October 28, 2015

Staying sweet with Hershey's Candy Corn

This is as pure of a dessert as you'll ever see.
My favorite foods to try are the ones that make you ask, "How did they ever come up with that?"

Think pretzel crust pizza. Or Any of Lay's ridiculously flavored chips. Or sweet corn potato chips, for that matter.

So it should come as no surprise to you that I was thrilled to break out the Hershey's Candy Corn bar recently. As you can guess, the bar has pieces of candy corn in it. As you might not be able to guess, it has no chocolate. The majority of its body is something called candy corn creme.

In other words, it's a remix on last year's successful by my book Hershey's Candy Cane bar. We should have one of these for every season.

But the Candy Corn bar really needs to come with a sugar warning. You couldn't get a faster blast of the stuff into your bloodstream if you jammed a needle filled with sucrose straight into your heart. It's not just sugar. It's not just sugar sugar. It's sugarsugarsugarsugarSUGAR!

Candy corn isn't exactly complicated stuff, but it seems nuanced next to this bar. Where candy corn has notes of honey, the Candy Corn bar has savage sweetness. Where candy corn has three colors and a fun shape, the Candy Corn bar has mostly monochromatic white and brutalist blocks.

It's good to eat in the way a sledgehammer is good to drive a nail. It's overkill. And it's amazing.

I do recommend buying the bags with miniature trick-or-treat-sized bars. Eating a full bar at once is a dangerous proposition.

Four sporks out of five.

October 25, 2015

Staying spooky with the Halloween Whopper

The Halloween Whopper was clowning around.
It's Halloween week, so I have some of the scarier ideas to hit the food world on tap over the next few days. Today I'm going to break down Burger King's Halloween Whopper, and then later I'll take on Hershey's Candy Corn bar.

Before we even get into the Halloween Whopper's recipe, let's address the gastrointestinal issue Loomising over everything. Yes, it made news for turning some things an unholy shade of green. No, we're not going to consider that here. This is a forum about eating, so take your freaky restroom observations to other dark corners of the Internet like USA Today.

With that out of the way, let's talk burgers. The first thing you notice about the Halloween Whopper is its black bun. Burger King claims the thing has A.1. flavor baked in, although there's pretty clearly some food coloring involved, too. Other than that, the Halloween Whopper is standard Burger King flagship fare, save some A.1. Thick and Hearty sauce slashed on top.

In all honesty, it's hard to look down at the Halloween Whopper and bite into it. Something about the color says "mold" more than "spooky fun." It's dark in a shade that's somehow completely dissimilar to anything you'd eat, even something dark like pumpernickel.

Get past the color, and you get a bun that's slightly more peppery than normal. And you get a burger that's slightly more zesty than normal. These aren't bad things — the Whopper isn't high-quality "fast casual" territory, but it's always been a solid burger that's a nose above other fast food beef. 

Still, I think we need a little more flavor difference from a bun that looks so starkly different. This thing Haddonfield to have enough flavor to be scary in order to be called a success. Otherwise the Halloween Whopper name is nothing but an empty mask.

I checked out Burger King's Halloween Whopper announcement and was disappointed to find they didn't play up the fear potential a black bun and big flavors could bring. But they did say that the Halloween Whopper was a follow-up to flavored buns first unveiled in Japan. Some very quick research shows Japan got its own black-bunned burgers in the past as well as something called an Angry Red Samurai Burger with a red bun.

Which begs the question: What other colorful buns —and bun flavors — could Burger King bring us stateside? Personally, I'd like to see a Christmas Burger with a Red bun top and green bun bottom flavored like cranberry and fig leaves, respectively. Or a blue-bunned Summer Shore burger bearing the taste of sea salt. We can make hay here!

By the way, you'll need to make hay for your Halloween Whopper. Burger King cited a price of $4.99 in its announcement, but I paid $5.99 on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Either price is honestly too much green. This is a four-dollar burger by Myers reckoning, unless they can get more flavor in it.

Not to be Curtis here, but two sporks out of five. The Halloween Whopper is edible but still belongs on the blacklist. The King could have Strode for so much more.

