A state where whoopie pies take the cake
In a stunning display of bipartisan compromise, the Maine State Legislature resolved its much-publicized food fight by declaring the blueberry pie the “official state dessert’’ and the whoopie pie the “official state treat.’’ By acknowledging both the sweet laden with antioxidants and the alleged “frosting delivery vehicle’’ (as one legislator derided the whoopie pie), Mainers got to have their cake, so to speak, and eat it too.
The designations became effective on April 20, but left unresolved was the long-simmering dispute over whether the whoopie pie originated in Maine or Pennsylvania. Does it matter? As far as we’re concerned, whoopie pies are a taste treat as emblematic of the Pine Tree State as lobster.
“Whoopie pies have become part of why people come to Maine,’’ one baker declared as the debate was raging. For those whoopie pie pilgrims, here’s a guide to some of whoopie piedom’s southern Maine high spots.
A nondescript brick storefront at the edge of Lewiston hardly looks like the Bethlehem of the whoopie pie. But family-owned Labadie’s Bakery has been making whoopie pies since 1925. “We were the first in Maine,’’ said Dawn Proctor, who was working the retail counter one recent morning, but declined to speculate on whether Maine or Pennsylvania can lay claim to whoopie pie primacy. “It’s so simple I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t make them,’’ she said.
Fresh trays of whoopie pies filled the display cases next to doughnuts, cream horns, and other bakery standbys. The biggest seller, Proctor said, remains the classic of two rounds of chocolate cake with a thick layer of white frosting in between. The bakery also makes a chocolate chip whoopie (yellow cake with chocolate chips), a vanilla (plain yellow cake), peanut butter (chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting), and a marvelously old-fashioned “pink’’ whoopie pie, which is a vanilla cake with a raspberry layer on top covered with coconut flakes.
People who grew up in the area pop in for a regular fix and there are converts all the time. As we were leaving, Rebecca Hill, who moved to Lewiston recently from South Carolina, stopped by for a classic. “We don’t have whoopie pies there,’’ she lamented. “I’ve become addicted.’’
Down on the coast, Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Co. makes both a classic whoopie pie and a classic blueberry pie. In fact, the seasonal seafood shack at the South Freeport docks usually makes a dozen desserts from scratch. Its whoopie pie is one of the largest in the state. Roughly the size of a slightly flattened softball, it is a definite two-hander. The sweetness level of the filling is also almost off the charts. The determined diner can hit the Maine culinary trifecta here, as Harraseeket also sells lobster.
Up in town, it’s all whoopie pies all the time at Wicked Whoopies, the downtown Freeport storefront for the Gardiner-based phenomenon launched as a home business by Amy Bouchard in 1994. Bouchard grew up in Bath and recalled in a phone interview that “whoopie pies were my favorite snack as a kid.’’ She has not lost that childlike joy when it comes to whoopies, and her store is a bedazzling boutique of whoopies in all sizes and flavors, from the giant pie that feeds a dozen to mini-whoopies dipped in chocolate.
Bouchard likes to introduce a couple of new flavors each year, and the result is a nearly overwhelming number of choices. According to Sue Corson, who was managing the shop the day we visited, the classic is the most popular, followed by peanut butter, red velvet, chocolate chip, and mint (chocolate cake with mint filling). Corson recommended freezing the mint before eating. “It’s like a good mint ice cream,’’ she said.
Bouchard may be whoopie pies’ biggest booster. In March she made a 1,067-pound version at the Maine Mall in South Portland, far exceeding Pennsylvania’s 250-pound big pie. Proceeds from the sale were used to ship Wicked Whoopies to US soldiers in Afghanistan. Bouchard also sells whoopies on the Home Shopping Network. “I’m amazed how many people don’t know what a whoopie pie is,’’ she said. “I explain that it’s an inside-out cupcake - such a fun food.’’
Choice is only rarely an issue at Nina’s Variety in Falmouth, a convenience store with a deli operation. Nina Renock’s daughter Amy Carignan confesses that she grew up snacking on no-bake cookies, but fell for whoopie pies when someone brought some into the store. “I said, I can do that,’’ she told us, and so she does. Carignan makes just 18 whoopie pies each morning, usually the classic. She might make pumpkin whoopie pies around Halloween and banana whoopie pies when the spirit moves her. She wraps them in plastic food wrap, sets them beside the cash register, and when they’re gone, that’s it until the next day. Carignan’s classic whoopie pie is almost iconic - moist and chocolatey buttermilk cake around a white filling that will fix the most extreme sugar craving.
If the whoopie pies of Nina’s have the rustic directness of a folk song, the whoopie pies at their Falmouth neighbor, the European Bakery and Tea Room, are like arias of the dessert world. Helen Budri worked in a Swiss bakery before launching her own establishment, and the pastries at the European live up to the shop’s name. The Napoleons are perfect rectangles of layered pastry and fillings, and the Black Forest kirsch torte could make a cuckoo clock burst into song. “But you have to have some American things, too,’’ Helen’s husband, Emil, explained, pointing to his brownies and his reinterpreted whoopie pies. The bakery makes a classic whoopie pie of chocolate cake filled with vanilla frosting, though the Budris mount the cake with the rounded sides facing in and dust the confection with powdered sugar. Most whoopie pies are the sweet analog to a hamburger, but those from the European demand a plate, knife, and fork. In the winter, the Budris make a pumpkin whoopie pie, and in the summer a lemon cream cheese whoopie of delicate golden cake and layers of cream cheese frosting and lemon filling.
Down in Portland, Two Fat Cats Bakery is the all-American answer to the Old World traditions of the European. Best known for its cakes and cupcakes, cookies, and pies (including blueberry), Two Fat Cats makes whoopie pies almost as an afterthought. That said, the whoopie pies have a Goldilocks quality in their balance - neither too big nor too small, neither too sweet nor too greasy, they seem . . . just right. They depart from the classic only by having an intense vanilla flavor in the marshmallow cream filling.
The whoopie pie queens of Portland, Carol Ford and Karen Haase, hold court across town at Cranberry Island Kitchen. The company started in 2006 to make treats inspired by the Maine islands, including whoopie pies made from Haase’s mother’s recipe, which called for butter instead of lard or shortening. In effect, they have taken a child’s treat and reenvisioned it as a gourmet snack for grown-ups. “We developed them not with kids in mind,’’ Ford said, “but little kids go crazy.’’
With numerous flavors of rich buttercream fillings as well as chocolate, golden, and pumpkin-flavored cakes, the flavor combinations seem almost limitless. Though Ford tends to favor the pumpkin espresso version, Cranberry Island is most famous for its pumpkin maple. “That’s the one where we won the Bobby Flay Throwdown that aired last December,’’ she said. Television has been a boost for the whoopie pies since an encounter with Martha Stewart in Northeast Harbor in 2007 led to an appearance on the household diva’s show.
To set an elegant tone, Ford and Haase make their whoopie pies in the shape of life-sized clam and mussel shells, sometimes decorated with sugar pearls. The pies are somewhat smaller than the competition, but there’s an upside to the size.
“I’d never call them diet food,’’ said Ford, “but they’re only 200 calories each.’’
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.