There are no Cheesecake Factories in space

12 01 2011

When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut.

One reason for this was because I wanted to be the first person to walk on Mars. The other reason was because I really, really wanted to eat freeze-dried food in space.

Now, I know they sell freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches in just about every space-themed gift shop out there. I know this because I went to a lot of those back in the day. But for whatever reason, I never, ever bought one … or anything else freeze-dried, for that matter.

Earlier today, my boyfriend and I were shopping at Sportsman’s Warehouse for a backpacking trip we’re going on this weekend. Now I know that’s not really a grocery store, and they barely even have food, but they do have an entire freeze-dried section. The little kid in me was drawn to it like flies to honey. Or is it vinegar?

Anyway. They had everything, from mac ‘n cheese to vegetable lasagna — and they even sold ice cream sandwiches. But what really caught my eye was the blueberry cheesecake.

When someone says “blueberry cheesecake,” my first thought is not “a bag full of powdery stuff.” (And when someone says “a bag full of powdery stuff,” I generally take that as a drug reference. But I digress.)

Cheesecake is my weakness. I’d never tried freeze-dried food. This was a necessity.

Once I got home, making the cheesecake was an adventure in and of itself. (Maybe that’s the real reason campers eat it.) Inside the big bag were three smaller packets — one of cheesecake powder, one of blueberry-topping powder and one of graham-cracker crumblies. Yum, yum.

The only major step was adding water — one cup of cold water to the cheesecake, 1/4 cup of hot water to the blueberries. The big bag served as a bowl for the cheesecake mix, which is nice and innovative. The not-so-innovative part of the process was the fact that the little blueberries still needed a bowl (which resourceful campers would hopefully have anyway), and also the fact that the packets were impossible to rip open. So if you take this on a camping trip, bring a knife or something.

The cheesecake took 10 minutes to set, which was terrible for me because the stuff smelled so delicious.

When the suspenseful wait was over, I eagerly opened the bag. The contents looked nothing like cheesecake, except for the color. The stuff had the consistency of pudding.

But it definitely smelled like cheesecake, and that was all I cared about.

I spooned it out (note to campers: bring a spoon) onto a plate (oh yeah, and bring a plate), sprinkled the graham-cracker crumbs over it and heaped blueberry gunk on top.

It looked nothing like a cheesecake — in fact, it looked like someone plopped pudding onto a plate and decorated it — but it smelled heavenly. This was one food I was actually excited to eat. (And because of that, I ate it with my eyes open, of course.)

The taste didn’t disappoint.

I’ve had real cheesecake that wasn’t half as good as this. It was sweet, rich and bursting with flavor. (Literally bursting, in the case of the blueberries.)

The downside to the sweet richness was that I could barely eat four or five spoonfuls before it was just too much. Not that it was ever bad, but it’s one of those foods you nibble for awhile and then save for later. (Or, if you’re less selfish than I am, you share it — since, after all, it is supposed to feed four.)

Maybe it’s a good thing I never became an astronaut, because I don’t think I could eat this stuff in space. I think it would float around the room in giant globs that I would have to chase around like a demented fish, and that would just be bad. But I can definitely eat it here on earth, and I can definitely take it camping with me as long as I have the right utensils and dishes.

So freeze-dried cheesecake, while it doesn’t sound like it could possibly be as good as its “normal” counterpart, is actually surprisingly better-tasting than a lot of cheesecake I’ve tried — and it comes in a convenient little pouch that you can keep in your pantry or stuff under your pillow or something.

———

Ingredients: You know what? The ingredients list takes up half of the back of the package, so for your sake and the sake of my poor fingers, I’m going to link you. Here you go — just find the “nutrition and ingredients” link on that page.
Price: $5.99 at Sportsman’s Warehouse
Pros:
Rich, sugary, cheesecake-y goodness.
Cons: You can’t really eat it in space, which is kind of a bummer.

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Festive raisin cookies … the nontraditional way

20 12 2010

Even though I’m not a fan of raisins (I call them grape corpses, if that’s any indication of my feelings toward them), they’re normal in cookies.

And red cookies are even normal, especially around this time of year. My mom made some red-dyed chocolate chip cookies just the other day. Red is festive.

But beets?

Beets are not normal in cookies.

I’m blogging from the not-so-far-away state of Oklahoma, where I’ve been staying with a friend for the past several days. I asked her where I could find unconventional grocery food around here, and she drove me to a place called Akin’s Natural Foods.

Akin’s carries food that’s organic, gluten-free, sugar-free … basically any variation of “healthful” you can think of. But “healthful” does not always equal “yummy.”

When I came across these beet root and raisin cookies, I nearly passed them up purely by instinct. Beets + grape corpses = cookies? I don’t think so. I may be a journalist, but that’s simple math right there.