September 29, 2015

Dunkin' Donuts Pumpkin Cheesecake Squares

Everyone loves pumpkin, especially when it's square.
Happy National Coffee Day! If you're reading at this hour, you clearly took part in some of the giveaways that were scheduled.

I myself grabbed some free coffee from Dunkin' Donuts on the way to work. But I felt a little guilty leaving the store paying nothing, so I snagged a doughnut — which is what they want when they offer the free java.

Regardless of whether I capitulated to consumerism prompted by corporate-induced guilt, the pastry I picked up is worth writing about. It was a seasonal special Pumpkin Cheesecake Square. As you can guess, the shape was square. The filling was pumpkin cheesecake cream.

The topping, meanwhile, proved to be some mess of too-sweet orange-and-white icing along with cardboard crumbles ... I mean graham cracker crumbles. They tasted like cardboard, so call them what you will, and I'll call them what I want.

Fortunately for Dunkin', the pumpkin cheesecake filling was enough to overcome the disaster up top. While it was sweet, it wasn't as sweet as you'd expect from Dunkin'. I'm guessing the cheesecake factor mellowed things a bit. The flavor ended with a note that came closer to approaching savory pumpkin than I'd ever have guessed.

They should really just glaze these things. But they're still worth a try, even given the outrageous premium Dunkin' charges for the mere privilege of misspelling the word "doughnut." You know I'm a sucker for pumpkin, but these still deserve a solid three sporks out of five.

September 26, 2015

The Great Burger Battle: Five Guys vs. Shake Shack vs. McDonald's

A carnivore's dream: Five Guys, Shake Shack and McDonald's, all on one plate.
We live in a golden age of hamburgers.

From the plethora of fast food options to the growing sub genre of "fast casual" joints to the fancier fare at non-chain restaurants, people are doing things with ground beef patties that have seldom been done in American history. Find a burger joint in just about any town these days and chances are you can top with something glamorous like a fried egg, avocado or candied bacon. And that's to say nothing of the higher-quality meats, buns and cheeses hitting the bun in recent years.

Some friends recently came up with the idea to do a burger taste-off, and your favorite food critic just couldn't resist joining. All told there were six of us sitting around the table yours truly and Deb, the official wife of Rick's Food Critique, were joined by two other couples who play weekly trivia with us, Andrea and Jay, and Jon and Robin.

We grabbed takeout from three different restaurants readily available at the Inner Harbor in our home of Baltimore: Mainstay Five Guys was a clear choice to square off against a newly opened Shake Shack, and we decided to throw in McDonald's for comparison's sake. Options available in other parts of the city like Smashburger weren't considered for this particular competition, nor were non-chain restaurants. They'll have to wait for a future test.

Each couple decided what to order from each restaurant, so specific burger types and toppings varied. We won't list them all here, but you can safely assume just about everyone had a burger near their ideal from each restaurant, along with fries. The luckiest of us also had shakes from Shake Shack.

So who won? As you'd expect, that depends who you ask. But it was clear that McDonald's came in a distant third. We went with the classic Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and the cheese consistently scored poorly. The burger's bun also took a beating, becoming the point of comparison when someone wanted to insult one of the other place's bread.

As for the fries, long a point of pride for McDonald's, things only got worse. I personally felt they were drowning in salt, and they quickly turned limp and soggy. But their appearance next to Five Guys' and Shake Shack's fries was most disturbing. Jay put it best, saying, "They're so much paler than the others."

It was a much closer race between the other two burger joints. Shake Shack got some first-place votes, but it's my firm belief the burger deserves to be in the runner-up slot. It has a bunch of great qualities, like delicious Shack Sauce, flavorful meat and a buttery bun. It also scored highly for being the only burger without weak iceberg lettuce on top, opting for heartier greens. But the ratio between bun and meat was all off, with too much bread and too little burger. Some also felt the buttery bun went a stop too far, leaving it drowning in too much lard.

Shake Shack does deserve kudos for crinkly fries that keep their crispness all evening. And those shakes are truly worth the obscene prices the restaurant charges. They're thick, flavorful and hard to put down. If you're not pairing fries and a shake with your burger, you're doing Shake Shack wrong. It's almost like they knew what they were talking about when they named the place.

