For those struggling to parse out what such a comically long acronym could possibly stand for, I’ll spare you the trouble: it means that I Would Die For Claire from the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, it is, believe it or not, a real live trending hashtag, and it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very much true in my case.
I’m not going to try to explain the magic behind BA’s videos, and specifically behind Claire Saffitz‘s show, Gourmet Makes––if you’re here, chances are you know precisely what I’m talking about (and chances are you, too, #wdfcftbatk). But I will say that, when BA announced a call for readers to test an at-home version of the famed Gourmet Makes pop tarts and send in footage of the results for use in a future video, the timing could not have been more perfect.
I officially finished school––online, pseudo-school, that is––as of Friday, May 1st. It was as anticlimactic an end to the semester as I’d figured it would be, as I clicked submit on a 4-page art history response essay that was more so just the last due date on my list than some intense final push, final obstacle to get through before summer freedom. The shift to remote learning amidst the pandemic had a particularly large impact on my schedule of small, discussion-heavy courses, many of them studio-based and painfully unable, just at a fundamental level, to be replicated in an online format. I am in an incredibly, incredibly fortunate situation in this moment, and I am grateful every day for the privilege that comes with having a well-equipped home that we’ve been able to create a steady working space out of, a wonderful family, access to the resources and materials I need––the list goes on. I am privileged to be in the same time zone as Philadelphia––I had classmates halfway across the world whose latest classes met at 4 or 5 AM their time.
But there is still that undeniable sense of loss, of sadness that, for me, does not come out in tears or dread or a burning sense of hopelessness, but in a subtle ache for what would have, should have, was supposed to have been these past two months. That sense of loss has been met with a steep decline in motivation, in excitement about my coursework even in classes that used to mean so much to me. It was a loss of a sense of investment, of meaning, as classes which would normally have consisted of captivating lectures and discussions or crits with fellow students that left me feeling, as cliché as it sounds, inspired (to push harder and learn more and grow) were pared down to weekly zoom calls and a to-do list of assignments it seemed we all just had to get through before we could kiss this strange, non-semester goodbye.
I had lost the ability to find things to look forward to. The horizon was and is so uncertain that I could find nothing to pin my sights on, nothing to grasp at or work towards, no milestone to strive for that could give some sense of closure or help to mark the passage of time. I know this sounds bleak, but I have to imagine many of you know exactly what I’m talking about––I like to think that I am a relatively optimistic person, or at least a person who is able to find joy in small moments and meaning in the everyday, but my abilities were and are being tested. After 3 or 4 weeks of same, of this “new normal,” the novelty had worn off. The disbelief had faded, and I was––we were all and are all, I guess––left with the task of coming to terms with the direction the world was headed and figuring out how to do our part in picking up the pieces and lifting ourselves and others as we settled in for the long haul.
I’m also a pretty self-disciplined person––I like to have a plan and a routine, and I see things through once I start them, sometimes even when finishing that thing becomes ludicrous or counterproductive. But I thought that school coming to a close might leave me feeling even more aimless than I had been, thought that I might struggle to find structure in my days when, for the first time in maybe a decade, my to-do list would be completely self-determined.
But that hasn’t been the case. When I finally ticked that last thing off my semester’s list, finally waved my last awkward Zoom goodbye and placed all of my notebooks and textbooks in a haphazard pile above my desk, I felt a sense of creative freedom I’d been missing even in the midst of making art for my studio courses. I felt a return of that sense of strange, bittersweet gratitude for the gift of time I never thought I’d have, a feeling which I’d let fall by the wayside a few weeks into quarantine. There are things I’ve always wanted to tackle but have never had the time to do, and do well––things that are exciting to me, that make it difficult for me to fall asleep at night because my mind is turning so much, and that wake me early in the morning and motivate me to bounce out of bed; projects that I lose myself in in the best way, that make me lose track of time or hunger or the pain of standing on my feet for hours, or that have me staying up past midnight writing or editing footage not because of some externally-imposed deadline but because I want to, even feel that I need to.
So, to put it simply, I have a lot of things in the works––a lot of ideas forming which I’ll wait to share until they take their final shape. But for now, I will say that making and filming these pop tarts (and YES, I’m finally getting there, promise!) was one of those projects for me.
