Talking about Polly-O String Cheese got me thinking about all the junk that filled our lunchboxes in the 80’s. I’m sure most of that stuff still graces lunchboxes today, but there was something about the 80’s, when everything was synthetic neon–from our food to our headbands–that makes me think of them as the heyday of junk-filled lunches.
My childhood was as neon-clad as the next one–not even immigrant households were immune. Aside from our very un-American Nutella sandwiches, my mom went for the tried-and-true American snacks: Fruit Roll-Ups, Handi-Snacks, those juice drinks that came in little barrel-shaped bottles (I loved the “blue” flavor). It was a mild case of not knowing any better, coupled with a little of just wanting to fit in. What’s funny is that the phenomenon only affected our lunchboxes. At our house, the only things you’d find in a can were tomato paste and tuna. I’d never eaten canned soup or frozen dinners until middle school, when I had them at a friend’s house. Everything was made from scratch for dinner. But for lunch snacks, it was an over-packaged, over-sugared, neon extravaganza.
My favorite lunchbox offender–after Handi-Snacks–was the Hostess Cupcake. Have you had one recently? They’re interesting. They kind of taste like plastic. In fact, I’m sure that icing is plastic-based. And the cream inside is questionable. Is it a marshmallow icing? No one really knows. But growing up, they were still simply the best things ever. I just don’t know why. It definitely wasn’t the taste.
So two decades after my golden lunchbox years, I decided to revisit them. It was my friend Ian’s birthday this week, and he and Joe have a soft spot for cakes and pies in boxes. Preferably from gas stations. They’re special guys. In honor of Ian’s love for high-quality baking, I reinvented the Hostess Cupcake with several of my own twists.
After the cupcakes are baked and cooled, cut a circle through each one. Slide a knife from the top of the cupcake almost down to the base. Move the knife to form a circle, being careful not to cut all the way to the bottom.
Plop a teaspoon or two of cream into the cupcake and top it with the cake cut-out. Frost with ganache, making sure to even out the area where you’d cut the cake. Pipe with a buttercream squiggle.
Martha Stewart’s One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes, and here.
Makes 15 to 18
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
3/4 cup warm water
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners; set aside. Sift together cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Add eggs, warm water, buttermilk, oil, and vanilla, and mix until smooth, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl to assure batter is well mixed.
Divide batter evenly among muffin cups, filling each 2/3 full. Bake until tops spring back when touched, about 20 minutes, rotating pan once if needed. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.
Pastry Cream Filling
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Heat 1/8 cup of the sugar, milk, and the vanilla bean in a small sauce pan over low heat.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining sugar and egg yolks until pale yellow. Add the flour and salt, then set aside.
Remove the milk mixture from heat when it just begins to boil. Slowly pour it into egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly. Transfer everything back to the saucepan and continue stirring over low heat until thick, about one minute.
Remove from heat and add the butter. Continue mixing until everything is combined.
Transfer to a small bowl and cover by putting plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream. Chill before using.
9 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)
1 cup heavy cream
Put the chocolate in a large glass or other heat-safe bowl. Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan over medium heat until it just begins to boil. Remove from heat and pour over the chocolate. Whisk together until smooth. Set aside.
½ stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine the butter and confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk on low speed until ingredients begin to combine, about one minute. Add the milk and vanilla and switch to medium speed. Whisk until light and fluffy, about five minutes. You can add more milk, butter, and sugar to reach the consistency you like. A medium-stiff icing will work well for the squiggly line on these cupcakes.