Finally, my winner was Five Guys. In short, its burger showcases the meat and tastes freshest to me. A few attacked the bun for not holding up to the grease and toppings, but I personally like the fact that it's there solely to provide a handle while you taste the good stuff in between. And I can't help but give bonus points for the sheer variety of toppings you choose from the menu.

Five Guys fries are an interesting study. They're virtually always soggy, but they're not repulsive the way McDonald's fries turn when they start to droop. Maybe it's the fresh potatoes, or maybe it's just a better oil. Either way, they're just as good as Shake Shack's, but for different reasons.

Not all of my co-judges agree with my rankings, but frankly this isn't their blog. I've avoided targeting any opinions with which I disagree — which you could also call wrong opinions and hopefully we won't be ending any friendships over this. At the end of the day, I'm giving the spork of recommendation to Five Guys' burgers and Shake Shack's shakes.

All you really need to know is that you should skip the Mickey D's, though. The other two options will leave you much happier.

July 19, 2015

Yuengling's Black & Tan Ice Cream is worth dishing on

The Yuengling family has brewed up a great ice cream idea.
Today might just be the hottest day of the summer — time for some ice cream.

And what a batch of ice cream do we have to taste: Yuengling's Black & Tan. Yes, that's Yuengling as in the Pennsylvania folks who make the green bottled beer that half the country wishes it could buy.

As the story on the back of the ice cream carton goes, the Yuengling family started a dairy operation during Prohibition when they couldn't sell strong suds on the up-and-up. That creamy business continued for nearly seven decades before being phased out at some point. Then recently, they decided to bring it back.

Thank goodness they decided to milk this line of business further.

I'm no aficionado of fancy ice cream — Ben & Jerry's is fine, but I'd just as soon have a bigger crate of cheaper stuff. Yuengling, however, has made a tremendous creamy, filling, rich frozen treat that's equally perfect for a quick midday cool down or end-of-night bowl. In short, it's rich without being too rich.

My flavor of choice, the black and tan, swirls Belgian chocolate with salted caramel in the same container. Both are exquisite, with the chocolate exhibiting some bitter tones and the caramel tending more toward the sweet than the salt.

Still, the caramel side really shines. Just when you think it's getting too sweet, there's a kick of NaCl to bring you back to the table.

If you're looking for downsides, pricing and sizing are the only things you'll find. The Yuengling carton is smaller than your standard ice cream carton, measuring a quart. It's a bit pricier, too. Let's just say I didn't get as much change back from a $5 bill as I'd have liked.

Still, I'd call it a small price to pay. Cheers to Yuengling's ice cream, which churns out an extremely impressive four sporks out of five.

May 25, 2015

Remembering Mr. Robert C. Moyer

"Periscope" Adviser Robert C. Moyer as he appeared in the 2005 yearbook.
Mr. Robert C. Moyer died at the age of 70 on May 16, 2015. He was a most important mentor.

He was the first person to teach me about newspaper reporting, back when I was on the staff of my high school student rag. As such, I'll refer to him in proper second-reference style today: Moyer.

Without Moyer, there would be no food critique. Thanks to his role as adviser of the Carlisle High School monthly newspaper Periscope, I started writing cafeteria critiques when I was in the 11th grade. They ran until I graduated, and they were enough fun that I kept the idea alive reviewing inexpensive food on this blog. A decade later, I still write reviews when I can find a few spare minutes and a worthy subject, simply because it's so much fun.

I would also be in a different professional field without Moyer. I'm a newspaper reporter today because of his early instruction. He taught me the inverted pyramid in a high school classroom. He edited my work with a wise but unyielding red pen. He taught me to count headline characters, a skill that has been critical at times over the years, even in an age when computers should have streamlined that process long ago. He wrote a letter of recommendation to get me into college.

More importantly, Moyer taught me that you can have fun every day in your life, even when you have work to do. You can joke with people and show them you value and care about them. We would all do well to conduct ourselves as he did.

When I was a senior in high school, I won an essay contest from the Daughters of the American Revolution, a women's service organization focused on patriotism and history. Anyone could enter the contest, but as an 18-year-old high school male, my winning opened me up for plenty of daughter jokes.

