The Mercedes of Cookies

The woman who coined the phrase, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels,” never ate a homemade Whoopie Pie. These came out so amazing that I renamed them “Whoopie Heaven.” They took a long time to make, but it was oh so worth it! My husband calls them the “Mercedes of cookies.” I think they might be the Rolls-Royce.

The chocolate cake batter is pretty standard, but you will want to use an electric mixer for both that and the filling. The filling requires that you make a paste by cooking milk and flour together on the stove, and then cooling it before adding it to the shortening, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla. This is the secret to the filling. Anything else and it won’t have that authentic texture and flavor of a real whoopie pie.

Because I can never leave a recipe alone when I cook, I made two slight modifications. First, because I am not a huge fan of vegetable shortening (aka Crisco), I used only butter in the chocolate cake batter. And for the same reason, I substituted coconut oil for 2/3 of the shortening in the filling. (I am a huge fan of coconut oil, and use it a lot in cooking now.) If you want your whoopie pies to be nut-free, however, I recommend staying away from it. I also recommend using Hershey’s or another brand of dark, (Dutch) unsweetened cocoa powder. You will find that different brands will render different variations of chocolate taste, so experiment to find the one you like best. Here is a review of 7 brands:  I found online. http://food.allwomenstalk.com/best-brands-of-cocoa-that-every-baker-should-use

So as not to keep you on tender-hooks any longer, here is the recipe. It makes 20 large or 24 small pies:

Ingredients
Chocolate cookie batter:
1/2 cup baking cocoa (unsweetened powder)
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 cup soft butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 fresh eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder (Calumet)
1 tsp. baking soda (Arm & Hammer)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup milk to which 1/2 Tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar has been added. Note: Wait 5 minutes to give the milk time to curdle.)

Creamy Vanilla Filling:
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
dash salt
1 cup whole milk (or 1/2 and 1/2)
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup vegetable shortening (Crisco)
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions:
1. In a small bowl, combine cocoa powder and water. Cool for 5 minutes.
2. In a large bowl with electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla and the cocoa mixture.
3. In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients and add to the creamed mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beating well after each addition.
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
5. Drop by rounded Tablespoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto greased baking sheets. (Try to make them as round and as uniform in size as possible. This gets easier with practice.) For best results choose a middle rack in the oven. If the sheets are too close to the bottom of the oven, you risk scorching the cookies.
6. Bake about 10 minutes or until touching one with your finger does not leave an indent. Remove and cool completely on wire racks while you make the filling.
7. In a small, heavy, saucepan, combine the flour and salt. Gradually whisk in the milk until smooth and cook over medium-high heat while stirring constantly, for 5-7 minutes until a thick paste is formed. Remove from heat, cover, and refrigerate until completely cool.
8. In a small bowl with an electric mixer, cream the shortening, coconut oil, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the flour/milk paste and beat for a full 7 minutes until fluffy.
9. Now comes the fun part: with a frosting tool, spread 2 Tablespoons of the creamy filling on half of the cookies and top with the other half. (I find it makes it easier if I match the cookies up by size and shape first before adding frosting). Store between layers of wax paper in the refrigerator.
10. Devour! These taste even better the next day, if you can believe that. So make ahead if baking for company.

 

Re-Experiencing Childhood Pleasures

My mother was a stay-at-home mom. (As far as I knew, there wasn’t any other kind.) One of the benefits to this arrangement was that I grew up eating homemade cookies. Every day on my walk home from school I looked forward to coming in the door and grabbing a cookie from the cookie tin kept high on a shelf in the kitchen. It was so high, I remember climbing up on a bureau to reach it.

Since there were five children in the family, the cookies were rationed. Every time you took a cookie, you made a mark by your name on a little piece of paper taped to the top of the tin. When you reached the designated limit, you were done. This may sound rather austere to some, but it was a brilliant system. It prevented fights (and the obligatory parental refereeing), it guaranteed that everyone got their fair share, and it taught me about delayed gratification: the more disciplined I was, the longer I got to enjoy my cookies.

