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We tasted a bunch of holiday foods you can order online

We ordered items from national purveyors to see which would be best on your holiday table.
The Furlough Cheesecake
The Furlough Cheesecake [ Janet Keeler ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020
Updated Dec. 17, 2020

At Goldbelly, an online marketplace for regional and gourmet foods, regular orders have increased in size this year by an average of 30 to 40 percent.

“We’ve been able to tap into the emotional power of food to provide memorable, meaningful experiences that so many people just can’t access right now,” said Vanessa Torrivilla, co-founder and chief product officer. “With every box we deliver, it’s always our goal to try and replicate the same feelings of excitement, anticipation, nostalgia and discovery that food can bring and provide an amazing experience for people to enjoy as part of their everyday lives.”

We checked in with the Goldbelly representatives to see what their customers are ordering this pandemic-challenged holiday season.

Not surprisingly, this is the busiest time of the year for the online service. “We’re expecting the holidays to be busier than ever with most people staying home and celebrating virtually,” said Torrivilla. “So we’re trying to make it as special as possible.”

What are customers buying? Torrivilla said comfort foods like Hattie B’s Hot Chicken from Nashville, seasonal treats including Pumpkin Spice Cake and Chocolate Peppermint Holiday Cake from baker Duff Goldman and Salted Caramel Apple Pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, New York, are among the top online sellers.

Since our Taster’s Choice food panel has not been able to meet since the beginning of 2020, we asked our judges to sample some mail-ordered foods we purchased and had delivered to their homes. Some were shipped through Goldbelly, including cupcakes from New York City’s Magnolia Bakery. Most were shipped directly from the sellers. We selected a random variety of foods to see if any would be gift-worthy to send to friends or to serve to family over the holidays.

Here is what we got, the price of each order, including shipping, and what our panelists had to say:

Appetizers, snacks, breads

Mini Crab Cake Assortment from Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes & More, $54.95, cbcrabcakes.com

Nan Jensen, a registered dietitian, got this product. The very cold appetizers, packed in plastic foam and dry ice, arrived two days earlier than expected with two types of the frozen cakes, including Maryland Crab Cakes and Artichoke Cheese Crab Cakes.

“They were a nice size of an appetizer and could be eaten with or without a fork,” said Jensen. She said the Maryland Crab Cakes had more filling than the artichoke- and cheese-filled cakes, although the Maryland cakes had a heavier, fishy taste compared to the milder crab flavor in the other option. She baked them according to package directions and served them to a group of friends.

“I did not have leftovers,” she said. “I added interest by garnishing the cakes with some fresh herbs and would consider a dipping sauce like a lemon or herbed aioli or horseradish sriracha mayonnaise.”

Jensen said she would buy the appetizers for the convenience but also would like to try making these herself from scratch, although she acknowledged “the biggest challenge would be to find the mild sweet crabmeat, which should be ‘the star’ of this appetizer.”

Alligator Nuggets and Comeaux’s Alligator Balls from the Cajun Grocer, $58.73, cajungrocer.com

John Hehn, foodie and owner of All Brite Lighting & Power Design Inc., tested these alligator meat items, which arrived frozen and packed in dry ice. These were not a big hit with the Hehn family. “They looked good and were filled with real chunks of gator meat and not minced gator like a fish stick,” said Hehn. “They fried to a nice, golden brown and had a real ‘chicken tender’ quality bite to them.” That’s where his praise ended. Hehn said the Cajun spice was “uneventful” and “they tasted a bit like spicy balls of Spanish rice.” The gator balls were baked rather than fried and didn’t produce the same crispy texture as the nuggets. The flavor was disappointing as well. He said his family members figured they might taste better as part of a bigger dish or slathered on sandwich bread with toppings. These will not be on Hehn’s holiday wish list. “The best part of this dish was the fun we had watching the dry ice melt in our pool,” he said.

Alligator Nuggets and Alligator Balls.
Alligator Nuggets and Alligator Balls. [ John Hehn ]
Alligator Nuggets and Alligator Balls.
Alligator Nuggets and Alligator Balls. [ John Hehn ]

Elegant Brie Blue Cheese Brie En Croute from Williams-Sonoma, $71.94, williams-sonoma.com

Helen Freund, Tampa Bay Times food and dining critic, received this large Brie wheel. It arrived fully frozen and was heated in the oven for 45 minutes. “It is pretty much foolproof,” said Freund. “A simple egg white and water wash will give it a nice golden sheen, but even without that, the crust gets crispy and golden once it’s done baking.” It’s a good idea to transfer the Brie to a cheese plate as soon as it’s finished baking, because once you cut into it “it will ooze melted cheese everywhere,” warned Freund, who loved the cheese. “It was delicious! A melty mix of Brie, caramelized scallions, garlic and bacon,” she said. Freund said she would definitely order this and serve it to family and friends. “It’s super simple and delicious,” she said. “You definitely need to eat it with a fork and knife, however. It’s not finger-food friendly.”