Moyer a teacher was the first to make those jokes. I remember walking into his classroom the day I won to see him beaming with a smile that was about 90 percent pride and 10 percent imp. He started by saying that my award was a great honor and that the Daughters of the American Revolution was a prestigious organization.

Then he proceeded to call me Carlisle High School's own daughter of the American Revolution. It was a joke he'd return to many times, usually in the middle of a group discussion in class, and usually when my teenage self needed to be cut down to size just a little bit.

That was far from the only such joke Moyer made, and I was far from the only subject. He had a way of using humor like that to include everyone in a conversation. You never felt targeted by his jokes. You felt embraced by them. At the end of the day, you knew he valued you and supported you.

If you got Moyer to talk about the classes he taught, he'd tell you some of his favorites were on the non-college preparatory track. He'd been in his position long enough that he could have picked all of the top classes, never interacting with the kids who weren't bound for big-name schools or prestigious scholarships.

He didn't do that, at least in part because he recognized the value of every single person in the school. He wanted to interact with those bound for all walks of life, and he enjoyed getting to know them. Again, we'd all do well to learn from him there.

I could share a dozen more memories of Moyer, but I'll end with two. The first is when I had graduated from college and returned to town to cover Carlisle for The Harrisburg Patriot-News. I ran into Moyer in a diner one day, and he pumped my hand emphatically and said he'd been reading my byline.

Now, I've been told by someone that they're reading my byline at least 50 times over my short career. The only instance I truly believed it was when I met Moyer in that diner.

The second memory I want to share is from when I was a senior in high school and different media outlets were doing human interest stories on my cafeteria critique column. It started with the Patriot-News writing about it, then the AP did a story, then a radio station, and I ended up doing a cable television hit.

Moyer was clearly proud. He was clearly having fun. But he also used the moment to remind us all that you never know what story will be picked up and run with by the press.

Coming from anyone else, that lesson could have ruined the experience by reminding me my 15 minutes of fame were nothing more than happenstance. But somehow, Moyer helped me reflect on the time in a way that made me value it more.

Here's a quote from Moyer that appeared in the AP story about my cafeteria critique:

“I enjoy the column, and I’ve never eaten the cafeteria food.”

I don't know if he ever ended up eating the cafeteria food. But today I want to raise a spork to Moyer. I'm so glad we crossed paths, and so sorry you left us all too soon.

April 18, 2015

Mountain Dew Kickstart Hydrating Boost carries more water than the original

Can the new Kickstart replace coffee?
Happy Saturday morning, foodies!

Some of you are looking a little bleary eyed — a few too many Guinness potato chips last night, eh? Well you're in luck, because this morning I'm breaking down a beverage that seemingly aims to be the perfect follow-up to a long, hard night out: Mountain Dew Kickstart Hydrating Boost.

The formula is similar to that of the original Mountain Dew Kickstart breakfast soda, except coconut water has been added for its supposed hydration benefits. The can's smaller, too, coming in at 12 oz. versus the original Kickstart can's 16 oz. That could be a good sign, because based on my feelings about Kickstart the first time around, the less you drink, the better.

This new beverage mutation comes in flavors humbly titled "Energizing Strawberry Kiwi" and "Energizing Pineapple Orange Mango." The word "energizing" might not technically be part of the name, per Mountain Dew's website, but it's on the can darned close to the flavor. Maybe it's there just in case you didn't get the message that a beverage called "Kickstart" in a skinny can might be an energy drink. Anyway, because I'm a glutton for punishment, I tried both to find out if they might be a decent substitute for my morning coffee.

Energizing Pineapple Orange Mango is underwhelming at best. There's simultaneously too much fake tanginess and not enough real citrus. It somehow manages to taste watery at the same time, too. I've tried a few other new citrus drinks hitting the market lately and had many of the same flavor complaints. Either my palate is off, or someone's mixing flavors wrong.

If you're going to drink one of these, drink Strawberry Kiwi.
Energizing Strawberry Kiwi is better. I could actually keep a can in the refrigerator without shuddering every time I opened the door. It's too sweet, yes, but it's also surprisingly appealing in a bubblegum pop sort of way.