But their they were, in all their red, festive glory. “Taste the Dream,” the front of the package read. I wondered if dream was a nice way of saying nightmare.

I flipped the package over. It had a nice little blurb on the back:

Cookies inspired by a loving mom with a devotion to teach the art of baking. We start with fresh beet root from the garden. Each cookie is individually sealed for your enjoyment. You can serve these cookies anytime and people will be delighted. Our cookies are baked in a dedicated bakery and are cookies you can trust.

Even after this assurance, I didn’t feel especially trusting toward these cookies — not with their bright red hue and beet pulp running through them like veins.

All of this made them a prime candidate, of course.

When I got them home (figuratively speaking, since I’m still in Oklahoma), I opened up the package and all but stuck my face inside, prepared to take a big whiff. I smelled nothing … and then I remembered the “individually wrapped” part. Of course.

So I pulled out a neatly-cellophaned cookie and delicately unwrapped it. It almost felt like Christmas.

It almost smelled like Christmas, too. It was like a gingerbread cookie, warmly spicy … but with a pungent vegetable scent mixed in. If I could push past the beet flavor, I thought, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I took a bite.

It did not taste like Christmas.

In fact, it was absolutely horrifying. I kept chewing slowly, torturously, hoping to be able to muscle past that beet taste (and my gag reflex) and arrive at that sweet, cinnamon flavor I’d smelled vaguely. But no such luck. All I could taste was beet. No sugar, no spices … nothing. Even the grape corpses were undetectable.

In the end, this is as far as I got:

I couldn’t handle any more.

The upside to these cookies is that they’re chock-full of healthful ingredients, from beetroot (obviously) to wheat flower and all-natural, gluten-free molasses. (The molasses — mixed with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves — was apparently what gave it the gingerbread-cookie smell.)

The downside is that you can’t taste any of the ingredients except beets.

(Oh, but according to the website, the packaging is biodegradable. Maybe it’s edible. It probably tastes better than the cookies.)

Bottom line: If you are absolutely in love with beets, then you’ll probably like these. And since you’re probably the only person in your general vicinity with said beet-love, you’ll probably get the entire $6 bag to yourself.

But if you’re looking for cookies that actually possess some resemblance to cookies in terms of taste … these are not what you’re looking for. Stay far, far away.

———

Ingredients: Beetroot (raw), wheat flour (white all-purpose, enriched and unbleached), butter (salted), organic cane sugar (granulated dried cane juice sugar), nonfat dry milk (with added Vitamin A), raisins (gourmet plump seedless), baking powder (aluminum-free), soy lecithin granules (all natural soybean lecithin granules made with no fillers or additives), water, pure vanilla extract, salt, nutmeg (ground), cinnamon (ground), baking soda (aluminum-free), molasses (all-natural, unsulfered and gluten-free) and cloves (ground).
Price: $6.99 at Akin’s (8 cookies per bag)
Pros: Individually wrapped, so you can give them as Christmas presents to each neighbor you can’t stand. Also, might make great horse treats.
Cons: Beet cookies.





If you put a s’more in a blender…

8 12 2010

Note to all food marketing managers: If you package your product in a container shaped like a jellybean, there is no way I can force myself to take it seriously.

Now, that doesn’t mean I have anything against jellybeans. Actually, if you give me a bag of jellybeans, I will spend a good half-hour meticulously picking them out and sorting them one by one into their separate flavors. (Moral of the story: Never give me a bag of jellybeans.)

When it comes to Jelly Belly beans (I feel weird calling them Jelly Bellies), my favorite flavor, hands-down, is buttered popcorn. You can hate all you want; I think it’s delicious. Coming in close second, however, is toasted marshmallow.

And it was for that reason that, when I saw toasted marshmallow-flavored dessert topping on the shelf next to all the other ice cream syrups, I got excited. Even though I still couldn’t take it seriously.

Maybe “excited” is too strong of a word. I still had my reservations about the stuff — for one thing, anything called “dessert topper” worries me a little. How much more vague can you be? It’s like Smart Balance, which is described as a “buttery spread” — clearly you can spread it, but it’s not butter, no matter how hard it tries to be. So the “dessert topper” description didn’t do a whole lot for me.

But then again, it was toasted marshmallow-flavored.

The bottle gave no indication of serving suggestions, but since I’d found it next to the ice cream toppings (the rest of which had normal flavors like chocolate and strawberry), I figured the best serving option would be good old vanilla ice cream.

So I scooped out a small portion of ice cream and drizzled on a generous amount of…dessert topper. It was about the same color as the ice cream, just a little darker and almost a little grayish. Not the most appetizing color, in my opinion, but who am I to judge? I just know that when I toast marshmallows, I like them golden-brown, not grayish-tan. But then again, when I toast marshmallows, they taste nothing like jellybeans.