My mother baked a huge variety of cookies and bars, always made from scratch. She would collect recipes from the Boston Globe, pasting them into the looseleaf pages of a large, three-ring binder. Two recipes that I remember with great fondness were meringues and honey yo-yos. These particular confections were very time-consuming to make. I know because sometimes I helped make them, adding sugar one teaspoon at a time to the egg whites being whipped up for the meringues in my mom’s Sunbeam electric mixer, or meticulously glueing together the honey yo-yo halves with raspberry jam.

But my favorite all-time cookies were whoopie pies: two rich chocolate cake-like cookies stuffed with creamy vanilla filling. If you have never had a real, honest-to-goodness, homemade whoopie pie, you don’t know what you’re missing. They taste nothing like the ones you see by the check-out at small-town convenience stores. For one thing, the filling in those is made with marshmallow fluff and god knows what else, and for another, I am pretty sure there is no butter in the chocolate cake.

I recently decided to try my hand at recreating these New England-based delights from my childhood. I didn’t have my mother’s original recipe, and it took several online attempts before I found the right one, that is, with the same creamy vanilla filling my mom used to make. But find it I did.

I gathered together the ingredients, and rolled up my sleeves.

To be continued…

 

Have a Heart: Conclusion

Well, Houdini has won, at least for now. I have decided that the last remaining Animalia Chordata Mammalia Rodentia Sciuridae has earned the right to spend the winter in his burrow in the back yard. I am out of peanuts, having wasted the last of them setting the trap multiple times, only to have the bait taken and the trap sprung, but no one inside. Again, I personally don’t have anything against chipmunks. I even did some research to see if they make good pets (not recommended). But at this moment my dog is trying to scratch her way through the back wall of the garage, convinced that Houdini is in there, perhaps hiding nuts or maybe preparing his winter residence for hibernation. I apparently did him a great favor by removing his siblings so he can claim the territory as his own. And he apparently learned from their mistakes. At least I hope it is a he. If Houdini turns out to be a she, I may be in for another Have-a-Hart summer.

Have a Heart, part V: Houdini

I check the trap this morning–it is tripped, and the peanuts are eaten, but there is no one inside! Apparently this last chipmunk is living up to its species’ name as being excellent escape artists. I get more bait and reset the trap. I am thinking that, instead of Alvin, I may have to name my next catch Houdini.

I go out later in the morning. The trap is undisturbed, but as I am looking at it, I hear a little chirping noise, just barely audible. I look in the direction from where the noise is coming, and I see a little face and two shiny black eyes peeking out at me from the slate rock wall. Aha! I have discovered the opening to the den. This must be their summer home, and the walls of my garage are the winter home. Or maybe the parents have kicked the adolescents out and they’ve taken up residence in the earthworks behind the wall (it is a retaining wall, about four feet high). Little fur-face and I have a staring contest for a while, and then I put a couple of peanuts on the rock closest to the den opening. He (she) disappears into the dark recesses of the wall. I am reminded of the story The Little Prince and the taming of the fox. Maybe the chipmunks and I are taming each other.

To be continued…

Have a Heart, part IV: Catch and Release

I’m on a roll now. Just a few hours after releasing Theodore, I catch Simon. Simon is a little bigger than Chip, Dale, and Theodore, but not by much. Same scenario–I transport him in the trap to the forest’s edge, only this time, I decide to release him a few feet away from the big pine tree where the others seem to have headed. He disappears into the crotch of the tree. I leave some peanuts nearby, as a friendly gesture.

So now I am curious about these little creatures, and decide to read up on them. Here are a few things I learned (thanks to the wonders of the internet, naturally).

“Chipmunks are small, striped rodents of the family Sciuridae (Squirrel family). Chipmunks are found in North America, with the exception of the Siberian chipmunk which is found primarily in Asia.
Gestation period31 days
“Chipmunks have a lot of predators due to their small size. Main predators of chipmunks are snakes, hawks, owls, weasels, bobcats, raccoons and coyotes. Chipmunks are omnivores (they eat both plant- and animal-based food). They usually eat nuts, seeds, berries, fruit, fungi, insects, frogs and eggs.
“Chipmunks are part of the squirrel family, and while they look similar to their bushy-tailed cousins, chipmunks are actually smaller, with alternating light and dark stripes along their cheeks and backs.

