Sunday, July 25, 2010

in the night kitchen

A few years ago, I was introduced to whoopie pie while dining at Seattle gastro pub, Quinn’s.  Our server explained it as two cake-like chocolate cookies filled with marshmallow cream, essentially, a cake sandwich.  Hmmm… A cake sandwich sounded oddly delicious.  The ‘pie’ arrived wrapped in foil, like a miniature flying saucer beamed from the kitchen to our table, and tasted every bit as good as something bad for you should. 

A handful of local cafes have since added the dessert to their baked goods cases.  Not a bad idea considering the recent New York Times article claiming whoopie pies are the next big thing.  The pies have roots in Pennsylvania Dutch Country and according to the article,  Amish women were the first to bake the treats.  They would tuck them into their husbands’ lunch pails and when discovered, the hard-working farmers would shout, "Whoopie!” 

Not long ago, while waiting for my daily cappuccino at Volunteer Park Cafe, I noticed a new poster near the espresso counter .  The distinctive watercolor artwork was at once recognizable as that of local illustrator, Jessie Oleson, of Cakespy.  Her cute and quirky illustrations are often based on animated cupcakes and pastries. 

The illustration depicted what appeared to be two whoopie pies, one with a dagger, the other with brass knuckles, preparing to duke it out.  Across the top, in loopy white letters, the poster read, ‘First Annual Whoopie Pie Bake-Off… Come. Eat. Vote for the best.’  The event would be held at Oddfellows Cafe, with prizes awarded for ‘Best Classic’, ‘Most Original', ‘Crowd Favorite’ and ‘Whoopie Pie Champion’.  Intrigued, I consulted my social calendar only to discover the bake-off would take place the very next morning. 

On a whim, I emailed the organizer, Tallulah Anderson, to inquire whether it was still possible to submit an entry.  The time was 10:30 pm.  Thirty minutes later came her reply, “You are certainly not too late!”  The absurdity of this response was not lost on me, it was right in line with my intention of entering a whoopie pie bake-off just 12 hours before it was to begin. 

Time was ticking.  The truth was, I had never before attempted or remotely considered baking whoopie pies.  Rather than mess with classic whoopie pie, I decided to opt for originality.  By tweaking an existing recipe, I would create pumpkin bourbon whoopie pies with maple creme filling.  What’s more original than pumpkin in July?  As a nod to the maple syrup in the filling, I preemptively dubbed my creation, ‘The Vermont’.
A quick online search revealed the necessity of marshmallow creme, a fluffy white concoction closely resembling spackle, loaded with chemicals and high fructose corn syrup.   My affable husband humored (enabled) my endeavor by driving to the nearest market for a jar of the stuff.  Upon his return, he kissed me good night and wished me good luck.  Unlike my whoopie pies, he managed to turn into a pumpkin before midnight.

The cakes were a snap to make.  Though a tad large, I managed to eke out the exact number needed for the contest.  My test cake was sweet, moist and fragrant.  The bourbon lent a butterscotchy flavor and by omitting the usual spices, I managed to tone down the autumnal quality.  The filling’s maple flavor was spot on but no amount of marshmallow creme or butter would thicken it.  Once assembled, the weight of the cakes pushed much of the maple creme back out again.  The end result was a delicious mess but would have to do.  What they lacked in appearance, they made up for in flavor and originality.  I tidied up and crawled into bed, with visions of whoopie pies dancing in my head.  
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Never skip breakfast on the morning of a whoopie pie tasting.  Never.  I say this as the voice of experience. 

I arrived at Oddfellows Cafe and placed my entry amongst the others on the table.  Clearly, these people took their bake-offs seriously.  There were whoopie pies of all sizes, colors and flavors.  Some were simple, others adorned.  The prettiest were petite honey colored cakes with pink filling, garnished with fresh blackberries and rosemary.  Tres adorable.  The question was, would they taste as good as they looked?  The table continued to fill with more entries until, at last, the judging began.

After the panel of judges filled large oval dinner plates with samples of every whoopie pie, the crowd descended.  I grabbed a plate and wondered whether I should pick and choose or go for the gusto.  If I opted for the former, I might offend someone.  For the latter, I would need a bigger plate.  In consideration of my fellow bakers I circled the table mounding my pint size paper plate with each and every entry, 24 to be precise.  The result was miniature mountain, teetering precariously with every step I took.

Fortunately for me, my friends Conor and baby Hazel were more than willing to assist me in scaling Mt. Whoopie.  Conor used my insights as his sounding board, bypassing the samples I vetoed.  At the time, I was flattered.  In retrospect, it doesn’t seem entirely fair…

Word to the wise:  Consuming 24 bites of whoopie pie on an empty stomach, even if they are small bites… even if you cut them in half and give your friend the bigger half… is never a good course of action.  The first 1o bites were pleasurable.  The pretty one with the blackberry garnish tasted like sweet tarts and a few original pies really stood out.  The next five bites were hazy.  It was around that time when everything started to taste like mint.  The last nine bites required a considerable measure of willpower and endurance.  The racing of my heart and accompanying wooziness signaled that this cake loving lady had met her match.  A nice big juicy steak never sounded so good.
Heather Earnhardt of Volunteer Park Cafe  won the awards for ‘Most Original’ and ‘Whoopie Pie Champion’.  Her sophisticated interpretation resembled chocolate cake crossed with a brownie, balanced by silky cream filling laced with sweet, tart raspberries.  The award for ‘Best Classic’ went to seven-year-old, Eliza Dworkin, who teamed up with her neighbor, Robin Whel-Martin, to create the winning entry.  Audrey McManus took the prize for ‘Crowd Favorite’ with her Nana Cuoco’s authentic recipe.

Pumpkin is a hard sell in July.

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