Wisdom in a Whoopie Pie
Sometimes simple is best. Often, less is more. These are important life lessons that are easy to forget. But once in a while, the universe reminds us in the strangest ways. Sometimes, wisdom comes in the form of decadent, creamy brilliance packed between a pair of domed, luscious cakes.
An Unexpected Treat
I hadn’t thought the first day of autumn could get any better. Indeed, it had been idyllic. I got up early to the first really cool, crisp morning of the season, put on the rain jacket I bought to use at the farm two years ago (and haven’t had occasion to wear) and spent four hours amongst the carrots and kale and the season’s last heirloom tomatoes. The sky gently misted off and on, and a steady wind carried on its back the scent of the summer’s glorious gloaming. Back at home I made a pot of french roast with cinnamon, put together a luscious omelette, and installed myself in the living room to watch the steel grey sky through the bay window.
Everything was perfect! The afternoon stretched on as I listened to decidedly autumnal music, and enjoyed the feeling of breathing in and out, and in again.
Then Brian got home.
“Can you give me a hand?” he said as he walked through the front door, arms filled with his various work equipment and two intriguing brown paper bags.
“Of course!” I leaped off the couch and bounded into the hallway. “What are these?” I asked, relieving him of the paper bags.
He smiled. “Well, I was working in Maine today. . . “
I felt the smile on my face stretch so widely, I thought my mouth might tear at the corners. Inside the bags were piles of Whoopie Pies—of every flavor imaginable.
Now, if you don’t know what a Whoopie Pie is, you should stop reading this right now and find one immediately. I fear they may be somewhat regional, as I never encountered my first Whoopie Pie until moving to New England. But that was twelve years ago, so I can only assume their native range has spread. If you still have no idea, picture this. It’s like a cake sandwich; two muffin-top shaped cakes surround a cream filling. Sugar bombs, sure. Heavenly. Unforgivably decadent. Amazing!
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Revenge is better with a side of bacon. . .
“There are so many!” I said. Ten to be exact, which really is too many to have in one’s house at any given time.
“I just grabbed one of everything. Figure out which ones you want to keep, and we’ll give some away.”
Silly Brian. I didn’t want to give any of them away, but as I said, ten is dangerous. I’d rather not know the calorie count per pie, but let’s assume it’s in the neighborhood of 1500. I dumped them unceremoniously on the counter to better see the goods (hey, I was excited).
My eyes landed instantly on one in particular—chocolate cake with just a touch of red creeping out from the white filling. Black Forest!
A Whiff of Nostalgia
Every year as a child, my parents asked me what kind of cake I wanted for my birthday. Year after year, the answer was the same:
There was something absolutely magical about the layers of chocolate cake with the creamy white filling and cherries between. The cake had this particular way of soaking up the cherry and becoming this luscious, nearly trifle-esque treat that I looked forward to all year.
Staring at that unassuming Whoopie Pie on the counter brought me back. At first it was all I could do to resist tearing open the plastic packaging and diving headfirst into my childhood.
Then another memory held me back—a reminder that sometimes it is best to leave our happy childhood memories on their pedestals. Nostalgia can sing a sweet siren song, and leave us drowning in the realization that things aren’t as great as we thought they were. . .
The Black Forest Cake that Wasn’t
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know I have a slight obsession with the origin of things. Without digressing too far, I believe there is all this knowledge we’re losing to automation and technology. I wouldn’t trade either of these things for the world—they definitely make all our lives better—but it’s important for me to know the how and why of things. Bread didn’t always come in bags. Cheese wasn’t always wrapped in plastic at the grocery store. There was a time not too long ago when you couldn’t walk into a store any time of year and buy a can of tomatoes.
So I ferment and preserve fresh food in the old ways. I work at the farm not just for the delicious vegetables, but to feel connected to them—to watch them grow and develop and thrive. I’ve baked bread from wild yeast, and made my own cheese. Brian and I even took a brief foray into fermenting our own mead.