These were so, so much fun to recreate. The whole process, which I did over the course of two days, reminded me why I love what I do in my kitchen and here on this site so much––why I’ve stuck with it all for over seven years now. And it’s because of the way in which baking and creating content around food play so perfectly into all of the skillsets I’ve lovingly honed, the creative avenues that excite me most, even the traits that are and have long been inherent in my personality. I love the nostalgic feeling of pressing butter between my fingers as I make pastry, the craftiness in making a stencil for perfectly filling pop tarts, the design aspect of figuring out just which sprinkles will work best; I love following ratios and learning new techniques until they become intuitive, until I can riff and swap and play with confidence; I love working behind the camera, shooting photo and film content, and I love the satisfaction of editing the RAW files until they shine; and I love writing––writing not for a professor or a grade but for me and for you, whoever you are.
Seeing as I was already bent on sending in a video of my recreation to BA’s call for submissions, I decided to record the whole process, start to finish, and edit it into my own version of Claire’s show––Alaina Makes, if you will. Needless to say, this is the kind of endeavor I never would have had time for under any other circumstances, and the multi-day baking, filming and editing project was just what I needed right now. So here it is: 30 minutes of me making pop tarts, dropping kitchen tools left and right, wishing I was in the BA test kitchen and trying my damn best to avoid phone storage issues––there’s some banter, family cameos, and even an impromptu trombone performance from my brother.
The pop tarts recipe Claire developed on the original Gourmet Makes episode was slightly more complicated than the at-home version she developed, which BA posted a week or so ago. I combined techniques from both in my version, sticking mostly to the typed recipe but opting for a few changes inspired by the episode version that I felt would yield slightly more uniform, precise-looking results.
The most notable change I made was in switching up my flavors. I followed the recipe for classic strawberry (with a homemade strawberry filling and white icing) for half of my pop tarts; for the rest, I developed my own riff on the brown sugar variety, opting for a brown sugar and cardamom filling with a cardamom coffee glaze (if you haven’t tried sprinkling some cardamom in your morning coffee, consider this a sign to do so… asap). That’s the recipe I’ll be taking you through today––if you’re interested in the strawberry, do check out the BA recipe!
- I highly recommend making the pastry dough the day before to cut down on some of that prep and chilling time. These are certainly a project, so anything you can do to save some extra minutes helps!
- I’ve listed recommended chill times for each stage of dough prep, but make sure to keep an eye on your dough as you’re rolling it out, too––I ended up needing to chill it a few extra times throughout the process when it started to get too soft and buttery, as my kitchen was particularly warm the day I made these. Just make sure your butter doesn’t start to melt, and if it does don’t hesitate to stick your dough back in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes to firm up.
- The BA adapted-for-home version of this recipe has you score a grid of 9, spread filling in the center of each scored rectangle, then lay a whole sheet of docked dough on top and then cut the pop tarts into individual pieces. Feel free to check out their original recipe and do this if this sounds easier to you––I just wanted as uniform a look as possible, so went with a method more similar to the one Claire uses in the Gourmet Makes video.
- If you want to pipe lines in a darker brown color like I did, create an even stronger espresso mixture (essentially using the minimum amount of water it takes to dissolve a small scoop of espresso powder) and mix into your remaining icing after icing the pop tarts. Add in powdered sugar if needed to thicken the icing to piping consistency, then transfer icing to a piping bag or ziplock, cut a small opening, and pipe away!
For the pastry:
- 2½ cups (313 g) all-purpose flour
- 4 tsp. granulated sugar
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 ¼ cups (2½ sticks) chilled unsalted butter
For the filling:
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon cardamom
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 3/4 tsp vanilla
- 1 tablespoon flour
For assembly and glaze:
- All-purpose flour, for dusting
- 1 large egg, separated into a yolk and a white
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 2 cups powdered sugar, plus more for correcting consistency
- 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For the dough:
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt. Working quickly, grate butter on the large holes of a box grater into the bowl. Toss the butter pieces to coat, then use your fingers to work butter into dry ingredients until the mixture resembles a coarse meal (according to BA, the largest pieces should be “about the size of a lentil,” if that’s an easier visual cue).