“There are 25 species of chipmunk, 24 of which live in North America (who knew?!?!). Chipmunks are excellent tree climbers and swimmers who live in a variety of habitats, including plains, mountains, forests, and deserts. Chipmunks like to live alone in holes or burrows called dens.

“Chipmunks hibernate in cold weather, which means they spend most of the winter sleeping in their dens. One chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day. In just two days, a chipmunk can collect enough food to last an entire winter, although chipmunks typically hoard much more food than necessary.

“Chipmunk young are born in late spring, and stay in the nest for up to six weeks. Female chipmunks have one or two litters per year, each with four or five babies. Chipmunks are 7.2 to 8.5 inches (18.5 to 21.6 centimeters) long including their tails, which can account for nearly half of their length.”

So based on the last paragraph above,  there could be as many as 10 offspring living in and around my garage, plus mom and dad. If that is true, I am going to run out of names pretty soon. Alvin is taken, but I am soliciting suggestions.
Stay tuned for more adventures of the furry kind!
Here is a lot more information about chipmunks, some of it really fun and interesting. https://www.pets4homes.co.uk/pet-advice/fun-interesting-facts-about-chipmunks.html
PS Thank you to Russ for pointing out the mistake in my earlier post. I have corrected it.

Have-a-Heart, part III: Three’s Company

No luck last night, but today at around 1:30 p.m., lo and behold, there is Chip and Dale’s sibling in the trap–at least that is what I want to believe. This one looks a little different, I tell myself. It’s nose seems a bit more slender and pointy, but that could also just be wishful thinking.

So off we go in my Toyota Matrix to the chipmunk drop-off station at the edge the town forest. As I gently carry the cage to the foot of the locked metal gate that prevents cars from going any further, little Theodore, as I have named this one, makes some chirping noises. I set down the trap, open one of the doors, and Theodore goes scampering in the same direction that Chip and Dale went, only this time, instead of disappearing into the leaves of the embankment, Theodore climbs the nearest tree. I watch in utter amazement, as Chip (Dale?) greets him! They exchange some cheerful-sounding chirps and disappear higher up in the tree.

I can’t wait to set the trap again to catch Simon and Alvin!

Have a Heart, the sequel: Chip and Dale

I decide to take the trap back to the hardware store and ask if it is defective. Turns out, it is not the trap that is defective, but the operator. I wasn’t setting it properly. I take it back home and reset it, properly this time.

Bam! In less than 24 hours, I have Chip in the trap. He (she?) is very small, probably not full adult size–and certainly not as big as the one I have seen near the bird feeder. I take it to the edge of the forest behind where I live, but three streets down, so that it cannot find its way back (hopefully).

I set the trap again. Next morning I check it. No luck. Later, around supper time, Dale is there. About the same size as Chip. I wonder if Chip and Dale are siblings and how many more there might be. I bring Dale to where I released Chip, and she (he?) scampers off into the woods making a very high-pitched chirping noise, which I hope means it is happy. Of course, it occurs to me that I may have trapped Chip twice.

When I return, I set the trap again, but unfortunately forget to set the “lock” that holds the door down once it shuts. When I check it again later, the door is shut, but the bait is gone, and the trap is empty. I put in more apple slices and set the trap correctly this time.

Going out right now to check the trap. I will let you know what I find…stay tuned…

Have a Heart

I recently purchased a Havahart humane trap at my local hardware store, hoping I could catch and release the chipmunk that has been living in the walls of my garage for a couple of years now. I read the instructions carefully and follow them to a T. Using three recommended apple slices topped with raisins and peanut butter as bait, I leave the trap in my back yard near the stone wall where the chipmunk likes to hang out during the day.  As directed, I am careful to make sure both entrances are open and the bait tray is level.

