Never fear, Twinkie lovers in withdrawal: A former Southwestern Pennsylvanian has developed a way you can make your own Twinkies at home.
And not only Twinkies, but also Oreos, Nutter Butters, Cheez-Its, Doritos, Tater Tots, Pop-Tarts, Klondikes and just about every major junk-food item known to man.
Researching her "Classic Snacks Made from Scratch" cookbook required Casey Barber, a Greensburg-Salem High School grad who now lives in New Jersey, to dissect all those bad-for-you foods.
You might ask, "Why bother?" Maybe it's obvious in the case of Twinkies, which have disappeared from grocery shelves since Hostess folded last year. But for everything else, why sweat over a hot stove when you could just buy a cellophane-wrapped two-pack of Sno-Balls?
You might expect Ms. Barber to craft a virtuous response about saving the earth by reducing packaging, or saving your health by avoiding artificial flavors and preservatives.
But you'd be wrong.
Here's why she says you should do it: "Because you can. Because why not?"
Because it's fun to put one over on your friends by sticking homemade Cheez-Its in an old Cheez-Its box. Because your friends will be impressed that you can actually make something that tastes like a genuine Dorito.
"It's never as cheap, and it's never as quick" to make this stuff at home, she admitted. "But it's kinda fun just to see that it's possible. And sometimes it makes you eat less" because you know that if you polish off the whole batch at once, you're just going to have to go to all the work of making another batch.
In the cookbook intro, Ms. Barber says her obsession with DIY junk food started when her husband, Dan, mentioned during a Target trip that Ben & Jerry's Phish Food ice cream would be his favorite flavor if it had a vanilla base instead of chocolate.
"Oh, I can make that for you," Ms. Barber chirped. She did -- and got hooked.
"There's a 'mad scientist' feel to reverse-engineering these treats, dissecting each layer of an oatmeal creme pie or licking the life out of a barbecue potato chip to analyze the exact spice blend," she wrote.
Her kitchen became her lab. She'd start off by reading product labels. In some cases, labels were no help -- the products were chock-full of strange ingredients. For instance, Club butter crackers do not actually contain a single ounce of butter. She never did figure out how to differentiate a homemade Club cracker from a homemade Ritz and eventually abandoned the attempt.
She endured a lot of flops. Her first version of goldfish crackers turned out so puffy that they were more like "little goldfish cakes," she said. And she had a terrible time recreating Table Talk Lemon Pies.
"They were either a burnt mess or a soggy mess -- pick your mess," she quipped.
But with enough trial-and-error, she perfected both the pies and the goldfish.
Composition was tough, but sometimes engineering was tougher: How do you get the cheese inside a Combo or the cake-crumb exterior onto a Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake Bar? With the occasional help of friends, she figured it all out.
Although she avoided uber-weird ingredients, she did use a few items that aren't native to most home kitchens, including citric acid (which gives a few of her recipes an "extra sour hit"), cheddar-cheese powder (which she orders online) and baked soda (baking soda that's baked in the oven to help deepen the colors of baked goods and add a slight bitter flavor).
One of the recipes she's proudest of is the Sno-Balls: "The marshmallow layer peels off just like it does on the original ones, and they have the same crazy-weird spongy texture," she said. "But they're a pain in the butt to make."
Her personal favorite is actually one of the simpler recipes: homemade Cheez-Its (see recipe).
"I really could just eat baking sheets of those things forever," she said.
See Ms. Barber's food blog at goodfoodstories.com.
Not into homemade food? Get out to one of these festivals for your grub this week:
Food in Our Neighborhood: Workshops on food businesses and alternative food options, samples from Pittsburgh chefs and restaurants, demos and children's activities. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Chatham University in Shadyside. Free, but register ahead for workshops: http://www.chatham.edu/sse/newsevents.cfm.
Spring Festival: Presentations on gardening and floral arranging, children's activities, hayrides and food. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Schramm Farms & Orchards, Jeannette. 724-744-7320.
Pittsburgh Wine Festival: More than 600 wineries from around the world offer tastings. 6 to 9 p.m. next Thursday, May 9, at Heinz Field, North Shore. 412-281-2681 or pittsburghwinefestival.com.
Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert: The Travel Channel and Bravo TV chefs share stories about their careers. 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Benedum, Downtown. goodvseviltour.com.
Spaghetti dinner: For the pre-marathon crowd. 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday at Mary S. Brown-Ames United Methodist Church, 3424 Beechwood Boulevard, Squirrel Hill. Cost is "pay what you can."
Mother's Day Brunch at the Zoo: OK, so Mom probably thinks her house looks enough like a zoo already. But if you think she'd like it, you can take her to brunch at 11 a.m. May 11 at The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. $35 for adults, $25 for kids or $7 for children under 2. pittsburghzoo.org.
Jellies, Jams and Preserves: Susan Marquesen, Penn State master food preserver, demonstrates and shares recipes. 6:30 p.m. next Thursday, May 9, at North Park Lodge. Register ahead: 412-835-1201.
Beehive Bake Oven: Learn to make an entire meal in a historic beehive bake oven. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 11 at Depreciation Lands Museum, Allison Park. $40. Registration: 412-486-0563 or depreciationlandsmuseum.org.
Sustainability Schools -- Eating Green, Eating Wild: Outdoor walk with instruction in finding and identifying wild, edible plants, plus an indoor session with participation in preparing and sampling these wild foods. 1 to 4 p.m. May 11 at Jennings Environmental Education Center, Slippery Rock; sponsored by Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Preregister by Friday, May 3. For ages 16 and up. 724-794-6011.
We had a little trouble rolling the dough thinly enough (it tended just to break apart), so our crackers turned out a little thicker than they should have, and we therefore didn't end up with the 13 dozen that Casey Barber says this recipe should yield. The crackers were nonetheless delicious and were devoured within minutes by a group of preschoolers who didn't recognize them as knockoffs.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
8-ounce block extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely shredded
1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) finely grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ice-cold water
Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, blend the cheeses, butter, shortening and salt on medium-low speed, or pulse in the bowl of a food processor until soft and homogenous. Add the flour and pulse or mix on low to combine; the dough will be dry and pebbly.
Slowly add the water (through the feed tube, if using food processor) and continue to pulse/mix as the dough coalesces into a mass. Depending on the brand of cheese used and the humidity level at the time, you might need a small dribble of water or the full 2 tablespoons. Pat the dough into a disc, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat liners.
Divide the dough into 2 pieces on a floured surface and roll each into a very thin (1/8 inch or less) 10-by-12-inch rectangle. Using a fluted pastry cutter or pizza wheel, cut the rectangle into 1-inch squares, then transfer to the baking sheets. Use a toothpick or the tip of a chopstick to punch a hole in the center of each square.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until puffed and browning at the edges. Watch carefully, as the high fat content of the crackers makes it a fine line between golden delicious and burnt. Immediately move the baked crackers onto wire racks to cool.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
-- Casey Barber, "Classic Snacks Made from Scratch" (Ulysses, Feb. 2013, $17.95)
Rebecca Sodergren: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @pgfoodevents. First Published May 2, 2013 4:00 AM