chocolate whoopie pies

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Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism — and their assumption of immortality. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light. — excerpted from a 1968 Playboy interview with Stanley Kubrick by Eric Nordern

I was a ransacker, dime store marauder and a bodega regular. My drug of choice was bags of cheese doodles, coconut ice cream, snake-long plastic tubes of ice, whose colors bordered on psychedelic, and cartons upon cartons of Little Debbie cakes. The cakes were delicate, individually wrapped, and unlike its scrappy doppelgangers, the Ring Ding, Ding Dong, and Ho Ho, Little Debbie cakes had class, a certain elan. I fashioned stories about the freckled girl in the large hat, imagined her living in the Swiss Alps or somewhere foreign, like Montana, and this foreignness, this immutable sense of innocent pleasure, made me love the cake more.

I got surgical with my after-school treats. Kicking the bags of orange puffs off my bed, I maintained an exclusive, almost obsessive relationship, with the Cocoa Creme. Back then the packaging was a stark white box festooned with a smiling Debbie — my secret confidante — and a cake with a chocolate lattice exterior, and insides that yielded to the tongue. The cake crackled, gave way to luscious sweet cream and pillows of cake.

Sometimes I’d save the plastic wrappers — my affection was that deep. When my local bodega or drug store sold out of my favorite cakes, I was apoplectic, on the verge of frenzy. Forced to settle for the wretched Devil Dog, I regarded my sweet with disdain. What kind of low-rent subversive devours a dessert named after a DOG? Never mind the devil. What kind of feeble-minded simpleton takes pleasure in a Ho-Ho or Ring-Ding — cheap monikers that held none of the poetry of my beloved Debbie, and her hair that gleamed red.

Those days were dark, my friends, and I often ate my second-tier sweets in silence, writing stories about little girls falling out of windows. I was ten then, and my writing set off five-alarm fires with guidance counselors. My mother was routinely called into my guidance counselor’s office to talk abut my stories. They were disturbing, dark, and my mother proceeded to read them aloud, and pronounced them good. Maybe something was happening at home, they politely queried, as I sank lower into my seat. Of course something was happening. Something was always happening in my house, whether it was my mother’s face shoved through a glass table or strange men pounding on our door asking for the money we always, inevitably, owed.

But that wasn’t why I wrote about girls hanging from shower rods or falling out of windows. That wasn’t why I ballooned from eating boxes of Little Debbie cakes until I got sick. Teachers begged me to write about flowers and ponies and all of the fanciful stock, but I was confused. I thought a story wasn’t a story unless someone died in the end. Because someone always dies, I said. After a while, the guidance counselors stopped asking questions and I ate my cakes and wrote my stories.

Decades later, I’ve replaced the Little Debbie cake with the whoopie pie, and I’m balancing the thing that comes natural to me — writing out the dark as if it were a sermon — with mouthfuls of light. I’ve been thinking of assembling a book of stories, recipes, illustrations, photo journeys — a life lived for food. This wouldn’t be the sort of book that offers a poignant story and a recipe at the end (eh-hem, my blog posts), but recipes, images, quotes, songs, illustrations, food, would be woven throughout. All told in vivid, wondrous color.

I’m still mulling this over, the kind of form this book would take and the sort of stories I’d write, but it’s exciting to see a small girl with her cakes and her pen grow into a woman with her cakes and her pen.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe adapted from Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented.
For the cookies
3½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ tsp salt
1¼ tsp baking powder
1¼ tsp baking soda
¾ cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp instant espresso powder (ground coffee is just fine)
1/2 cup hot coffee
2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar (or coconut cane sugar is fine)
3/4 cups grapeseed, safflower or canola oil
1 large egg, room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature, shaken

For the Swiss vanilla filling
5 large egg whites
1½ cups sugar
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, cool but not cold
¼ tsp salt
1½ tsp pure vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS
Preheat oven to 350° F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda, and set aside. In another large bowl, whisk together the cocoa and espresso powder. You can also use coffee grinds {I typically don’t have espresso on hand, so I’ve got some yummy ground coffee} and the flavor will be just fine. Add the hot coffee and 1/2 cup hot water and whisk until both powders are completely dissolved.

In a medium bowl, stir the brown sugar and oil together. Add this to the cocoa mixture and whisk until combined. Add the egg, vanilla and buttermilk and whisk until smooth.

Using a rubber spatula to gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. I didn’t dump in all the flour at once, rather, I folded in the flour in three batches. When each batch was absorbed by the liquid, I added more in. Make sure to scrape down the sides and the bottom of the bowl as you fold. Your dough, once smooth, will become a little tight to mix. Don’t freak out, this is how it’s supposed to feel. This is not the pouring batter, it’s thick, much like regular cookie batter.

