It’s been six glorious years since Trader Joe’s opened a store in Boulder. The California-based grocer, which has been around since the late 1960s, is famous for its relaxed, Hawaiian shirt atmosphere and use of private-label goods, which make up 80 percent of its inventory. Trader Joe’s keeps prices low and variety high with bestsellers such as Scandinavian Swimmers and Cookie Butter becoming dietary staples for many Americans. The chain is no longer a simple grocer—having inspired a number of food fads, podcasts and even producing their own seasonal magazine, the Fearless Flyer, Trader Joe’s is really more of a lifestyle.
With the latest edition of the Fearless Flyer in hand, I set out on an epic taste test in order to determine, once and for all, what the best Trader Joe’s items are this fall. Keep in mind that I only sampled seasonal items—Tomato Ketchup with Black Summer Truffle and Peanut Butter Filled Pretzels will always be highly recommended by me, but they don’t exactly bring Halloween to mind.
Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix: 8/10
Pumpkin pancakes can be hard to get right. Sometimes the pumpkin flavor comes on too strong and leaves you feeling burnt out on fall flavors; other times the texture becomes too dense and cardboardy, making you wonder why you bothered in the first place. Trader Joe’s really got pumpkin pancakes right this year with a simple mix that can be put together in minutes. These pancakes deliver a light texture with just the right amount of pumpkin and the addition of spices keeps them from being too sweet. The mix can also be used to make waffles if that’s more your thing.
Spiced Pumpkin Madeleine Cookies: 5/10
If you, like me, are a true fan of traditional Madeleines, you will be a little disappointed by these cookies. These are good pumpkin cookies, but they lack the crisp citrus flavor and delicate texture of Madeleines. Instead, these cookies are a little too cakey and stick together in the packaging. You won’t regret eating one, but don’t expect it to satisfy your Madeleine craving.
Chocolate Mousse Pumpkins: 7/10
These bite-sized desserts consist of a layer of chocolate mousse on top of a slice of chocolate cake, all decorated to look like a pumpkin. You really can’t go wrong with these, although I took points off for the lack of true fall flavor. Trader Joe’s uses this product all year round as one of their staple desserts, substituting pumpkin shapes in the fall for flowers in the spring. This clever utilitarianism sacrifices seasonal creativity that goes beyond decoration, but I’m always happy to eat this dessert.
Dry Roasted Maple Almonds: 6/10
These almonds were a pleasant surprise. Too often maple is used as an overly sweet, artificial flavor that doesn’t lend itself at all to subtlety, but this is the exception. These almonds are nicely roasted and the maple flavor comes through as an understated complement, elevating the almonds from basic to something worth writing about.
Halloween Joe-Joe’s Cookies: 4/10
Everyone knows that Joe-Joe’s Cookies are a knockoff on Oreo’s and generally I am a fan. This time, however, they fell short. The chocolate cookie lacked real flavor and the filling was just vanilla bean dyed orange. I don’t want to eat something so violently colored unless I’m getting good flavor out of it! The redeeming quality of these cookies were their cute jack-o-lantern shapes, so if you’re more flavor-driven, try their Pumpkin Joe-Joe’s instead.
Pumpkin Empanadas: 4/10
I think of empanadas as a savory food, so I was slightly confused when I bit into Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Empanadas and found myself mistakenly eating a dessert. The filling is very pumpkiny and very sweet, so keep that in mind before serving them for dinner. The surrounding pastry has a nice texture, though, so consider these for a sweet snack.
Honey Roasted Pumpkin Ravioli: 5/10
This Pumpkin Ravioli isn’t Trader Joe’s finest pasta hour, but it’s certainly not the worst. The dominant flavor is not the pasta dough itself, but the powerful pumpkin filling, which is quite sweet. Serve these with something simple like olive oil and sautéed shallots, not a heavy sauce like marinara or TJ’s own Autumnal Harvest Pasta Sauce.
Rustic Apple Tarte: 9/10
After my brother proclaimed that this was one of the best desserts he’s ever had, this tarte became something of a staple in my house. It’s quick to prepare and delicious when eaten warm with some whipped cream. The slivered almonds on top add a nice crunch. Make sure this is in your cart next time you go to Trader Joe’s.
While I made a good dent in Trader Joe’s fall offerings, a lot remains to be discovered. Their seasonal inventory is vast, so next time you’re in the store, load up your cart with a few autumnal foods; you won’t be disappointed.