The discount grocery chain that’s aiming to take over America has a tasty holiday secret
The way some Europeans go on about Aldi, the discount grocery chain that's a staple of life in Germany, you'd think it was the second coming. It's really not—your average Aldi branch possesses almost as much charm as your friendly local Department of Motor Vehicles waiting area. It also features checkout lines that can go nearly as long. Sure, the prices often can’t be beat, but are they even selling anything you want?
Well, maybe. Anyone lucky enough to grow up celebrating Christmas in the German fashion will know that one of the greatest things about it—besides the fact that an otherwise practical people would suddenly insist on dragging a freshly-cut fir tree indoors, only to decorate it with dozens of lit candles—would easily have to be the cookies.
Aldi, which announced this year it’ll be spending billions of dollars in an effort to become one of America’s new favorite grocery chains, recently opened a sparkling new location near my home, just outside of New York City. Clearly, I had to stop in and see—would they have the cookies, the chocolate tree ornaments covered in foil, the stollen?
They absolutely did, right along with the $2.97 gallons of whole milk, the eggs by the dozen for a little more than a buck, the organic blueberry preserves for $2.29 and proper, absolutely massive, French baguettes (take-and-bake) for $1.69. Not only that, the cookies, imported from Germany, were just as affordable as everything else in the store.
The choice was clear—I would need to buy at least one of everything. But would it measure up to my childhood memories? Would anyone who grew up in a household that didn't have a favorite lebkuchen (gingerbread) recipe care, or even be into this stuff? With a budget of $20, I managed to fill up an entire Aldi reusable shopping bag, and brought the spoils into work, in order to conduct an unofficial taste test.
Expectations were low, and some of our tasters were encountering these traditional, maybe-you-had-to-grow-up-with-them treats for the first time, but—surprise!—the overwhelming response was positive, even more so when I told them how much everything cost. Looking to German up your holiday this year? Here are our top picks from an assortment of about a dozen items that we sampled—all of them are being sold under Aldi's Winternacht label, all are made in Germany.
Almond Spekulatius (10.58 oz., $1.99) Fans of that cookie butter from Trader Joe’s (owned by the same company, by the way, kind of) will want to snap up some of this buttery, spicy shortbread, bragging a thin layer of sliced almonds, baked in at the bottom. Known better to Americans as a Belgian or Dutch thing, spekulatius are a Christmas tradition in Germany. Typically made with cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves, we got a little of all of the above, except perhaps the ginger, and a surprisingly pleasant, clove-y aftertaste. All around, a winner.
Pfeffernüsse (7.05 oz., $1.49) It doesn’t get more classic than these little nubs of glazed, spiced gingerbread, and Aldi’s version of the German Christmas staple, made with unbleached wheat flour, is a real winner—that is, if you like gingerbread. The texture of the cookie was a struggle for some of our tasters—we’ll admit, if you’re not used to biting through the sugar glaze into a very chewy cookie, it can be a little surprising—but nobody (nobody who likes a spicy cookie, anyway) could fault the taste in the least. One taster with German family members pointed out that Pfeffernüsse sometimes feature a sort of waxy coating that takes getting used to—in this instance, there was no such hurdle to overcome.
Gefüllte Herzen Vollmilch (10.58 oz., $1.99) Did you know that gingerbread and apricot pair really well? Even more so when you add chocolate to the mix. These lebkuchen hearts, enrobed in milk chocolate (German standards here, mind you, so it’s actually pretty dark) conceal a fun little surprise—a soft center of apricot jelly. One taster equated the experience with biting into a Fig Newton, in terms of texture, and you might find your first taste to be a little overwhelming—it is, after all, a lot of ginger, a lot of apricot, and a lot of chocolate. Still, these little hearts might just end up working their way into yours. These ended up tasting the most commercial of everything we tried, but that’s a minor quibble, considering most people eating them in America won’t know what the home-baked version tastes like.
Zimtsterne (6.17 oz., $2.99) Otherwise known as cinnamon star cookies, these are, like the Pfeffernüsse, about as integral to the German Christmas experience as a cookie could possibly be. Typically made of ground almonds—no flour, gluten-avoiding people take note—and topped with a citrus glaze, these contained lots of hazelnuts, as well as candied fruit and marzipan. Sold in a miniature size (they’d look great as an accent on any holiday cookie plate), these aren’t exactly traditional, but everyone found them to be exceedingly pleasant to eat—chewy, not dry in the slightest, full of flavor.