But it goes further. I’ve baked the original Boston Cream Pie recipe (which is nothing like the donuts that are so prolific in my part of the world). For one thing, it’s boozy, brushed with a rum syrup. . .
Which brings me back to the point. A few years ago a friend’s birthday was coming up, and I’d been on an authentic cake kick. I’d never tried my hand at Black Forest, so I decided to give it a go. I looked high and low for what I thought would be the most authentic recipe, and finally settled on one that seemed appropriate.
Hell, it even called for a kirschwasser syrup, which is a (kind of nasty) German cherry liqueur.
So I put my baking cap on and got to work. Three layers of chocolate sponge cake? Check! Whipped cream filling? Check! Fresh cherries? Check! Shaved chocolate on top? Check!
It came out beautifully! It was my pride and joy. A real, original, authentic German Black Forest cake. I put it in my little cake caddy, we partied all night, and then it was time to serve it!
And it was disgusting! There are so many things I hated about it. The kirschwasser syrup saturated the sponge cake, making it far too boozy and texturally similar to tiramisu (which I despise). The whipped cream wasn’t sweet enough, and the fresh cherries lacked the appeal of the more processed ones I remember from my youth.
Everyone else seemed to enjoy it, but I was just. . . disappointed. This didn’t stand up to my memory of a Black Forest cake. This was just. . .
I called my mother the next day and told her all about my failure.
She laughed a little over the phone. “You’re not going to want to hear this,” she said.
“What?” I asked. “What did I do wrong?”
“That Black Forest cake we always made you? That was boxed devil’s food cake mix, cool-whip, and canned pie cherries.”
I was floored! I don’t know what recipe I thought they were using but. . . that wasn’t it! Now, I have nothing against any of these ingredients, I just thought. . .
I don’t know! I thought that something so special must’ve been constructed from ingredients that were less. . . ordinary.
“Are you disappointed?” she asked.
Truthfully I wasn’t—just confused. Which version of Black Forest was the imposter? The authentic, or the accessible?
So I didn’t tear right into the Black Forest Whoopie Pie. I wasn’t sure I was ready to be disappointed again. I let it sit on the counter while I considered.
Later that night, as luck would have it, the very same friend for whom I’d prepared the Black Forest cake came for dinner with her husband. Near the end of the evening it was time to unload some of the devilish little Whoopie Pies, and as the four of us stood in the kitchen, Brian approached me first.
“Well, which flavors do you definitely want to keep?”
Decision time! I spied the Black Forest again. Did I dare? I bit my lip softly, inhaled and said “I’d better keep that one.”
Our friends took four, leaving us the other six, and as the hour grew later, I heard Nostalgia’s song draw me into the water. Finally, after a few too many glasses of wine, I tore open the packaging and prepared myself for disappointment. I held the cake in my hand, closed my eyes and bit down.
And suddenly I was seven years old again. Suddenly the boozy, mushy, not-sweet-enough memory of that authentic Black Forest cake was eclipsed by chocolatey, creamy, cherry goodness. This was it! This was the flavor I remembered as a child. This was everything and it was. . .
No fancy sponge cake. No kirschwasser syrup. No fresh cherries. This was devil’s food cake, cream filling, and (probably) pie cherry syrup. It was exactly what I needed, and it was an important reminder:
Authentic is a relative term. Not everything that is old and original is better. It’s alright to indulge in processed and manufactured—and simple—once in a while. Perhaps neither my parents’ or Wicked Whoopie Pies’ versions would win awards in Bavaria, but they deserve gold medals in my house.
So the next time I need to make a birthday cake, forgive me if I step out to the store for some cake mix, canned pie cherries, and a tub of cool-whip. It turns out sometimes the extraordinary comes from the ordinary.
Tell me your thoughts! Have you ever been disappointed by the ‘authentic’ version of a food you love? What’s your favorite cake? If you could be any flavor of Whoopie Pie, which would you be? Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks as always for reading!