Use a small ice cream scoop with a release mechanism to drop heaping tablespoons of the dough onto the prepared baking sheets about 1-inch apart. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cookies are just starting to crack on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of a cookie comes out clean. I made my cookies quite large (I made 8 in total), so the cooking time ran to approximately 17 minutes.

Let the cookies cool completely on the pans while you make the Swiss vanilla filling. Onward!

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg whites and sugar together. I use cane sugar rather than granulated. I say this because when you heat the sugar the mixture won’t be milky white as the recipe prescribes, and that is OKAY. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water but do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl. Heat the mixture until the sugar is completely dissolved and the color is milky white, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer the egg mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat on medium-high speed (start slowly at first) until smooth and fluffy, about 5-6 minutes. Remove the whisk attachment and replace with the paddle attachment. Add the cubed butter and beat on medium-high speed (start slowly at first) until smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes. If the buttercream looks like it is breaking, don’t worry, it will eventually come together. In retrospect, I think I could’ve gotten away with much less butter, possibly saving a whole stick. I plan to try this again in the future, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Add the salt and vanilla and beat for 5 seconds to combine. Now you’re ready to assemble your whoopie pies!

Turn half of the cooled cookies upside down (flat side facing up).

Use an ice cream scoop or a tablespoon to drop a large dollop if filling onto the flat side of the cookie. Place another cookie, flat side down, on top of the filling. Press down slightly so that the filling spreads to the edges of the cookie. Repeat until all the cookies are used. Put the whoopie pies in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to firm up before serving.

The whoopie pies will keep for up to 3 days, on a parchment-lined baking sheet covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator. Bring the whoopies to room temperature before serving.

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whoopie pies + books: the sequel

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There is so much I want to tell you but I can’t say anything yet. However, I will reveal this: I’ve got it bad for the whoopie pie. I’m talking full-blown addict. I’m talking whoopie bites at 2:30-in-the-can-you-believe-morning kind of bad. I used to think that baking these miniature cakes was a beastly endeavor, replete with four sticks of butter and bottles of food coloring to achieve that requisite red velvet hue. Until last week. Until a sweet friend sat me down with some Crisco and Hershey’s and we got thick in the business of whoopie pies and memory.

This weekend I gave it another go, and was a bit more virtuous. I nixed the shortening, went for a richer cocoa and used almond milk instead of buttermilk. I do plan to attempt a version using coconut oil as the fattening agent — keep your eyes peeled.

Speaking of memory and all things literary {my friend Mary was the impetus for this whole shebang}, I’ve been falling in love with my books all over again. There was a time when I stored thousands of books in my home, the sort of stuff that made movers weep, and this summer I edited my collection to under a thousand and I love poring over my first editions and beloveds, as if they were old friends I haven’t seen in a while. Carver, Millhauser, Didion, Calvino, Bender, Cheever, Beckett, Krauss, oh, the list can indeed go on. And just last week I found myself talking about Sebald’s Austerlitz, a meditation on memory, and this got me to thinking that I’ve got the itch.

To write another book. Of what, who knows. But again, again, stay tuned.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Gourmet
For the cakes
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg

For the filling
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups confectioners sugar
1 cup marshmallow cream such as Marshmallow Fluff
1 teaspoon vanilla

DIRECTIONS
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt in a bowl until combined. Stir together buttermilk and vanilla in a small bowl.

Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes in a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a handheld, then add egg, beating until combined well. Reduce speed to low and alternately mix in flour mixture and buttermilk in batches, beginning and ending with flour, scraping down side of bowl occasionally, and mixing until smooth.

Spoon 1/4-cup mounds of batter about 2 inches apart onto 2 buttered large baking sheets. Bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until tops are puffed and cakes spring back when touched, 11 to 13 minutes. Transfer with a metal spatula to a rack to cool completely.

For the filling:
Beat together butter, confectioners sugar, marshmallow, and vanilla in a bowl with electric mixer at medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.

For the pies:
Spread a rounded tablespoon filling on flat sides of half of cakes and top with remaining cakes.

Cook’s Notes:
Cakes can be made 3 days ahead and kept, layered between sheets of wax paper, in an airtight container at room temperature.
Filling can be made 4 hours ahead and kept, covered, at room temperature.

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through kitchen windows: whoopie pies, old-school maine style

whoopie pies

My friend Mary is one of those bright lights who can whitewash a dark sky. Could convince you that the sky would be much better pink and you’d believe her. For as long as I’ve known her she’s been in a constant chrysalis, and I have to confess it’s a beautiful thing to see. We found one another at Columbia, and while I tend to write around my heart, Mary has a way with words that yanks that beating heart out of your chest and lays it out to pasture. While I prattle on incessantly about clocks under the floorboards {my fear of time, of death}, she’s spare, honest — unflinchingly so, and you want to be cast in her light, feel the warmth of it.