I should confess, I am not particularly bothered by the chipmunk, but my dog is. She is a Karelian Bear Dog, with an extreme prey drive, and she knows the chipmunk lives in the walls of the garage, and she is determined to stalk it night and day. She has worn her front toenails down trying to scratch her way through the plywood that acts as a barrier between her and the furry little appetizer she can hear, smell, and almost taste, and it is driving her (and me) crazy..

Once when I was young we had a mouse infestation in our home. My parents purchased a Havahart trap and within a few days had captured 12 little gray mice, which they either released somewhere near our neighbors, who had cats, or else they drowned them without telling us. I find gray mice to be rather ugly and unpleasant–not at all like Hunca-Munca from Beatrix Potter ‘s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. But I digress.

So I set my trap with three apple slices coated with peanut butter and raisins, and wait.

First day: it looks like a chipmunk has been inside, because there is a dried leaf in the cage that wasn’t there before, and one of the apple slices is off of the bait tray, without its raisins and peanut butter. I remove it and leave the other two.

Second day: One of the remaining apple slices is undisturbed, and the other is gone, but the peanut butter and raisin topping is left sitting on the bait tray. I remove them and replace with thinner slices of apple coated with peanut butter and raisins.

Third day: All the food is gone. I conclude that I have simply created a convenient feeding station for the chipmunk.

I go back to the hardware store to tell them my story. They say that I should set the trap so only one door is open, and the food is way on the other side of the bait tray, so that the chipmunk has to walk across the bait tray to reach the food, and thus trigger the door. I had already thought of trying this, but the instructions specifically said to have both doors open or the bait tray would not be level. I go home and forget to put food in the trap. My dog goes nuts in the garage again.

To be continued…

 

 

 

Everyday Miracles

Trying to get back to the keyboard. Sometimes inspiration doesn’t come, or it sometimes does, and I am simply too tired to act on it. Or it comes at the wrong time, like when I am driving in the car, and then later I sit down to write and I have forgotten those flashes of brilliance that only hours earlier coalesced in my brain.

Synchronicity is everything. For instance, yesterday, at a rest stop in New Hampshire, my husband, who was traveling on a bus back to Vermont from Providence, Rhode Island with his rugby team, struck up a conversation with a man at the rest stop who had just driven in his pick-up truck from Plum Island, Massachusetts on his way to Lancaster, Vermont. The man had just sold his vacation home on Plum Island and was thinking of purchasing one in Midcoast Maine, which happens to be where my husband and I own a vacation home, so they talked about that; and two summers ago my husband did a five-day solo bicycle trip from Central Vermont to the Coast of Maine. On the first day of the trek, just outside of Lancaster, he got a flat tire, (his second flat of the day), and had been picked up by a guy in a pickup truck. At some point in the conversation (I think as as they were leaving the men’s room), the two strangers figured out that they had met before: he was the man who had pulled over to the side of the road and offered my husband a ride in his truck. Laughing at this miraculous second meeting, my husband told the man the story of how he got the rest of the way to the coast of Maine safely and without mishap.

One summer almost twenty years ago I was eating breakfast in a small restaurant in a small town in Maine that made wonderful muffins. I remarked to our waitress how hard it must be to work in a place with such delicious baked goods. She lamented that she could not eat any of them because she had a reaction to wheat that caused her agonizing hip pain. Coincidentally, I had been experiencing agonizing hip pain for more than a year, so I decided to see if not eating wheat would make a difference. Miraculously, within 48 hours my hip pain was gone. A few days later I decided to test it by eating a plate of pasta for supper. Wham! The hip pain returned with a vengeance. As a bonus, that fall, to my delight, my ragweed allergy that had plagued me for years did not resurface. I also discovered I was no longer allergic to cats! Chronic gas, bloating, and abdominal pain had also subsided–all because I had cut wheat out of my diet.

What if I hadn’t eaten there that day? Or what if I had, but had been served by a different waitress? Or what if I did have that waitress but hadn’t remarked about the baked goods?That chance encounter changed my life. It quite possibly would have taken me another twenty years to figure out what had been causing my hip problems.

