Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another season, another reason for makin’ whoopie (pies)

Whoopie pies are equally a New England and Pennsylvania concoction, attributed both to Mainers and the Pennsylvania Amish. Some believe the pies were introduced in Maine by the Amish themselves while others believe they were conceived in Maine. The argument behind the birth of the sweet snack runs deep, a perennial “whodunit.” Many believe the legend that Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Amish children would shout a gleeful “whoopie!” when presented with the dessert, hence the quirky name.

No matter the truth, whoopie pies are considered classic comfort food, essential to Maine’s culinary history. For the uninitiated, traditional whoopie pies consist of two disc-shaped springy cocoa-flavored cakes filled with a sweet, creamy frosting often made with a combination of vegetable shortening, confectioner’s sugar and Marshmallow Fluff.

I recently had the pleasure of getting to know the ladies who run the famous Maine-based whoopee pie establishment Cranberry Island Kitchen. I had always wondered about the origins of the dessert on which my sister and I were weaned and they helped demystify the snack, which is virtually unknown in the non-Northeastern corners of the United States.

Carol Ford, one of Cranberry Island’s proprietors, says that Mainers and Pennsylvanians indeed have varying, conflicting opinions on the creation of the cakes. She says that while historians suggest the cakes origins may lie with the Amish, created as a way to use up leftover batter, Mainers steadfastly defend their state as the source of the sweet treat.

Ms. Ford and her business partner Karen Haas use only natural ingredients for their pies, which they sell in a variety of gourmet flavors. They use only fresh homemade butter, local eggs from free range chickens, Maine spring water, unbleached flour and organic vanilla.

Personally, I love the classic, traditional whoopie pie. I have tried both butter-based and shortening-based fillings and much prefer my cakes with shortening-based frosting. I find using butter yields a cloyingly sweet product, while shortening acts as a blank canvas for the sugar and marshmallow. The following is my favorite whoopie pie recipe….ever. The cakes are moist, springy and not too sweet. The frosting is miraculously creamy, fluffy and luscious, without being saccharine.

The recipe makes a large amount of pies. Cut down to desired proportions.

3 cups sugar
1 cup butter
4 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk

1 1/2 cups shortening
3 cups confectioners' sugar
1 1/3 cups marshmallow topping
Dash salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 to 1/2 cup milk

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the sugar, butter, and eggs together until well combined. Add the oil and vanilla and beat again.
3. In a separate bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients. Add half of the dry mixture to the egg mixture and beat or stir to blend. Add 1 1/2 cups milk and beat again. Add the remaining dry mixture and beat until incorporated. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups milk and beat until blended.
3. With a large spoon, scoop out circles of batter onto a baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool. Repeat process until all the batter is used.
4. To make filling, combine all ingredients except the milk in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat well. Add just enough milk to achieve a creamy consistency. Spread filling across cooled cookie circles and place remaining circles on top to make whoopie pies.

Makes 32 pies.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding

Food is very, very important to my family. At family get-togethers, food is always the centerpiece, almost as significant as the family members who labored over the stove. You can say that food is like my sibling or cousin: we fawn over it, scrutinize it, romance it, love it, struggle with it and best of all, examine it as it changes with the generations. Like people, dishes in my family develop gray hairs, and then are reborn as shiny new babies.

As my grandmother ages, Thanksgiving has started to change. My grandmother epitomizes a top- notch home cook. Her food is fragrant, flavorful and always comforting. In the past, she has always taken on the whole kit and caboodle- the shopping, the cooking and the cleaning. The rest of us were always thrown out of the kitchen, never asked to help, and we reveled in being served by the culinary figurehead.

Times are changing, though, and new traditions are taking shape. Like some of her dishes themselves, this is a bittersweet sentiment: while she is less energetic, she has finally allowed the younger generations to enter her kitchen and make a big, giant mess.

This year, I had the honor, along with my aunt Paula, of steering the Thanksgiving ship. Paula and I have perpetuated the comfort food tradition, although our dishes were edgier and perhaps more modern. Paula made many dishes such as cheesy mashed potatoes with sage, a nutty sweet potato casserole, green beans with shiitake. My grandmother, of course, worked magic with her famous pies and the turkey centerpiece. I was in charge of a handful of dishes such as roasted Brussels sprouts with a cranberry, orange and thyme butter, a carrot and fennel soup, parsnip gratin and a mushroom bread pudding, to contrast my mom’s more traditional stuffing.

I rarely cook with mushrooms since my husband Mike hates them. I occasionally attempt to disguise them and slip them into various dishes. But they are always mushrooms and he always tastes them, always holds them in contempt and I am always forced to move on.

I take any given opportunity to cook mushroom-laden dishes since I have a forbidden romance with the fungus and rarely indulge. This bread pudding is infused with a thyme-perfumed mushroom broth, bread packed thick between layers of wild chanterelles and shiitakes. It emanates a sweet and nutty aroma and tastes rich, creamy and earthy.

Bread pudding is a special treat, whether sweet or savory. This custardy mushroom bread pudding takes the comfort food to the next level, a luxurious, warming alternative to stuffing.

Mushroom bread pudding
Adapted from The New York times
1 1/4 cups rich mushroom stock (recipe below)
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
4 eggs
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
4 cups stemmed and sliced wild mushrooms, preferably shiitakes and chanterelles (reserve stems to make mushroom broth, if desired)
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 Small loaf brioche or challah, crust removed, cut into 3/4-inch-thick slices and toasted on both sides.

1. Place the stock in a saucepan over medium heat and reduce by half. Add the heavy cream and simmer until the mixture is reduced to 1 1/2 cups. Whisk the milk, eggs and 3/4 teaspoon of the salt together in a mixing bowl. Whisk in the reduced stock mixture and set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots, garlic and thyme and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook until wilted, about 10 minutes. Season with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste.
3. Line the bottom of an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch loaf pan with a layer of bread slices. Top with half of the mushroom mixture. Repeat the layers and top with a third bread layer. Pour the egg mixture over the bread. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Unwrap the dish and press the bread down into the liquid. Cover the pan with foil and place in a roasting pan. Pour enough boiling water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake until the pudding is set and the top is puffed and browned, about 2 hours. The pudding can be made ahead and reheated. Cut into slices and serve warm.

Yield: Six to 8 servings.

Mushroom stock:
1 ounce dried cepes, porcini or other wild mushrooms
2 pounds white mushrooms
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 quarts cold water.

1. Combine all the ingredients in a large pot over medium low heat. Simmer for 2 hours and strain.
2. Discard the mushrooms. The broth will keep for up to one week in the refrigerator or up to two months in the freezer.

Yield: One quart.