Ikea's snack attack: Why is Swedish mustard so effin' good?

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After an afternoon of shopping for cheap to moderately-priced unassembled end tables and bathroom shelves at Ikea -- a trip that usually lasts into the early evening if you start on the top floor -- there is one last spot you really can't miss: the Swedish food market. This section of the store is a wonderland of smoked fish, fish in jars, things to eat with fish, and lingonberry preserves. But in addition to the surfeit of sea-meat, on a recent visit I noticed some new items, including weird snack foods that I was surprised to see at Ikea. I found a strange brick of chocolate cake, a carton of fried onions, dark and milk chocolate squares infused with berries, gummy fruit candies, potato chips, apple sandwich cookies with tiny apple-flavored hearts on the tops, frozen mini Cheddar and leek pies, frozen rhubarb crumble tarts, frozen pizza and mustard.

Ikea mustard? I had to know more...in particular, whether any of this tasted good. So I filled a big blue plastic Ikea bag with vittles and headed home to spend the next couple of days sampling everything on my Swedish snack smorgasbord.

Up first was the chocolate cake. It comes as a frozen brick-in-a-box, and looked like an oversized brownie, scored into four dainty slices. (An oversized, smushed brownie: I wish Ikea would quit taking such a bare-bones approach to packaging its desserts, because sliding a piece of cardboard underneath this cake would definitely minimize travel-damage.)

After an hour of thaw-time I dug in to a slice. It was surprisingly lacking in chocolate, but loaded with cinnamon. It was also dense, flat and oily, and the layer of icing was so meshed into the cake that I couldn't tell where the cake stopped and the icing began. At $3.99 a cake, I'd have been better off buying a box of brownie mix.

I have always had a weakness for those cans of French fried onions, the ones you sprinkle on the top of green bean casseroles at Thanksgiving. So I was intrigued by Ikea's version of those salty, crispy onion sprinkles. I popped the top of the plastic cylinder, took a pinch and crammed it in my mouth. They were delicious -- a bit more oily and far less salty than the Durkee brand fried onions, but a good buy at $1.50 a pop. I seriously have no idea why Ikea makes/stocks/sells fried onions, but I suppose they'd make a good topping for fish. I absolutely adored the berry chocolates. They were small squares of dark chocolate with blueberries and milk chocolate with lingonberries, individually wrapped, and they came in a white bag with a very pretty design on it -- green vines and berries. The dark chocolate squares were rich and not too bitter, the milk ones were creamy and both kinds smelled like fresh berries. At $4.29 a bag, these would make perfect casual gifts. And with the holidays around the corner, they would certainly liven up a treat plate or Christmas stocking.

The Ikea brand fruit snacks were apparently so new to the store that they didn't have the price code programmed into the registers yet -- the bags were small but $1.99 each, so I had high hopes that they would be something more special than ordinary grocery-store fruit snacks. And they were: The colorful little sugar-jewels were shaped and flavored like tiny pears, apples, lingonberries, blueberries and sea buckthorn berries (insert record skip noise)...sea buckthorn berries?

These oily, bright orange berries grow on thorny shrubs on sea coasts, and apparently it's a popular landscaping shrub. I chewed on one of the round, orange fruit snacks, and since I'd never had a fresh buckthorn berry, I figured I'd have to take Ikea at its word about what it was supposed to taste like. I thought it tasted like a weird but not unpleasant combination of a cranberry and a papaya. Ikea-produced potato chips? I'm game. Potato chips aren't my favorite snack -- I much prefer corn chips -- but at $1.69 for a medium-sized bag, it was worth it to see if I could eat just one. I ate one. I ate another...and another...then went ahead and continued through the bag. They were a lot like Kettle Chips, but not as rigid, and were just lightly salted -- so that I could actually taste delicious, oily, peel-on potatoes. The bag was soon empty, but I had another one. Sandwich cookies are another snack in my no-fly zone. because I furiously hate the stale disks stuck together by warm, tacky, grainy paste. But these Ikea sandwich cookies had little apple jelly hearts on them, and I have a severely unchecked fetish for things with hearts on them, so into the bag they went. I was pleased to discover that they weren't too sugary, that the cookie parts were crisp in the good butter cookie way, and that the dab of chewy apple actually made them pretty tasty -- and textural pleasing. So the $1.69 I'd shelled out for a roll of these was well-spent. Ikea has a pretty good rep for having above-edible reheatable frozen foods, and so I purchased a box of Cheddar and leek pies as well as a box of rhubarb crisp tartlettes, at $4 and $4.99 each. I baked the little pies for about ten minutes and the tarts for about fifteen. The Cheddar leek pies were indistinguishable from baby quiches -- they were eggy and oniony, with not much Cheddar and a disproportionate amount of crust compared to filling, but they would suffice for party appetizers in a pinch. Still, I will probably stick to buying those big boxes of tiny appetizer quiches from Costco.

The rhubarb crisps definitely needed a toaster oven rather than a conventional oven bake, because the crispy-crumbles on the tops were mushy. I popped them into the toaster for a few minutes, and the tops got a bit more solid. The rhubarb filling was sweet and tart, but again with the crust was too thick.

Swedish pizza is an interesting idea that I sincerely hoped would translate into an edible reality. For $5.29, you get a French bread loaf-sized, meatless pizza with a biscuit-y wheat crust, a mild tomato sauce, grated mozzarella and a mélange of black olive slices, diced onions and red, yellow and green bell peppers. This is one of the few frozen pizzas I've seen that actually bakes up to look like the picture on the package and bonus -- it was already scored into equal slices.

It took about ten to twelve minutes to bake -- that's fast -- but it only took one bite to see that it, too, had crust-ratio issues. There was just too much crust, and it got doughy in the middle. The toppings were fine, the sauce and cheese were at least in in good proportion to each other, but a a few sliced Ikea brand meatballs would not have been amiss.

And then there was the mustard. Who buys ordinary yellow mustard at Ikea? I did out of curiosity, because I overheard an Ikea employee next to the mustard display tell another employee that they should restock soon because mustard was one of the biggest sellers. WTAF? What do those nutty Swedes put in that mustard, anyway? Is it some rare, indigenous herb, or some inclusively-produced Nordic chemical?

Whatever, this mustard is amazing. I dipped pretzel sticks in it, used it on a ham and Swedish fontina cheese sandwich, and even squirted some in a spoon and licked it off. The mustard was medium thick, very aromatic, a tawny straw color, and tasted slightly sweet, slightly tangy. I flipped the bottle around and read the ingredients: It contains the usual mustard things plus spirit vinegar, as well as a touch of alcohol in it, along with ground aromatic spices like cinnamon, coriander, cardamom and cloves. It's $2.29 for a 17.6 ounce bottle, and enough of a bargain to justify wasting an entire day at ikea.

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