THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
You don't miss your water, says the song, till your well runs dry.
Twinkies still had their fans, but no one thought much about them until last month, when it was announced that parent company Hostess Brands was going to close its doors. Suddenly, everyone loved Twinkies. Fans started hoarding them, while others bought what they could and offered them for ridiculously high prices on eBay.
It is possible, even likely, that another company will buy the brand and begin producing their own Twinkies in the future. But until that day comes, let's all join in the panic.
TWINKIES ARE GONE FOREVER! NEVER AGAIN WILL WE EAT THOSE GOOEY, DELICIOUS TREATS! THE END OF TIMES IS AT HAND!
There, that feels better.
Fortunately, a large number of people with apparently far too much time on their hands have been trying for years to create copycat versions of Twinkies to make in their own kitchens. Some had more success than others, but pretty much everyone put the results on the Internet.
Most home cooks do not have access to the snack foods' more chemistry-related ingredients (cellulose gum, polysorbate 60, sodium stearoyl lactylate), so they have been making these recipes with the generally natural ingredients they have on hand. While these knock-off recipes may be better for you — if Twinkies could ever be said to be good for you — they will never be able to taste exactly like the real thing.
But how close can they come? We decided to test a few of the more likely looking to see which is the most Twinkiesque.
But first, a confession: I never understood the Twinkies mystique. Though I am a junk-food omnivore, or I was in my younger days, I never saw the particular appeal of the Twinkie. I have probably not had more than three or four in my life, and maybe not more than one or two. The cake part struck me as a bit bland, and I thought the white filling was … weird. I am, or was, a sucker for gooey creme fillings, but the stuff in the middle of a Twinkie never did it for me.
I never much cared for the filling in Ding Dongs, either, but I did prefer their chocolate cake to the sponge cake of the Twinkie.
None of which stopped my pursuit of the perfect homemade version. If possible, I wanted mine to be even better than the real thing, which means I wanted the cake part to have a flavor as well as texture, and I hoped the filling would be a bit less cloying. I wanted it sweet, but not to the point where it dissolves the enamel on your teeth.
First I turned to the wisdom of Todd Wilbur, the TV guy who became well-known by re-creating famous brand-name and restaurant dishes at home. He's the man who figured out the secret sauce on the Big Mac, the herbs and spices behind Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the proportions and ingredients in Wendy's chili.
As I suspected, he had already conquered the mysteries of the Twinkie — or so he claimed. He even had a video showing how to do it.
Based on the realization that Twinkies are sponge cakes with marshmallow gunk inside, he begins with a box of pound cake mix. Some people may feel that using a box of mix is cheating, but then again, the whole concept of making your own Twinkies is kind of cheating. Mr. Wilbur makes a big deal of ignoring the directions on the box — on the video, he scornfully tosses it away — and then he comes close to making the cake as directed on the box. He uses 2/3 cup of water instead of ¾ cup, and instead of two whole eggs (or four egg whites) he uses the four egg whites, but he whips them first.
For filling, he begins with an entire jar of marshmallow creme and mixes in some shortening, powdered sugar, and vanilla. The result is a filling that is too thick (if you've ever worked with marshmallow creme, there is a good chance you have vowed never to do so again). It is also too sweet, with a bit too much of that crisp, shortening texture.
The cake itself wasn't actually bad, but it wasn't exactly good, either. It was too dense for a Twinkie, too chewy. It was grounded, where Twinkies must be light and airy.
To his credit, Mr. Wilbur may well have been the person who invented the clever way to make molds in which to bake the fake Twinkies: He double-folds a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil and wraps it around a spice bottle, which results in a form the approximate size and shape of a Twinkie. It may also have been he who realized that the best way to fill these cakes is to dig out three holes with a chopstick and squeeze in the filling with a pastry bag. At any rate, most available recipes online use these methods.
Next, I turned to an online recipe that had the distinction of using a box of yellow cake mix instead of sponge cake, a large package of vanilla-flavored instant pudding mix, a bit of vegetable oil, and eggs that are beaten together instead of whipping the whites separately. As you would expect from those ingredients, the cakes were way too moist. They were also unnervingly yellow, and heavier than the genuine article.