I took a bite of topping-covered ice cream, expecting something at least as magical as Jelly Belly beans.

What I tasted can only be described as sugar-covered sugar.

Honestly, I could barely taste the topping. And I didn’t taste toasted marshmallow jellybeans at all.

The flavor of the ice cream was definitely stronger than that of the topping, which probably didn’t help matters any. But I could still taste the topping, and all it really tasted like was brown sugar. It was slightly reminiscent of caramel…but caramel is just sugar, so I guess that makes sense.

The flavor itself makes sense when you consider the topping’s ingredients: corn syrup, sugar, brown sugar…  No wonder it tastes like sugar. The ingredient list also includes “natural and artificial flavors,” but I’m going to bet that at least the natural flavor is sugar.

Because the ice cream was so overpowering, I tried a small spoonful of the topping by itself. As I expected, it tasted like a spoonful of sugar. (Cue the Mary Poppins song.)

As far as unconventional products by Jelly Belly go, this wasn’t as strange as the watermelon pudding. It was, however, a little disappointing. Part of me wants to go find some toasted marshmallow jellybeans and try them once more to see if they really taste like anything at all, or if the flavor is just brown sugar. Maybe some jellybeans have the Skittles factor: people say they’re different flavors, but it’s actually just a psychological trick because we think that yellow means lemon and purple means grape.

Just because it doesn’t have much of a flavor doesn’t make this topping a failure, though. I actually think it would be decent with brownies, and it’s not bad on ice cream, if your goal is to make the ice cream even sweeter. It has potential; it just doesn’t have much of a point, unless you’re specifically looking for a “dessert topper” that tastes like plain old sugar.

———

Ingredients: Water, high fructose corn syrup, natural and artificial flavors, corn syrup, sugar, light brown sugar, salt and sodium benzoate (preservative).
Price: $2.99 at Fry’s
Pros: Toasted marshmallow. Sort of.
Cons: It’s basically just sugary syrup marketed as being marshmallow-flavored. If you close your eyes and use your imagination, then it might live up to its name.





Pudding, meet candy

21 11 2010

When I think about watermelons, I think about summer days and seed-spitting contests with little redheaded, pigtailed Susie who won every single year because she had a gap in her front teeth.

Okay, so I grew up in Chicago and Phoenix and I’ve never been to a seed-spitting contest. I’ve never met a gap-toothed girl named Susie. And honestly, I don’t really think about watermelons very often.

But when I came across watermelon pudding in the grocery store, the first thing that came to mind was neither seed-spitting contests nor watermelons. It was pure, unadulterated disgust, coupled with the question, Why?

Yes, I bought it. Of course I bought it.

What stood out to me the most about this (besides the combination of the words “watermelon” and “pudding” in the title) was the color. Not quite pink, not quite orange, it was only very slightly reminiscent of a real watermelon. Maybe if a watermelon had jaundice, it would be that color. Can watermelons get jaundice?

Anyway. It’s probably worth mentioning that the pudding wasn’t the only one of its kind on the shelf — displayed next to it were also juicy pear and cotton candy varieties. (Bright green and Pepto Bismol pink, respectively. Who picks the colors for this stuff? Crayola?) Pear pudding didn’t seem that strange, and for awhile it was a toss-up between the watermelon and the cotton candy, but in the end, I chose watermelon mostly on account of its color. And also because I could not for the life of me fathom how watermelon pudding was supposed to taste.

I was about to find out.

The first thing I did when I took off the lid was sniff the pudding (of course). It smelled sweet — almost sickeningly so. It actually smelled a lot like Jolly Ranchers (only even sweeter) — which was a little strange considering that it’s made by Jelly Belly. But I’ve always thought watermelon jelly beans were a little boring anyway. Maybe sweet would be okay.

When I scooped it onto my spoon, it looked like Jabba the Hutt was clinging on for dear life. Not exactly appetizing. (But then again, can orangey-pink pudding be expected to look appetizing? Ever?)

I put the spoonful in my mouth and contemplated.

Not bad, actually.

At first, it tasted almost exactly like vanilla pudding. Don’t ask me why, but it did. Maybe my taste buds have gone a little crazy after all I’ve put them through.

The aftertaste, though, was most definitely watermelon. And by watermelon I don’t mean the seed-spittin’ kind, I mean the artificial, sugar-loaded flavor that’s in Jolly Ranchers — and I suppose also in jellybeans.

I liked the original flavor better.

In fact, I kept eating it in little spoonfuls, savoring the flavor and then taking another quick bite before the aftertaste had time to kick in.

The verdict? It’s a little too sweet (and fake-watermelon-y) for my taste, but for as strange as it seems at first glance, it’s really not bad. I’d pick butterscotch pudding over this brightly colored wonder, but if you’re a big watermelon Jolly Rancher fan, this is probably heaven in a cup.

