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The Twinkie transformed

The decadent snack cake gets deep-fried and dressed up. In New York, a shop sells them for $3 a Twinkie. At home, our experiments produce tony Twinkie medallions.

By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 26, 2002


The decadent snack cake gets deep-fried and dressed up. In New York, a shop sells them for $3 a Twinkie. At home, our experiments produce tony Twinkie medallions.

Christopher Sell makes some of the best fish and chips in all of New York City. The potatoes are freshly peeled, and he slips only the finest cod and haddock fillets into the vinegar-laced batter he learned to make in his native England.

It's all exceedingly proper, what with the Union Jacks and pictures of Her Royal Majesty hanging on the walls.

He's afraid, though, that he'll be forever known as the guy who tosses Twinkies into hot oil.

"We won best fish and chips in Timeout magazine last year," says Sell, 36, owner of the ChipShop in the trendy Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. "But I'll probably just be remembered for the deep-fried Twinkies."

Deep-fried Twinkies.

Sort of takes your breath away, doesn't it?

Sell can credit, or blame, his infamy on an article that appeared in the New York Times food section last month. The short article, back on page 10, catapulted Sell and his crispy Twinkie to snack stardom.

Since then, he has done 20 radio interviews plus several national and local television shows. Food Network has filmed him for its Unwrapped show. Newspaper reporters are calling. More people are frequenting the ChipShop, many of them just to buy a $3 deep-fried Twinkie.

We bit too. How could we resist making the ultimate junk food more junky? With some suggestions from Sell, we fired up the deep fryer. The bottom-line is that deep-fried Twinkies are delicious.

Oh, yeah, and totally disastrous for your health.

The Twinkie's storied history began 71 years ago in Chicago when baker Jimmy Dewar concocted the cream-filled golden snack cake. (Originally, it was banana cream.) The name came from a billboard advertising the Twinkle Toe Shoe, and Dewar called his sweet treat "the best darn-tootin' idea I ever had." Of course, that was before somebody thought about battering it and throwing it in hot oil.

From those humble beginnings, the Twinkie became an American cultural legend. Kids clamored for the spongy cake in their lunch boxes and many still recall licking Twinkie remains from the white cardboard in the twin-pack.

A Ding-Dong never tasted as good. Nor was it ever blamed for murder. In the late 1970s, San Francisco city councilman Dan White's attorney played the junk food card when he said his client's overindulgence was to blame for the killing of the city's mayor and another councilman. The "Twinkie Defense" was born. In White's case, the jury didn't buy it.

Today, Hostess bakes 500-million Twinkies in bakeries across the country. We're pretty sure that Dewar never imagined this sort of success or that something called the Internet would perpetuate dastardly scientific experiments on the innocent sweet. (Go to www.twinkiesproject.com/index.html for a look.)

For all its inherent tastiness, though, there are some folks looking for a way to change its delicate nature. Enter the deep fryer.

Our own experiment began with a cheap deep fryer and no temperature gauge. Turn it on and when the red light goes out, it's ready. That's what the directions said.

We figured the batter for deep-fried candy bars would be a good place to start. People eat those, too, especially at county and state fairs where they are becoming a staple. We started with frozen Twinkies thinking those might hold together better in the hot oil. Our instincts were good.

Flour, baking powder, salt, egg, milk and oil whisked together easily and coated the Twinkies evenly. We pushed a Popsicle stick into the Twinkie, like a corndog, to make it easier to handle. Our dreams of Twinkie On A Stick were dashed when the liquefied middle failed to hold the wooden handle.

Despite the wobbly stick, the results were good. The cream center was gooey and the sponge cake warm. The crusty outer layer was reminiscent of a corn dog. (The stick is still valuable as a handle to make battering and dipping into the oil easy.)

Feeling infinitely clever, we sliced a Twinkie into four pieces, battered and fried each one. Twinkie medallions. These seemed better than whole Twinkies because the little dab of cream disappeared into the cake. Nothing came sliding out and honestly, they tasted like beignets, the French doughnuts famously served in New Orleans.

All wrong, Sell tells us when we shared our results. (We figured there was some problem when we woke up at 2 a.m. with killer heartburn.)

"Don't put egg in the batter, and add vinegar," he says. "A typical fish-and-chips batter."

Sell flours his Twinkies lightly before dipping them into the batter. (We rolled ours in a shallow plate of flour.) This keeps the porous cake from soaking up grease and helps the batter adhere. He chills his cakes in the refrigerator first but says freezing works just as well.

Day Two: Two batters at the ready. One was made with Sell's vinegar-and-no-egg suggestions, the other eliminating the egg and adding coconut rum. That sounded good. We imagined the tropical-tinged cake nestled in a pineapple sauce.

Coconut rum was a bad idea. When the rum hit the oil there was lots of splattering and the batter slipped off. The phrase "oil and water don't mix" comes to mind.

Sell's batter, however, was perfect. The tangy vinegar melded seamlessly with the cloyingly sweet Twinkie. The crust was lighter without the egg and the sponge cake less greasy. (No 2 a.m. heartburn, but we learned they are lousy cold.)

We plated our Twinkie medallions with mixed berry sauce and a dusting of powdered sugar. It looked fancy enough to serve to Elizabeth II.

Royal, maybe, but royally unhealthful. A naked Twinkie is 150 calories and 5 grams of fat. Add at least another 240 calories and, gulp, 28 grams of fat for the deep-frying treatment. Comparatively, a small slice of key lime pie is about 417 calories and 25 grams of fat.

Sell has taken guff for creating this monster of a dessert. He shakes it off, though.

"It's like people calling a TV station to say the show they watched last night was terrible because they said 'bloody' so many times, and they were glued to it for two hours," he says. "If you don't want to eat them, don't. If you do, come along and have a try."

We did, and loved them, and have the empty antacid wrappers to prove it.

-- If you find yourself in Brooklyn and need a Twinkie fix, or maybe some fish and chips, the ChipShop is at 383 Fifth Ave. in the Park Slope neighborhood; (718) 832-7701. Check it out online at www.chipshopnyc.com.

Deep-Fried Twinkies

For Twinkies:

6 Twinkies

Popsicle sticks

4 cups vegetable oil

Flour for dusting

For batter:

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons vinegar

1 tablespoon oil

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Chill or freeze Twinkies for several hours or overnight.

Heat 4 cups vegetable oil in deep fryer to about 375 degrees.

To make batter: Mix together milk, vinegar and oil. In another bowl, blend flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk wet ingredients into dry and continue mixing until smooth. Refrigerate while oil heats.

Push stick into Twinkie lengthwise, leaving about 2 inches to use as a handle, dust with flour and dip into the batter. Rotate Twinkie until batter covers entire cake. Place carefully in hot oil. The Twinkie will float, so hold it under with a utensil to ensure even browing. It should turn golden in 3 to 4 minutes. Depending on the size of your deep fryer, you might be able to fry only one at a time, two at the most.

Remove Twinkie to paper towel and let drain. Remove stick and allow Twinkie to sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 6.

Variation: Slice Twinkie into 4 pieces. Flour and batter each before frying. With this treatment, one Twinkie will serve two people if accompanied by a sauce.

-- Source: Janet K. Keeler, Times food editor

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