Uh, whoops! I meant to post this around Christmas day – the photos and everything were taken Christmas Eve – but things just kept getting in the way of sitting down and writing about delicious food. Sad when that happens, right? Luckily, I had the foresight to take notes on what everyone thought of each of the snacks reviewed in this post, so I won’t have to rely solely on my infamously shitty memory for this post!
Anyhow, here’s the backstory: it’s become a bit of a tradition in my family to decorate my mom’s Christmas tree on Christmas Eve (or a day or two before, depending on work schedules) while listening to Christmas music and snacking on a metric crapton of hors d’oeuvres rather than a proper sit-down Christmas dinner. We usually raid Trader Joe’s for said stock of appetizers, because we’re lazy and because the family love affair with TJ’s is real (we moved from Southern California to Ohio before the TJ’s expansion into the midwest, and the withdrawal from their spicy black bean dip and other favorite goodies was serious, let me tell you) – though sometimes Aldi or local delis/bakerys or even homemade make the cut, time allowing.
This year wasn’t particularly generous with the time, so it was a one-stop Trader Joe’s shop kind of deal. And because I like talking about food, I photographed all the goodies and wrote down everyone’s overall impressions, so if you’re considering hitting up TJ’s for similar events (or just want some yummy snacks at random) – here’s hoping that our reviews can help you to narrow down the massive overload of choices in their frozen appetizer section!
So here are all the goodies we sampled:
We ended up saving the tamales as by the time we’d made our way through all the other snacks, there was no way we would have been able to further stuff ourselves. I’ll probably do an individual write-up for the tamales since I ended up keeping them for myself! So if those intrigue you, please look forward to it!
But let’s jump right in to the review portion of this post… if you’re on the main page, please click the read more!
First of all, I’ll say that all of the following (beyond the cake bites, of course) were prepared in the oven. Texture will likely change if you prepare these in the microwave, so please keep that in mind.
We started with the Crab & Lagostino Rangoon. Admittedly, I’d never had Lagostino before, but I’ve been a big fan of crab whenever I’ve had it before. Anyone remember Cooker? I used to hostess there and was obsessed with their crab cakes (and their Chicken Monterey and drop biscuits… I’m surprised that I didn’t gain a million pounds working there).
Everyone agreed that the outer shell was tasty – not too doughy, not too crispy – but there was slightly too much of it in comparison to the filling. Easily 80% of each rangoon was dough, if not more.
Though to be frank, that might have been a good thing. On first try, the rangoon wasn’t so bad – very fishy, but palatable. Upon trying to eat a second, however, the utter fishiness to the point of no other flavor quickly became unappetizing. Rangoon is supposed to have cream cheese, garlic, scallions – I couldn’t taste any of that here, and there was no recognizable crab flavor either. It was just seriously fishy flavor in lots of dough. There was also a LOT of greasy/oily feel to these. Honestly, they were rather unpleasant to eat.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way – the dog and cat ended up finishing these off as the people kind of abandoned them in favor of all the other, tastier options.
I don’t have the box anymore, but I’m curious to know if these were perhaps imitation crab rather than the real thing. I’ve tried imitation crab once only and it prompted a similar disgusted feeling, so perhaps that could explain why these tasted so bad. If not, then they’re just badly formulated, I guess.
Big disappointment (well, for the humans – the dog seemed thrilled!) – overall, I’d give these a big, fat NOT recommended as my rating. Avoid.
After the bad start with the rangoon, we selected the Traditional Latkes (because it’s hard to fuck up potato pancakes) and the Mini Chicken Tikka Samosas (because they were my most anticipated selection). I’m happy to say that neither disappointed, but I’ll go into more detail individually.
The Traditional Latkes were pretty classic potato pancakes. They got nice and crispy on the outside and weren’t too dry or doughy on the inside. Pretty much precisely like you want them to be, texturally. The onion flavor wasn’t overpowering, so if you want any big taste with these beyond “fried potato” you’ll need to add it yourself – applesauce, sour cream, etc. I actually quite liked them on their own, but my mother definitely thought they were too potato-y, not onion-y enough and needed something more. Well, that’s always the case with latke, though. Everyone has their personal favorite way to eat them! I’d personally go with sour cream, I don’t like how applesauce can make the latke soggy if you don’t eat it fast enough – and I tend to be a slow eater, so, welp.
Overall rating: Recommended, but with some caveats depending on your personal taste.
Next up: Mini Chicken Tikka Samosas. These are billed as “medium heat” with spiced curry chicken and vegetables inside a crispy pastry wrapper. While they are recommended to be paired with chutney or yogurt dipping sauce, we forgot to do this, so I’ll be assessing them on their own.
The curry flavor was, to me, nice and prevalent, but I would balk at calling these samosas “medium” heat – I’d say mild for sure. Even my mother, who has like 1/4 the heat tolerance that I do, wasn’t bothered in the least by their spice level, and I’m used to her complaining about really innocuous (to me) things being too spicy. So don’t buy these expecting much heat!
However, other than that, these were definitely my favorite of the night. I love curry, from mild to extra hot, and the curry flavor worked really well with the chicken and vegetable filling. The pastry was crispy and flavorful and didn’t overpower the filling at all. I may have been tempted to monopolize this entire box, but everyone agreed that these and the mushroom turnovers were the big winners of the savory snacks, so I had to share. Ah, well!
Overall: Definitely recommended. A good option to bridge the gap between people who like spice and people to are more sensitive to heat; you could bring a spicier chutney and a cooling yogurt dip to help people further customize the delicious base flavor of these samosas.