And if you don’t like watermelon Jolly Ranchers and you’re ever forced to eat this for whatever reason, shovel it down in quick spoonfuls. It’s better that way.

———

Ingredients: Nonfat milk, water, sugar, modified corn starch, vegetable oil (contains one or more of the following: soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil), contains 1% or less of the following: natural and artificial flavor, salt, xanthan gum, disodium phosphate, sodium stearoyl lactylate, Yellow 5 and Red 40.
Price: $0.99 at Fry’s Marketplace (4 per package)
Pros: Tasted like vanilla pudding at first. Colorful. Almost pretty…like a sunset…
Cons: The strong, sweet aftertaste wasn’t my favorite, and pudding that tastes like candy is still a little incongruous.





Chocolate of the sea

27 09 2010

Hello, my name is Julia, and I am a chocoholic.

I’d like to say I’ve never met a chocolate bar I didn’t like, but that’s not entirely true.  I don’t like chocolate bars with almonds in them.  I’m not a huge fan of almonds.  They get in the way.

But this particular chocolate bar was almond-free.  In fact, it was just your average chocolate bar, with one deviation: someone, somewhere along the way, decided it would be a good idea to add salt to it.

Salt and chocolate…interesting, but not impossible, I suppose.  I mean, chocolate-covered pretzels are great.  So is Chocolate Turtle Chex Mix.  So sure, I’d never heard of a chocolate bar with some extra salt added, but it couldn’t be that bad.

What stood out to me was that the self-proclaimed special ingredient was no ordinary salt: it was sea salt. I suppose this makes it a gourmet food.  I wouldn’t really know, because the only known contact I’d had with sea salt up until this point was when I used sea salt bath scrub, and also when I swam in the Pacific Ocean.

I’ve heard sea salt marketed as a healthy, organic alternative to “normal” table salt.  (Evaporation equals superiority, apparently.)  According to Mayo Clinic, however, the nutritional values are the same.  The only significant difference between the two is flavor.

So with that in mind, it was time to see what effect a little bit of salt extracted from evaporated ocean water would have on a bar of chocolate.

Slowly, almost reverently (since the packaging was pretty), I tore my way through the cardboard till I reached the chocolatey goodness inside.  It looked like any ordinary chocolate bar.  I don’t know if I was expecting to see salt-encrusted chocolate, little sea urchins clinging to the brown squares, or what, but I was somehow surprised at how normal it looked.  How much different could a little sea salt make?

I took a bite (or, more accurately, put an entire square in my mouth).  Since I missed the part of the package that read “DARK” in capital letters, I expected it to be sweet.  It wasn’t.  Instead, it tasted bitter — like dark chocolate should be, though a little stronger than normal.  I didn’t taste salt, though.  Toward the end, when I finally swallowed the chunk of chocolate, there was a slight salty aftertaste.  Very slight.  I stood looking at the rest of the bar for a second, a little disappointed.

And then, out of nowhere, cottonmouth attacked.

(By cottonmouth I mean the condition of having a dry mouth…not the snake.  I did not have an Indiana Jones moment, just so we’re clear.)

I whirled around and flung open the refrigerator door, only to have my hopes shattered.  “There’s no milk!” I croaked out.  (All right, so I’m exaggerating about the croaking.)  I ran — yes, ran — out to the garage fridge, grabbed a gallon without slowing down, and flew back into the kitchen to pour myself a tall glass.  I chugged it.

Lesson #1 in grade school chemistry: salt makes you thirsty.

Once I’d downed a second glass of milk, I picked up the chocolate package, wondering what exactly drove Lindt to add “a touch of sea salt” to some dark chocolate.

The taste reveals a harmony of unexpected contrasts: the intensity of dark chocolate and the delicate seasoning of hand harvested Fleur de Sel sea salt crystals.

I got the chocolate intensity part from the bitterness.  What I didn’t get was the salty “seasoning.”  Maybe it was too delicate to be noticeable.

But it wasn’t too delicate to make me incredibly thirsty afterward.

I have to say, I was a little disappointed at the results of this little experiment.  I had expected a more interesting, complicated taste from a combination like salt and chocolate.  What I got instead was ordinary chocolate with a side of thirst.  Maybe the bitterness overrode the saltiness, or maybe my taste buds are failing me in my old age.  Whatever the case, when I (in a chocoholic stupor, of course) finish the rest of the bar in one sitting, I’ll be sure to keep a glass (or two) of cold milk handy.

———-

Ingredients: Sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, butterfat (milk), soya lecithin (emulsifier), sea salt and vanilla.
Price:
$3.49 at Safeway
Pros: Chocolate.
Cons: Intense thirst.








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