Baking Sno Balls recently, I realized that I’m secretly a little bit like Weird Al Yankovic-meets-adult filmmaker. That’s right: My guilty pleasure is corny recreations of less-than-stellar “classics.”
I’ve baked versions of trademarked factory goods including Girl Scout Thin Mints, Pop-Tarts and Whoopie Pies. Now, I’m taking a whack at Sno Balls, those hemispheres of greasy chocolate cake filled with dense and cloying white frosting, all covered in springy coconut marshmallow—always two packaged together on a tray and displayed under cover of clear plastic. I think two of anything is perfect luxury—the first number of excess, anyway.
Ridiculously, I don’t love to eat Sno Balls anymore. They were a little frightening to me even when I was a kid. The size and shape of the cake, along with the stubborn chewiness of that marshmallow, demands you gobble it in clumsy submission. But I don’t/can’t/won’t eat any sugar now. I understand the irony of spending most of a beautiful Saturday making something that I can only hope will be recognized as a mass-produced Hostess snack. I don’t aim to be as authentic as the perpetually squinting model makers who study and shrink details in order to replicate a PT-109 World War II Motor Torpedo Boat or P-51 Mustang Fighter aircraft. That creative joy comes from fulfilling the desire to copy something loved in a “real” way. I’m from the same tribe as a garage tribute band: I just want to make something that passes and live inside that fantasy every now and then.
Maybe it’s connecting to a personal point of reference. Maybe it’s the enjoyment I have in testing how close I can come to making something from only a sense memory. In this case, the exotic scent of artificial coconut extract and the shiny brown cocoa cake filled with a bright white, sweet mystery whip. If I were a chemist, I’d be going after the scent of Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo, Love’s Baby Soft perfume or the taste of Pearl Drops toothpolish—just to make my senses search and understand. But I’m a baker, and that’s the best I can do: play with food. Lucky for me, I know people who are happy to eat anything sweet.
I’ll report on the Sno Ball process, but there is a caveat: It takes hours. There are three components: the cake, sugary froth of a filling and, finally, the marshmallow.
For the first of the Sno Ball’s three components, I chose a chocolate cake recipe, “Devil Dog Cake,” from Gourmet magazine. I considered it a good sign that the recipe specifically called for cheap cocoa powder, not any melted chocolate or Dutch-processed refinement. Amazon.com sells half-sphere baking molds, but I kept my 20 bucks and used muffin tins. Upside-down, the muffin shape is close enough for an Easy-Bake Oven.
The same Gourmet article conveniently provided a frosting recipe that called for egg whites, sugar and corn syrup (another good omen of badness) whipped in a bowl with vanilla extract for about 10 minutes over a saucepan of simmering water. This sweet fluff would be my filling; I loaded it into a pastry bag and jammed it into the cakes. But that was the easy part.
Marshmallow is a sticky mess of putrid-smelling gelatin and precisely boiled sugar. The stuff is impossible to spread; I had to pipe again. Piping marshmallow is akin to squeezing hot clay mixed with fast-setting superglue. By the time the sprinkle of pink coconut ended the process, goo clung to my hair and sleeves, and tacky ropes stuck to the side of my pants. Naturally, it made me happy.
Karla Helland is a former pastry chef and author of the FILC: Food I Like to Cook blog at SFReporter.com.