A Classic Goes Upscale

The down-home whoopie pie gets a trendy twist

February 24, 2010|By Jill Rosen | Baltimore Sun reporter

Anyone who grew up in Maine, or near Pennsylvania's Amish country, or in parts of New England knows all about whoopie pies - the tooth-achingly sweet white icing sandwiched between two enormous, cakelike chocolate cookies.

And boy, would those folks be surprised to know that their unassuming hometown treat has become a full-blown foodie phenomenon, desired by fashionable Manhattanites, noted in gourmet magazines and reinterpreted with sophisticated ingredients.

Two books dedicated to the whoopie pie are due out in coming months, Williams-Sonoma is selling a $25 whoopie pan, and New York City's Magnolia Bakery, which launched the cupcake craze, now offers a brown sugar cookie whoopie filled with maple cream cheese icing.

Unbeknownst to most, the arguable epicenter for this whoopie re-emergence is rooted here in Baltimore, at an unassuming kitchen tucked away at the back of Security Square Mall. There, a former congressional staffer has started baking a delicate version of whoopies, greatly in demand since the trend-making Web site Daily Candy pronounced them "mind-blowing" last November.

Since that mention, Beryl Hall, owner of B. Hall, Baker, says "all hell broke loose." Thousands of orders for whoopies have been pouring in from across the country, Neiman Marcus wanted her treats as holiday party favors, and the petite pies are featured in the March issue of Food & Wine magazine.

Hall spent a long afternoon recently behind a work table laden with whoopies, boxing orders for shipment. For now, her business is only done by mail order.

There were ginger pies filled with lemon curd icing, sour cherry ones with flecks of dried Michigan fruit and white chocolate filling, a dark chocolate variety with rich fudgy frosting. A raspberry-red velvet pie with cream cheese icing is a little wink to Hall's Southern upbringing.

If the nouveau flavors don't draw gasps from Amish baker women, the $28-per-dozen price tag likely will.

Hall's tiny treats last two or three bites at the most and possess a distinctly feminine allure, a very "Sex and the City" vibe exaggerated by the polka-dot ribbon she ties onto the packages and her figure-flattering promise that they only pack 130 calories a pie.

If whoopie traditionalists dismiss her pies, Hall doesn't exactly mind.

"I didn't see other whoopie pie people as my competition," she says. "I saw cupcake people as my competition."

And so they seem to be.

Whoopie pies seem to be picking up where the extravagant cupcake left off, tantalizing would-be Carrie Bradshaws with a nostalgic, satisfying indulgence - something they could hold in one hand with a shopping bag in the other.

After captivating Manhattan eaters for the better part of last year, whoopies are making their way south on Interstate 95. They've been spotted at Whole Foods Harbor East, Trader Joe's in Pikesville and in a tasty pumpkin version with cream cheese icing at Wegmans in Hunt Valley.

SugarBakers in Catonsville offered them iced with purple when the Ravens made the playoffs last month and Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen serves them as part of a playful cookie plate.

Danyelle Freeman, a former New York Daily News food critic who blogs as the sultry Restaurant Girl, last year declared cupcakes passe and all but passed the treat torch to whoopie pies.

With the economy still sputtering, people are still seeking refuge in foods that remind them of better days and whoopies, she says, fit that sweet, comforting bill.

"Desserts are about comfort, gratification and a happy ending," Freeman says, calling whoopies "the real deal."

"Almost everyone has a whoopie pie right now," she says. "I mean, not everyone, but anyone who's doing anything popular, fun or trendy."

The whoopie pie's humble history is shrouded in some degree of mystery, with Pennsylvania, Maine and Boston all laying claim to its creation. The name - a well-told, undoubtedly apocryphal, story - evolved from the shouts of Amish farmers, who delighted to find the pies in their lunch pails: "Whoopie!!"

Like Hall's, Manhattan whoopies are mainly of the more-refined variety. One Girl Cookies in Brooklyn is known for its pumpkin or chocolate ones with cream cheese icing. WannaHavaCookie, another mail-order shop, has the classic chocolate and vanilla, but also pies filled with peanut butter, mint and raspberry icings.

Nancy Griffin, the Maine-based author of "Making Whoopies: The Official Whoopie Pie Book," which is due out in June and published by Down East Books, allows that while these new-wave whoopies might be tasty, they don't qualify for her whoopie seal of authenticity.

A real whoopie pie, Griffin says, is a big, messy affair, "a blue-collar dessert" that has nothing to do with moderation.

She's seen them as big as 6 inches across. She's seen them weigh in at a full pound. She's rarely seen them ring up for more than a dollar or so.

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