It occurs to me today that I now know why I’ve always loved The Shining the way I do, with an intensity that sometimes even hard for me to articulate. The whole movie is allegedly a fantastic journey into the heart of darkness, a macabre tête–à–tête, when really it’s about an alcoholic, abusive father who happens to be a terrible writer. As he attempts to write his way out of the mirror that is his own story, his son travels into the recesses of his imagination and he too conjures his way out. In the end, the son is the calculating architect of his father’s demise, while we all walk away and talk about the twins, the bloody elevators and Redrum. The Shining is a series of literary diversions from real, raw pain, and I tend to pick up words like cross-stitch to create a wall between me and you.

It’s not personal.

Perhaps this is why I adore Mary so much. There is no pretense, she plays out her hand. And this is perhaps also why she’s the first subject {perhaps unknowingly} of my mini-series, Through Kitchen Windows. Over the next year I’ll bake and cook the recipes that are near and dear to my friends’ hearts. I also learn the story behind the food {and share what my friends feel comfortable sharing} on this space.

My friend Mary hails proudly from Maine, and today we talked about a different sort of Maine. Not the one we think we know — all L.L. Bean, lobsters, glinting waves and whip-white sails — but of the poverty, the wrecked economy, of the folks who have lived in Maine their whole lives but will never own a boat. But my friend’s pride and passion for her home is infectious, so much so that she radiates when she talks about whoopie pies — a childhood treat. And although I’m tempted to alter this recipe, hide the Crisco, futz with Dutch Process cocoa, I would be doing my great friend a disservice.

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Because this is exactly how she remembers home, and one should never alter that…

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INGREDIENTS: Recipe {and words} courtesy of my sweet gal, Mary Phillips-Sandy, who culled this from two old New England
recipes I found online and some consultation with my mom
.
For the shells
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temp
1 c. light brown sugar, packed
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 tsp. salt
1 egg, room temp
1/2 c. cocoa powder (Mary uses and recommends Hershey’s, for that you’re-back-in-grade-school flavor)
1 c. milk (whole, or almond — unsweetened plain)
10 oz. all purpose flour OR 10 oz. Authentic Foods Multi-Blend gluten-free flour*

*Note: if you are using AP flour and don’t have a scale, it’s about 2 1/3c. if you use the gf blend, use a scale for best results. I have not tested this recipe with other GF blends so can’t vouch for them. if you want to experiment, note that the AF multi-blend is made with xanthan gum, so you’d have to add that if you are using a gf blend without it.

For the filling
1 c. Crisco (YES. CRISCO. MUST BE CRISCO.)
1-1 1/2 c. confectioner’s sugar
1 1/2 c. Marshmallow Fluff (if your store doesn’t carry this, you can order it online from Amazon)
2-3 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt dissolved in 2 tsp. of warm water

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DIRECTIONS
For the shells
Preheat oven to 350. Cream butter till fluffy. Add sugar, cream well. Beat in baking powder, salt, soda and vanilla. Cream well. Add egg. Guess what? Cream well again. Add the cocoa. Cream it. Add the flour and milk, alternating, beating well between each addition. Start and end with flour. Why? I have no idea but recipes always tell you
to do that.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment or Silpat and drop batter on it in scant 1/4 c. scoops. Leave room- these will spread as they bake. You can also use a tablespoon or smaller cookie scoop to make smaller pies. Bake 15-18 minutes (baking time will vary depending on whether you use regular or gf flour, and how big you made your pies). The tops should be dry and firm to the touch. Use a spatula to lift shells onto a wire rack to cool.

Cool completely before filling them, or the filling will melt and you will regret your impatience.

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For the filling
Beat Crisco and Fluff together at high speed until creamy and fluffy. Add dissolved salt and 2 tsp. vanilla. Beat well. Beat in 1 c. confectioner’s sugar. Taste. You might want to add another teaspoon (or even two) of vanilla, depending on how strong your extract is. Beat in another 1/2 c. confectioner’s sugar if the mixture is not stiff enough–it should look like very stiff buttercream frosting. If it gets too thick, beat in another 1/4 c. Fluff. This filling is very forgiving–you can add more sugar/Fluff/vanilla to your taste, as long as you maintain the right consistency.

For assembling the pies
Pair shells in twos; try to make pairs of roughly equal sizes/shapes. Spread a healthy amount of filling on the flat side of one shell. Don’t spread all the way to the edge, or it will ooze, but you want the filling to be pretty thick. Sandwich the second shell on top of the filling and press lightly to adhere. These will keep for a day or two. For best results, wrap each pie in plastic wrap and refrigerate in an airtight container.

As we say back home: wicked good.
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whoopie pies