Stirring constantly with a fork, drizzle in ⅓ cup plus 1 Tbsp. ice water. Use your hands to lightly toss the mixture several times to distribute the water, then knead the dough in the bowl with your hands until it comes together into a relatively smooth mass with no bits of dry flour remaining. Transfer the dough to a sheet of plastic wrap and pat into a compact ½”-thick square. Wrap the dough tightly, pressing out any air, then roll over the dough with a rolling pin in both directions to force it into the corners of the wrapping even further. Chill at least 2 hours, or make the dough up to 36 hours ahead.
For the filling:
Combine all filling ingredients in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 300 F. Unwrap the dough and cut it in half, then re-wrap one half and return it to the refrigerator. Roll out the remaining dough on a lightly floured surface to a 14×10” rectangle. Transfer to a sheet of parchment or a Silpat, then square off and/or even out the rectangle again if it got tugged or misshapen from the move. Slide the parchment or silpat onto a baking sheet and chill the dough in the fridge or freezer for around 10 minutes if it’s starting to get very soft.
Using a ruler, cut a 3×3 grid of 9 rectangles, each measuring about 4½” long and 3¼” wide (you will have a bit of excess on each side if you use these precise measurements). Using the ruler, measure and lightly score a set of lines ¼” from the inside of each rectangle (making a slightly smaller rectangle inside each of the 9 rectangles). Alternatively, make a stencil by cutting a 4 ¼” by 3” rectangle out of a piece of regular cardboard, then wrapping the cardboard in aluminum foil or some type of plastic wrap to keep it from getting soggy or falling apart. If you do this, there’s no need to score that extra set of lines. Chill the dough until firm, 10–15 minutes.
Remove the cut dough from the refrigerator and divide the brown sugar filling among the rectangles, then use your fingers to spread the filling in an even layer that fills up your scored rectangles or stencil, leaving that ¼” border exposed. Chill again while you work on the other half of the dough.
Roll out the second piece of dough into a 14×10” rectangle, then transfer to a baking sheet and cut into a 3 by 3 grid the same way as you did the first. Prick each rectangle of dough all over with a fork or skewer. Chill for 10-15 minutes if the dough is getting soft.
Remove the pastry with the filling from the refrigerator and brush the beaten egg yolk over the exposed ¼” borders, taking care not to disturb the filling (you can use a small pastry brush or your fingers). Remove the top pieces of pastry from the fridge and lay them over each bottom piece. Use a small wooden skewer, dowel or something of the sort to press out any air pockets and create a seal around the perimeters, gently rolling right up to where the filling starts. Chill until the pastry is firm, 10–15 minutes.
Before baking, make sure to evenly space the pop tarts on the baking sheet. Bake until puffed and golden underneath, but still relatively pale on top, 30-40 minutes. Let cool completely on the baking sheet.
For the glaze:
Dissolve the espresso powder in a tiny splash of boiling water––you’re essentially trying to get as concentrated a mixture as possible in order to limit the amount of liquid you’ll be adding to the icing. Set this aside.
Add a pinch of salt to the reserved egg white and whisk until foamy. Whisk in the powdered sugar gradually, until you have a smooth, opaque white icing. Whisk in about half of your espresso, or enough to turn the mixture a light brown color. At this point, you want the icing to fall off your whisk in a slowly dissolving ribbon. If your icing seems too stiff, add in more espresso a tiny bit at a time; if it seems too runny, add in more powdered sugar.
Fill a disposable pastry bag or a Ziplock with about 2 tablespoons of icing and snip a very small opening at the end or bottom corner. Pipe thin rectangles of icing on the surface of each pop tart, leaving about a ¼-inch border. Transfer any icing left in the bag back to the bowl, then whisk in more espresso and the vanilla until the icing is a bit more fluid but still thick and opaque––you want it thin enough that it can “flood” the rectangles you piped, but not so thin that it runs right off. Working with one pop tart at a time, drizzle a spoonful of icing inside the icing rectangles and use your finger, a toothpick, or a small offset spatula to cover the entire icing rectangle in a thin, even layer, adding more icing as needed. Let the pop tarts sit at room temperature until the icing is set before serving. (See notes above for directions on piping contrasting, darker brown lines as pictured in the photograph)
Store pop tarts at room temperature in an airtight container. Once the icing has set completely for 24 hours or so, you can reheat the pop tarts in a 300 F oven until warmed through.