San Francisco Sourdough Bread Sampler from the Boudin Bakery, $46.90, boudinbakery.com

Bob Devin Jones, artistic director at Studio@620 in St. Petersburg, tasted this order, which contained several loaves of different-sized breads packed into a box. “The loaves had a real rustic look and a very piquant taste. You can taste the sourdough, which really comes through when loosely wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes,” said Jones. He enjoyed the first sample with a pasta meal and particularly liked a bread round that he said was “perfect for pulling apart and slathering with lightly salted butter.” The California-raised taster said he would definitely order this bread and serve it for a weeknight family meal or a special occasion.

Tapas for Two Gift Box from La Tienda, $92.90, tienda.com

Jeff Jensen, public information officer for the city of Treasure Island, reviewed this box from La Tienda, an online seller of traditional Spanish food and products based in Virginia. Tapas for Two was a good starter kit for enjoying some traditional Spanish fare, said Jensen. “You can arrange all these goodies in little bowls or plates or serve them on a cutting board and dress them up any way you like,” he said. The gift box arrived well-packed and “secure enough that even a bag of chips arrived unbroken,” Jensen said. The box included chorizo, which Jensen described as “excellent, chewy and spicy.” He also enjoyed the anchovy-stuffed olives, although, he said, “I drained off the brine and substituted some everyday California olive oil.” Almonds were included as well.

“As I removed some of the additional shredded packing material (a dead ringer for one of Cher’s wigs from her 1998 Farewell tour) I found a terra-cotta cazuela dish, cat’s eye-shaped bread sticks and the real star of the gift box: a package of six, individually wrapped, anise-flavored Tortas de Aceite crisps.” He described the biscuit crackers as sweet, flaky and aromatic. “They were just great, and a real treat if you have never had anise before or were just ‘anise-curious.’” Three chocolate-dipped figs “had just the right amount of sweetness overkill,” he added.

Jensen said he would buy this to enjoy with friends or as a gift for the holidays or any special occasion. “Add some fruit and cheese and you’ve got yourself a quick and eminently sophisticated serving of tapas,” he said.

Chorizo
Chorizo [ Jeff Jensen ]
Tortas de Aceite
Tortas de Aceite [ Jeff Jensen ]
"Tapas for Two"
"Tapas for Two" [ Jeff Jensen ]

Desserts

Sweet Potato Cheesecake from the Furlough Cheesecake in Maryland, $40.69, thefurloughcheesecake.com

Janet Keeler, assistant professor of journalism at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, tasted this cheesecake. This company was founded in 2018 by two sisters who were federal employees left without paychecks during a long government shutdown right before the holidays. We ordered the sweet potato cheesecake, one of the most popular offerings, which arrived well-chilled in a foam cooler with dry ice. It was nestled in a plastic container with a clear dome.

“The surface had telltale cracks that make it look homemade,” said Keeler. “It appeared more like a sweet potato pie with a graham cracker crust but one bite told a different story. The tang from the cream cheese was mellowed by the earthy sweet potato and it was just sweet enough.” She added a little whipped cream to dress up the taste and look of the treat.

Keeler sampled the “couples”-sized cheesecake with four modest slices. It could serve four, but there wouldn’t be enough for a second sliver.

“With smaller holiday gatherings this year it’s suited for a threesome, especially if the three eaters love the idea of a sweet potato pie crossed with cheesecake,” said Keeler, adding that she would happily purchase this dessert.

The Furlough Cheesecake
The Furlough Cheesecake [ Janet Keeler ]
The Furlough Cheesecake
The Furlough Cheesecake [ Janet Keeler ]

Ice cream from McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams in Santa Barbara, California, $80.98. mcconnells.com

Laura Jolly, food blogger at politicsandprovisions.com, got 4 pints of well-packed frozen ice cream, which arrived at her part-time home in central Pennsylvania exactly as scheduled.

“The ice creams were kept fresh and the ideal consistency,” said Jolly.

The gourmet ice creams are made from scratch with grass-grazed milk, organic and locally sourced flavors. “Each bite was creamy and fresh, which gives the ice cream a smooth richness,” she said. The Jollys tried Eureka Lemon & Marionberries; Turkish Coffee; Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate; and Peppermint Stick.

Jolly said this ice cream made by a company founded in 1949 “was by far the coolest and most forward-leaning ice cream product I’ve tried.” She appreciated that the company uses locally made jams and preserves in its products. “The brand oozes sustainability and the ice cream is just dreamy,” she said. “A perfect combination.”

