That was the reaction of one of my book club friends when I produced Red Velvet Whoopie Pies at our last meeting. I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing and started nervously talking about making them smaller next time – but she soon clarified. One of the chief benefits of a Whoopie Pie, then, is that you feel as though you have a whole large cake all to yourself, which, for a cake-lover, sounds like a pretty good selling point.
But what is a whoopie pie? I remember seeing them quite briefly in the large coffee shop chains a few years ago, clearly an upstart contender for the ‘New Cupcake’ crown. There was a brief accompanying spike in internet searches for Whoopie Pie recipes in 2011 (not fuelled by me, I hasten to add). Neither lasted long and the succession has not yet moved on from the Cupcake, despite many predictions to the contrary. But in fact, Whoopie Pies are not upstarts; they are just not native Brits.
They were always a bit of a surprise contender for New Cupcake status though, especially when you think about how much of the appeal of the Cupcake is its looks. A Whoopie Pie is, by contrast, and to put it bluntly, two flat splats of cake, sandwiched together with a buttercream or marshmallow filling. Afficionados would say it’s much more than this: a gooey treat which should be eaten with both hands, with the cream which escapes round the sides of the cakes licked off the face afterwards. Like the Cupcake it trades partly off its sense of nostalgia and childish fun, although little is actually known of its origins. It is said to be a traditional Amish treat, but others cite European origins transported to the States by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Maine also makes strong claims to be its birthplace, and both Maine and Pennsylvania hold annual Whoopie Pie Festivals. In a smart piece of one-up-manship, the Maine legislature voted the Whoopie Pie as Maine’s official State Treat in 2011 (it lost out as State Pie to the Blueberry, alas).
Either way, its most basic beginning was probably a quick cake-cum-cookie made with a simple or even leftover batter. One of the most comprehensive websites on food history, foodtimeline.org, reports a Victorian birth date, but finds no evidence of Whoopie Pies in early Pennsylvania cookbooks. Their emergence into the mainstream seems to have been gradual, perhaps livened up by a feature on Oprah in 2003 which covered a new business making and selling them under the name Wicked Whoopies. Soon, they were to be found in coffee shops all over the place, only to sink again within a year or two (a few signature flavours can still be found on the menu at Magnolia). It seems most likely, however, that their rise was based on the same new receptiveness to novelty baked goods which stoked and then sustained the Cupcake; and especially those with a sense of heritage and childishness. What better claim to the latter than the story of how the Whoopie Pie got its name: for the cry of delight children would shout out when they found one in their lunch bag.
I decided to make Red Velvet Whoopie Pies for my first try, partly because of the ingredients I had in the cupboard, and partly because the book club host (she of the ‘whole cake’ comment 🙂 ) only likes cream cheese frosting. There are almost literally a gazillion recipes on the web but I chose this one, by Bakerella, of Cake Pop fame. My filling wasn’t as firm as I had imagined, probably because I only had low fat cream cheese, and I had to improvise an elaborate staging post where every pie was propped up with a variety of tableware to keep the tops from sliding off the bottoms. A spell in the fridge helped to firm them up though. I also used a glass to cut neat circles from the still-warm pies, just to make them look nicer 🙂
So am I a convert? They certainly have many benefits compared with a cupcake: less onerous on the decoration front; a less insanely sugary cake-to-filling ratio; and definitely neater to eat. On the other hand they lack the ‘wow’ appeal of a nicely frosted cupcake and there is less room for creativity in the decoration. Which is to say, I think you should try them and see 🙂