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DIY Junk Food

A new book helps you recreate your childhood favorites

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When I was eight years old, my family moved from Southern California to a cozy neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. To my young mind, there were a number of good things about our move, but none was more tantalizing than the fact that for the first time in my life, there was a small market a few blocks away that I could get to entirely on my own steam. Suddenly a world of candy and store-bought snacks opened to me.

My friends and I would meet after school and ride our bikes to the “Little Store” to buy boxes of Cheez-Its or packets of Lik-M-Aid. From there, we’d go back to the playground, where we could sit on the swings and gobble our spoils. For a girl who had previously been led to believe that homemade popcorn and baked tortilla chips were the highest form of snackage, it was revelatory.

In the years since, I’ve established a reputation as a fairly healthy eater, and one who makes most of her meals from scratch. All the while, I’ve been hiding a secret passion for Corn Nuts, Cheetos and Cool Ranch Doritos. How could I possibly square these two sides of myself?

Happily, there’s a new book on the market that allows me to do just that. Classic Snacks Made From Scratch by author Casey Barber features recipes for 70 of the most beloved store-bought snacks and treats. Pop Tarts, Goldfish Crackers, Mint Milanos, and even Chicken in a Biskit Crackers, are all here.

What’s so nice about this book is that it makes all these favorite treats approachable and maybe even a little virtuous. The recipes are free from preservatives and you can choose the quality of flours, cheeses, oils, and other ingredients (something you know the snack manufacturers are not doing). Michael Pollan did say, “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.”

As you work your way through the book, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy some of your old favorites are to make. The Chocolate Pudding Pops stand out as a particular breeze. You stir together a quick pudding (it’s just milk, sugar, cocoa powder, cornstarch and salt) on the stovetop, let it cool a little while and then scoop it into waiting Popsicle molds. They taste just like the ones in my memory and cost pennies compared to the ones that Bill Cosby used to promote.

Another recipe I tried that I really liked were the Cheez-Its. You blitz together a quick dough of cheese, butter, shortening, flour, salt, and water. Let it chill briefly and then roll, cut, and bake. My husband announced that the only thing that could have made them taste more like the original was if I had added a little dusting of salt to the tops when they were fresh out of oven. I thought they were perfect as-is.

The last thing I tried was the Cinnamon Pop Tart recipe. The homemade version requires that you make a pastry crust, cut together a brown sugar, butter and cinnamon filling and whisk up a powdered sugar glaze. While they’re not exactly hard, they do take some time to mix, chill, roll, fill, bake, and frost. The finished product is slightly different from the packaged version, but they are so far superior, that it’s hard to justify giving them the same name. The recipe makes six (though you could easily stretch it to eight or nine, given the amount of dough and filling you yield) of the flakiest, most tender pastries you’ll ever taste. The flavors of the filling are spot-on (though 24 hours out of the oven, it does begin to harden a little. A small price to pay) and the glaze offers a sweet topside slick.

If you want to evoke the snacky flavors of your childhood, but tend to stay far away from the chemicals, preservatives and other funky ingredients in the store bought version, this book should join your cookery collection immediately. It’s just that good.

CHEEZ-ITS

Ingredients

  • 1 (8-ounce) block extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, coarsely shredded
  • 1 ounce finely grated Parmesan cheese (about ¼ cup)
  • 2 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup (4¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons ice-cold water

Instructions

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, blend the cheeses, butter, shortening, and salt on medium-low speed, or pulse in the bowl of a food processor until soft and homogenous. Add the flour and pulse or mix on low to combine; the dough will be dry and pebbly.

Slowly add the water (through the feed tube, if using a food processor) and continue to pulse/mix as the dough coalesces into a mass. Depending on the brand of cheese used and the humidity level at the time, you might need a small dribble of water or the full 2 tablespoons. Pat the dough into a disc, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat liners.