Jolly was also impressed with the bold and unique flavors like the Eureka Lemon & Marionberries and the Turkish Coffee. “You only need one scoop to feel like you’ve had a completely satisfying dessert but you may find yourself heading back to the freezer for just one more spoonful before calling it a night,” she said.

Jolly will be ordering more for the holidays.

“I’m already looking forward to pairing the ice cream flavors with my dessert spread of cookies and pies,” she said.

Holiday Trees Keepsake Tin from See’s Candies, $40.88, sees.com

Mary Jane Park, retired writer and editor, got these See’s chocolates. This company knows how to package their bonbons. The tin of chocolates arrived in a sizable box lined with cushioned brown paper and packed with air cushions, bubble wrap and cold packs. The decorative tin was securely sealed in cellophane and, inside the tin, the chocolates were cushioned by paper and more bubble wrap.

“These were presented in cocoa-colored pleated paper holders and the chocolates (a total of 26 pieces) were sweet, well-formed and unfazed by the Florida heat,” said Park, who said she would “absolutely” order one of these tins as a gift for friends. She noted the candy box didn’t include information about each piece. But she wasn’t concerned.

“I know peanut brittle when I see it; nuts and coconut too,” she said. “What would the holidays be without mystery and wonder?”

Signature Cookie Assortment from Levain Bakery in Manhattan, New York, $68, levainbakery.com

Levain Bakery ships an assortment of its cookies nationwide. The package includes a cute postcard.
Levain Bakery ships an assortment of its cookies nationwide. The package includes a cute postcard. [ MICHELLE STARK | Times ]

Michelle Stark, assistant editor, Life & Culture, said these cookies arrived in a sturdy box with two sleeves of four cookies each. “It felt like a very safe way to transport such hefty cookies,” said Stark. “The plastic sleeves were tied with a ribbon, making the overall presentation lovely.”

Stark described the cookies as “ginormous,” saying, “I’m not kidding when I said I had to eat mine with a fork. They are at least two times the size of cookies you may make at home, and quite thick.”

Stark said fans of soft, almost underdone cookies will love these offerings. “They looked and tasted just as fresh as if you had ordered them at a Levain Bakery that day,” she said. “I preferred to heat mine in the oven for a bit, so they got a bit more firm.”

While the cookies are a bit crumbly, they had heaping fillings like walnuts and raisins. The Signature Cookie Assortment included Chocolate Chip Walnut; Dark Chocolate Chocolate Chip; Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip; and Oatmeal Raisin.

“They were all good but the Chocolate Chip Walnut was a standout for me, a classic cookie combo,” she said, pointing out that the cookies would be great for a party, cut up into quarters and “toothpicked as part of a mini dessert tray.”

Stark said she would definitely send these cookies as a gift, not only because of the “nice indulgent flavor,” but because the cookies ship well and come in a pretty box with a postcard showing a map of the Hamptons and an illustration of Pam Weeks and Connie McDonald, who created Levain Bakery in 1995.

Levain Bakery ships an assortment of its cookies nationwide. The package includes a cute postcard.
Levain Bakery ships an assortment of its cookies nationwide. The package includes a cute postcard. [ MICHELLE STARK | Times ]
Levain Bakery ships an assortment of its cookies nationwide. The package includes a cute postcard.
Levain Bakery ships an assortment of its cookies nationwide. The package includes a cute postcard. [ MICHELLE STARK | Times ]

“These cookies are delicious but it was almost hard for me to finish some of them, and I have a pretty intense sweet tooth,” said Stark. “They are large! You’re better off splitting them in half so they last longer. I also froze some, and they stood up very well to freezing and thawing/reheating.”

Christmas Cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery in New York City, $100, magnoliabakery.goldbelly.com

Elaine Cloud Goller, writer, director, performer and Realtor, received these cupcakes. Good thing they weren’t planned for a birthday or holiday party, because they arrived a day later than expected. However, the Goldbelly site does warn customers that holiday shipping schedules have been delayed because of the pandemic. The cupcakes were cold and in good shape upon arrival, although some of the holiday decorations on top of the cupcakes didn’t survive the trip.

Fans of Magnolia Bakery cupcakes appreciate the super sweet icing and the moist cake. Even through shipping, the chocolate and vanilla cake in these cupcakes was moist and satisfying. The icing, while a bit smudged on some cupcakes, was as decadent as right off the bakery shelf.

“The fudge icing was rich and generous,” said Goller, who would buy the cupcakes, but likely for friends with children. Admittedly, she wasn’t a huge fan of the sugary icing that many New Yorkers have come to love ever since watching Carrie Bradshaw discuss her love life over a Magnolia Bakery cupcake along Bleecker Street in a 2000 episode of Sex and the City.