I have a confession to make: I am not your average snacks and sweets enthusiast; I have had far too many meals made out of vending machines and subway newsstand offerings; I have survived off of handfuls of peanut M&M's and pretzels (peanuts are protein, right?). Oh, and I went to pastry school.
Working in restaurants and with sweets is a treat unto itself for this pastry kid, but few things can top the magic of my all-time favorite movie snack (Junior Mints), or the joy of Girl Scout cookie season -- that is, until Jennifer Steinhauer’s Treat Yourself came into my all-too-eager hands.
I read and use a lot of cookbooks for work and pleasure, but so far, none have inspired that “Look ma, I made this! I’m a wizard!” feeling like Treat Yourselfhas. Better yet, it was the first time my family and friends instantly understood how awesome and exciting making new recipes could be. I had to pry the book out of their hands before I was able to test any recipe in my new book, as each person was busy making a list of the recipes I “had to make for [them] to try -- you know, for a fair assessment.” Their combined lists encompassed almost the entire index, and probably would have, had I not called them off.
The beauty of these recipes is not in simplifying complicated processes, or cracking a secret code, but in the stories they carry and the experiences we share over Ho-Hos and Cracker Jacks. Biting into one of the Hostess Cupcakes from the book, I looked over at my sister and instantly we felt like we were kids again, sneaking creamy, chocolate-y mouthfuls well after bedtime. Putting together the Frito dough filled me with memories of my first bakery job, where we all bonded over hotel pans of Frito chili pie for staff meal.
Instead of gushing about the overwhelming sense memory that these pages bring (Proust’s madeleine has nothing on snacks and junk food, if you ask me), let’s get to the nitty gritty: the actual recipes. In order to give a more accurate representation of the book, I’ll focus on the recipes I tried that were outside of my “comfort zone,” instead of those that are right in my wheelhouse -- specifically, the candies. A number of candy recipes I’ve previously consulted call for special thermometers, dedicated molds, or a laser eye that pays attention ten steps ahead; these are all fine and dandy, but neither helpful nor realistic, especially not in a home kitchen. I might have some cool toys at work, but my home kitchen tools are as exotic as a spatula that has a cartoon egg for a handle. With all of that in mind, I cracked open Treat Yourself to the “Fruity Treats and Filled Things” chapter to tackle the Fruit Roll-ups and Fruit Snacks.
Both recipes were a breeze. No fancy tools. No bizarre techniques. No risk of hand model career-ending burns. And the payoff? Sweet simplicity. In what felt like moments, I went from scaling out my juice, gelatin, and sugar, to snacking on homemade fruit snacks. The book's layout, with ingredients and instructions side-by-side, encourages you to read the full recipe before starting. This might seem basic, but it is in fact so important to kitchen success and provides a nice level of clarity going in: Before preheating the oven or breaking out the food processor, you already know what you need, how long it will take, if you can multi-task or need to maintain a solid focus on each part. Each step is broken down specifically, without any guesswork about what it might mean. In addition, Steinhauer has added tips, notes, words of wisdom from the trenches, and variations to guide you to success, which helps home cooks branch out on their own.
While there are a few recipes that call for some extra tricks (I’m looking at you, Twinkie pan), this is by and large an opportunity to show home cooks that a mixing bowl and an oven may be the only things separating them from delicious treats -- ones that are infinitely better than their store-bought counterparts. Even when a seemingly one-use item like a Twinkie pan is called for, there are recipes later in the book that make use of it. In Steinhauer's world, there is no such thing as a one-trick pony.
Jennifer Steinhauer has not only created a labor of love by experimenting with and testing this fleet of recipes, but has given us the delightful opportunity to share it, as she shares her stories alongside the treats themselves. This is not a cookbook playing dress up or making classic snacks fancy, nor is it a lab textbook, requiring secret insider knowledge to get started. This is, honest to goodness, exactly what I hoped for: a salty, sweet marriage between snacks I know and love -- all I needed was a little bit of elbow grease to make them myself.
First photo by Mark Weinberg; all others by James Ransom
The Piglet—inspired by The Morning News' Tournament of Books—is where the 16 most notable cookbooks of the year face off in a NCAA-style bracketed tournament. Watch the action and weigh in on the results!