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Against Reese's Holiday Shapes
The pumpkins, trees, and eggs are truly different (and worse) than the original cups
Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year. As a kid, you get the thrill of walking around with your friends and loading up on sweet treats. As an adult, you get to provide a memorable experience for appreciative children…plus you can go to fun parties of your own and eat all the leftover candy. Yet as with all chocolate-oriented holidays, the Halloween season brings with it something sinister. It’s a phenomenon I’ve been warning about for years but few are willing to acknowledge; most people merely nod politely and then put their heads back in the sand.
I’m talking, of course, about the proliferation of the tangibly inferior holiday-shaped Reese’s candies in place of the beloved Peanut Butter Cups.
Trees at Christmas, eggs on Easter, hearts for Valentine’s Day, and of course the pumpkins for Halloween — well-meaning celebrants buy them to use as stocking-stuffers or to put out at a party, assuming they are just seasonally themed versions of the classic candy we all know and love. They are wrong. The festiveness of the shapes masks the facts that the coating is flimsy, the filling is over-sweet, and they are but a pale imitation of the greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts marriage of chocolate and peanut butter of a traditional Reese’s Cup.
The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup is damn near a perfect candy. By the standards of commercial milk chocolate, the thick outer coating is rich and satisfying. The salty cream of the peanut filling hits a spot on your palate in a way that no other candy in its class can match. The folds of the exterior provide an interesting texture for a second or two before the whole thing melts in your mouth. The chocolate and peanut butter are proportioned in harmonious equilibrium. In my trick-or-treating days, the primary criterion by which I judged my Halloween hauls was how many Reese’s Cups I had in my bag at the end of the night. As an adult who works from home I don’t have many occasions to pick from a bowl of candy anymore, but when I do, I still look for that bright orange wrapper.
Which is not to say I’m a hardcore Reese’s traditionalist. As far as I’m concerned, many of the newer offshoot products fully measure up to or even surpass the traditional cups. The bite-size Miniatures are every bit as good as their larger counterparts, with the advantage of not melting in your hand between mouthfuls. Their dark chocolate versions bring depth and sophistication to the cups, as if to turn a child’s treat into an adult’s indulgence. Reese’s Sticks bring wafer crunch to the party and are every bit as good as the caramel-y Twix bars they blatantly emulate. And the woefully underrated Fast Break pairs the classic sweet-salty Reese’s combo with the sticky cream of nougat, like a smoother and tastier version of a Snickers.
All of which is to say that my issue with Reese’s holiday shapes isn’t some back-in-my-day aversion to change, or an elitist screed against mass-produced candy, or — heaven forbid — a disinterest in chocolate. The problem is that, compared to the originals, the trees and eggs straight-up suck.
At this point you may be rolling your eyes at the idea that someone could even tell the difference between the cups and the other shapes, let alone have strong preferences about them. Yet beyond my baseline of strong opinions about food and gastronomic pedantry, I have some demonstrated expertise in this subject: I once correctly distinguished between shavings from a cup and a pumpkin in a blind taste-test before a skeptical audience. But in the spirit of intellectual honesty, this intrepid reporter bought a Reese’s Halloween variety pack so I could document the specific differences between the classic candies and the holiday knockoffs.
Your first clue that a Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkin is different than a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in more than just shape is apparent before you even open the wrapper. Just look at the length of the ingredients list:
I’ll save you the trouble of cross-referencing the fine print: The main differences between the candies are that the pumpkins add an unspecified “emulsifier” to the chocolate and contain one or more types of vegetable oil. We’ll revisit both of these inclusions shortly. You’ll also notice that, while the cups are gluten-free, the pumpkins are not, though that’s supposedly due to potential cross-contamination in processing, not the actual ingredients.
The textural difference was apparent as soon as I opened them. Both looked a little worse for wear, having experienced some light melting and smooshing during their journey from the factory to our kitchen counter. The traditional cup lost its signature smooth veneer, but the original patina was still visible, and the depths of the molten ridges and valleys illustrated how thick the chocolate is. Meanwhile, the pumpkin looked lumpy, the coating limply falling into the form beneath it like a tarpaulin in the rain. You could feel that the chocolate on the pumpkin was softer and flimsier.
Then you take a bite, and the difference in quality makes it hard to believe that the two candies are even made by the same company, let alone considered equivalent products. The original cup’s outer layer tastes unmistakably like milk chocolate. Obviously I wouldn’t put Hershey’s mass-produced chocolate up against a gourmet confectioner’s, but you at least get a hint of real cocoa. By contrast, the coating on the pumpkin is as lacking in flavor as it is in structural integrity. It tastes more generically sweet than truly chocolatey, and if not for the color it could have passed for white chocolate or a weak caramel. It also melted in my hand much more quickly than the cup did, which answered my question about why solid chocolate needs an emulsifier.
The differences in peanut butter are subtler but still apparent. The holiday peanut butter is actually creamier, without the characteristic grit of the traditional filling — the way it melts against your teeth feels like everyday toothpaste, while the original innards evoke the coarser kind you get at the dentist. Yet the salt in the pumpkin tastes like it was belatedly added into the cream, whereas in the cup it seems to be layered in the peanuts. The oily, almost chalky texture suggests a higher fat content, which must be where the vegetable oil comes in. The pumpkin’s filling also tastes much more sugary than the inside of the normal cups. The legendary combination of chocolate and peanut butter, rendered faithfully (if cheaply) in Reese’s Cups, gets flattened in the Reese’s Pumpkin into mere competing sources of sweetness.
In my experience, everything that makes the pumpkins different applies to Reese’s other full-sized holiday offerings, too: Christmas trees, Easter eggs, Valentine’s Day hearts. Whether the oilier peanut filling holds the forms better, the meltier chocolate is easier to mold into the alternate shapes, or Hershey’s assumes that people care less about quality in a product if it feels festive, the holiday versions simply aren’t as good. The exceptions are the smaller Easter eggs, which are basically Miniature Cups in an ovoid form — a fact that makes the other holiday shapes’ shortcomings even more frustrating. (The new-to-me White Creme Peanut Butter Ghosts that came in our Halloween variety pack were similarly cloying, but they were at least different enough from normal Reese’s Cups that you won’t be as disappointed by their inferiority.)
Interestingly, these flaws don’t befall most of the non-seasonal Reese’s variants. The only comparable example I can think of is Reese’s Pieces, which substitute a sweeter peanut filling to compensate for the lack of chocolate instead of leaning into the trademark Reese’s saltiness. (That Peanut Butter M&M’s are both chocolatier and saltier is why they are better than Reese’s Pieces.) As part of my due diligence in researching this essay, I also ate a Fast Break, which rounded out the selections in our Halloween sampler (I’d never seen them as part of a variety bag, and their presence made me feel better about buying a pack with pumpkins in it). Just as I remembered, the chocolate and peanut butter were as good as in the original cups. Any modulations in flavor, if they existed, were perfectly balanced out by the added nougat.
A great holiday treat is more than how it tastes. It’s the way that special foods both reflect and enhance the joy of the season. It’s the smile on a child’s face when they eat a chocolate shaped like a Christmas tree. It’s how sweet it feels to grab a treat from your neighbor’s bowl, or for someone you love to hand you a piece of candy.
…I bet you really believe that! Sucker. More Reese’s Cups for me, then. Convincing the world that kitschy shapes are a substitute for quality candy was quite a trick. I’d rather have the treat.
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