After the latkes and samosas, we moved on to the Mushroom Turnovers. Now, full disclosure: we’d had these the year prior, and they’d been requested for this year as well, so you won’t be surprised to hear that we found them quite tasty.
Admittedly, I really love the flavor of mushroom, so as long as something actually tastes like the mushroom itself and doesn’t drown it out with other ingredients, I’m happy. These turnovers have very light, slightly sweet (but not dessert-sweet) pastry crusts that don’t overpower the diced mushroom inside. Interestingly, the pastry is made with cream cheese, so that’s where the sweet aspect comes in; it also adds a bit more density to the crust while still allowing them to be the aforementioned “light and flaky” – it’s kind of hard to express in words, but the end result is that it’s texturally pleasing and pairs well with the filling without being too loud.
The filling also includes onion and a sauce; it has that almost meaty feel that some well-executed mushroom dishes can have. These manage to be very satisfying but not heavy – in other words, perfect for holiday gathering grazing.
Overall: Recommended for multiple years in a row!
Our last savory snacks for the night were the Crispy Green Curry Shrimp Gyoza. As you can see from the photo, the baking instructions for these actually seemed to be a bit too long and they got slightly blackened on some edges. So if you’re making these at home in the oven, I’d suggest checking on them a minute or two earlier than the packaging states! We were making these as we decorated, so there wasn’t anyone parked in the kitchen to keep tabs and as such we were trusting the heating instructions. Live and learn!
Luckily, even the low burn on these didn’t really hurt their flavor too much. These are surely very crispy – the outside wrapper was quite crunchy! Unlike the rangoon, these are generously filled, so you don’t end up feeling like you’re eating a 3:1 wrapper:filling ratio.
The inside is a nice mix of shrimp, kale, carrots, and green curry. The curry is, as with the samosas, not too spicy – I’d personally call it mild, maaaaaaaybe straddling the line into medium. The shrimp is well done texturally (nothing is worse than badly cooked shrimp when it comes to texture imo) and blends really well with the greens, carrots, and spice.
I’d like to try these again sometime without the overcooking, because even with the slight burnt taste on the edges, they were quite yummy. Not on the level of the samosas or the mushroom turnovers – those were toooooooo gooooooooood – but these were very enjoyable and solid options and well-liked by all.
Overall rating: Recommended, just keep a close eye on them when they’re baking; the box instructions seem to be slightly off.
Last but not least, dessert!
A Dozen Sweet Bites are sold frozen, and you allow them to defrost into actual cake texture in your refrigerator. They’re pretty in that way that small pieces of cake tend to be, though not ornate or obscenely cute by any means. They’re packaged in a manner similar to a box of chocolates, but as you can see – bits from one piece can migrate to the other pieces. There’s a few touches of coconut from the Raspberry Macaron that have journeyed to the Caramel and Chocolate, so if you’ve got someone with food allergies to an ingredient that is included in one of the cakes, assume the allergen may be present in all three varieties. This wasn’t a concern for us, but I’ve known some people particularly sensitive to coconut, so this is something to keep in mind.
So let’s talk about the individual flavors!
Chocolate and Coffee Opera Cake: This was a few people’s favorite. The cake layers were nice and spongey, and the coffee and chocolate cream layers were delicious. The chocolate “crust” top layer was that thick sort of layer that always reminds me of Ho-Hos, but since I’ve always liked that texture… I was pretty happy with this flavor!
Raspberry Macaron aux Framboises Cake: I do not entirely understand what this cake has to do with macarons, but then again, I’m not a pastry chef. It does contain coconut, so maybe they meant macaroons? Or maybe they were just trying to capitalize on the macaron frenzy that’s been going on for the past several years – who knows!
That aside, the bottom layer is a sweet raspberry crumble type of cake. Not too fakey-raspberry, there’s the actual tang of real raspberry preserves. The middle cream layer is sweet vanilla cream and very pleasing texturally, albeit basic taste-wise. The top is more cream and crumble with coconut shavings (IIRC, when this first released, it was actually recalled because they didn’t disclose the coconut – how exactly was that missed? GG label writers). It’s a light, fluffy and creamy bite of cake. I’d personally like more raspberry, though!
Caramel and Chocolate: This one is probably pretty obvious just from the photo. The bottom layer is a semi-dense sweet chocolate cake, and the top 3/4 of the bite are a caramel cream layer that’s a sort of flan-cheesecake hybrid texturally, with a slightly glazed caramel swirl on the very top of the bite. Texture is really big for me on desserts, and I looooved the texture of the caramel layer, so this was actually my favorite. Nothing groundbreaking flavor-wise, just a solid caramel-and-cream and chocolate, but the yummy dense cream caramel layer totally won me over.
Overall rating: Recommended. While more unique, ornate, and/or cutesy cake bites can surely be found at actual bakeries, these were tasty, cheap, and easy. For casual gatherings like Christmas decorating with the family or the like, these would be a welcome addition for many sweets-lovers. However, make sure you check the allergens for all of the flavors due to the packaging allowing some intermixing.
All in all, we had good luck with this year’s picks, even if it was pretty last-minute! The rangoon was a definite lose, but the samosas and turnovers were soooooooo goooooooood. I also wouldn’t turn up my nose at more of those caramel cake bites right now!
If you were curious about the finished tree (you weren’t, but I took pics, so…), you’re in luck! Here’s a gallery of my mom’s tree after all the decorating had been done. She has a pretty wide and diverse range of ornaments dating back to when she was a kid herself, so we’ve never done “themed” ornament sets. Just lots of lights and putting up the ornaments we like wherever they seem to fit!
Thanks for reading, and I hope that everyone has a happy holiday in 2016!