Divide the dough into 2 pieces on a floured surface and roll each into a very thin (⅛ inch or less) 10 by 12-inch rectangle. Using a fluted pastry cutter, cut the rectangles into 1-inch squares, then transfer to the baking sheets. Use a toothpick or the tip of a chopstick to punch a hole in the center of each square.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until puffed and browning at the edges. Watch carefully, as the high fat content of the crackers makes it a fine line between golden delicious and burnt. Immediately move the baked crackers onto wire racks to cool.

Store your Cheez-Its at room temperature in an airtight container for up to a week.

Makes about 13 dozen crackers

PUDDING POPS

Ingredients

Vanilla pudding base:

  • ¼ cup (1¾ ounces) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Chocolate pudding base:

  • ¼ cup (1¾ ounces) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups whole milk

Instructions

Make the vanilla pudding:
Whisk the sugar, cornstarch, and salt together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Slowly whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir constantly, as the sweetened milk will burn on the pan bottom if left unattended. When the liquid bubbles up dramatically, stir for a minute more until opaque and thickened.

Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl, then stir in the vanilla. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours until completely chilled, or use the quick-cool method: transfer the liquid to a zip-top bag and seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Fill a large bowl with ice water and submerge the bag for 7 to 10 minutes, squeezing periodically, to cool the liquid.

Make the chocolate pudding:
Whisk the sugar, cornstarch, cocoa powder, and salt together in a heavy-bottomed pan. Slowly whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir constantly, as the sweetened milk will burn on the bottom of the pan if left unattended. When the liquid bubbles up dramatically, stir for a minute more until opaque and thickened.

Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or until completely chilled (or use the quick-cool method above).

Assemble the pops:
Pour the chilled pudding bases into 8 wide-mouth 4-ounce Popsicle molds or 5-ounce Dixie cups in your preferred flavor combination. If using Dixie cups, allow the pudding to chill for 1 hour before inserting wooden Popsicle sticks.

Store the Popsicles in the freezer in an airtight container for up to a month.

Makes 8 pops

CINNAMON POP TARTS

Ingredients

Crust:

  • 2½ cups (10⅝ ounces) unbleached all- purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 tablespoons (4 ounces) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • ½ cup (3¼ ounces) chilled vegetable shortening, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • ¼ cup ice-cold water
  • 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
  • 1 large egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash

Filling:

  • ¾ cup (5⅝ ounces) packed light brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes

Frosting (optional):

  • 2 cups (8 ounces) powdered sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons whole or reduced-fat milk

Instructions

Make the dough:

Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt together in the bowl of a food processor to sift and combine. Add the butter and shortening and pulse in 3-second bursts until partially incorporated, with pea-sized chunks visible and a texture resembling moist cornmeal.

With the processor running, drizzle the water and the vinegar through the feed tube just until a shaggy and crumbly dough starts to form. Transfer to a bowl. Divide the dough in half and shape into 2 discs. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or overnight).

Make the filling:

Stir the brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon together with a fork. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or your fingers until the butter is fully incorporated and the mixture resembles wet sand.

Assemble and bake:

Preheat the oven to 375 ̊F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat liners.

On a floured surface, roll one of the dough discs to a 10- by 12-inch rectangle about ¼ inch thick. Use a pastry or pizza cutter to divide into 6 (3 by 5-inch) rectangles. Place on the prepared baking sheets. Repeat with the second dough disc, but leave the 6 rectangles on the work surface for the moment.

Spoon 2 tablespoons of the cinnamon filling in the center of each rectangle on the baking sheets. Brush the dough edges with the egg wash. Place one of the reserved dough rectangles atop each filled rectangle and tightly seal the edges by pressing with the tines of a fork. Use the fork to poke vent holes in the pastry tops.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown and puffed. Transfer the tarts to a wire rack and let cool completely before eating or frosting.

Frost the tarts:

Whisk the powdered sugar and cinnamon together, then whisk in 2 tablespoons milk to form a thick glaze. Add the final tablespoon of milk a drizzle at a time until the glaze has the consistency you want. Spread onto the cooled pastries using a basting brush.

Store the tarts in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.

Makes 6

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