Now let's talk about the fundamental problem with these drinks: They claim to be hydrating, yet they also contain caffeine. It's a conflict of interests, a crisis of self, an oxymoronic existence. And it's especially troubling because the cans play up their hydrating power while listing in much smaller text the fact that they contain nasty dehydrating caffeine.

Even worse, they're relatively light on the caffeine. My can of Energizing Strawberry Kiwi was listed at 68 mg per 12 oz. While I'm no doctor, that seems like just enough to kick the kidneys into overdrive without really waking up the brain. So you get the aqua-robbing power of caffeine canceled out by the hydration of coconut water and very little mental boost to boot.

Still, these are better than early versions of Kickstart. Their fundamental flaws tend to intrigue, rather than offend. Two-and-a-half sporks out of five and a bonus star for an interesting effort.

At the end of the day, though, you only need to know one thing. I'm still drinking coffee as I write this.

March 30, 2015

Guinness Potato Chips form a lasting memory

Better to eat Guinness chips late than never.
It's still March. That means I can write about St. Patrick's Day food without being behind the times, right?

Even if I am a week or two late to the party, I found one shameless Irish tie-in this year that's worth mentioning a little after the fact. The tie-in is Burts Guinness Thick Cut Potato Chips. Which, last time I checked, is Gaelic for heaven.

Before going any further, it's important to back up and explain how much of I sucker I am for St. Patrick's Day. Green milkshakes make my heart melt like I'm the CEO of a food dye company. Don't even get me started on shepherd's pie or corned beef and cabbage.

Guinness chips, on the other hand, seemed like a stretch. Give me bacon mac and cheese chips, give me mango salsa spuds, even give me chicken and waffle tater slices. But beer? Dublin-brewed black gold? It seemed a stretch.

If it is a stretch, it turned out to be one in the right direction. Guinness chips are savory like you wouldn't believe with an undercurrent of sweetness that flows like the suds at a Scranton St. Patrick's Day Parade. (That parade is, incidentally, the single longest line of Irish dancers, trucks and assorted church-related paraphernalia I've ever seen.) Potato chips are only good at their job if they keep you reaching into the bag for more. These chips are great at their job.

They're thick cut, too, so they have some substance. Eat a few handfuls of these and you'll feel sluggish and full. That might not sound ideal until you think about your average thin potato chip with its wispy body and lack of oomph. You eat those and you feel sluggish and hungry.

The only problems I had with the Burts Guinness chips were that the bag was significantly smaller than your average chip bag and the price was substantially higher. We won't go into exactly how expensive these things were, but it's safe to wonder how they were so stratospherically expensive in spite of the strengthening dollar.

Really, it's too late in the review to worry about little details like that, though. Therefore I'm handing out a belated four sporks out of five to these tasty treats. See if you can get some on a post-St. Pattie's Day sale, and your Irish eyes will be happy.

March 8, 2015

McDonald's spices up its Filet-O-Fish with Old Bay

The Old Bay is good. The cheese, not so much.
My favorite culinary regionalism in Baltimore is the practice of dumping Old Bay Seasoning on everything.

Yes, you think of Old Bay for crab or maybe some fish. But here you can also sprinkle it on fries, pork, eggs and even steak without raising any eyebrows. So it was no surprise to find McDonald's branches capitalizing on the local love by adding Old Bay to its long-running Filet-O-Fish sandwiches in Greater Baltimore and some of the surrounding states.

A little more surprising is where the Old Bay goes. It's not in the wild-caught Alaskan Pollock patties themselves, as I'm guessing they're prepared en masse in some factory somewhere that can't be bothered to change up the recipe for a few measly states in the Mid-Atlantic. No, the seasoning ends up in the tartar sauce.

I could understand if we were talking Old Bay mayonnaise, which sounds like a delectable idea. We're not. We're talking pickle relish, chunks and all.

Even so, the Old Bay Filet-O-Fish is an improvement over the more mundane sandwich on which it's based. The extra spice is a nice kick added to a crispy if somewhat flavorless square of fried fish. Things would be better if we were talking Old Bay mayo instead of tartar sauce, but they're not bad.

