Tuesday’s Project: Pumpkin Caramel Whoopie Pies
On this Halloween Eve, the nation’s A.P.O. (Autumnal Pumpkin Obsession) reaches a fever pitch level. Pumpkin lattes with pumpkin muffins and pumpkin bagels covered with pumpkin cream cheese for lunch. Pumpkin bread with pumpkin sage soup then for lunch with a pumpkin smoothie from Jamba Juice. Then for dinner, perhaps a pork tenderloin with pumpkin gastrique, pumpkin cranberry stuffing, and for good measure, acorn squash with maple butter.
What?! Acorn squash? It’s not quite pumpkin…
Then to drink, of course pumpkin beer, or if you’re so inclined, a Manhattan variation with pumpkin liqueur. Let’s hope pumpkin wines don’t arrive in the footsteps of pineapple wine.
Pumpkin pie is très Thanksgiving and it’s not even Halloween for another few hours. Tomorrow you can eat all the Kit-Kats, Crunch bars, and Butterfingers for dessert you can handle without climbing up the walls from the increased levels of sugar in your system, so hold off a few hours for the candy spree.
But with A.P.O. in full swing, let’s enjoy this week’s project, a sensational autumnal whoopie pie recipe from the wonderful pastry chef of San Francisco restaurants Farallon and Waterbar and the newest weekly contributor to The San Francisco Chronicle, Emily Luchetti.
Whoopie pies are much more of a beloved East Coast dessert icon, often given many confusing descriptions as to what a whoopie pie really is. First of all, whoopie pie is not a pie. if you really want to be adventurous, go ahead and translate a whoopie pie into a pie, complete with crust. It certainly would be intriguing.
I describe whoopie pies as Oreo’s, except the filling is usually marshmallow fluff (another beloved East Coast novelty for Fluffernutters), and instead of chocolate “cookies” to complete the sandwich, the whoopie pies have fluffy cake batter to sandwich the filling. Ms. Luchetti’s description is best calling the whoopie pie “an inside-out cupcake.”
With all of these academic sounding explanations, I’ll just blend them all together: a whoopie pie is a cupcake in sandwich form à la Oreo cookies.
Now onto the show.
Luchetti’s recipe can be broken down into the two components of a whoopie pie: the filling and the “bread,” or cakes. A final third part comes from the excellent and necessary dusting of cocoa nibs and candied ginger, as long as you can resist snacking on all of them while preparing the rest of the dish.
Start with the filling, a simple mixture of cream cheese, butter, and cool caramel sauce. Avoid a bland brand like Smucker’s, you really need the caramel notes to push through the butter and cream cheese. Also, don’t skip the large pinch of kosher salt. For anybody like me who uses salted caramel as the standard for chocolatiers and ice cream artisans to be compared by, kosher salt works wonders with caramel.
Don’t try to be an environmentalist or a macho man like I tried to, attempting to mix the caramel filling by hand in order to save washing the blender beaters another time after making bread earlier in the day. Save the whoopie pies and your sanity, use a blender or food processor for mixing. After 15 minutes of wrestling with the filling, despite my enormous bicep power, I made the smart switch to the blender. Make sure to do the same.
For the cakes, the assembly is fairly straight forward. First mix the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet ingredients in another. I used the regular Libby’s pumpkin puree, a reliable standard for pumpkin pie and pumpkin baking. As Ms. Luchetti mentions, you can be ambitious and use real pumpkin, but in reality, the difference in the caliber of taste between real pumpkin and canned pumpkin puree isn’t worth the effort or very cost-saving.
My only tasting note other than that both the filling and cake was superb, was that the cakes could use just a hit more of spice. Perhaps a teaspoon and a half each of ground ginger and ground cinnamon, in place of a teaspoon each? Again, this was just a very subtle note.
I ended up baking the cakes in two installments of nine minutes each. My pies were slightly larger than suggested, with 24 cakes in total baked (two sets of twelve), creating a dozen whoopie pies. Ms. Luchetti calls for 15 pies, which I would agree would be a slightly smaller, perfect serving size.
The final assembly after the cakes cool is to make the sandwich. On the flat side of half the cakes, add a spoonful of the filling and spread all around the cake. Then add a dusting of the cocoa nibs and candied ginger to the sides.
Or, do as I did, and add the cocoa nibs and candied ginger to the center. This is better for two reasons. One, the filling, bitter cocoa nibs, and the sweet-spice notes of candied ginger are a formidable trio that absolutely work together harmoniously. You want every bite immersed in the trio. Two, it’s a bit of a challenge to coat the sides without losing lots of cocoa nibs. The stick briefly then fall away from the filling
Yes, this affects the presentation, but ultimately with whoopie pies, it’s about the filling and the cake. With some caramel in the filling any day, and for this time of year some pumpkin in the cakes, whoopie pies are the next “cupcake.”
Well, the next “inside-out” or “sandwich form” cupcake.
You’ll most likely be yelling “whoopie” after eating one, as cliché as that sounds. I’ll take this for a Halloween treat any day over another Twix bar.