When it comes to the delightful world of comfort baking, we have an awful lot to thank the Americans for. Whether it’s the Barefoot Contessa baking velvety chocolate cake and nutty brownies (did you see that one? God bless the Food Network) with copious amounts of butter sticks and thick heaps of frosting, or Carrie Bradshaw and co biting into perfectly iced cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery, the Americans somehow have a way with cake that is so much more indulgent than our pristine British afternoon teas of dainty Victoria sponges and lemon drizzles.
And now it’s time to make way for the latest buttercream-stuffed, sugar-rich novelty to hit our waistlines from across the shores: the whoopie pie. It’s hard to take a name like that seriously in a culinary context, but that’s the point. “It’s meant to be fun — it’s simple yet different,” says Sophie Grey, manager of Crazy Baker, an artisan deli-cum-bakery in Kensal Green, North London, which has been selling whoopies since the start of the year, after a friend in New York told Grey about the recent craze there.
The name may be worth a giggle, but it’s misleading. A classic American whoopie pie is not a pie at all, but is often described as a cross between a cookie and a cake sandwich — some cakies call them “Oreo sandwiches”, since they have a drier bite than regular sponge. It’s basically two chubby domes of firmer-than-usual chocolate cake stuck together with a thick filling of whipped-up vanilla butter cream, sometimes decorated on top, sometimes not. I prefer them plain, the way most Americans will tell you they’re supposed to be. It makes them look more wholesome — even though, obviously, they’re not.
You may be wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, a whoopie pie is basically a version of cake and frosting, and that’s what cupcakes are for.
But if, like me, you struggle with the disproportionate slather of overly sweet frosting on cupcakes (Gerhard Jenne, the founder of the upmarket bakery Konditor & Cook, once told me that he couldn’t stand them because he always gets frosting up his nose), then you will appreciate the ease of sinking into a whoopie pie: the buttercream is kept neatly in the middle, like a sweet hamburger in a bun.
“Whoopie pies are easier to eat than cupcakes,” agrees Sophie. “Cupcakes can be unbalanced by their topping, whereas with a whoopie pie you bite into the sponge first and then get the satisfaction of the cream filling.”
Whoopie pies have been around modestly for decades in America and have recently seen a resurgence in popularity — thanks partly to the Magnolia Bakery in New York, which introduced maple-cream-filled whoopies two years ago. But the real story of the whoopie starts in the 1920s, when Amish farmers’ wives started making them from leftover cake batter as a lunch treat for their husbands, who ploughed the fields of Pennsylvania.
Cake-legend has it that when the farmers got cake, they’d shout “whoopie!” — which was pretty much my reaction when I opened a box of whoopie pies from The Hummingbird Bakery, the American-style London cake house. It has been selling whoopies in the UK for more than a year, inspiring Harrods and Marks & Spencer to follow suit.
The Hummingbird’s tubby whoopie sponges, in pumpkin, red velvet and chocolate flavours, come filled with a thick squish of vanilla butter cream. They look, and taste, rustically home-made — the sponge is deliberately slightly dry, offset by the butter cream. Unadorned, with no icing on top, they are the perfect antidote to all that silly fluffy frosting that cupcakes carry.
“The whole point of a whoopie pie is that it’s supposed to be plain,” says Emma Power, product developer at The Hummingbird Bakery. “They’re not meant to be too big or have icing on top. They look more manly than a cupcake.”
Yet somehow, as I’m standing in Sophie Grey’s kitchen later that day, preparing to make my own whoopie pies, “manly” is not the word I’m thinking of. There’s a tray on the counter, holding bowls of pink hearts and star sprinkles and garish pink fondant icing.
I tell Sophie I thought whoopies were meant to be plain. She sighs. “My husband says the same thing; he thinks they taste better without the topping, but I think the bright colours make them more fun.”
It’s an issue that’s dividing whoopie pie fans in the US too; a food historian from Maine recently told The New York Times that fancy, overly decorated whoopie pies totally miss the point. Never mind.
Brigitte Knoche, Sophie’s no-nonsense cake baker, takes over. “Whoopies are fiddly to make at home because you have to get the consistency right to make sure that the cakes don’t spread out wide but rise instead,” she says. “You don’t want a whoopie pie that’s flat on either end.”
Making a whoopie pie batter is mostly the same as for any other cake — creaming, beating, sifting, folding. Brigitte’s recipe uses buttermilk, which adds a creamy tanginess laced with vanilla essence. “It creates a lift that you don’t get with normal milk,” she says.
We sift the flour and cocoa powder through twice before folding it with the creamed butter, sugar and egg and, as the mix combines and Brigitte tells me that
I can’t stick my finger in the bowl to try it, I begin to see the dry texture that gives the whoopie a cookie-like feel.
It’s not smooth, but quite stodgy, as if there’s far too much flour. But Brigitte says that it’s important not to overmix. Nor should you be tempted to thin the mixture down with more buttermilk — since you don’t use moulds, it needs to be firm to hold its shape.
Next, we spoon tablespoons of the batter on to a baking sheet, using a finger to slide it off the spoon — it drops down on to the tray in big, fat, gooey, chocolatey dollops. “What you don’t want to do is spread the mix out into a circle, because then it will be too flat,” says Brigitte. “Instead, pile up more batter on top.”
As they bake, Brigitte brings out a huge slab of cream cheese frosting; when she’s not looking, I scoop a little teaspoon to taste. Although I’m not convinced by the need to paint whoopies all over with coloured icing, I am in total favour of the filling for the middle, especially as the cream cheese bites through and balances out the icing sugar.
Ten minutes later, the whoopies are out of the oven — surprisingly neatly curved. Brigitte quickly unsticks them from the parchment paper, allowing them to cool and firm up. They are the biggest whoopie pies I’ve yet seen — about the diameter of a cereal bowl. “Made for sharing,” says Sophie.
Brigitte and I sandwich the sponges together and then quickly top them before the fondant icing dries. I drop red hearts all over an embarrassingly pink whoopie, and scatter blue stars on a lurid orange one; there are rainbow sprinkles everywhere. I hand our photographer a glossy red one covered with pink hearts. “It’s manly,” I tell him.
Would the Amish farmers of Pennsylvania approve of what we’ve done to their whoopies? I doubt it. Nor would those cupcake lovers who marvel over picture-perfect frosting swirled just so — our icing is neither exquisite nor expert, but it’s a lot of fun.
And after all, as Frank Sinatra once sang, that’s what you get, folks, for making whoopie.