Flash forward to yesterday. I was in a small shop in a small town in Vermont. The young woman in line in front of me was sniffling and asked for a tissue from the cashier, remarking at how she suffered from ragweed allergies this time of year. In sympathetic tones I told I used to be allergic to ragweed. She replied, “Used to?” So I told her the story about the waitress and the wheat and the hip pain. She responded, “I have terrible hip pain!” We chatted a little more, and as she was leaving she said she would try giving up wheat and see if it made a difference.

I hope she does, and I hope it works. I will probably never see her again to find out. But then again, you never know…

 

Eclipse

I haven’t written anything in a while. I’d like to say it is because I broke my finger and can’t type, but that would be a lie. (I did break my finger, but that hasn’t stopped me from typing.) I’d like to say it’s because I’ve had nothing to write about lately, but that would be a lie too. It’s just that I don’t want to use this blog to talk about the news or politics, and that is pretty much all that has been on my mind since last Saturday.

So what can I write about?

In four days there is going to be a total eclipse of the sun. I remember the last one, on Saturday, March 7, 1970. I was in the eighth grade, and I was in Boston on a field trip with my Episcopal Church Confirmation class. We went to see the movie Easy Rider. Don’t ask me why we chose that film, but apparently we did. I am guessing none of our parents were cool enough to have seen the movie or even know what it was about, so they couldn’t object. Besides, we were with a priest.

We watched the movie, and I thought it was the dumbest thing I had ever seen in my life: quite a statement considering I had spent a good chunk of the 1960s watching Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space, Batman, and reruns of I Love Lucy. At 13 years old, I totally didn’t get what the film was about, and I’m not sure would now. (In case you’re too young to have heard of it, Easy Rider is a counterculture biker film starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and a young Jack Nicholson that won Dennis Hopper the Best First Work Award at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. If you want to know more, read this very interesting piece written by Garin Pirnia and published on Mental Floss http://mentalfloss.com/article/77348/13-fast-facts-about-easy-rider.)

I don’t remember much about the film, but I do I remember pretending to like it so that I wouldn’t appear immature to my more sophisticated classmates. As we exited the theater, the eclipse was going on. We had come prepared, and we “watched” the eclipse with the help of our homemade pinhole box “cameras” and other crudely crafted viewing aids so as not to damage our retinas.

If you read my last blog, you may have figured out that I am fascinated by words.
Like many words in the English language, eclipse can be a noun or a verb. When not referring to celestial bodies, the noun means a loss of significance, power, or prominence in relation to another person or thing. Synonyms include decline, fall, failure, decay, deterioration, degeneration, weakening, or collapse. When used as a verb, eclipse means to deprive (someone or something) of significance, power, or prominence. Synonyms include outshine, overshadow, surpass, exceed, outstrip, outdo, top, trump, transcend, upstage.
As far as the etymology of the word is concerned, eclipse is Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin eclipsis, from Greek ekleipsis, from ekleipein to omit, fail, suffer eclipse, from ex- + leipein to leave.

I have to admit I find the timing of this eclipse quite interesting. Let’s just leave it at that.

I was confirmed on May 10, 1970. The reason I know that was the date is because it was a Sunday, the same day the Bruins won the Stanley Cup over the Saint Louis Blues, in the fourth game of the series, in the fourth period, when Bobby Orr, number 4, scored the fourth goal at 40 seconds of overtime. My confirmation classmates and I were far more interested in the Bruins than we were in what was happening in church that day. You could even say that the Bruins’ victory “eclipsed” my confirmation. But there we were, kneeling at the alter in front of the Bishop and receiving our first taste of communion wine, while 30 miles away the most exciting game of our lives–indeed, the most important game–was being played in Boston Garden. And as my family drove away from the church, with the radio on, we heard the play by play of the winning goal, and my dad blasted the horn on our station wagon. Dad, I hope you’ve forgiven me for making you miss one of the greatest moments ever in Boston sports history.