As you might imagine, I have a lot in common with rap artists. For instance, the Man is always trying to hold me down when I be spittin’ truth. Also, I’m always riding dirty through my hood, because I have children, so the car is a disgusting pit. I even busted a cap once, but instead of an ass, it was in a tooth, which – I’m pretty sure – still counts. Also like rappers, I enjoy a good remix, which brings us to the topic of the day: Pumpkin Spice!
If you’re an avid reader of this blog, eagerly consuming every roughly semi-annual nugget of humor I churn out these days, then you no doubt remember a little gem called Pumpkin MANIA from last year; if not, go back and acquaint yourself before continuing, I’d love the extra page hit. Anywho, since we weren’t able to try EVERY pumpkin spice product on the market last year, I decided to round up my test team (we’re still married!) and come back for some of the outliers this year. Since lead-ins are hard, and we pretty much laid this out last year, we’ll just jump right into the rating – my partner appears ready and raring to go!
Dan: “Nina, are you ready for some pumpkin?!”
Nina: “I can’t believe you’re making me do this again.”
Dan: “That’s the spirit!”
I’ll start by lighting the pumpkin spice candle to set the mood. For those of you keeping score, that’s a brand-name Yankee candle, and I would definitely buy it again. I love this scent – it envelopes you inside and out, filling your lungs and wrapping your senses in a warm blanket of fall spices. I like to breathe deeply and let it go straight to my brain…I can only assume Nina feels the same…I didn’t actually ask her about this one.
With the ambiance set, let’s move into the same category we began with last year; Breakfast Items. There were a couple of cereals we never got to try, and some new breakfast bar offerings I don’t remember seeing in 2016. First up, Pumpkin Spice Cheerios!
Dan’s Take: These little burgers pack a big pumpkin punch. I was pleasantly surprised; still, I couldn’t eat that many, and the box is still in the pantry after 6ish weeks, so I cannot – in good conscience – recommend buying them…though on the plus side, they do improve Vanilla Life if mixed together in the bowl. Why I ever strayed from standard Life is still a mystery to me. It was a foolish mistake that will not be repeated. Verdict: Don’t Buy either one.
Nina’s Take: One word: Amazing. I’m a big fan of Cheerios; the Honey Nut kind. I even like the vanilla ones. But Pumpkin Cheerios is like cereal on a whole new level. This isn’t just a food for breakfast… this is an amazing snack that can be enjoyed any time of day. They flavor was good, not overpowering, but enough to know it was there. And it wasn’t artificial either… just down right good. Verdict: Buy
With all the other options on the table, the Cheerios were the only new cereal we tried this year, though I did pick up another box of the Pumpkin Spice Mini-Wheats, which were still awesome. Next up are a couple of portable options for those fast-paced business types in the audience that don’t have time to sit around navigating cereal box mazes and wondering if 35gm is “a lot” of crabs per serving. We’ve pitted these next two items against each other in what I’m calling, “The Battle of the Breakfast Bars!! bars-bars-bars…” (or TBOBB…bbb for short)
Our first contender comes to us from the good people at the Nutri-Grain company, who have a long and storied history in the mobile breakfast arena. I’ve long been a fan of their standard flavors, so I was eager to give the pumpkin spice bars a try…
Dan’s Take: The focus is definitely on grains here, with the characteristic thick coating dominating the palette. The ratio of grain to goo is very high, contributing to a very dry, oaty flavor. It almost seems like the standard fruit flavors are ‘brighter’ and more able to shine through the coating than the pumpkin is. When the flavor did shine through, it was more nutmeg than pumpkin, and did nothing to inspire a lust for more. I could eat one occasionally. Verdict: Don’t Buy
Nina’s Take: I like it. It has a nice pumpkin flavor without being artificial or fake. Slight hint of spices. I’d totally eat this for breakfast. Delicious! Verdict: Buy
Next up; Pumpkin Spice Pastry Crisps. These are also from Kellogg’s, so I assume the goo is the same and they just run these through the assembly line on alternating days, but we shall see!