What is bad is the cheese. McDonald's insists on saddling the Filet-O-Fish with a slice of bright orange terror seemingly closer to petroleum byproduct than dairy product. I'd have taken a picture of the piece left sticking to the packaging after I finished my meal, except I feared it would scar any younger readers for life. That cheese is gastrointestinal crime.

The bun's not much better, as it's closer to a sponge than actual bread. As horrific as those two ingredients sound, however, they can be ignored when you have a good bite of fish slathered in zesty Old Bay. And the sandwiches are a relative deal, going at the price of two for $4. So somehow, the Old Bay Filet-O-Fish swims against the current of its lesser ingredients to grab a pretty good rating.

Three sporks out of five. Pair one with a slippery Shamrock Shake and you'll make your Irish Catholic friends happy while having a March meal to remember.

January 31, 2015

The 2015 Super Coffee Bowl

There's nothing quite like a good Super Bowl-themed food face-off, and this year's big game is perfect for a java joust.

Two of the country's biggest coffee brands come from the cities that are squaring off in this year's football game to beat all football games. Seattle and its Seahawks have their Starbucks. Meanwhile New England and its Patriots have their Dunkin' Donuts, a company based in Canton just outside of Boston.

I don't pretend to be impartial when it comes to these coffees. Starbucks is one of my favorite food brands, while I swore that Dunkin' Donuts was dead to me back in July. One unfortunate franchise ignored my order of a bagel with cream cheese, opting instead to only serve me a plain toasted whole-grain bagel. I discovered the error when I was five miles down the road in the car and had no other option than to lament the dryness of it all.

Who orders a plain toasted bagel? Who serves one?

Dunkin' climbed back toward my good graces by finally deciding to serve their dark roast hot, however. For years now you've been able to get it iced or bagged to brew at home yourself, but the restaurants refused to go beyond that. It was infuriating, since Dunkin's regular blend is basically watered-down Folgers  coffee for people who don't like coffee.

All things considered, I decided to bite the bullet and order cups of Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts dark roasts on my way into work over back-to-back days this week. Which one was tastier? Which one provided the better buzz? Read on to find out.

Dunkin' Dark

If I'm doing a drink competition involving Dunkin' Donuts and anyone, you can count on Dunkin' being a dark horse at best. But the place's dark roast is a truly enjoyable experience.

To start, the scent is much richer than what you'd expect. It screams full body and depth of flavor. Sipping the drink is much the same thing, with a ton of toasted caramel coming out before a smooth finish. 

I'm not a big fan of Dunkin's foam cups and bulbous to-go tops, though. It's like drinking from a sippy cup that's bad for the planet. We can do better.

Starbucks Espresso Roast

Starbucks rotates their dark roasts regularly, so my goal was to sample whatever the flavor of the day proved to be. On Friday at my local outpost, it was Espresso Roast  not as good as the complex Christmas Blend or the deeply infatuating Gold Coast Blend in my opinion, but still a solid drink.

The scent wasn't nearly as noticeable with this cup as it was with the one from Dunkin', a fact I found very surprising. But there's a lot of caramel here, so it's probably a good option to face off against the Boston-area brew. Espresso Roast is very sweet, but it has a lot of roasted tones to balance it out. This is rich coffee.

And Starbucks cups are just heads and tails above Dunkin's. Not only do I feel like an adult drinking out of them, but they're tapered at a more comfortable angle, too. Yes, some people sneer at you for being elitist when they see the Starbucks logo, but it's better than being sneered at for not really liking coffee when you're holding a cup of Dunkin'.

As far as other factors go, Dunkin' was a few dimes cheaper than Starbucks, but there's not a huge price difference going on here. Both coffees were served adequately hot. If you're looking for a better caffeine boost, the Espresso Roast probably did the trick a tad better.

At the end of the day, Dunkin' Donuts made a surprisingly good run of it. I'm awarding Dunkin' Dark a very impressive four sporks out of five. It was just edged by Starbucks Esspresso Roast, which I'm giving a quarter of a spork more due to a combination of its better cup, deeper flavor and my better past experiences with the brand. 

Really, though, you can't go wrong with either of these coffees on Super Bowl Sunday  or any other day, for that matter.