My friend Ruth turned up the other day with the most delicious little cakes. They consisted of two rich, chocolatey brownies with a gooey melted marshmallow sandwiched between them. She said that they were whoopie pies.
Rudely, I contradicted her (whilst stuffing my face, of course because they were fantastic). ‘Those aren’t whoopie pies,’ I said. ‘I’m from Maine, where whoopie pies were invented. Whoopie pies aren’t as chocolately. Or as marshmallowy. Or as rich. They’re more sort of…’
But I couldn’t describe them. It was like trying to describe a law of nature, something that you’ve grown up with and always taken for granted and never really thought about. In Maine, whoopie pies are the default dessert. Everyone knows someone who makes them from scratch and when they’re delivered to your house or to the church bean supper or wherever, everyone falls on them with ravenous jaws because, of course, homemade whoopie pies are The Best.
But usually, you buy whoopie pies as a sort of afterthought. In nearly every corner store and gas station in Maine, there’s a plate or a box of them on the counter near the till, individually wrapped in plastic wrap. They might be homemade, by the owner’s mother or neighbour; they might be a commercial brand. They range in colour from brown to nearly Oreo-black, but the filling is always bright white. You pick them up as a little treat when you go in to buy your gas, or your cigarettes, or your six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best. You unwrap them, and the filling and part of the cake sticks to the clingfilm, and you lick those parts off and then you eat the whoopie pie, which is gooey and sweet and bland and soft except for the slight crunch of undissolved granulated sugar in the whipped filling.
The flavour is difficult to describe. ‘Like childhood’ doesn’t quite cut it. Of course it has nothing to do with an actual pie; there’s no pastry involved. The cakes are like cakes but also like soft cookies, and they’re vaguely chocolate flavoured. You can tell there’s some chocolate in there, but it wouldn’t offend anyone by being too chocolatey. The filling is…white. It’s not a marshmallow, and it’s not buttercream. It’s just white and soft with a whiff of vanilla. You can eat the whole thing in about two bites without having to think about it too much. It’s not a cake that’s going to sit in a patisserie window, not a cake that you’re going to write a breathless review about. It’s just a cake. It’s sort of like Mainers: unassuming, but good.
Anyway, after I’d blatantly questioned the authenticity of Ruth’s brownie-and-marshmallow confections, I had to demonstrate what a real whoopie pie was like. So I got the recipe from my Mom, who got it from Denise. Denise and her mother are legendary in Rumford, Maine for their baking. And quite rightly so. Therefore I didn’t question the recipe, which was, if I may say so, a little bit odd and required vast amounts of pure white hydrogenated vegetable fat. To make the filling, you create a sort of glue made of milk and flour and then beat other things into it until you are weary and satisfied.
They turned out just like whoopie pies. I ate one. It tasted like Maine.