Dan’s Take: What a wimpy breakfast! You’d have to eat the whole box just to be satisfied! These look like lightly frosted saltines, and are basically that airy, however, they are softer than saltines, and the more favorable crust-to-goo ratio allows the pumpkin spice flavoring to shine through much more significantly than in the Nutri-Grain bar. It’s actually a pretty good flavor. They still need to be accompanied by milk. Verdict: Buy multiple boxes, because normal human serving size is approximately six pouches.
Nina’s Take: YAAASSS! These were GOOD! This one wins the breakfast bar challenge for sure. I love the flakiness of the pastry and then the flavor of the pumpkin is really delicious. Plus the little bit of icing drizzled over the top was just enough sweetness to cut the pumpkin which had strong nutmeg overtones. Well done, Kellogg’s! Verdict: Buy
And the winner of TBOBB…bbb 2017 is: Pumpkin Pie Poptarts! (there was a write-in campaign)
We also have a new entrant under the breakfast category of “Toast” this year, which I found while emptying the entire display of Pumpkin Spice English Muffins into my cart; Pumpkin Spice Swirl Bread.
Dan’s Take: We are regular buyers of the Pepperidge Farms Cinnamon Raisin bread at our house, going through a loaf probably biweekly, so it was not a great leap to purchase this when I saw it, and I was not disappointed. The bread smells delicious straight out of the bag, and even better while toasting. It’s also moist and more dense than its Cinnamon-raisin sibling, and I found that it was a lovely – and hearty – way to start the day. Try with either peanut or regular butter. Verdict: Buy
Nina’s Take: Last year, you couldn’t tear pumpkin English muffins out of my hand. They were SO good. So when those didn’t return and instead there was Pumpkin Cinnamon Bread, I was a tad bummed.
Dan: “Um, Hon…I most certainly did buy the English muffins this year – and I even made a big deal of it, because I was so excited…”
Nina: …really? Fine, whatever – anyway, the Pumpkin Cinnamon Bread did not disappoint. Toasted and carrying a fair amount of butter, I enjoyed these very much. The pumpkin flavor was obvious, but didn’t overpower. Verdict: Buy
Washing down all these delightful breakfast vittles required quite a bit of fluid, which gave me another brilliant idea; why not pit the beverage that started this whole craze against itself, in a coffee contest for the ages? A PSL-off! Mono-a-mono. Starbucks vs Starbucks. Barista vs Keurig! I half expected to get a Pay-Per-View deal from ShowTime (which I’m still willing to entertain, should they call for the rights).
Dan’s Take: For the price of about 2 tall Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte’s, I got nine (9) – that’s right, NINE PSL K-cups (with associated latte flavor packets). That seemed like a win right there. Even if the K-cups were HALF as good as the real thing I’d be coming out ahead from a satisfaction-per-dollar standpoint. And they really were – without meaning to spoil anything, Nina could hardly tell the difference! I could definitely tell the difference, though it was a little unfair in that I forgot to have them hold the whipped cream on the PSL from Starbucks, and as a result, it had a creamy richness that the K-cups lacked. Also, the K-cups were a little more bitter, probably from being made with water and powder as opposed to milk, though it was not at all unpleasant, and adding ReadyWhip (which I did with the other 8 cups at the office) made up for the difference. While I prefer the frothing milk packets in the Gevalia K-cups to the dissolving flavor packets in the corresponding Starbucks cups, I still enjoyed these, and they will likely become a staple in my desk drawer at work. Verdict: While it’s hard to beat the original, these come close for a fraction of the price; Verdict: Buy Both
Nina’s Take: Oh, WAY to give away my review! Why do I always have to go second?! I thought they were both good, but I’d never drink a whole cup. Verdict: Don’t Buy
What better to compliment your coffee than a nice biscotti? And what better to compliment a pumpkin spice latte than a pumpkin spice biscotti? I tell you, the stars are aligning!
