I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Twinkies and it's Brad Pitt's fault. In Moneyball, one of the year’s best films and I don’t even care about baseball, Brad’s character Billy Beane eats constantly and mindlessly throughout the film. But the scene that really transfixed me was when he stuffed a Twinkie in his mouth. He wasn’t having a secret shame moment, furtively darting his eyes to make sure no one was witnessing his snack-fest. He wasn’t reading the back of the package trying to decipher the ingredients in the “Crème” filling and debating whether or not the bad-for-you indulgence was “worth” it. He was unapologetically treating his pie (er, cake) hole to one of America’s most iconic snack cakes. Oh, to be that guilt-free! (BTW, Brad eats a ton in movies. This list is pretty funny as is this video mash-up.)
Despite having quite a bit of insight into how advertisers and marketers work, I am a highly suggestible person. I adopt the hypnotized eyes of a zombie following the come-hither of the manipulative food manufacturer into his waist-expanding, artery-clogging, tooth-rotting web of sweet junk. All I need is one commercial for Dunkin' Donuts and I can’t stop thinking about honey glazed, yeasty cakes until I buy one. The latest variety of M&M’s displayed in the cardboard, white gloved hand of a new “melts in your mouth, not in your hands” character at Duane Reade? I grab a pack immediately, you know, for research purposes.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t just Brad’s careless and carefree consumption of the “golden” cake that got me; I could literally sense his experience from the movie screen. The soft, spongy squish of his first bite, the creamy filling coating his tongue, the comfort in knowing they come two to a pack. I knew I was a goner.
Yet somehow I was able to resist temptation for several months. Distracted by a kitchen successively filled with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Thanksgiving and Christmas treats, I buried the evil Twinkie urge in the back of my psyche (alongside my desire to kick the Yorkshire terrier of a particularly odious neighbor). That was until last week.
Headlines announced the bankruptcy protection being sought by Hostess Brands, makers of everything from Wonder Bread, Ding Dongs and of course, Twinkies. “Oh no,” I thought, “what if this is my last chance?!” Again, I’m not stupid and I actually read some of the business articles and knew Hostess had enough money to keep us in snack cakes for the foreseeable future. There was really no need to panic. But it was kind of the perfect excuse to shut my mouth up and feed the beast. It was time to go shopping. I chose the tragic, depressing market nearest my apartment where, because it is so tragic and depressing, I was unlikely to run into anyone sane that I know. Luckily I also needed some white vinegar so I could casually walk around the store as if I had a reason to be there other than my illicit procurement. And that’s how it felt. I’d imagine it’s what people go through when they’re slipping into an X rated movie theater, a mixture of self-disgust, embarrassment and excitement. I couldn’t wait to tear into my two-pack when I got home. But first I had to get past the check-out line.
I did what I always do when I don’t want to be noticed; I didn’t make eye contact with anyone, as if my not seeing them translated into them not seeing me. I decisively placed the vinegar on the conveyor belt and casually tossed the Twinkies right behind it. “Oh, is Smart Water on sale?” I tried to communicate with my turn of the head and squint to the shelf behind the cashier. “$2.79” she said while stuffing my purchases into the shopping bag. And that was it. No drama, no witnesses. I was home free. Which is where I went as quickly as possible.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Ew. Who would ever want a Twinkie? They’re disgusting!” And there was part of me that was thinking the same thing. I was sure that once I bit into it I would be repulsed and my more enlightened, sophisticated, adult palate would kick in and right what was so wrong. Plus I know what lurks in that “Crème” and it ain’t cream. (Warning—if you’re a vegetarian, Twinkies are not necessarily your friend.) But that isn’t what happened at all. I ripped open the plastic packaging and gingerly pried one of the cakes off the white cardboard base. First the thin layer of cake still stuck to the paper, the three white holes on the bottom oozing just a bit of crème and then the first bite, just as it appeared on screen, the spongy cake giving way to the slight warmth of the filling, my mouth slick with a fatty film. It was pretty damn good. But it also unleashed a flood of 1970’s memories. All of a sudden I was in second grade finding a pack at the bottom of my lunch bag on a field trip, my mother having surprised me when I wasn’t looking. Then I’m at a friend’s house being given a post-ice skating snack at a small kitchen table. And on and on.
All of the senses can evoke memories. How many times have you heard a song and been transported to a summer, a school dance, a movie? Or smells. I had a college boyfriend whose dorm room smelled like a mixture of Grey Flannel and lumber (he’d built a platform bed.) To this day the scent of both cut wood and that cologne brings me back to the spring of 1987. But it’s when taste brings my past to the present that I am most profoundly affected. That’s what happened with my bite of the Twink. And that’s also all it took for me to toss the pack in the trash. One bite was enough. I felt secure knowing that it tasted exactly as I had remembered. I also knew that I didn’t need that junk food standard to feel comforted and safe. I had my own Proustian moment and I was ready to move on to a new, more age appropriate snack cake.
What better choice than Marcel’s own Madeleines! I’d never made them before because I don’t have the special pan. Isn’t that crazy? My brother-in-law came to my rescue and using uber-baker Dorie Greenspan’s recipe, I created such a lovely treat. These are incredibly easy to make, so pretty to look at and delicious to eat. Actually, at the risk of committing baking sacrilege, they’re not unlike the Twinkie in their slightly lemony sponginess, yet so much more delicate and subtle. Dip them into your favorite tea and maybe you’ll have your own flood of memories. Meanwhile, I’m hoping Hostess keeps stocking store shelves; I’d hate to have to buy a last chance Sno Ball.
Move Over Twinkies Madeleines
Adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours, Dorie Greenspan 2006
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2/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
Place the sugar and lemon zest in the bowl of a standing mixer and rub together with your fingertips until the mixture is moist and lemony.
Insert the whisk attachment into the mixer and add the eggs to the bowl with the lemon/sugar. Beat for 2-3 minutes on medium-high speed until the eggs are pale and thick. Beat in the vanilla to combine.
Using a large rubber spatula, gently fold in the dry ingredients followed by the melted butter.
Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the batter and chill the batter for at least 3 hours or overnight.
Make sure you have a rack in the center position of your oven and preheat oven to 400 degrees.
If your madeleine pan is NOT non-stick, butter and flour the molds. If it is, spritz the molds with cooking spray (Pam or the like). Place pan on a cookie sheet.
Spoon the batter into the molds, filling almost to the top but don't overfill. (I did in a few molds and those cookies weren't as pretty as the others.) The batter will be light and fluffy when it comes out of the fridge. You don't need to smooth the batter completely, it will spread as it bakes.
If you are using a large (12 slots) madeleine pan, bake for 11-13 minutes until they're golden and spring back when touched lightly.
For mini (36 slots) madeleines, bake 8-10 minutes.
Remove pan from oven. Try rapping the edge of the pan on the counter to release the madeleines. If that doesn't work, use a butter knife (you don't want a sharp knife to break the madeleine) to gently pry madeleine out of mold.
Place cookies on a rack and cool until warm room temperature or completely cool, depending on your preference. Dust with confectioner's sugar before serving.
YIELD: 12 regular or 36 mini madeleines.
Dorie's tips:If you are making minis and have more batter, bake the next batch, making certain that with each new batch the pans are cool and properly buttered and floured or sprayed. The batter can be covered with a piece of plastic film pressed against the surface and kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, but the madeleines should be eaten soon after they are made. You can keep them overnight in a sealed container, but they really are better on day one. If they must be kept, wrap them airtight and freeze them, they’ll keep for up to 2 months.