints, etc. whenever you want to. Once or twice a year you get the word that they are on sale and you gotta jump on it or your favorite variety will run out. And because you don't know when next you'll get any, you savor every bite.

There has been plenty of debate about the the philanthropic philosophy behind the cookies and whether they should be healthier, or if they are any good to begin with - or at least better than generally available commercial cookies. But that's all grist for the mill on another day. Under discussion is the new collaboration between Nestlé Crunch and Girl Scouts, leading to the creation of candy bars "inspired by the three most popular flavors of Girl Scout Cookies": Thin Mints, Caramel & Coconut and Peanut Butter Creme.

Since I believe mint belongs mainly in toothpaste, Juleps and Mojitos, I tasted the latter two. Both types consist of a wafer cookie containing the titular flavors topped with a layer of crisp rice and enrobed in milk chocolate. From the first ultra-crunchy and tasty bite, I knew they had a winner. Incredibly light but with layers of rich flavor, these little bars are addictive. Fortunately a "serving" with under 200 calories consists of two bars so you can indulge a little. Based on these two, I'm sure Thin Mints fans will be more than satisfied.

I spotted this dump in a Rite Aid
No one is going to come to your door selling these but you can find them in most major supermarkets in boxes of about 12 bars, or in drug stores in individual packets of two bars each. Finally, if making your sweet tooth happy is also helping build "girls of courage, confidence, and character," so much the better.

Availability: They've been on sale since early June and the supply should hold out until around Labor Day.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Haagen Dazs Blueberry Crumble

There are few summer treats as enjoyable as a fresh berry crumble with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting slowly on top. With Blueberry Crumble, Haagen Dazs has cannily capitalized on that pleasure with one of the most successful of the Limited Edition flavors they have put out this year. They could have taken the easy way out and swirled some blueberry purée into their world-renowned vanilla, dropped in some streusel bits and called it a day. Instead, for maximum blueberry flavor, they developed a new blueberry ice cream from the ground up. The delightfully complex blueberry flavor, shading from bright citric hues to darker almond tints, is the result of three blueberry products working in combination: Blueberries, blueberry purée, and blueberry juice concentrate. All that tinkering was worth it, creating a richly flavored ice cream that forms the perfect suspension for cobbler pieces that are remarkably crunchy and have a nice clean flavor. So when it's too hot to turn the oven on or you don't feel like sorting through a colander of blueberries, reach for this delicious offering from Haagen Dazs.

I thought this was the last of the Limited Editions they were going to release this year (besides the Peppermint Bark that doesn't come out until October), but I noticed on their website that two more are on the horizon: Sweet Chai Latte and Caramel Apple Pie. Let the hunt begin.

Availability: Their site says Blueberry Crumble is on sale January through December but it took me several months to find it. Grab it if you spot it!


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

DQ Oreos, I-Scream Pop Tarts and Bonus Items

Summer seems to bring on a bumper crop of limited edition treats so let's get right to it. 

Oreo DQ Blizzard
After the overwhelming success of the 100th Birthday cookies, the combination of Oreo with the words "limited edition" elicits a positively Pavlovian response in this consumer. These are supposed to hearken to the Blizzards sold at Dairy Queen, which are basically soft ice cream with a topping (or toppings) stirred in using a clever machine that turns a plastic spoon into a mixing blade. Blizzards (or McDonald's McFlurries or Friendly's Friend-Zies) can be a lot of fun but unfortunately, this is really just a double stuff Oreo with some black flecks in the creme filling. The flecks are pulverized Oreo wafers and are meant to evoke "cookies'n'creme" but they have a negligible - and negative - effect on the flavor. No need to run to the grocer and hoard these, but if you know anyone sitting on a stash of Birthday Cake Oreos send them my way. 

Let's talk nutrition. The serving size of regular Oreos is three cookies while for the DQ Oreos it's two cookies. For easy side-to-side comparison, I looked at six of each. Six standard-issue Oreos gives you 320 calories, 120 calories from fat, 240 mgs of sodium and 28 grams of sugar. In the other corner, six DQ Oreos provides you with a hefty 420 calories, 180 calories from fat, 300 mgs of sodium and 39 grams of sugar. This explains why they fudged the serving size - and why you might want to avoid eating six of any type of Oreo.

Availability: Released each year in the spring; sold until they run out.

Pop-Tarts Festival Fun Frosted Vanilla I-Scream Cone

Perhaps if they had spent as much time on the actual product as they did on the prolix name, Kellogg's might have had a better result with these. The illustration on the box informs us that this is yet another simulacra, created to imitate vanilla ice cream in a chocolate-dipped and sprinkle-coated cone. That's a lot of culinary weight to heap on these slight things. The expectations were further heightened by the Pop-Tart pictured on the box, which is wearing a lavish coat of chocolate frosting, each sprinkle placed just so, and what looks like a quarter inch of vanilla filling. The actual item is much thinner, with an indifferent swatch of icing and sprinkles that look like they were rejected as irregular by the manufacturer. Crack one open and you'll find a layer of filling better measured in microns than fractions of an inch. "Try'em Frozen" the box suggests so I did. Bad idea, I soon discovered. The cold kills any flavor that the filling might have so the sensation is not unlike eating a soft graham cracker with a little chocolate flavor on the finish. Letting them warm up a bit was an improvement as the filling proved to have a clean vanilla flavor that was not unrelated to ice cream. Since these are classified as "Toaster Pastries" a final taste was in order. Toasting improved the texture immensely but obviously removed any reference to that ice cream cone. Unless Pop-Tarts play a big role in your diet, or that of someone you love, there's nothing to get excited over here. 

