I Tried Trader Joe’s Sweet Cinnamon Filled Korean Pancakes – How Did They Hold Up to Traditional Hotteok?
I was intrigued to find the street cart favorite in the chain’s frozen aisle.
I keep up with new launches at Trader Joe’s like I do with the Kardashians: from afar. I know, I know. I wish this wasn’t true either but I rarely shop at Trader Joe’s for two reasons. One: my local TJ’s always has a line shooting out the door, wrapped around the building, meeting its end in front of a townhouse about four doors down. And secondly, I prefer to shop in bulk at a wholesale retailer. But every so often, something on Trader Joe’s Instagram page will grab my attention and nothing will get done until I try it for myself. In recent history, everything I’ve gravitated towards has been a snack: Ghost Pepper Potato Chips, Everything But the Bagel Nuts and Ube Tea Cookies; all of these items hit upon familiar tastes I enjoy but felt novel enough to test out, and that’s normally the theme of my rare pilgrimages to the store. When I saw that Trader Joe’s had newly released Sweet Cinnamon Filled Korean Pancakes, or hotteok, as I know and love them from my Korean culture, I felt prompted to go on one of my once-in-a-blue-moon trips.
I was delighted to find my neighborhood shop fully stocked with bags of the frozen pancakes. What made me even more excited was to read on the package that it was indeed a “Product of Korea.” Things were off to a great start. I rushed back home and tucked the bag in the freezer to make it the next morning.
In the original Instagram post, TJ’s mentioned the pancake’s interior was “stuffed with a cinnamon-spiked, sweet potato-filling,” of which I really mostly picked up on the cinnamon part in a highly concentrated dose that felt more like a paste, rather than a gooey filling (maybe this was where the starchy sweet potato came into play). But I enjoyed the paste! It wasn’t cloyingly sweet, nor was it so packed with sugar granules that you could feel grittiness in the caramel-like goo, as is typical in traditional hotteok. I felt like I could easily eat a whole pancake (I did) without having to take a nap right after (I did not!).
Hotteok is a warm, indulgent pancake sold for cheap in street carts and snack shops in South Korea. In my childhood, I consumed aplenty on various trips to Korea from a street vendor or at home, made from store-bought pancake mix. The hotteok that I’m used to has an exterior that is so glutinous that when you break it open, it pulls away like molten cheese. It also has small but distinct layers of tenderness. The Trader Joe’s pancakes left me wishing for a bit more of those chewy-flaky inflections. For this taste test, I pan-fried each piece with some neutral oil, which gently firmed up their bodies to golden crispy-crunchiness whilst maintaining the dough’s supple consistency. I’m somewhat of a texture maximalist, so I personally could have welcomed even more mix-ins – perhaps pine nuts or chopped walnuts in the filling, for a distinctive boost of crunch. But I also get that Trader Joe’s was going for a straightforward, classic version of hotteok.
On her uber-popular Instagram account, Shannon of @traderjoesobsessed shared an epic ice cream sundae she made using a stack of pancakes as her base which she then topped with French vanilla ice cream, candied pecans and a dash of ground cinnamon. Her creation got me thinking: the possibilities of hacking these up into a whimsical dessert or breakfast dish are endless. To satisfy some of the nuttiness I craved, I could easily drizzle tahini and shower on chopped nuts. Or I could cut one crosswise and fill it with matcha or butter pecan ice cream for a sweet pancake sandwich.
But even on their own, these Sweet Cinnamon Filled Korean Pancakes are a splendidly sweet treat worth trying out. A pack of four retails for $3.99 and you can find them in the frozen section of your local Trader Joe’s.