chocolate whoopie pies

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

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.


4 thoughts on “chocolate whoopie pies

  1. These may keep for up to 3 days at your house, but I would never find out at mine! These look delicious!

    I was a peanut butter chocolate bar fan of Debbie’s myself. Sadly, the memories I have of her are at a time in my life when I was drowning my sorrows in food. I ballooned from them as well, which is likely why today I call Debbie mean names!

    I love the sound of your book. So many of us have memories and thoughts deeply tied to foods. I would be fascinated to see a whole collection of these thoughts!


  2. I’ve been reading your posts for a few years now and often, I stop to catch my breath. Imagine my surprise when I read this one: it was as if my air ran ahead of me and waited for me to arrive. It sounds like yours might be doing the same.

    ps: “O she’s warm/If this be magic, let it be an art/as lawful as eating.” Winter’s Tale 5.3.110


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