A treat worth cheering for
Every weekend, baker Richard Katz and his crew turn out about 50 dense, fudgy whoopie pies, which consist of two chocolate "drop cakes" that sandwich a sweet, smooth frosting. Katz, who owns Katz Bagel Bakery in Chelsea, sells the portable pies for $1 apiece, and they rarely last through Sunday. "They're nothing exotic, but people love them," he says.
You won't find whoopie pies on many restaurant menus or in upscale bakeries. You're more likely to discover recipes in community cookbooks. These disks of devil's food cake with rich, gooey filling are stubbornly ungourmet. Whoopie pies, named for the yelps of joy they've been known to elicit, are an old-fashioned dessert with Northeastern origins.
Cookie expert Nancy Baggett, author of "The All-American Cookie Book," speculates that the whoopie pie was first made commercially at the Berwick Cake Co. in Roxbury's Dudley Square in the mid-1920s. The words "Whoopee! Pies" are still painted on the side of the aged brick building. Today, the Berwick Research Institute, an experimental art and music venue there, calls itself "the home of the whoopie pie."
"Whoopie pies were most likely a commercial product," says Baggett from her home in Ellicott City, Md. "Some bakery probably had leftover cake batter, plopped it onto a pan, and came up with a cake to eat out of hand."
Whoopie pies have endured commercially and in the home kitchen, where variations include pumpkin cakes and cream cheese filling. They are perfect for the car and the lunchbox, sugary, squishy, chocolaty fun. Fans of the confection delight in this squish -- the right filling is crucial to a whoopie's success.
At the Summer Shack in Cambridge, whoopie pies sell "outrageously well," says pastry chef Katie Sherry. Sherry's filling is equal parts Italian buttercream -- a mixture of butter, egg-white meringue, and simple syrup -- and commercially produced Marshmallow Fluff, right out of the jar. "The mouthfeel is very important," says Sherry. "A whoopie pie should have Fluff in the center. It should be gooey."
But Fluff doesn't always reign. At A. Bova and Sons Modern Bakery in the North End, the devil's food cakes are piped full of rich whipped cream. "That's a real whoopie pie," says Anthony Bova, one of the owners of this family business. "They're a good hit; original, not too sweet. People appreciate that."
Neither buttercream nor whipped cream, though, has the solid dependability of Crisco. Old-fashioned cooks can tell you that vegetable shortening -- which contains a host of ingredients no one should eat -- makes the whoopie pie filling sturdy enough to endure a road trip or a retail shelf without melting or deflating. "They're bad, nutritionally," says Nancy Johnson, past president of the New Hampshire Dietetic Association. But combining solid vegetable shortening with an equal part of butter and a bit of vanilla masks the shortening's waxy mouthfeel. Whipping in a generous amount of Fluff creates a gooey texture.
When the whoopie pie is eaten, there's nothing to do but wallow happily in the satisfaction. The New Hampshire nutritionist says, "They're like heaven." Even with ingredients she can't recommend, she adds, "I can't think of anything that tastes more yummy."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.