Availability: About six months, starting in February.

Bonus Section: Discontinued/Sale Items

Here's a smattering of the many items being sold for 33% off at a Stop & Shop I recently visited in Massachusetts.

Coconut M&M'S For a minute, it looked like the green M&M with the hibiscus in her, er, hair was out of a job. However, I confirmed with M&M/Mars that these aren't going anywhere. Stop & Shop probably just wanted to move a few bags, and in my case it worked. Although I am a huge M&M's devotee, it took the threat of their demise for me to try these. While I generally like coconut, the lack of anything with that name in the ingredients was a turn off. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. The coconut flavor may be artificial but it is not overdone and tastes like the real thing, with no chemical aftertaste. Also, no coconut means no coconut oil, so the nutritional profile is similar to plain M&M's. If you go for coconut and are looking to add a little variety to your trail mix, give these a shot.

Availability: Pretty much everywhere.

Martinelli's Sparkling Mango LemonadeTheir apple juice, both sparkling and still, is a classic (and classy) product that seems to have never changed and I don't recall seeing too much in the way of new products from this August company. The ingredients are all natural so there was no reason to think this wouldn't be delicious and it hit that mark easily. Tart and sweet with a fresh mango flavor and the familiar fine bubbles, this is an ideal quencher. And with a little rum and a squirt of fresh lime? Even better. While it's solidly in production, it's not the easiest thing to find so I'd keep an eye out for this and its prickly pear flavored companion. 

Availability: Specialty stores, such as Whole Foods. And, occasionally, the Stop & Shop.

Wonka Exceptionals Scrumdiddlyumptious Chocolate BarThis is from a line of Nestlé products inspired by the Roald Dahl book and subsequent movie adaptations. Promising "truly amazing chocolate made with natural ingredients," one has to wonder why Nestlé is giving old Willy the axe. While there are a few varieties, this one boasts "milk chocolate with scrumptious toffee, crispy cookie & crunchy peanuts" and I usually go for packed candy bars so I decided to taste it. Good stuff! The chocolate is very creamy and the thin bar is densely packed with lots of toothsome bits of a variety of textures and flavors, exactly as advertised. It's failure on the market may be due to the fact that it's actually TOO high quality to exist in the sometimes cheap arena of movie tie-in snacks. While I don't eat a ton of candy bars, this is a fun one and it's too bad it won't be around for much longer. I can also imagine it would be fantastic chopped and added to blondie batter. I might just track down a few bars for just that purpose!

Availability: The entire Exceptionals line of chocolate bars is out of production. Buy'em if you see 'em. The folks at Nestle assured me that more Wonka treats are on the way.

Next time: The elusive Blackberry Crumble Haagen Dazs has been obtained.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Peet's Anniversary Blend 2012

I can be a bit of a coffee snob which means the supermarket is not necessarily my favorite place to buy beans. For one thing, there isn't a huge variety of whole bean choices and I prefer to grind before brewing every time. One of my favorite days is when a new shipment of my favorite coffee arrives from Beanstock. Their blends and varietals are the high bar I use to measure all coffees.

All that to the side, I have found Peet's Coffee to be a reliable source of good beans in the supermarket. Their Major Dickason's Blend makes a dark, rich and deeply flavored cup of java that has gotten me out the door on many a ski morning when the flesh was less than willing.

So I was understandably happy to see a new blend from them on the occasion of their 46th anniversary. It can be very dangerous to read the copy on a bag of coffee before you drink it as the hyperbole can unduly influence how you experience it, but I carefully scanned the bag to see what made this blend different. The main distinguishing factor is that 40% of the beans come from Rainforest Alliance Certifiied coffee from the Korona Plantation in Papua New Guinea. I wish I hadn't noticed that Peet's is donating 5% of the proceeds to Korona (up to $25,000) to help them establish clean water access for the local community. The fact that they're doing good made me want to like the coffee more, which could interfere with my objectivity.

I was only able to find ground coffee in my local Stop & Shop, but as Peet's prides themselves on the freshness of their product, I figured it would be close enough. While the first pot I made was too strong (I suck at measuring ground coffee), I could tell right away that this was good stuff. The second pot proved it: complex and dark with fruity overtones, each sip revealed new riches. Smooth and well-balanced, but not shy about its considerable strength, this is a great cup of coffee for morning or afternoon. My wife even thought it the equal of my beloved Beanstock. While I might not go that far, it might be the best coffee in the supermarket right now.

According to Peet's, bags of whole bean Anniversary Blend are available in their retail stores, by mail order and in west coast grocery stores. Even if wouldn't pay the shipping premium to get a crack at the whole beans, I would pick up a bag in in a retail store if I was walking by. And for the record, the hype on the bag was right on the money when it mentioned "the rich, vibrant and ripe fruit aromas."

Availability: Varies across channels. Mail order: Order by May 2nd. Retail: Until May 8th. Grocery Stores: Until May 25th.

What's your favorite coffee?