Dan’s Take: Eaten alone, these are exceptionally dry and kind of terrible. You might as well dip an uncooked noodle in chocolate and gnaw on it for a while (though they do have a distinct scent of stale pumpkin bread). Also, they’re coated in dark chocolate, which – I think we can all agree (unless you’re wrong) – is terrible. Nothing like disgusting bitterness to ruin what appears at first glance to be a delicious sweet treat! That being said, dipping the biscotti in coffee improves it greatly, both in terms of texture and flavor. The arid twigs soak up enough fluid to reconstitute into their long-forgotten cookie form, while the sweetness of the latte combats the wretched bitterness of the chocolate, making them altogether palatable. Verdict: Just grab a scone while you’re at Starbucks. Don’t Buy
Nina’s Take: These were pretty good. I think I preferred the caramel and chocolate ones over the pumpkin but still thoroughly enjoyed the pumpkin biscotti. It wasn’t overly pumpkiny but I thought it went very well with coffee. Verdict: Buy
With that, we move out of breakfast and into the realm of the random. These yogurt dipped pretzels sounded pretty good, so I grabbed a bag. They also came in an apple cider flavor, which sounded better, but were sadly left at the store as they would not have fit the narrative as well.
Dan’s Take: I was a little concerned about these, as I’m not a huge pretzel fan, but I do like things that are dipped in other things (chicken wings and ranch, for instance. Also pizza/cheese sticks/bacon/tacos/cookies and ranch), so I was hopeful as I tore open the bag. They were quite fragrant, and surprisingly tasty! That being said, they were pretty sweet, and rather waxy – kind of like eating a candle. Verdict: Buy for sharing.
Nina’s Take: Yogurt, chocolate, or plain, I like pretzels. I thought I was going to LOVE these. Don’t get me wrong, they were good, but I was done after one. I really had no desire to eat more. It wasn’t too sweet, I just wasn’t crazy about the flavor. The first one was good, but I was over it quickly. Verdict: Don’t Buy
Speaking of items that didn’t totally fit the narrative, I came across this limited-edition Maple yogurt in the dairy section, and figured, What the Heck? It’s autumnal!
Dan’s Take: I wish I wouldn’t have made that decision. This was terrible. I don’t even want to specify, it was just awful on a very fundamental level. Verdict: Not all new flavor ideas are worth trying, Don’t Buy.
Nina’s Take: I would not have liked that. Verdict: Don’t Buy
Getting back to the Pumpkin Spice, I found these enticing little morsels as I rounded the last corner to the dairy section, and adding them to the list seemed like a no-brainer.
Dan’s Take: Little chocolate donuts – or “Donette’s”, as the best ones from Hostess are named – have been the divine staple of my road trips since I learned to drive. However, as one might expect, all little donuts are not created equal; knock-off brands are typically disappointing, and powdered sugar and crumble flavors are decidedly second tier. Given that rating system, these pumpkin spice donuts were sadly closer to third tier, and not worth the calories. They weren’t bad, but there’s a high bar in this category, and for me, they fell short. Verdict: Don’t Buy if you have the option of chocolate.
Nina’s Take: I don’t even remember trying these…Verdict: Don’t Buy I guess…
The next two finds were among the last items I would have expected to adopt the pumpkin spice theme, but far be it from me to judge anything before trying…
Dan’s Take: The chips were surprisingly good; like a standard tortilla chip with a strong pumpkin aftertaste. They’re heavy – read, “thicker and more grainy” than, say, Tostitos – but flavorful, and perfect for scooping salsa, which leads us into the next review… Verdict: Buy
Nina’s Take: This may be my new favorite chip. I could’ve eaten the whole bag, they were that good. The sweet pumpkin flavor with the saltiness of the chip was the perfect combination. Verdict: Buy
And in case pumpkin flavored chips weren’t strange enough for you, we’ve got you covered with the salsa as well…
Dan’s Take: Of all the items I purchased for this trial, I was least excited about this one (until I saw the ‘Pumpkin Pop’ reviewed next), but it was not as objectionable as I’d expected. This salsa had a very sweet flavor with basically no heat and, while it did not beckon me to continue eating, it did not repulse me either. Still, Verdict: Sorry Mrs. Renfro, Don’t Buy
Nina’s take: I really can’t remember the salsa that much because I had lost all control over the chips. There were just so fantastic. Verdict: Don’t Buy
Given the raging success of pumpkin spice coffees, one might not think it a stretch for other beverage genres to jump on the bandwagon with similar success. Spoiler alert: one would be horribly wrong.