But the flavor was serviceable, and the filling was a definite improvement. Along with the shortening, the entire jar of marshmallow creme, the confectioner's sugar, and vanilla, the filling recipe also called for butter. This filling was lighter and creamier, and far easier to pipe into the cakes. With the addition of the butter, these homemade Twinkies were nudged into the realm of Good Enough.
But still I was not satisfied. Earlier, I had seen a recipe that had the advantage of using neither instant cake mix nor instant pudding. You make your own sponge cake, which isn't too much harder than opening a box. But I was put off by this recipe's filling. It called for Martha Stewart's Seven-Minute Frosting, which is a meringue. I'm sure it is good (say what you will about Ms. Stewart, but her recipes are usually solid), but meringue is not what goes inside a Twinkie.
I was about to make this version's cake and stuff it with the previous version's filling, of which there was plenty left over. Then I saw that the New York Times had liked the cake but had not liked the filling either, and suggested one of their own. This one used nothing but butter, confectioners' sugar, a bit of heavy cream, and a mere ¾ cup of marshmallow creme.
Success was at hand.
Still, I was afraid the small amount of flour used (½ cup of cake flour and ¼ cup of all-purpose flour) would not be nearly enough to make an entire batch of the cakes, even with a teaspoon of baking powder. But that is where the magic of five egg whites comes in, all whipped together to create plenty of volume. It made enough for a dozen Twinkies, or at least a good 11.
I baked the cakes, and they were properly spongy. I made the filling, and it was delicious. I put the filling in the cakes, and ate.
They were great. Maybe even better than the real thing.
But it will be so much easier when some company just starts making Twinkies again.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
For the cakes:
1/2 cup cake flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 large eggs at room temperature, separated
12 tablespoons sugar, divided (see cook's note)
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
For the filling:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
3/4 cup marshmallow creme
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Cook's note: One Twinkie aficionado thought the cakes were too sweet. If you want a less sweet version, use 10 tablespoons of sugar.
For the cakes: Preheat oven to 350° and place oven rack in lower-middle position.
Cut 12 pieces of aluminum foil into rectangles about 12-by-14-inches. Fold each piece in half and then in half again. Place a spice jar in the middle of each sheet (you can use the same spice jar for each). Pull up the sides around the jar and fold in the edges to create a tight trough shape. Remove the jar. Spray each mold generously with nonstick spray or coat inside with vegetable oil, and place molds on a baking sheet.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together cake flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt. In a small saucepan over low heat, heat the milk and butter until the butter melts. Remove from heat and add the vanilla. Cover to keep warm.
Using a standing mixer, beat the egg whites on high speed until foamy. Gradually add 6 tablespoons of the sugar and the cream of tartar and continue to beat on high until the whites reach soft peaks (if making the less-sweet version, use 5 tablespoons of sugar).
Transfer the beaten egg whites to a large bowl and add the egg yolks to the standing mixer bowl (there is no need to clean the bowl). Beat the egg yolks with the remaining 6 tablespoons of sugar on medium-high speed until the mixture is very thick and a pale lemon color, about 5 minutes (if making the less-sweet version, use 5 tablespoons of sugar). Add the beaten egg whites to the yolks, but do not mix.
Sprinkle the flour mixture over the egg whites and then mix everything on low speed for just 10 seconds. Remove the bowl from the mixer, make a well in one side of the batter, and pour in the melted butter mixture. Fold gently with a large rubber spatula until the batter shows no trace of flour and the whites and yolks are evenly mixed, about 8-10 strokes.
Immediately scrape the batter into the prepared molds, filling each with about ¾ inch of batter. Bake until the tops are light brown and feel firm and spring back when touched, 13-20 minutes. Transfer the pan containing the molds to a wire rack and allow the cakes to cool in the molds
For the filling: Using a mixer, beat together the butter, confectioners' sugar, and marshmallow creme. Add the cream and beat until just smooth.
Just before filling the cakes, remove them from the foil. Using the end of a chopstick, poke three holes in the bottom of each cake, reaching more than half-way to the top. Wiggle the tip of the chopstick to make room for the filling. Transfer the filling to a pastry bag fitted with a ¼-inch round tip. Pipe frosting into the holes in each cake, taking care not to overfill, until it gently expands.
Best served while still slightly warm.
Yield: 12 homemade Twinkies
Source: Adapted by the New York Times from leitesculinaria.com