Reclaiming the Oreo, the Twinkie, and other iconic American desserts with BraveTart | Bleader

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reclaiming the Oreo, the Twinkie, and other iconic American desserts with BraveTart

Posted By on 08.16.17 at 06:19 PM

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There's a moment in every American life when you decide, for nostalgia's sake, to revisit some of the processed food you loved as a kid. And then you realize after the first couple of bites that it's . . . not that good. The lovely stuff of dreams has somehow become a chemical nightmare.

That's America: the taste of disillusionment and disappointment. Or, in the case of Twinkies and other treats made with animal fat, the American ideal that you can never have if you deviate from the cultural norm.

Fortunately, we have Stella Parks, a pastry chef and senior editor at Serious Eats, who has made a career out researching and rehabilitating American desserts, particularly those that are mass-produced in factories. According to her Serious Eats colleague J. Kenji López-Alt, she has the power and skill to make a homemade bowl of Lucky Charms that taste not like actual Lucky Charms, but like a childhood memory of Lucky Charms, which is infinitely better.

Sadly, Parks did not include the Lucky Charms recipe in her new book BraveTart. (It's available online, though.) But she provides the means by which home cooks can rescue Twinkies, Oreos, Jell-O chocolate pudding, Fig Newtons, and even Cool Whip, which, honestly, I'd long believed was beyond saving. She has gluten-free variations for most of her recipes and a few vegan variations as well, which should automatically qualify her for American hero status.

click to enlarge Homemade Oreo Cookies - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Homemade Oreo Cookies

Part of the fun of BraveTart, though, is all the research Parks has done on the origins of our most beloved national desserts. Did you know, for instance, the Oreos are ripoffs of Hydrox, not the other way around? The reason we believe otherwise is entirely due to marketing: excellent in the case of Nabisco, and very poor in the case of Sunshine, manufacturers of Hydrox. (This was just one battle in the turn-of-the-20th-century biscuit war that also gave us Animal Crackers, Nilla Wafers, and Honey Grahams. Yes, people—or newspapers anyway—really did refer to it as a biscuit war.) Parks also investigates the origin of the chocolate brownie, which probably happened in Chicago, though at the 1893 World's Fair, not the Palmer House Hotel.

But the baking, I hear you cry. Can a mere mortal—e.g., someone who would not be worthy of The Great British Bake-Off if they lived in the UK—pull any of these recipes off? Yes! It is possible! It's true your life would be easier if you had a stand mixer. A digital thermometer is helpful, too, since Parks is a firm believer in the power of marshmallow creme and uses it quite a bit. And if you have a good source of relatively inexpensive high-quality chocolate and Dutch processed cocoa, you should stock up.

But the recipes themselves have a very high payoff for just a little extra effort. Yes, you will have to chop your own chocolate for the chopped chocolate chip cookies—Parks believes that irregular shards of chocolate taste better, especially if you mix up your chocolates, and anyway there were buttery cookies flavored with bits of chocolate long before the invention of Toll House chocolate chips—but you won't have to let the dough sit in the fridge for three days the way some other recipes demand. And they are delicious, especially if you take Parks's advice and use brown butter.

Parks's brownies are also fantastic. (Another bit of trivia: the brownie officially became fudgy in 1929.) I brought the gluten-free version, which substitutes ground hazelnuts for wheat flour, to my building's summer barbecue, and nobody could tell the difference. This was probably because the brownies were so overloaded with chocolate, both bar and cocoa, you couldn't taste anything else. But in what world is that ever a cause for complaint?

click to enlarge Silky Chocolate Pudding with Homemade Cool Whip, aka Pudding in a Cloud - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Silky Chocolate Pudding with Homemade Cool Whip, aka Pudding in a Cloud

But Parks's real triumph is her reconstructions of what she calls "Classic American Brands." It's amazing how wonderful Cool Whip—in Parks's interpretation, it's a mix of whipped cream and marshmallow creme—can be when it doesn't have that extra subtle chemical tinge. Same with Twinkies: in their traditional form, they are mostly chemicals and don't taste like anything at all, but the Twinkie I made for the same building barbecue (shaped like a round cake because I didn't have the special Twinkie pan) tasted, just as López-Alt had promised, like how I remember Twinkies tasting when I was a kid, before I realized how lousy they actually are.

My very favorite recipe, though, is the Homemade Oreo Cookies. (So far anyway.) I have made them twice because it has been a terrible summer, and when things are terrible, spending time in the kitchen helps me feel better. Both times I truly intended to bring the cookies to the office, but my boyfriend and I ended up eating them all ourselves. No store-bought Oreo has ever tasted as good as these Oreos do, even in my imagination. And I like Oreos! Even if everything else in BraveTart sucked, I would recommend it just for that Oreo recipe.

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