Dan’s Take: Oh Dear God, this was terrible. My immediate thought upon seeing this in the store was: “Wow, that looks REVOLTING!”, so of course I bought it. And let me tell you, this lived down to expectations in a big way! I poured it out after about three drinks, and then scraped my tongue with a butter knife to remove the taste buds that refused to stop transmitting the putrid flavors of this bastard beverage to my brain. Verdict: Buy onlyas a practical joke or oven cleaner.
Nina’s Take: I thought this was good. I don’t know if I could drink a whole bottle, but it was definitely pumpkinny and different. Verdict: Not terrible, but don’t buy.
These marshmallows, both roasting and regular, were a unique find and, never one to turn down a marshmallow, I tossed them in the cart to try.
Dan’s Take: Meh. Upon opening the bag, the first thing I noticed was that these marshmallows smelled like potpourri (yum!). They were also SUPER sticky, like they were overly wet or something. We basically needed a fork to pull them apart. Once separated, they tasted okay, not sweet, like you might expect from a marshmallow, but with a lot of cinnamon or nutmeg or mulling spices – I don’t know…they weren’t my favorite, though I do wonder if they’d be good in an Autumn Rice Kristy Treat or something, which may or may not already be in the works. (Update: The bars were pretty tasty) Verdict: Go ahead and Don’t Buy.
Nina’s Take: I don’t like marshmallows.
Dan: “That’s ridiculous, everyone likes marshmallows…”
Nina: “Dan, we have this conversation every time we have marshmallows. You KNOW…”
Dan: “I don’t remember having this discussion before, but if we did, I probably blocked it out because it’s such a fundamentally ridiculous claim that it’s impossible for your brain to process – it’s puffy sugar, for Pete’s sake! What about roasting marshmallows over a fire?? Or in Rice Kristy Bars?! Seriously, you obviously like marshmallows”
Nina: “They’re okay in S’mores, but in general, I just don’t like them”
Dan: “…I want a lawyer.”
This next item serves as the perfect segue into our final Battle Royale, as a common component of another UNIVERSALLY LOVED item, cookies. But Nina probably doesn’t like those either…
Nina: “DAN – I don’t have to keep doing this for you!”
Dan: “FINE! But this isn’t over!”
ANYWAY, I happened to come across a bag of pumpkin spice ‘chocolate’ chips in the baking aisle, and obviously had to bring them home… unfortunately, that turned out to be about as good an idea as adopting a Gremlin, as the reality was nothing like the dream.
Dan’s Take: Opening the bag released a strong aroma of dog food, which would typically lead to a food product being pitched in the trash, but – for the sake of science – we soldiered on. That was, of course, a mistake. They tasted no better than they smelled, and the flavor actually got worse the longer they were in your mouth. I would never ruin baked goods with these. I even tried combining them with the marshmallows in a sort of pumpkin trail mix, and it still tasted like shoe. Verdict: Don’t Buy unless delivering cookies to neighbors you hate.
Nina’s Take: I love me some chocolate chips. I will pop them with a few nuts, or them baked in cookies, breads, cakes, you name it. That said, I was pretty excited to try some Pumpkin Chocolate Chips. I popped a few in my mouth expecting a smooth and creamy pumpkiny taste… while it started out ok, the taste ended with a burnt pumpkin flavor that made me want to gag. Ewwww. These should not be eaten alone. I might be willing to give it another go if they were baked inside a cookie or dessert. Verdict: Don’t buy.
Moving on from the chips – which required half a gallon of water and vigorous licking of a grinding wheel – we came into the final section of this year’s tasting, the Clash of the Cookies! This was to be the climactic finale of a long and arduous journey, but – Spoiler Alert – we were a bit underwhelmed. There were three contenders is this fight; a confection trifecta, if you will…a turbulent love triangle (wait, do I count myself? Maybe it was a love rectangle?) where I was forced to choose one cookie to have and to hold, forsaking all others. I protested this arrangement, of course, but my wife was insistent:
Dan: “But couldn’t I just choose one MAIN cookie to remain loyal to while occasionally enjoying others on the side? “
Nina: “I see what you’re doing, and no. You get one! You shouldn’t even be LOOKING at other cookies!”
