How to hack a Twinkie


Published February 01, 2012


Is there really a need to save the Twinkie? 

After last month's announcement that Hostess filed for bankruptcy protection, a movement is afoot to help save the Twinkie.

Talk show host Wendy Williams, upon hearing the Chapter 11 news, launched a Facebook campaign comparing the Twinkies to the Statue of Liberty, the bald eagle and the Grand Canyon, calling it "a golden symbol of the American dream." 

Who can blame her?  Twinkies have become more of a social phenomenon than snack cake. They’ve inspired a legal defense, an urban legend (they last forever), and a diet. Kansas State University nutrition professor Mark Haub lost twenty-seven pounds in 10 weeks on a diet consisting primarily of Twinkies.

But even if Twinkies went away forever, there would be still a huge appetite for—and market for— cakes and pastries. 

We’re just satisfying it “at Starbucks,” says “recipe cloner” Todd Wilbur, “instead of at convenience stores.” 

Networks of local bakeries around the country supply local Starbucks with new inventory every day or so. “What’s gonna taste better,” he asks, “what’s fresher?”

A “recipe cloner” (Wilber prefers “recipe hacker”) reverse-engineers specific foods. Wilbur starts with a finished product, KFC or P.F. Chang’s Lettuce Wraps then works his way backwards, ingredient by ingredient, until he creates a recipe that recreates the original. 

It’s CSI with food and Wilbur’s done it with Twinkies. So even if Hostess closes down (for the sake of their 19,000 employees let’s hope they don’t) you can still have your snack cake and eat it, too.

“The whole point of cloning,” explains Wilbur, author of the Top Secret Recipes series and host of the CMT reality show of the same name, is to replicate the exact taste and texture of the original. Wilbur uses whatever works, no matter how unorthodox or unusual the method or ingredients.

Wilbur fondly remembers opening his school lunchbox and “finding Twinkies that had been flattened by the thermos that still tasted good.” His isn’t an improved, healthier or low-fat version. It’s by any means necessary version with a filling that combines marshmallow fluff and Crisco, ingredients no one would ever voluntarily mix.

See his recipe for the deconstructed Twinkie

I’m not big on Twinkies but appreciate their snob-free appeal. I eat them rarely but have chowed down enough to know how they’re supposed to taste.

Wilbur’s DIY Twinkie recipe folds stiff egg-whites into store-bought cake mix that you blend only with water, not the usual egg and oil. It’s easy and he nails it. The resulting cake is light but resilient enough to withstand poking with a chopstick to make room for the filling. He gets the filling right too, but the whole Crisco and fluff thing was just too disturbing. Use real whipped cream instead.

You don’t hear much about Twinkies tasting good. They do. That’s because they’ve become the poster child of processed foods. And processed foods have become the poster child of obesity. 

No one wants to be on that team.

Twinkie detractors object to the chemical cocktail that extends their shelf life to 25 days making them the cyborgs of snack cakes. By comparison, 10-day-old made-from-scratch, made-from-a-mix or bakery-bought cupcakes will either be green through-and-through or hard enough to chip a tooth.

Their awesome staying power, which appalls many, appeals to Steve Ettlinger. He sees Twinkies as a scientific, not a social, phenomenon. His ebook, Twinkie Deconstructed forensically charts the lab-to-table journey of the 39 ingredients that make Twinkies one of the fullest expressions American chemical ingenuity.

Other than color, name and a few basic ingredients they have little in common the original 1930s invention. Twinkies now contain 14of the top 20 chemicals made in the U.S.

Explosive chlorine gas is used to process their enriched flour. Niacin, a basic B-vitamin found in enriched flour results from chemical reactions involving “ammonia and the flammable chemical acetaldehyde,” among others. Corn dextrin, a thickener that gives the cake texture is also the glue used to seal envelopes. Versatile cellulose gum, a fat-substitute that gives Twinkies that creamy mouth-feel, does the same for low-fat salad dressing, ice cream and rocket fuel, to which it’s also added as a thickener.

Getting rid of processed, preservative-laden foods like Twinkies would be only a partial victory in the war on obesity because it misses the essential point: we eat too much and we’re too sedentary. It’s a deadly decades-in-the-making combination that the absence of unhealthy snacks, fast food or processed sweeteners cannot solve. If you’ve ever dieted then you know that deprivation never works.

For sheer empty calories, mass-market snack cakes are on par with such treats as celebrated chef Jean George Vongerichten’s legendary Molten Chocolate Cake. And no one’s suggesting we get rid of that. Yet.

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