Dan: “But there are so many delicious options!”
Nina: “PICK A COOKIE! I have other things to do tonight!”
So directed, I set out to determine the best of my options, beginning with the Oreos.
Dan’s Take: Oreo’s are exploding lately, with new flavors appearing in the stores on a seemingly weekly basis. I personally offered several suggestions to their recent Flavor contest (#MyOreoCreation), not winning, but receiving a special two-pack of one of my suggested flavors: Baklava, which were very good. (Thanks again, Oreo!), so I was excited to try these, and they did not disappoint. The good people at Oreo have done it again, producing a cookie with the light aroma of Pumpkin, and a flavor that is satisfying without being either overpowering or overly sweet. Plus the filling – while surely 100% artificial – is a very convincing pumpkin color, with delightful flavors of nutmeg and spice. A strong contender, Verdict: Buy and share.
Nina’s Take: At first bite, it tasted like your average vanilla frosted Oreo cookie. There’s just subtle hint of pumpkin… and actually what I tasted more were spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, rather than pumpkin. Hey, I’m ok with that and don’t need my cookies to be bursting with pumpkin. I think they did a good job with them. Verdict: They were tasty and I would definitely buy them again.
Next up: Pumpkin Spice wafers!
Dan’s Take: Yet another brand I’ve never heard of – though I don’t buy a lot of wafers, so they could conceivably be the #1 supplier of wafer cookies worldwide, and I would have no idea. Branding aside, these were pretty awesome. The only time I really had wafer cookies growing up was at my grandmother’s house, where there was always a well-stocked jar of candy that usually contained packages of chocolate or vanilla wafers… and also fig Newtons, which – Note to Nabisco – would be another good addition to the plethora of pumpkin spice products infesting grocery shelves this time of year. Anyway, the combination of moist goo and Styrofoam wafer always appealed to me for some reason, and it turns out that 37-year-old me found these as appealing as 10-year-old me. These particular wafers started off with the standard vanilla flavor, but continued into a second act that opened with a distinct essence of pumpkin spice. This autumnal sweetness was married to the light fluffiness of a wafer cookie without the cardboard properties I remembered from my youth. I ate way too many. Verdict: Another winner, Buy!
Nina’s Take: YUM-O! You really can’t go wrong with wafers in general… they’re light and airy, sweet and crunchy. It’s the perfect snack or after dinner treat. I thought these were very good. Again, not a huge pumpkin flavor – vanilla took the lead – but definitely good, and I was disappointed I didn’t get more. Verdict: Buy
And finally, Pepperidge Farms Cookies
Dan’s Take: Leading into this competition, I fully expected these to triumph without a fight. I even saved them for last so I wouldn’t have to waste time on inferior baked goods after I’d already tasted the obvious winner. After all, Pepperidge Farms cookies are always moist and flavorful, and these sounded delicious. They smelled good too, as I eschewed polite wafting and buried my face in the bag, breathing deeply to soak the wonderful aroma deep into my sinuses. Then there was the signature softness, apparent as soon as you reached in to pull a cookie from the bag. My knees weakened a little as I prepared for the first bite, but that was where the love affair ended. The flavor seemed…forced. It was very heavy on something, though neither I nor my wife could make out exactly what it was; maybe nutmeg, maybe all-spice, but regardless, it tasted overwhelmingly like disappointment. Verdict: Don’t Buy
Nina’s Take: These looked so good! And then they just weren’t. These cookies made me sad. Verdict: Don’t Buy
Overall, we’re unanimously declaring the Oreo as the ‘Clash of the Cookies’ Champion. It was a good fight, but they were the only thing I would continue eating for the remaining weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, when Christmas foods will take over – OH BOY!
So there you have it, an exhaustive 4000 word essay on this year’s wide range of gourd-themed goodness. Now get out there and enjoy some for yourself, but please indulge responsibly, and try not to bust any caps.